When French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte decided to divorce his wife Joséphine in 1809, he initiated a public spectacle that devasted his consort of 13 years.

Under intense political pressure to plan for the future of the French throne, Napoleon held Joséphine responsible for the couple’s infertility. Despite years of trying in vain, the pair had yet to have a child. By ending his marriage to Joséphine, Napoleon freed himself to find a new wife who could bear his heirs.

The night before the “imperial divorce” ceremony—a public event announcing the news and dissolving the marriage—in mid-December, Joséphine donned a brave face, showing “perfect composure, … grace and tact,” as one onlooker recalled. She valiantly held court despite her deep, private anguish, knowing her removal from the throne was imminent and her oft-mercurial relationship with France’s leader was at an end.

Henri Frédéric Schopin, The Divorce of the Empress Josephine, 1846
The Divorce of the Empress Josephine, Henri Frédéric Schopin, 1846 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Held in the throne room at the Tuileries Palace in Paris, the ceremony had all the elements of a Greek tragedy. Joséphine wore a plain white gown evocative of a wedding dress. The couple exchanged words of gratitude and enduring love, with Napoleon declaring, “I would like her … never to doubt my feelings for her; she will always be my best and my dearest friend.”

Joséphine, in return, offered this: “I must declare that no longer holding out any hope for a child that could satisfy both his political needs and the good of France, I give to him the greatest proof of attachment and devotion that has ever been given on this earth.” But the emotional toll of the ceremony, and perhaps the public candor of her speech, was too great. She faltered, sobbing, and asked if someone else could finish reading her statement. The marriage was officially annulled in January 1810.

Napoleon, the newest film from acclaimed director Ridley Scott, depicts the emperor and empress, played by Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby, respectively, reading these lines of parting verbatim. In a theatrical revision from the original sequence of events, the scene is restaged in an austere church and features Napoleon violently slapping his former wife. The moment is portrayed as a kind of metaphorical break in their relationship, with the emperor striking Joséphine for so shamefully mourning their relationship and showing weakness; the blow adds a brutish, cinematic finality to their separation.

NAPOLEON - Official Trailer #2 (HD)

Joséphine on the big screen

Napoleon is an epic, two-and-a-half-hour retelling of the remarkable rise and fall of the French dictator, filtered through the lens of his checkered relationship with Joséphine. Arriving in theaters on November 22 and streaming on Apple TV+ at a later date, the film begins during the Reign of Terror, with the beheading of deposed queen Marie Antoinette in 1793. It follows Napoleon from his early military achievements to his ascension to the throne in 1804, his abdication in 1815 and his exile to St. Helena shortly thereafter.

Speaking with Empire, Scott (of Alien, Gladiator and The Last Duel fame) says Joséphine was of particular interest because she was the one person who could seemingly undermine Napoleon, a man known for his forceful military conquests and political power grabs. “We all know what a monster he was in battle and how he would cheat, devastate, kill. Merciless,” the director says. “But his Achilles’ heel was Joséphine.”

Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Ridley Scott's Napoleon​​​​​​​
Vanessa Kirby as Joséphine and Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon in Ridley Scott's Napoleon Apple TV+

Some historians characterize Joséphine as a loyal, subservient partner—a wife who aided Napoleon’s lust for power and allowed him to direct her own life in tandem. Others have (somewhat unjustly) emphasized her indulgence, promiscuity and self-interest, highlighting her sexual conquests and financial wastefulness, both of which caused conflict in her marriage to Napoleon. This interpretative tension in popular histories of Joséphine intrigued Kirby, who tells Empire, “She was just this massive contradiction.” ­

Michael Broers, a historian at the University of Oxford and the author of a three-volume biography of Napoleon, served as a historical consultant for the film. “What interested Ridley Scott was the hold [Joséphine] had over Napoleon and, for a contemporary audience, [he] wanted to build up the image of her as a powerful woman in control,” Broers says. “My view of her as a historian is not quite that.”

A Rose by any other name

Joséphine was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie on June 23, 1763, on the French-held island of Martinique. The daughter of a penniless aristocrat, she married the nobleman and future politician Alexandre de Beauharnais in 1779, moving to Paris to be with him. The marriage produced two children, Eugène and Hortense.

Alexandre soon grew ashamed of his wife’s inability to fit into high society. (Popular lore suggests he was so embarrassed of Joséphine, then known as Rose, that he often abandoned her at social gatherings.) Joséphine was a “newcomer in a strange land,” having lived on Martinique for most of her life, wrote Frances Mossiker in her 1971 biography, More Than a Queen: The Story of Joséphine Bonaparte. She “could read and write, but that was all,” and she had a “soft, slurred Creole accent.”

Joséphine's first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais
Joséphine's first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A circa 1812 portrait of Joséphine
A circa 1812 portrait of Joséphine Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

After four years in an unhappy, physically abusive union, Joséphine pursued a successful separation, challenging Alexandre’s spurious accusations of infidelity. In truth, it was Alexandre who had had affairs; faced with a legal challenge from his wife, he recanted and agreed to pay her alimony.

