The first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte
, Josephine became Empress of the French.
Josephine de la Pagerie was born in 1763 to a poor aristocratic naval officer, and spent her early life on Martinique. In 1779 she married Alexandre Vicomte de Beauharnais, who held a military commission, and the couple moved to Paris. However, Alexandre was displeased with his wife’s behaviour, refused to present her at court, and in 1785 they split, having had two children. After three years more in Paris she returned to her childhood home but was forced to leave after a slave uprising in 1790. She returned to a France in revolutionary turmoil
, and when Alexandre – who had been fighting in the French Revolutionary armies – was guillotined Josephine was arrested, but managed to escape execution when the Terrorists fell from power. A lover of rising star Barras, Josephine now became a prominent member of popular Parisian society.
It’s unclear whether Barras thought he was ridding himself of a problematic mistress when he pushed another rising star, Napoleon Bonaparte, closer to Josephine, but the two made a match and married in a civil ceremony just before the former took charge of the Army of Italy. When Napoleon followed success here with an ill-fated expedition to Egypt Josephine scandalised him through connections to other men, although he was talked out of divorce. The pair settled into a relationship which took them through Napoleon’s rise, and in 1804 Josephine married him in a religious ceremony, and was crowned by him as Empress of the French. Meanwhile her two children were promoted and praised by Bonaparte, his step-son becoming a loyal and excellent army commander.
However, Josephine had been unable to have more children, and while Napoleon allowed for this in the imperial constitution, he wanted a legitimate child of his own, and so the pair split, Napoleon having the marriage annulled rather than a divorce. Josephine now ran a household on the outskirts of Paris, which became a key social centre. When Napoleon was forced into abdication in 1814 Tsar Alexander was prepared to save her from ruin, but she died the same year from diphtheria.