Napoleon's Wife Joséphine Did Him Dirty

Samuel Sullivan

The famous French general, Napoleon Bonaparte, was cuckolded and ghosted by his first wife Joséphine, but his love for her never died.

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(Joséphine de Beauharnais by Andrea Appiani/Wikimedia Commons)

Joséphine de Beauharnais went by Rose before she met Napoleon. Her first husband was executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. She had two children with her deceased husband. Napoleon, who was six years younger, could not resist her.

In one letter to Joséphine, highlighted by Kate Williams in Ambition and Desire, Napoleon wrote, "I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses."

She had affairs with a few other French political elite before meeting Napoleon, but he did not waste any time marrying her once she became his mistress. Less than a year after meeting her, Napoleon proposed, and the wedding was set for two months later.

The rush was for two reasons. The 26-year-old Napoleon had fallen madly in love, and he was to leave Paris two days later. Napoleon, who became a general at age 24, was given the French Army command in Italy to battle against the Austrians.

Napoleon regretted that he had such high ambitions and could not be with the one he loved.

Ghosted

As Napoleon's campaign continued, he grew restless without Joséphine. He asked that she travel to see him in Italy. He boasted of Italy's beauty to convince her.

Andrew Roberts' Napoleon: A Life highlights one especially corny letter begging Joséphine to visit, where Napoleon wrote, "There was never a woman loved with more devotion passion or tenderness. Never again can I be the complete master of my heart."

Later in that letter, Napoleon playfully questions Joséphine's love for him. He complains that she only writes to him every fourth day, whereas he wrote her multiple times per day.

Joséphine resorted to coming up with a mischievous excuse. She claimed she was pregnant. Whether she was or not is up for debate, but a baby never materialized.

Her excuse did not stop Napoleon from asking her to come, and she tried a different tactic. She wrote fewer letters, eventually stopping altogether. Joséphine ghosted her new husband.

Napoleon assumed that letters from Joséphine were slowing down because she was on route to see him. He was blissfully ignorant until he got word that his new wife was having an affair.

Cuckolded

Joséphine had found a new man to meet her needs. He was a Hussar lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles and was nine years younger than her. According to Roberts, He was handsome, witty, and a jokester.

He was described by someone who knew him well as "a shrimp of a man." Napoleon was notoriously short, so perhaps Joséphine had a type.

It would be reasonable to expect that Napoleon's situation would lead him to lose focus on the Italian front, but this was not the case. He was an extremely daring and effective general and added to his growing reputation.

According to Roberts, Napoleon was able to compartmentalize his mind and focus fully on the task at hand. This ability allowed him to continue to excel in command even though his wife was cheating on him with another man. He organized the parts of his mind into different drawers. When it was time for him to sleep, he closed all the drawers and easily drifted off to sleep.

Another way Napoleon addressed the problem with his wife was by getting his own mistress. He actually had several mistresses in the years Joséphine was unfaithful. Napoleon would rather be an adulterer than a cuckold in the eyes of the French.

Even with all the pain, Joséphine put him through; Napoleon continued to love her. While the truth of Joséphine's affair sunk in, Napoleon wrote, "She loves me, at least a little. So much love promised cannot vanish in two months."

Reconciled

Napoleon would forgive Joséphine, but first, he and his brother confronted her about the affair. They interviewed her at length, but in the end, the couple decided to remain married.

When he became Emporer of France in 1804, she became Empress. According to Roberts, it is possible that Joséphine even grew to love Napoleon.

However, for them, love did not conquer all. As of 1810, Joséphine and Napoleon had not been able to have any children together. With the pressures of producing an heir to his throne, Napoleon decided to divorce Joséphine and search for a new wife.

Napoleon remarried just a year after his divorce. His new wife was Marie Louise, the 18-year-old Dutchess of Parma. Unlike Joséphine, Marie Louise bore him a son who Napoleon hoped would become his successor one day. It never materialized as Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba in 1814.

On Elba, Napoleon learned of Joséphine's death and was distraught. Joséphine died of pneumonia at the age of 50.

Napoleon briefly returned from exile and tried to take back his throne. He was unsuccessful and again was exiled, this time to the island of Saint Helena. There, his health deteriorated, and he lay on his death bed in 1821. According to Frank McLynn's Napoleon: A Biography, his last words were, "France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine."

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(Death mask of Napoleon by Rama/Wikimedia Commons)

Takeaways

Napoleon loved Joséphine to the last. She was on his mind as he took his last breath.

Although she did him dirty at the beginning of their marriage, they built a strong relationship. Joséphine made Napoleon a cuckold and ghosted him while he was in Italy, but he did not let that define their relationship. They were setbacks to love that even Emporers experience.

Napolean dealt with the pain by compartmentalizing it within his mind. He adapted to the situation. He had mistresses of his own and focused on other parts of his life, such as his military and political career. At the end of the relationship, Napoleon did Joséphine dirty when he divorced her because she hadn't given him an heir.

Napoleon was successful in many ways, and despite the hiccups, his relationship with Joséphine was overall successful. They ruled and built a life together. Even though it did not last, they loved each other in the end.

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