A Tale of Love, Ambition, and Power: The Complicated Saga of Napoleon and Joséphine

Napoleon and Joséphine's relationship was defined by mutual unfaithfulness, deception, avarice, mistreatment, and strategic political maneuvering.
Jacques-Louis David - The Coronation of Napoleon and Josephine

Napoleon and Joséphine united in marriage during his early days as a general, while she held the reputation of being one of the most enchanting women in Paris.
Their relationship was defined by mutual unfaithfulness, deception, avarice, mistreatment, and strategic political maneuvering.

On March 11, 1796, a couple embraced at the gates of a villa on the luxurious rue Chantereine in Paris. The woman, around thirty, slender, beautiful, and elegantly dressed, seemed to be on the verge of tears. The man, short and thin despite wearing the sparkling uniform of a general in the French Republic’s army, fought the urge to stay with her. After all, they had been married for only two days. But duty always calls soldiers, and General Napoleon Bonaparte had to depart immediately to lead the army of Italy in what everyone believed would be another episode in the ongoing war against the European powers.

Less than a month later, while leaving for the first of the campaigns that would lead him to glory, Bonaparte was still mourning leaving his wife: “Far from you, my one and only Joséphine, there is no pleasure in life. Away from you, the world is a desert where I am all alone, without even the consolation of expressing my feelings. You have stolen more than my heart: all my thoughts are on you alone.”

Up until then, the future emperor had led a gray existence. When he met Joséphine six months before their marriage, he was a twenty-six-year-old general with no future, ragged and lean, wandering through Parisian salons in search of patrons and able to afford only one meal a day. Believe it or not, he inspired pity at the time.

A Marriage of Convenience?

Joséphine, on the other hand, was a thirty-two-year-old woman with a tumultuous past. Of Creole origin, beautiful and capricious, a descendant of the Tascher de la Pagerie family, she had grown up among slaves on her family’s plantation in the Caribbean colony of Martinique. She had arrived in the French capital as a teenager to marry Viscount Alexandre de Beauharnais. It was an unhappy marriage that produced two children—Eugène and Hortense—and abruptly ended during the Reign of Terror, a frenzied phase of the French Revolution when the guillotine fell on her husband’s head. At that moment, she was in prison in Paris with others who would soon play important roles in the new regime. By the time of the coup of 9 Thermidor II (July 27, 1794), which ended Robespierre’s era, Joséphine had become an intimate friend of the lover of one of the plot’s leaders, the Spaniard Teresa Cabarrus, who was imprisoned with her.

When they were finally released, the two women became survivors. Due to their gender and social class, they couldn’t pursue any profession openly, engage in politics, business, or finance like the men around them. They quickly realized that their fortune and that of their children depended solely on their ability to form relationships with wealthy and powerful men.

The new bourgeois elite emerging from the chaos of the revolution was ready to forget all its principles to enjoy power and luxury. It accepted in its salons and even among its young lineages some types of women that the same society would soon reject. Napoleon himself would be one of the main instigators of the strict patriarchal morality imposed on women for the next century and a half, clearly expressed in his famous and imitated Napoleonic Code. In October 1795, the National Convention—the body responsible for transforming France into a republic during the revolution—was replaced by the Directory, a regime governed by a committee of five directors. Joséphine and Teresa, admired like few others in salons, maintained a close relationship, sometimes friendly and sometimes romantic, with Paul Barras, the most powerful member of this political body. It seems that it was Barras and Teresa who introduced Napoleon to Joséphine, confident that the union between these two people in need of stability would be positive for both.

Napoleon in Love

Joséphine seemed to accept the marriage only for convenience, while Napoleon fell madly in love with her from their first intimate encounter. The day after, he wrote her one of his fiery letters: “I wake up full of you. Your portrait and the intoxicating evening of yesterday have not given my senses any rest: sweet and incomparable Joséphine, what a strange effect you have on my heart!”

Only 265 letters of the many Napoleon sent to Joséphine have survived. Of her, only five remain. Bonaparte always complained about not receiving news from his wife, who was very reluctant to write to him. These missives are like a privileged window through which one can observe the intimacy of the couple, reflecting from the beginning the imbalance and complexity of the relationship. For the first two years, while accomplishing the surprising military feats of his first Italian campaign, with which he established French dominance over much of the central-northern part of the peninsula, Napoleon wrote incessantly to Joséphine from every battlefield. He informed her of his victories and the number of dead and wounded, which he mixed, with a shocking lack of empathy, with expressions of his love and desire. These were short sentimental texts, often poignant, full of ardent and intimate phrases: “A kiss on the heart, and then one lower, much lower!” “Honor counts for me because it counts for you… and victory, because it makes you happy; without it, I would have left everything to lie at your feet.” “You know well that I don’t forget my precious visits; you know, your little black forest. I give it a thousand kisses and look forward to the moment when I will be there, all yours.” Meanwhile, Joséphine, cold and distant, did not seem to take her husband’s intense feelings very seriously.

