Josephine Bonaparte was one of the most fascinating women in history. She entered Parisian social circles as an outsider, but through her beauty and ambition, she became the most powerful woman in the nation. Though she's famous for her romance with Napoleon, Josephine's dramatic life rivals even the famed Emperor’s. From passionate affairs to close calls with death, strap in for the wild life of Empress Josephine.
1. She Went by Many Names
Empress Josephine Bonaparte didn't enter the world as "Josephine." Her name was actually, deep breath, Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie. Known as "Rose" for most of her life, she only began going by Josephine in 1795. That was the year she met Napoleon, who preferred to call her Josephine. Clearly, his nickname stuck.
2. Her Relationship was Scandalous
At 32, Josephine was a scandalous six years older than 26-year-old Napoleon, meaning their romance made jaws drop all over France. Even so, Napoleon was madly in love with his older woman. The statesman wrote her a tremendous amount of love letters and proposed to her not even a year after meeting. Many of these letters still exist today in all their romantic glory, though reading through them now may make Napoleon seem like a stage five clinger.
3. Her Wedding Night Got Wild
Josephine absolutely adored her pet dog Fortune. We all know that when a girl and her pup have a special bond, the dog doesn’t always take kindly to new lovers. Such was the case with Fortune, who made sure he slept together in the very same bed as Napoleon and Josephine on their wedding night. Fortune even bit Napoleon in the leg when he didn't give the good boy enough room.
4. She was a Widow
Empress Josephine's marriage to Napoleon Bonaparte was actually the second time she walked down the aisle. Her first wedding was to Alexandre de Beauharnais, a wealthy politician. On paper, Beauharnais looked like a great match, but in real life, he was a complete terror. After the nightmare end of that union, it's a miracle that Josephine tied the knot ever again.
5. Her Family was Involved in a Cruel Enterprise
Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie was sometimes described as a "Creole" which wasn't a term used for many people in France's aristocratic circles. Young Josephine was actually born on her family's slave plantation on the island of Martinique in 1763. The little girl was incredibly wealthy, but her riches came from the worst "business" possible.
6. Her Romantic Life was Twisted
There is a seriously twisted story behind Josephine's marriage to Alexandre de Beauharnais. The union was set up by her aunt, who also just so happened to be the mistress of Alexandre's father, François de Beauharnais. Things manage to get even worse when you learn that originally, Alexandre was supposed to marry Josephine's younger sister Catherine. Why didn't he do so? Strap in...
7. Her Family Weathered Hardships
Alexandre only married Josephine because his first choice of bride, Josephine's sister Catherine, met a terrible fate. She passed on at just 13 years old. Yikes... Plus, it turns out that the only reason that Josephine's family wanted to marry one of their daughters off was to get some much-needed cash. Several hurricanes had destroyed the Tascher family's estate in the 1760s and they would do anything, including marry off their daughters, to get some funds.
8. Her Marriage was a Mess
The marriage between Josephine and Alexandre was deeply unhappy. Alexandre, uh, didn't seem to be the monogamous type. He was a frequent customer at France's seedy houses and as though that wasn't bad enough, he once left Josephine and his two young children to pursue another woman for an entire year. Things were bad, but they would only get worse.
9. Her Husband Made her Miserable
Josephine and Alexandre had an absolutely brutal time when it came to romance, and after just a few years, husband and wife had already reached their breaking point. When Alexandre's affairs showed no signs of slowing down, the couple decided to separate. Josephine would move to the Pentemont Abbey in Paris with their two young children, Eugène and Hortense, and live off of court-ordered financial support from Alexandre.
10. He Met a Dark End
Josephine’s first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, met an utterly brutal end. During the Reign of Terror, revolutionaries were suspicious of the aristocratic Alexandre and deeply unimpressed with his poor defence of Mainz during the French Revolutionary War. After throwing him in a cell, the rebels led Alexandre to the guillotine, where he took his final breaths.
11. She was Jailed
After the arrest of Alexandre in March of 1794, Josephine met a terrifying fate herself. Like her doomed husband, she too was apprehended and imprisoned by French revolutionaries. Even though she and Alexandre were already separated, the rebels jailed Josephine because she was still financially tied to Alexandre. Once again, her awful first husband had led Josephine into a brutal situation.