In 1788, Joséphine returned to Martinique, where some historians say she gave birth to a another child by a different man, though this story is unverified. An uprising by enslaved people on the island led her to return to the mainland to begin life anew in 1790. But the France she’d known was crumbling, undone by the social upheaval wrought by the French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror. Spanning 1793 to 1794, this chaotic period of state-sanctioned violence affected Joséphine directly: Alexandre was one of the roughly 17,000 people executed by the Revolutionary government, and his estranged wife was briefly imprisoned, narrowly escaping the guillotine herself.

Joséphine’s prison stint was arduous but mercifully only three months long. After her release, she fully embraced life in Parisian high society, beginning a relationship with Paul Barras, a rising military star. It’s at this point that fact and fiction blur in the grand narrative of Joséphine and Napoleon’s introduction. As biographer Andrea Stuart writes in The Rose of Martinique: A Life of Napoleon’s Joséphine, the story of this “first meeting … has been mythologized.”

Legend goes that Joséphine met Napoleon—then a young general—when he came to her family’s home to seize the disgraced Alexandre’s sword in 1795. Eugène protested profusely, impressing Napoleon enough that he allowed the teenager to keep the weapon. According to Mossiker, Hortense later claimed that Napoleon wanted “to meet the woman who had inspired such noble sentiments in her son.”

Despite some early historians sticking to this script, contemporary scholars generally agree that the pair met under more prosaic circumstances, perhaps at a bals des victimes, or “victims’ balls.” “These were a series of parties after the Reign of Terror where, if you were condemned to death and survived, you tied a red ribbon around your neck where you were going to get the chop,” says Broers.

A portrait of Napoleon at age 23
A portrait of Napoleon at age 23 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A portrait of Joséphine by François Gérard, circa 1807
A portrait of Joséphine by François Gérard, circa 1807 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Napoleon was no doubt intrigued by Joséphine’s extensive network of connections, which could ensure him greater access to elite circles in his quest for social and political ascendency. Still, while “she has a noble background, it’s quite a minor nobility,” says Peter McPhee, author of Liberty or Death: The French Revolution. “His passion for her is absolutely one of physical attraction, with the evidence of that very powerful. … The letters he writes back are unbelievably passionate.”

Joséphine’s status as an immigrant also could have appealed to Napoleon, who was born on the island of Corsica in 1769. The duo’s shared background helped account for “the intensity of that bond which so many commentators have described as improbable,” argues Stuart.

For her part, Joséphine was likely enticed by the financial and emotional security Napoleon could provide to her as an unmarried, 32-year-old mother of two. “One of the great attractions for Joséphine is that Napoleon is obviously a brilliant army officer on the rise,” says McPhee. “For her, it’s the attraction of power and success.”

Joséphine showed some initial indecisiveness about marrying Napoleon, but she was swayed in the end by “his passion, … [a] small financial settlement and the [future] role of a military wife,” writes Kate Williams in Joséphine: Desire, Ambition, Napoleon. Moreover, her relationship with Barras was waning, so the new suitor had arrived at an opportune time.

Scott’s Napoleon restages the couple’s meeting as an encounter at a party where both are outsiders observing French high society. “What is your name?” Joséphine asks Napoleon as the decadent party rages on behind them. After hearing the famous moniker, she replies, “Has the course of my life just changed, Napoleon?”

Joséphine at Malmaison in 1801 by François Gérard
Joséphine at Malmaison in 1801 by François Gérard Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Becoming a Bonaparte

It was Napoleon who first gave his new love the name “Joséphine,” an appellation derived from her second Christian name. (Sigmund Freud later claimed this nickname had psychoanalytic value due to its association with Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte: “By virtue of the name [Joséphine], he could transfer to her a part of the tender feelings he reserved for his eldest brother,” the neurologist wrote.) Napoleon was totally smitten, but his family was firmly against the marriage, viewing Joséphine as immodest and too old for him. Despite these objections, the general wed her in a civil ceremony in March 1796. Both faked their ages on the marriage certificate, with Joséphine taking four years off (to 28) and Napoleon adding 18 months (to 26 and a half).

Shortly after the wedding, Napoleon left for Italy, where he led the French into battle against Austrian and Sardinian forces. He wrote famously expressive, melodramatic letters to his wife, celebrating her sensuality and the name he had given her:

I am going to bed with my heart full of your adorable image. … To live within Joséphine is to live in the Elysian fields. Kisses on your mouth, your eyes, your breast, everywhere, everywhere.

But Napoleon struggled with the physical distance from Joséphine—and rumors of her infidelity. “The thing about Joséphine is that she’s vulnerable,” says Broers. “But she is also sexually very liberated.” Though Joséphine did console herself with a new lover in her husband’s absence, Napoleon wasn’t faithful either, beginning a relationship with the wife of a junior army officer in 1798.

