Who Was Empress Josephine?

Mar 12, 2023 | Aristocracy, Emporers, France, Italy, Noble Titles, Royal Titles

In the wake of Napoleon Bonaparte’s legend and infamy, the Empress Josephine is a historic figure and key player in the story of France during the years of revolution and the birth of the new empire. 

This beautiful iconic lady rose to the epitome of power and influence in 19th-century France, esteemed and adored as much as any French Queen or European Empress. 

Hers is a story of relatively humble beginnings, and a remarkable rise to unprecedented heights of social sovereignty and unimaginable wealth. 

Yet the life of this extraordinary empress also included darker days of imprisonments, abandonment, terror and loss, as she endured some of the starkest effects of the French Revolution first-hand. 

But who was Empress Josephine? Where did she come from? What role did she play in the Napoleonic Era? And what happened to her in the end? 

Who Was Empress Josephine? 

Born in 1763, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie was the daughter of a sugar plantation owner in Martinique in the West Indies. 

Empress Joséphine Bonaparte

Empress Joséphine Bonaparte – Antoine-Jean Gros, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While these were relatively humble origins for an Empress, her family did have a degree of wealth and nobility. Her father was a knight – a seigneur, or Lord, in Martinique. Her aunt was believed to be the mistress of a French aristocrat – the Marquis de Beauharnais – a connection that set the trajectory of Josephine’s path to Empress when she married the son of the Marquis, becoming Josephine de Beauharnais, and then embarked on her married life in France. 

While this marriage was deemed to be an unhappy one, it produced two beloved children, Eugène and Hortense, who would go on to become key figures of remarkable noble dynasties within 19th century Europe. Josephine and her children would live through the darkest days of The Terror during the French Revolution, yet her husband would not survive the threat of the guillotine. 

By her early 30s, Josephine was the widowed mother of two young children, having been imprisoned and subject to some of the direst conditions and horrors imaginable, yet she had survived and was yet to take on the role that would make her fame and fortune. 

When Josephine Met Napoleon

Josephine crossed paths with Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris in 1795  when Napoleon was a rising star within the military, with grand visions for his adopted nation and his own ambitious career path. 

As a beautiful young widow with aristocratic connections, Josephine was already enjoying an elevated place in Parisian society, having had romantic relationships with a number of powerful and influential men. 

It was her role as the mistress of Napoleon’s superior that helped their orbits to collide, and soon she had enchanted the young Napoleon who was completely enraptured with his new love, leaving behind his fiancé in the South of France. The following year, Josephine and Napoleon were married. Though they were yet to rise to the stellar status of Emperor and Empress of France, their fates were sealed together. 

Shortly after the wedding, Napoleon set off on the military adventures that would see him become a hero of France and pave the way for his crowning glory as self-proclaimed Emperor – an astonishing achievement considering the nation’s bitter struggle to become a Republic. 

The couple embarked on a passionate, fiery and scandalous married life that would nevertheless endure the trials of war, separation and betrayal. Despite their tumultuous relationship, Josephine remained at Napoleon’s side throughout his rise to power, and it was she who would be crowned as Empress beside the new Emperor of France during the iconic and controversial coronation in Paris in 1804. 

What Happened To Empress Josephine? 

As Emperor and Empress of France, Napoleon and Josephine would enjoy lives of staggering wealth, splendour, power, influence and renown. It’s believed that Josephine was as celebrated and adored as the former Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, being the style icon and trend-setter that all the fashionable women of France would follow. 

Their lives of power and plenty were not to end happily, however. After many years of failing to supply Napoleon with the make heir he so desperately craved, the marriage would be annulled and Josephine would be dispatched from her role at the centre of the empire, to be replaced with a young Austrian Archduchess, Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, who would deliver a healthy baby boy but wouldn’t prove to be the staunch and loyal wife Napoleon had hoped for. 

The former empress Jospehine would see out her days in her beloved Château de Malmaison, the exquisite estate outside Paris that had been one of the imperial residences. It was here that she died, in 1814, after reportedly walking in the grounds with the Russian Tsar and petitioning to join Napoleon in exile on St Helena. 

Her legend would continue, however, through the marriages and connections of her children who would go onto playing key roles in some of the most important and influential royal and noble lines of Europe. 

This remarkable Empress may play a secondary role to her infamous husband, the legendary Napoleon Bonaparte, yet her life was as captivating and historic as any of the major figures of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. 

Taking her place centre stage during one of the most iconic eras of European history, Empress Josephine would have been witness to some of the most seismic events within France during its most tumultuous decades. 

And thanks to Napoleon’s ceaseless ambition, she would also have been privy to the effects of her husband’s reign throughout Europe and beyond – as the adored wife of the most powerful man in the world, it’s also highly likely that she may have influenced some of her husband’s decisions and actions, along with their subsequent outcomes. 

Yet this complex, remarkable and captivating woman was also a fascinating figure in her own right. Even beyond the shadow and reflected glory of the famous Napoleon Bonaparte, the story of the graceful and glamourous Empress Josephine is a tale for the ages. Her combination of beauty, vulnerability and power made for a starring role in European history as one of the most iconic and remarkable Empresses of all time.

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