Napoleon’s love was born on 22 June 1763, the eldest daughter of a French Creole sugar plantation owner in the Caribbean, either at his estate on Martinique or the one on Saint Lucia. She was christened Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher (de la Pagerie), and the family called her Rose. (Her family were slave owners, and her influence may explain why Napoleon showed such distain for the enslaved people of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) when they began their own revolution seeking the same civil rights as the French revolutionaries had two years prior.)
Thanks to her aunt’s love affaire with François, Vicomte de Beauharnais, Marquess de la La Ferté-Beauharnais, the Governor of Martinique, Rose was sent to France in 1779 to marry the Vicomte’s youngest son, Alexandre de Beauharnais. Rose promptly became a mother, giving birth to a son, Eugène de Beauharnais in 1781 and a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais, in 1783. Alexandre must have been a horrible husband, because Joséphine was not only able to obtain a legal separation from him, she was able to keep her children with her despite their being the “property” of their father. Moreover, Alexandre was forced to provide maintenance for Josephine and the children when they went to live in the Pentemont Abbey. What has he done to them for the courts to actually side with a woman?
She was still legally his wife, however, and when Alexandre was arrested during the Reign of Terror, Rose was arrested soon thereafter and thrown into Carmes prison. Alexandre was guillotined on 23 July 1794 and Rose may have been next, if were it not for the fact that Robespierre was executed shortly thereafter and the Reign of Terror ended. Instead of getting the chop, Rose was freed from prison on 28 July 1794. The newly made widow and her children were left impoverished, since it would be almost a full year before a law would be passed allowing her to reclaim her dead husband’s assets.
In survival mode, Rose became the mistress of several powerful French politicians, including Paul François Jean Nicolas Barras. She was in high demand, because – although not conventionally beautiful – she was very alluring. She had an innate ability to act that made her the perfect charmer and emitted the kind of sensuality that drove her suitors wild. At the height of her popularity she met a young general named Napoléon Bonaparte, who was a rising star in the French military. They fell desperately in love almost instantly, and began one of history’s most passionate affaires.
It was then that Rose began going by the name Josèphine . Napoleon thought the name Rose too common and inelegant for his lady love, and thought the appellation Josèphine suited her much better. To please him, and doubtlessly flattered, his mistress agreed to the change.
Just a few months after they met Napoleon proposed, and the couple wed on 9 March 1796. His family was mortified to learn that he had married an unchaste widow more than six years his senior, but Boneaparte didn’t give a fig for their disapproval. He was head over heels in love with his wife, and nothing could change that … except Josèphine’s own stupidity.
Napoleon was deployed to lead the French campaign in Italy just two days after his marriage, and while he was away Josèphine foolishly began an affair with Hippolyte Charles, a very handsome deputy to General Leclerc who was almost a decade younger than Josèphine and nearly a foot shorter than his new amour (he was unusually small statured, and she was unusually tall). Since General Leclerc was Napoleon’s brother-in-law, it wasn’t long before Napoleon found out what his wife was up to. He was understandably furious. Although Josèphine managed to convince her husband the rumors were untrue once, her continued affair with Charles eventually gave the game away.
In the summer of 1789 Napoleon wrote to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte, informing him of his plans to divorce Josèphine. He also soothed his hurt pride and bruised heart by starting an extramarital affair of his own with a fellow officer’s wife, Pauline Fourès, who would became known as “Napoléon’s Cleopatra.” However, after sufficient pleading on the part of Josèphine, the couple reconciled, although Napoleon was never again as openly loving toward her as he had been. For her part, Josèphine became monogamous, but Napoleon continued to take multiple lovers during their marriage.
The couple appear to have remained in love, regardless of the tensions in their marriage. No matter how big the fight, or the cause, they always managed to patch things up. For example, in 1804 Josèphine busted Napoléon in flagrante delicto in bed with her lady-in-waiting, Élisabeth de Vaudey, and they had a blazing row. At some point in the fight Napoléon even threatened to divorce her because of her childlessness. Nevertheless, they made up and a mere month or so later Napoleon crowned Josèphine Empress of the French at Notre Dame de Paris on 2 December 1804.