12. They Took Everything from Her
Josephine endured the horrendous Carmes prison for almost one hundred days. It was a terrible time for her, and the only thing that kept her going were the secret notes she would get from her children. But her relief didn't last long. When the guards discovered the letters, they cut off Josephine's communications. And the bad news just kept coming.
13. She Learned the Awful Truth
When Josephine was finally released, she learned that her liberation had a chilling price. She went free just five days after her husband lost his head.
14. Her Family Tree was Twisted
European royals had a notorious habit of marrying their own relatives, and Josephine's family was no different. Hortense, her daughter by Alexandre Beauharnais, married a deeply inappropriate person: Napoleon's brother Louis. Yup, mother and daughter could go on double dates with their husband-brothers.
15. She was Promiscuous
Before meeting her great love Napoleon, Josephine made the most of her time as a single lady. She had affairs with leading political figures in France like Paul Barras, who helped lead the French Revolution. According to rumors, Josephine didn't just have intimate time with Barras. Apparently, the rebellious couple invited Jean-Lambert Tallien and his wife into their bed as well.
But that's not even the most scandalous part: Barras is actually the person who introduced Josephine to her second husband Napoleon.
16. Her Beau's Family Disapproved of Her
Josephine and Napoleon were the Demi Moore/Ashton Kutcher of their day. Not only was she six years older than her boy toy, Josephine had the added scandal of being a widow with two children. Instead of taking a young inexperienced woman to be his bride, Napoleon chose a gal who knew her way around the bedroom. The Bonaparte family was appalled by the marriage, which occurred on March 9, 1796.
17. Her In-Laws Didn't Like Her
Napoleon's mother and sister had heard all about Josephine's rumored dalliances with Barras and Tallien, and they were not impressed with their new in-law. Pauline, Napoleon's sister, took great pains to humiliate her new sister-in-law, commissioning extravagant dresses to outdo Josephine at balls and calling her "the old lady." Though Josephine tried to win Napoleon's family over, they never accepted her.
Even so, all the family drama in the world could only pale in comparison to Josephine's later scandals.
18. She Saved Lives
In December 1800, the Bonaparte family went to see one of Haydn's operas in Paris. It should have been a lovely night out, but instead, it turned into a horrific nightmare. A bomb was secretly planted underneath a parked car near the opera house. The "Plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise" was supposed to end Napoleon's life, and certainly would have, had it not been for Josephine.
19. She Survived an Attempt on Her Life
Josephine insisted on delaying the party so she could drape her silk shawl just right. At the time, Napoleon was annoyed with his bride's demands, but her fastidiousness ended up saving his life. The explosion went off too late to hurt Napoleon, whose carriage had already passed. The same, sadly, could not be said for the many bystanders who were injured or outright killed in the blast.
20. Napoleon was Obsessed with her
Napoleon absolutely adored Josephine, but unfortunately for him, she wasn't quite as smitten. While he would write his wife elaborate love letters about the "intoxicating pleasures" she gave him, Josephine was known to rarely even read Napoleon's missives. When he cooed over a portrait of his bride and constantly kept it safe in his pocket, apparently Josephine never bothered to look at paintings of her husband.
21. She had a Passionate Affair
Josephine's marriages didn't give her the passionate love affair she desired, so shortly after her second marriage, when Napoleon and his army marched to Italy, she began to look for a new lover. It didn't take long for her to ensnare a brave, good-looking lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles. Their fiery passion would burn for years...until it all unravelled in a spectacular mess.
22. She Lied to her Husband
At first, Josephine was able to convince Napoleon that the rumors of her affair were untrue, but over time, they grew too frequent for him to ignore. Eventually, Napoleon confirmed that his bride was being intimate with another man and became furious. In a rage, he officially denounced the two lovers and his love for Josephine.
23. She Went through a Brutal Breakup
After finding out about his wife's affair, Napoleon felt his world crumble. He immediately stopped writing gushy love letters to Josephine and got back at her by giving his wife a taste of her own medicine. Napoleon quickly started up an affair of his own with Pauline Fourès, the wife of one of his officers. Pauline became notorious enough to earn a dark nickname: “Napoleon’s Cleopatra.”
24. She Became an Empress
As Napoleon took mistress after mistress, his relationship with Josephine became more and more dysfunctional, but the couple was determined to maintain appearances. When Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of the French at the hands of Pope Pius VII in 1804, he officially had Josephine proclaimed Empress as well. Talk about marrying up...
