How Napoleon Bonaparte and first wife Josephine stayed madly in love despite adultery, divorce, even death

Napoleon had forgiven all her frolicking and paid off her debts but that could not stop the divorce


                            How Napoleon Bonaparte and first wife Josephine stayed madly in love despite adultery, divorce, even death
(Getty Images)

Napoleon Bonaparte, the military genius and emperor of France, was also known to be a deeply romantic person who was madly in love with his first wife, Josephine. 

Josephine, whose real name was Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie, was a widow with two children and six years older to Napoleon and still the latter, then a shy army officer, fell deeply in love with her. After a passionate affair, Napoleon married her in a civil ceremony on March 9, 1796, according to Britannica

What followed was a tumultuous marriage that ended in heartbreak and divorce — something that has been detailed in the first episode of the Smithsonian series, 'Private Lives of the Monarchs' which premiered its second season on May 18, 9 pm EST/PST.

Historian Peter Hicks said in the documentary that Napoleon's private life was not that private, thanks to the 300 love letters written by him to Josephine while he was away in Italy, fighting as the leader of the French army. Most of his letters, however, went unanswered as his wife was frolicking around with other officers of the army.

"The early letters are full of this passion. He is complaining that she doesn't write. He tells her how he imagines him rushing back to her, bursting into her bedroom...  very intimate kind of details. So he is passionately in love with her...  He is always talking about Josephine... but he has affairs as well. There are these Italian singers that he is meeting in Milan. So he kind of slightly shacks up with them," he said. 

He added: "And there are rumors that Josephine possibly has affairs at the same time, which Napoleon, being the fiery Corsican, gets very upset about. They have affairs on both sides. It's very French way of behaving I suppose."

The coronation of Napoleon I (1769 - 1821) in Notre Dame, Paris. He is about to crown his wife Josephine also. Detail of a painting by Jacques-Louis David (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When Napoleon discovered that his wife was having affairs and had also run herself into a fair bit of debt as a result, he was furious and threatened to divorce her.  But her children convinced him to forgive their mother and he did, paying off all debts that Josephine owed. After that Josephine took care not to get herself entangled in any further scandals during the Consulate and instead, dedicated her time and focus into furthering her husband’s political fortunes, History Today reported.  

A day before Napoleon’s coronation by Pope Pius VII in Notre Dame, Josephine persuaded him to marry her anew with religious rites on December 1, 1804. After Napoleon was crowned as the emperor, he put the crown on Josephine’s head, proclaiming her empress.

However, even after years of his first marriage, Josephine failed to produce an heir. And since Napoleon's tirade of affairs outside his marriage had given him a number of illegitimate children, he was fairly convinced that the problem lied with his wife. As a result, with much reluctance, the emperor decided to divorce Josephine. Despite her initial anger at having learned the news, Josephine consented and the two annulled their marriage in January 1810. 

However, even after Napoleon married his second wife, Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria in the same year as the annulment of his first marriage, he always carried a soft corner in his heart for Josephine.

Napoleon I (1769 - 1821), emperor of France, leaving his despairing wife Josephine de Beauharnais with the words 'My destiny and France demand it'.(Getty Images)

Professor Michael Broers of the University of Oxford said: "He always called Josephine 'Belle amie,' my lovely friend, and he says to her, you will always be my friend. He wants Josephine to continue to be involved in the court and Marie-Louise has to say, 'Now look, no, we can't do that, I am sorry. I have to put my foot down here.'"

But Marie-Louise did come around to the idea of having Josephine around after she realized that her husband was not cheating on her but was simply friends with his first wife. "When Josephine is delighted at the birth of their son, that breaks the ice," Broers added.

It is said that when Napoleon heard the news of Josephine's death while on exile in Elba and learned that she had died of a broken heart, he said, "She really loved me, didn’t she?"  Some reports also said that he locked himself in his room and would not come out for two days. 

When Napoleon died in 1821, his final words were, "France, the army, head  of the army, Josephine."

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