Rather than divorce her for their lack of offspring, Napoleon adopted her son Eugène on 12 January 1806, and although Eugene could not inherit the Imperial throne, Joséphine’s grandson Napoléon Louis Charles Bonaparte (the child of Joséphine’s daughter Hortense and Napoleon’s younger brother Louis Bonaparte) was declared heir to the crown. Sadly, the little boy died of the croup at age four on 5 May 1807.
Napoleon began to worry that without his own direct biological heir the French Empire would be doomed. On 30 November 1809, Napoleon broke the news to Joséphine that he felt he had no choice but to divorce her and try for a son with a new, younger, hopefully fertile wife. Joséphine, although understandably upset, agreed that it was the best thing for France and Napoleon. The couple divorced on 10 January 1810 in “a grand but solemn social occasion, and each read a statement of devotion to the other.” Napoleon insisted that Joséphine keep the title of Empress, even after he married Marie-Louise of Austria two months later.
Joséphine lived at the Château de Malmaison, near Paris, and remained close friends with Napoléon, who continued to pay her gambling debts and look after her interests.
Fortunately, Joséphine had her intense interest in roses to occupy her time and engage her mind as a dicorcee. She had bought Malmaison in 1799 and had it landscaped in an “English” manner, going so far as to hire landscapers and horticulturalists from the United Kingdom, including two Scotsmen: horticultural maven Thomas Blaikie and a master gardener named Alexander Howatson. She also conscripted the French experts, such as the famous botanist Ventenat and the renowned horticulturist, Andre Dupont, to create her gardens. Dupont had a particular love of roses, and his joy in the flowers was contagious. Joséphine also became a rose enthusiast, to the extent that “Napoleon ordered his warship commanders to search all seized vessels for plants to be forwarded to Malmaison”.
Not only did Napoleon have his navy keep an eye out for plants she might like, he made special arrangements than any English ships bringing roses or other plants to his wife (or ex-wife after 1810) had permission to come unmolested through the naval blockades. This allowed Joséphine to import varietal roses from a London nursery, and meant that Sir Joseph Banks, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, could also send her roses in spite of the war between France and England. When Hume’s Blush Tea-Scented China was imported to England from China by Sir Abraham Hume in 1809 and by James Colvill in 1810, the British and French Admiralties quickly made informal arrangements to bring a specimen to France for Joséphine’s grounds at Malmaison.
Furthermore, Josephine learned so much about gardening and roses from her plant specialists that she became a horticulturalist in her own right. She wrote the first published history of the cultivation of roses, hosted what is thought to have been Europe’s first rose exhibition in 1810. Pierre-Joseph Redouté was commissioned by her to paint the flowers from her gardens. Les Roses was published 1817–20 with 168 plates of roses; 75–80 of the roses grew at Malmaison.
Joséphine was believed to have approximately 250 separate rose plants on her estate. Jules Gravereaux estimated in the Roseraie de l’Haye that there may have only been 197 types of roses in Europe during her lifetime, so it is possible that Joséphine actually had one of each species of roses available. Some of those roses were exceedingly rare, or have disappeared from the horticultural catalogue. After closely examining Redouté’s Les Roses, botanist Claude Antoine Thory was fascinated to see that the petals of Josephine’s Bengal rose R. indica had black spots on them, which would make it a variety of rose that no longer exists.
While his ex-wife collected and cared for her roses, Napoleon’s marriage gamble paid off. The Emperor’s new wife gave birth to his only son less than a year after their honeymoon, on 20 March 1811. The new heir was named Napoléon François Joseph Charles Bonaparte, and was given the title of King of Rome. After the baby’s birth, it was said that Marie-Louise had entirely replaced Joséphine in the Emperor’s heart, but that was more romantic stylization than substance.
Joséphine, whatever her faults and his own, was Napoleon’s true love. When she died on 29 May 1814, Napoleon, who was in exile on Elba, went into deepest mourning and “stayed locked in his room for two days, refusing to see anyone” in his grief. At the hour of his own death on 5 May 1821 Napoleon’s last words were: “France, the Army, the Head of the Army … Joséphine.”
She was, as he had written to her once, the only woman who could ever rule his heart.