25. Her Coronation was a Disaster
The coronation ceremony was almost ruined, however, as Josephine had walked in on a terrible sight: She saw her husband Napoleon "visiting" her lady-in-waiting Élisabeth de Vaudey...in her bedroom. This led to such a serious spat that in the end, their little daughter Hortense had to step in and smooth over things over so that the coronation could go on.
26. She was Pushed Out of the Palace
After the pre-coronation incident, Napoleon had even more torment in store for his wife. He repeatedly threatened Josephine with divorce because he believed that she couldn't give him one crucial thing: a male heir. The already disintegrating marriage would crumble in 1807, when a massive tragedy rocked the Bonaparte family.
27. She was Humiliated
Napoleon's heir presumptive, his nephew Napoleon Charles, tragically perished of croup, leaving the Emperor without any successor. That's when Napoleon made a brutal choice. He needed an heir, and to get that, he needed a new wife. On December 14, 1809, Napoleon made history by divorcing his great love, Empress Josephine.
28. She Didn't Take the Breakup Well
Apparently, when Napoleon told Josephine that he planned on divorcing her, she temporarily lost her mind. The devastated wife immediately fell to the palace's floors. She was literally paralyzed by shock, forcing Napoleon to carry her to her bedroom so that she could recover in privacy. But even in her chambers, Josephine couldn't hide her pain. Her wails echoed throughout the Tuileries.
29. Her Divorce was Disturbing
Napoleon and Josephine's breakup was completely scandalous, and their chilling divorce ceremony didn't make things any more palatable. Even though the breakup had to happen, the couple was so distraught that they read statements of devotion aloud to each other as they signed the divorce paperwork. Josephine was so distraught that she couldn't finish her statement and needed someone else to step in on her behalf.
But the mixed signals only get murkier...
30. She was a Hard Act to Follow
To prove that he was only remarrying to produce a legitimate heir, Napoleon said something so disturbing that it's impossible to forget. He claimed his next wedding would be to “a womb.” Let's hope Napoleon didn't tell his second wife, the archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, about that ice-cold disclaimer.
31. Her Wedding had a Dark Side
Over the course of Napoleon and Josephine's divorce, the couple's dirty laundry aired out in the most public way. It turned out that their original wedding was full of lies, letting Napoleon claim that the marriage itself didn't count. The person who wed Napoleon and Josephine wasn't officially allowed to do so, Josephine lied on the paperwork by claiming to be significantly younger than she really was, and Napoleon himself wrote down a fake birthday and address!
32. She Took Part in a Brutal Act
Josephine is one of the most famous historical figures from Martinique in the Caribbean, but it would be an understatement to say that her homeland is proud of her legacy. Instead, it's the exact opposite. In 1991, the local government of Fort au France tore down a statue of Josephine that had been there since 1859. They then decapitated it and splattered it with red paint to denounce Josephine's darkest act. She convinced Napoleon to reinstitute slavery in the French Colonies. To this day, the head of the statue is missing.
33. Her Ex was Wrapped Around her Finger
After their divorce, Napoleon was still smitten with his ex. He even allowed Josephine to retain the title of Empress of the French. In his own words: "It is my will that she retain the rank and title of empress, and especially that she never doubt my sentiments, and that she ever hold me as her best and dearest friend."
34. She was Part of a Major Heist
Josephine was the original material girl. She loved gems and jewels so much that when Napoleon needed to make nice with his wife, he'd give her lavish jewelry. His grandest gift came just before the couple's divorce, when he bestowed extravagant emerald jewelry on his soon-to-be-ex. Thrilled, Josephine hired an artist to paint her in the beautiful green gems. She didn't know it at the time, but this was a huge mistake.
35. Her Gems were Stolen
After Napoleon and Josephine split, the new divorcée lived in the country, away from the spotlight...or so it seemed. Josephine's name quickly re-entered the newspapers when she claimed that her precious emerald jewelry had been stolen. Napoleon tried desperately to retrieve the jewels, but not for chivalry. Instead he had far darker reasons to get the emeralds back to their owner.
36. France was on her Side
Then as now, when a major couple breaks up, people take sides. When it came to the split between Josephine and Napoleon, France was firmly for the abandoned Empress. Napoleon worried that his enemies would use the jewel theft as an excuse to make up dark stories that he'd planned the heist. He was desperate to stop the bad press in its tracks, but Napoleon's men simply couldn't find the culprit.
