What did Napoleon’s wives think of each other?

Empress Josephine in coronation costume by François Gérard, 1807-08

Empress Josephine in coronation costume by François Gérard, 1807-08

Napoleon Bonaparte had two wives: Josephine (Rose de Beauharnais) and Archduchess Marie Louise of Austria. What did they think of each other?

Josephine’s view of Marie Louise

Josephine was born in Martinique on June 23, 1763 as Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie. Her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, was guillotined during the Reign of Terror. Josephine married Napoleon on March 9, 1796, when she was 32 and he was 26. Though Josephine already had two children (Eugène and Hortense) from her first marriage, she was unable to produce an heir for Napoleon, a matter that troubled him once he became Emperor of France. On December 16, 1809, Napoleon had the marriage dissolved, much to Josephine’s regret.

Napoleon had already been casting about the royal houses of Europe for a new, fertile wife. He settled on Marie Louise, the eldest child of Emperor Francis I of Austria, head of the House of Habsburg. They were married in Vienna on March 11, 1810. Napoleon – who had never seen Marie Louise – was in Paris at the time, so the bride’s uncle, Archduke Charles, stood in as Napoleon’s proxy.

Marie Louise was conducted in triumph to France, where civil and religious marriage ceremonies were held on April 1 and 2. Since Josephine’s home at Malmaison was very near Paris, Napoleon gave his ex-wife the Château de Navarre near Évreux, some 50 miles away, with the understanding she would stay there and avoid the marriage celebrations.

Napoleon continued to write to Josephine occasionally, addressing her as “my love.” In September 1810, he advised her that the new Empress was pregnant. It was suggested to Josephine that she leave Paris during Marie Louise’s confinement. Josephine was thus at Navarre on March 20, 1811, when the ringing of bells and booming of cannons announced the birth of Napoleon’s and Marie Louise’s son, the King of Rome. She wrote to Napoleon:

Amid the numerous felicitations you receive from every corner of Europe…can the feeble voice of a woman reach your ear, and will you deign to listen to her who so often consoled your sorrows and sweetened your pains, now that she speaks to you only of that happiness in which all your wishes are fulfilled! … I can conceive every emotion you must experience, as you divine all that I feel at this moment; and though separated, we are united by that sympathy which survives all events.

I should have desired to learn of the birth of the King of Rome from yourself, and not from the sound of the cannon of Evreux, or the courier of the prefect. I know, however, that in preference to all, your first attentions are due to the public authorities of the State, to the foreign ministers, to your family, and especially to the fortunate Princess who has realized your dearest hopes. She cannot be more tenderly devoted to you than I; but she has been enabled to contribute more toward your happiness by securing that of France. She has then a right to your first feelings, to all your cares; and I, who was but your companion in times of difficulty – I cannot ask more than a place in your affection far removed from that occupied by the Empress Maria Louisa. Not till you shall have ceased to watch by her bed, not till you are weary of embracing your son, will you take the pen to converse with your best friend – I will wait. (1)

Josephine also wrote to Marie Louise from Navarre.

While you were only the second spouse of the Emperor, I deemed it becoming to maintain silence toward your Majesty. That reserve, I think, may be laid aside, now that you are become the mother of an heir to the Empire. You might have had some difficulty in crediting the sincerity of her whom perhaps you regarded as a rival; you will give faith to the felicitations of a Frenchwoman, for you have bestowed a son upon France. Your amiableness and sweetness of disposition have gained you the heart of the Emperor – your benevolence merits the blessings of the unfortunate – the birth of a son claims the benedictions of all France. (2)

Marie Louise’s view of Josephine

Empress Marie Louise by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

Empress Marie Louise by Jean-Baptiste Isabey, 1810

While Josephine was willing to cultivate cordial relations with Marie Louise, the latter was not about to reciprocate. Marie Louise (b. December 12, 1791) was only 18 when she married Napoleon (he was then 40), and she was jealous of her predecessor. Though Napoleon hoped he could introduce his two wives, it was not to be.

‘I wished one day to take [Marie Louise] to Malmaison,’ said the Emperor, ‘but she burst into tears when I made the proposal. She said she did not object to my visiting Josephine, only she did not wish to know it. But whenever she suspected my intention of going to Malmaison, there was no stratagem which she did not employ for the sake of annoying me. She never left me; and as these visits seemed to vex her exceedingly, I did violence to my own feelings and scarcely ever went to Malmaison. Still, however, when I did happen to go, I was sure to encounter a flood of tears and a multitude of contrivances of every kind.’ (3)

Marie Louise’s anxiety made it hard for Napoleon to accede to Josephine’s wish to see his son. The meeting took place in secret, at the Château de Bagatelle, a small royal palace in the Bois de Boulogne near Paris. Madame de Montesquiou, the King of Rome’s governess, brought the young prince.

This was unknown to Empress Marie Louise, who was animated by a feeling of jealousy based on fear of the influence that a woman he had greatly loved could have on the mind of her husband. The excellent princess [Josephine] could not restrain her tears at the sight of a child who reminded her of painful memories and the deprivation of a happiness Heaven had refused her; she kissed him with emotion; she seemed to revel in the illusion produced by the thought that she lavished her caresses on her own child; she never ceased to admire his strength and his grace, and could not detach herself from him. The times during which she held him on her lap seemed to her very short. (4)

Josephine died on May 29, 1814, at the age of 50, when Napoleon was in exile on Elba. Marie Louise outlived both Napoleon, who died in 1821, and their son, who died in 1832. She died on December 17, 1847, at the age of 56. Click here to see a photo of Marie Louise taken earlier that year.

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  1. John S.C. Abbott, Confidential Correspondence of the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine (New York, 1856), pp. 306-307.
  2. Ibid., pp. 309-310.
  3. Emmanuel de Las Cases, Memoriale de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena, Vol. II, Part 3 (London, 1823), pp. 303-304.
  4. Claude-François de Méneval, Napoléon et Marie-Louise: Souvenirs Historiques de M. Le Baron Méneval (Paris, 1843), Vol. I, p. 323.

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I cannot ask more than a place in your affection far removed from that occupied by the Empress Maria Louisa.

Josephine to Napoleon