This Day in History – March 9th, 1796

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Joséphine de Beauharnais (June 23rd, 1763 – May 29th, 1814)

Joséphine de Beauharnais became the first wife of Napoleon I on March 9th, 1796, and thus the first Empress of the French.

Her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais was guillotined during the Reign of Terror, and she was imprisoned in the Carmes prison until her release five days after Alexandre’s execution. Through her daughter, Hortense, she was the maternal grandmother of Napoléon III. Through her son, Eugène, she was the great-grandmother of later Swedish and Danish kings and queens. The reigning houses of Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg also descend from her. She did not bear Napoleon any children; as a result, he divorced her in 1810 to marry Marie Louise of Austria.

Joséphine was the recipient of numerous love letters written by Napoleon, many of which still exist. Her Château de Malmaison was noted for its magnificent rose garden, which she supervised closely, owing to her passionate interest in roses, collected from all over the world.

Her coronation ceremony that officially made her first Empress of the French, officiated by Pope Pius VII, took place at Notre Dame de Paris, on December 2nd, 1804. Following a pre-arranged protocol, Napoléon first crowned himself, then put the crown on Joséphine’s head, proclaiming her empress.

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Shortly before their coronation, there was an incident at the Château de Saint-Cloud that nearly sundered the marriage between the two. Joséphine caught Napoléon in the bedroom of her lady-in-waiting, Élisabeth de Vaudey, and Napoléon threatened to divorce her as she had not produced an heir. Eventually, however, through the efforts of her daughter Hortense, the two were reconciled.

Joséphine de Beauharnais 3When, after a few years, it became clear she could not have a child, Napoléon while he still loved Joséphine, began to think very seriously about the possibility of divorce. The final die was cast when Joséphine’s grandson Napoléon Charles Bonaparte who had been declared Napoléon’s heir, died of croup in 1807. Napoleon began to create lists of eligible princesses. At dinner on November 30th, 1809, he let Joséphine know that—in the interest of France—he must find a wife who could produce an heir. From the next room, Napoléon’s secretary heard the screams.

Joséphine agreed to the divorce so the Emperor could remarry in the hope of having an heir. The divorce ceremony took place on January 10th, 1810 and was a grand but solemn social occasion, and each read a statement of devotion to the other.

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