With no other option available, Napoleon hired a shocking man: the infamous thief François Eugène Vidocq .
37. She Made Literary History
In a wild twist, Vidocq managed to do what no one else could. He tracked down not only the Empress' stolen emeralds, but the men who took them and the people who bought them! Using this success as leverage, Vidocq got the Emperor to pardon his offenses and even turn this ex-criminal mastermind into an official police officer. His dual character provided the basis for both Valjean and Javert from Les Misérables.
But some historians have questions about Vidocq's miraculous solve...
38. She May have been a Criminal Mastermind
Some historians believe that the true culprit behind the jewel heist wasn't a regular con man. Instead, they suspect a far more disturbing option: Josephine herself. Certain scholars think the Empress could have orchestrated the whole scheme to turn the public against her ex Napoleon. If so, Josephine was utterly diabolical.
39. She was Part of a Shameful Trade
Josephine's family didn't just participate in the slave trade for business. They owned slaves themselves. A nanny named Dede actually nursed and raised Josephine when she was a baby.
40. Her Death Destroyed Napoleon
After contracting a horrible bout of pneumonia in 1814, Josephine passed on in Rueil-Malmaison of Paris. She was 50 years old. After learning of Josephine's death, her ex-husband Napoleon responded with a heartbreaking gesture. Mad with grief, he locked himself in his room for two full days and refused to see anyone.
41. A Strange Guest Attended Deathbed
Before Josephine passed on, Napoleon brought a strange guest to visit his ex-wife on her deathbed: His child and legitimate heir, Napoleon II, from his second marriage. Apparently, he brought the little boy to visit Josephine so she could meet the child “who had cost her so many tears.” Um, thanks?
42. Her Wedding Didn't Go According to Plan
During their courtship, Napoleon's wild passion for Josephine enthralled her and disturbed her almost in equal measure. She could never predict what he would do next, even on their wedding day. Napoleon's mixed signals went all out. He showed up two hours late for the ceremony, then gave his bride an inscribed ring that read "Au Destin" ("To Destiny").
43. She Inspired Scandalous Letters
In Napoleon's passionate letters to Josephine, he refers to her nether regions as "the little black forest."
44. She had High Standards
Though Josephine was well known for her generosity and elegance, Europe also thought of her as a notorious spendthrift. Apparently, Josephine would research her romantic options, or rather the thickness of their wallets, before getting into anything serious. She'd only engage in a relationship if the guy could support her financially and socially.
45. Napoleon’s Last Words Were About Her
Napoleon came to understand how much he loved Josephine only later in his life, or to be exact, at the very end of his life. On his deathbed, Josephine appeared in her ex's final words. As Napoleon perished, he said, "France, l'armée, tête d'armée, Josephine." ("France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Josephine.").
46. She Demanded the Best
Josephine never did anything by halves, including her mania for roses. She was absolutely obsessed with the delicate flowers. After setting up shop at the Chateau de Malmaison, she brought in horticulturists from the United Kingdom to cultivate her garden. Napoleon even ordered his warship commanders to search seized vessels for plants that could suit Josephine’s elegant estate.
47. She Broke the Rules
Josephine's rose obsession knew no limits. Even though England and France were at war, England's major rose supplier could enter France because of his association with Josephine. She also hosted the first rose exhibition in 1810 and produced the first written history on rose cultivation in the same year.
48. She Has a Luxurious Legacy
Talk about having a royal legacy. The current heads of the royal houses of Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Luxembourg, Norway, and Sweden are all directly related to one woman: Empress Josephine. She is also related to the Prince of Monaco, and the royal houses of Italy, Romania, and Yugoslavia.
49. Her Ignorance went Down in History
Napoleon often dictated his letters to secretaries, however, he wrote letters to his lovers by hand. This does not necessarily mean that the lovers could read the letters. Empress Josephine simply could not understand much of what her beau wrote. When people asked her about Napoleon's well being, she would resort to saying that Napoleon was “fine.”
50. She Had an Ugly Secret
In recent years, historians noticed that every portrait of Empress Josephine contains an utterly heartbreaking detail. Empress Josephine never smiles with her teeth exposed—and we now know that she did so for a dark reason. Josephine’s teeth were pitch black due to cavities and decay. She hid them for her entire life, teaching herself to laugh with her mouth closed and speaking behind a handkerchief when she entered the public eye.