While Napoleon was on the front lines, she spent her time in Paris enjoying the comfortable life of a general’s wife that everyone was beginning to admire: attending parties and spending huge amounts of money, even more than her husband sent from Italy, on lavish gifts and profits from looting. Moreover, as soon as Napoleon left for the front, Joséphine fell in love with a young hussar lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles, nine years her junior. The possibility of her husband discovering their relationship did not frighten her at all. When she met him in Milan, closely followed by her lover, she wrote to her aunt, “He does not lack anything, always anticipates my desires. He remains all day in adoration before me, as if I were a goddess.”

Her new privileged position allowed Joséphine not only to have fun but also to enrich herself behind her husband’s back, creating a network of corruption that included her lover, Director Barras, and other government members. She accumulated a large sum of money by convincing a naive Bonaparte to assign contracts for the supply of provisions and other materials to certain people for the army. Napoleon himself acknowledged this deception in the Memorial of Saint Helena, the memoirs he dictated to Count Las Cases at the end of his life. He recounted how, after being warned by his brother Joseph about what was happening, Joséphine managed to convince him, with tears and caresses, that it was all a lie.

However, her fortune could not last forever. In May 1798, two years after the marriage, in the midst of his conquest of Egypt, Napoleon was again informed of his wife’s dirty game by three trusted high-ranking officers. And this time, he believed them. From that moment on, the couple’s relationship completely fell apart.

Bonaparte decided not to divorce because he realized that, along his social and political ascent, he would increasingly need Joséphine as a magnificent hostess for his numerous social engagements. But he made it clear that now he held the power and that, from that moment on, he would exercise it tyrannically and capriciously over his wife, as he would soon do in the political life of all of Europe.

Napoleon began to take numerous young mistresses to bed and to treat his wife with enormous cruelty, which, like most abusers, he alternated with moments of regret and tenderness. There were likely episodes of physical violence: one of Joséphine’s ladies-in-waiting as empress, Madame de Rémusat, stated in her Memoirs that one day, when Joséphine followed another of her ladies in secret until she found her in bed with her husband, he became so angry that he “insulted her.” Joséphine, in turn, suddenly became a weak, jealous, and frightened woman, terrified at the thought of being abandoned by the husband she had once despised and who had become an extraordinary figure. Now, she wrote him phrases of devotion in her letters: “If an explosion of joy enters your soul, if sadness disturbs it for a moment, it will be in the bosom of your friend that you will pour out your happiness and your sorrows. This is my desire, my wishes, which reduce to pleasing you and making you happy.”

The Inevitable Divorce

Joséphine’s position became more delicate as Bonaparte became more powerful. The main problem was the couple’s inability to have children. Since she had two from her first marriage, it was initially thought that he was the one sterile. But in December 1806, two years after the start of his reign as emperor, Napoleon had a son with one of his mistresses. It was clear that, after all, he was able to produce an heir and thus create a dynasty. As emperor, it was his duty to seek, among the European dynasties he had subjugated, a new wife, young and fertile.

Napoleon was slow to decide to divorce, but in the end, on November 30, 1809, after thirteen years of marriage, he communicated the news to Joséphine amid tears from both. Within a few weeks, Archduchess Maria Luisa of Austria, then eighteen years old, daughter of the defeated Emperor Francis I, would become the new wife of a now forty-year-old Napoleon. A kind of closing of the circle, considering that the new bride of the emperor was the niece of Marie Antoinette. Napoleon was happy with his new docile wife, who soon gave him an heir, the future Duke of Reichstadt—Napoleon II for the Bonapartists—dying in Vienna at the age of 21 in 1832. As for Joséphine, after the divorce, their relationship improved, and the two maintained an affectionate relationship. The former empress spent her time traveling with her small court and her last lover, the young painter Lancelot-Théodore Turpin de Crissé. Soon, both stopped complaining about the divorce.

There is something in Napoleon’s life that seems to be indissolubly linked to his ex-wife, as if his destiny depended on Joséphine being by his side. If his unstoppable rise to one of the most extreme degrees of power that the Western world has ever known began as soon as he married, his military and political decline took hold immediately after the divorce: the first difficulties in Spain, the Russian campaign, and, finally, the victory of the enemy powers and their entry into Paris, which led to Napoleon’s abdication in April 1814 and his exile to Elba.

The End of Joséphine

Joséphine died on May 29, 1814, twenty-five days after her ex-husband’s arrival on the prison island. Her death reflected her way of life: when Napoleon’s enemies entered Paris, many began to visit her at her Malmaison castle, almost as if paying homage to the icon of an era. Charming as always, she opened the doors of her salons to all who might be useful to her with the advent of the new regime. During a carriage trip with Tsar Alexander I, Napoleon’s great adversary, who openly courted her daughter Hortense, Joséphine caught a cold. Ill, she continued to receive visitors for days until she was forced to stay in bed and finally passed away. She was almost fifty-one, the same age at which Bonaparte would die seven years later, in 1821. It is not known how Napoleon reacted to her death, but he told Count Las Cases, “I truly loved Joséphine, even if I did not esteem her. She was too dishonest. But she had something I liked a lot: she was a real woman.” These words, as well as Joséphine’s last gestures, fully define their tormented relationship.

* * *


Theo Aronson, Napoleon & Josephine: A love story, Thistle Publishing, 2014.

Carolly Erickson, Josephine: A Life of the Empress,  St Martins Pr, 1999.


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