A François Bouchot painting of Napoleon surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire
A François Bouchot painting of Napoleon surrounded by members of the Council of Five Hundred during the Coup of 18 Brumaire Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It was only after the Coup of 18 Brumaire in November 1799, when Napoleon overthrew the five-member French Directory and established himself as the head of the more autocratic French Consulate, that Joséphine more readily embraced her uxorial obligations and fully committed to helping advance her husband’s political ambitions. Indeed, she even became a co-conspirator in the coup, stepping “out of the shadows and [playing] a crucial, if subtle, role,” Broers says. “There were two members of government who could cause trouble, and she invited them over for morning coffee. She then keeps them occupied while the coup goes on. That is the moment … she casts her lot in with him—but not until then.”

Napoleon takes some creative license with the apparent power the couple held over each other. At one point, after Napoleon wields the gossip about her adultery against her, Joséphine reminds him of the social access their marriage offered to him as a provincial army officer: “You are just a tiny little brute that is nothing without me,” she says.

In May 1804, Napoleon declared himself emperor of France, cementing his grasp on power and fulfilling his ambitions of seizing unchecked authority. The couple held a second marriage ceremony, this time with religious rites, before their joint coronation on December 2. Elevated to a position of greatness and grandeur, Joséphine thrived in her new duties, organizing receptions, entertaining visiting dignitaries and presiding over the royal court alongside her husband.

Jacques-Louis David, The Coronation of Napoleon, 1805-1807
The Coronation of Napoleon, Jacques-Louis David, 1805-1807 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As Napoleon asserted France’s military dominance in Europe in the early years of his reign, he became deeply preoccupied with his legacy and longevity, concerned that Joséphine would never bear his children. To help with succession planning, Napoleon arranged strategic matches for his stepchildren, marrying Eugène to a Bavarian princess and Hortense to his younger brother Louis Bonaparte, who would later serve as king of Holland. (Ironically, Napoleon has no legitimate direct descendants living today, but members of the modern Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian and Belgian royal families count Joséphine among their ancestors.)

Most Napoleonic scholars say the couple’s inability to produce a child ultimately led Napoleon to leave Joséphine. (As Stuart points out, he arranged a “speedy remarriage” to Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise, who bore him a son, the future Napoleon II, in 1811.) But some historians also attribute the marriage’s demise to Joséphine’s extravagant spending. Her fashion and furniture expenses as empress were reportedly higher than those of Marie Antoinette, whose lavish lifestyle earned the public’s ire during the reign of Louis XVI.

Whether for one reason or many, in late 1809, Napoleon announced to Joséphine that he wanted to dissolve their marriage after more than a decade together.

Joséphine in her coronation robes
Joséphine in her coronation robes Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Napoleon in his coronation robes
Napoleon in his coronation robes Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Retreat from the world

Abandoned by Napoleon, the former empress retreated from public life to her private residence at Malmaison, outside Paris. It was there that she continued to entertain, as well as build world-famous gardens populated with imported plants and foreign animals, like emus and kangaroos. Some of her extravagance did continue, mainly through the acquisition of works by artists like Titian, Giovanni Bellini and Leonardo da Vinci.

On May 29, 1814, Joséphine died at age 50 at her estate. Though she hadn’t seen Napoleon in several years, she’d reportedly kept abreast of his military movements and political conquests, including the failed campaign against Russia that marked “the beginning of the end” for the emperor, in the words of his former foreign minister. As for Napoleon, Joséphine never escaped his mind entirely—or so the legend goes. When the fallen ruler died in exile in 1821 at age 51, the last word he uttered was supposedly the name he’d given his great love: “Joséphine.”

Portrait of Joséphine later in life by Andrea Appiani
Portrait of Joséphine later in life by Andrea Appiani Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Separating fact from fiction

Scott’s film is sure to leave viewers speculating on Joséphine—and how influential she was (or wasn’t) in Napoleon’s life. The eventual release of a four-and-a-half-hour director’s cut of Napoleon will offer even more of an intimate look at Joséphine, exploring her life outside of her second husband.

The challenge for viewers will be to unravel fact from fiction when watching the Hollywood epic. McPhee, for his part, is far from convinced by Scott’s claim that Joséphine was Napoleon’s Achilles’ heel. Instead, the historian believes it was “an obsession [for] personal power and pomp [that led] him to make some very bad decisions.”

Even though Joséphine is famous for her association with a man, she was a woman with her own identity, vices and conflicts. History books are filled with contradictions about her, alternatively portraying the empress as subservient to Napoleon and totally imperious—both characterizations that hold some truth, but neither of which is entirely accurate. “The contradictory side to her comes up in many different ways,” Broers says. “Joséphine is genuinely a kind-hearted person [with] a soft touch … but the real Joséphine is also quite a reactionary person, too. It is complicated.”

Napoleon Featurette - Vanessa Kirby is Josephine (2023)

Still, the final throughline in Joséphine’s life story seems to be her ability to survive, whether confronted with an abusive first marriage; an uprising in Martinique; the Reign of Terror; time in prison and threats of execution; or more than a decade with “Napoleon, that synthesis of monster and superman,” as Friedrich Nietzsche described him in 1887.

“Rather than being simply a foil to her illustrious husband,” writes Stuart, “Joséphine has emerged as a uniquely modern woman: a migrant whose charm, adaptability and style enabled her to negotiate her way through dangerous and unpredictable times.”

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