Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of Joséphine, Empress of the French, the first wife of Emperor Napoléon I. The Empress died at Malmaison Palace in Reuil outside Paris on 29 May 1814, aged 50, little more than a month after Napoléon's first abdication.
Born Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on Martinique on 23 June 1763, she was sent to France at the age of 16 to marry Vicomte Alexandre de Beauharnais, an arranged marriage which turned out to be unhappy. While her estranged husband was guillotined in 1794, Rose, who had been imprisoned, was lucky to be alive when the Terror came to an end a few days later.
In 1796 she went on to marry the young and promising General Napoléon Bonaparte, who gave her the name Joséphine. Theirs is often considered one of history's great love stories, but Joséphine seems at first to have been rather cool towards her husband, whose passionate letters often went unaswered. Her infidelity caused him much grief, but with his rise to power the tables were turned and it was Joséphine who found herself having to accept her husband's affairs with other women.
Having been elected Emperor of the French in 1804 Napoléon crowned Joséphine Empress, the scene which is brilliantly captured by David in his famous painting of the coronation. However, Joséphine, who had two children by her first husband, proved unable to bear Napoléon and an heir, thus putting the future of the dynasty in jeopardy. In 1809 the Emperor, at the height of his glory, therefore found that he had little choice but to put his feelings aside and divorce Joséphine. In 1810 he married Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, who the following year bore him the longed-for son, the King of Rome.
Retaining the title of Empress, Joséphine retreated to Malmaison, the château just west of Paris which had been purchased in the early days of her marriage to Napoléon. When Napoléon was forced to abdicate in April 1814 Empress Marie-Louise fled to her native Vienna, taking with her the King of Rome. Joséphine remained at Malmaison, while Emperor Alexander I of Russia set himself up as the protector of the former Empress and her children, Prince Eugène, Viceroy of Italy and Queen Hortense of Holland. During a chilly evening walk with the Russian Emperor Joséphine contracted pneumonia and died within days.
When Napoléon, at that time exiled to Elba, read of her death in a newspaper he shut himself in his room for days. Following his return to France, the Hundred Days and his final defeat at Waterloo in June 1815 it was to Malmaison that he retreated before surrendering to the British and being deported to St Helena, where he died in 1821. While Joséphine's last words are said to have been "Bonaparte...Elba...Marie-Louise", his were allegedly "France...the army...at the head of the army...Joséphine".
One of history's ironies is that while Napoléon repudiated Joséphine in order to sire an heir, that heir died almost a prisoner in Vienna at the age of 21, while it was Joséphine's grandson who restored the Empire as Napoléon III in 1852. Through her son, Empress Joséphine is also the ancestress of the current monarchs of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg and Belgium.
On Monday a service commemorating the bicentenary of her death will be held in the small Church of Saint-Pierre-Saint-Paul in Rueil, where the Empress is buried. Despite the continuing appeal of their love story, Joséphine's grave, unlike Napoléon's, attracts no tourists. When I was first there, the day after having visited the Invalides, where tourists crowd around Napoléon's tomb, I found the church entirely empty. The second time I went there someone had left a rose on Empress Joséphine's tomb.
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