Josephine de Beauharnais (1763-1814) was born MarieJosèphe Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie in Martinique to a struggling Creole family. When she was little, an old fortune teller predicted she would sail across the ocean, marry and have children but her first husband would die a terrible death. She also reassured her that when she remarried, she would become a Queen! For little Rose as she was then known, it would all come true.
When she grew up, she was sent to France to marry a young aristocrat, Alexandre de Beauharnais. They had two beautiful children, Eugène and Hortense. It was an advantageous marriage for Josephine but the boorish de Beauharnais was unimpressed with her Creole accent and her then unsophisticated ways.
De Beauharnais renounced his birthright and joined the revolutionaries during the French Revolution. Things got really ugly about 15 months later when the Reign of Terrorbegan. No one was safe. De Beauharnais and Josephine were arrested and thrown into prison. Her husband was guillotined simply because he was noble born but Josephine was saved just one day before her execution when the Reign of Terror collapsed.
Josephine supported herself, her children and her lavish lifestyle by taking lovers. From many accounts, Josephine was graceful, sweet, loving and had a charming personality. A chance meeting with an upstart Revolutionary general changed her life forever whenNapoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) fell violently in love with her. Many of his love letters to her survive. One read, "I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses." Napoleon never did things by halves, be it writing passionate letters to his mistress or fighting battles.
She really didn't like him at first and wavered about marrying the "little General" - Napoleon was barely taller than her petite 5' and six years younger. But already in her thirties, with fading looks and rotting teeth, she eventually said yes. From then on, Napoleon called her Josephine not Rose. He also became a good stepfather to her children. On the eve of his coronation as Emperor of France, he was under family pressure to divorce her because she couldn't give him an heir. They pushed him too far and he did crown Josephine as Empress of the First French Empire (Napoleonic Empire)- the Queen she was destined to be.
Josephine had very expensive tastes and as Empress, she could indulge. A consummate shopaholic of her time, she single-handedly rescued impoverished jewelry artisans who had lost their livelihoods in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Napoleon would later resent the debts she incurred.
Napoleon finally divorced her when she was in her forties, because he said, with cutting frankness, "I want to marry a womb." Said womb turned out to be the very royal and very young 18 year old Marie Louise, Archduchess of Austria who did incubate him an heir, the future Napoleon II within a year.
Poor, sad Josephine retired to her country estate, Malmaison just outside Paris, where she lived out her life in empty splendour. She loved to bring out her fabulous jewelry collection to dazzle her visitors - sparkling diamonds, rubies, sapphires and pearls, you name it, she had it. But it brought her no joy. Sighing, she remarked, " Believe me ladies, do not envy a splendour that does not constitute happiness."
As for Napoleon, things really went downhill for him after he divorced Josephine. His first major defeat, his disastrous Russian campaign of 1812, cost him 90% of his army (~400,000 men) - lost to bitter cold and starvation. His crack troops, the Old Guard, struggled home with her name on their lips - they called her "Our Lady of Victory"- wishing that Napoleon hadn't changed wives for the first empress brought them luck.
In 1814, Napoleon wrote to Josephine just before he was sent to exile in Elba, " Adieu, my dear Josephine. Resign yourself to fate, as I have done, and never forget him who has never forgotten you...and never will." Josephine fretted about his fate and became melancholic. She died later that year of a "putrid fever" at age 50.