Napoléon and Joséphine met at a society ball in 1795 with what some might describe as ill intentions – Napoleon looking for an older woman in the hopes to be more accepted in society with sophistication on his arm, and Josephine looking for a way to survive the cruel eyes of French society and escape her debt. However, it became more than that when Napoleon fell in love at first sight, ending their courting with a marriage in 1796. His heart was set ablaze until death and he had great dreams for their future, memorialising this with a gold medallion inscribed with the words ‘To destiny’ as his wedding present to her.
Their union is best known and commemorated worldwide in the hundreds of passionate letters exchanged between the two from Napoleon’s various military posts around the world. Though, they weren’t all of the raunchy variety they were notorious for, but also showed Napoleon’s deep love for his wife, exclaiming "without his Josephine, without the assurance of her love, what is left him upon earth? What can he do?" and “meanwhile, my sweet love, a thousand kisses; but do not give me any, for they set my blood on fire.” Unfortunately, Josephine did not return his affections with haste, in fact, it took years before she warmed to his fondness, taking lovers in the first few years of their marriage, though Napoleon never doubted their love for each other, keeping a picture of her in his pocket which he would plant many kisses on every hour.
Their marriage faced tribulations from family and society, as well as the constant distraction of war and expeditions on Napoleon’s part.
Josephine was known for her lavish spending on fashion, balls, and the maintenance of her residence. Their stately home outside of Paris was
extravagantly decorated on the inside, and the gardens were filled to the brim, and well known for, their displays of exotic flora and
fauna, including many native Australian plant species such as eucalyptus, bottle brush, kangaroos and black swans. There was also rivalry
between the now-joined-families as Napoleon’s mother was against their union from the outset, conspiring to get rid of her and making her
life uncomfortable with acts of hostility. However, the force that drove them apart was the thought that was on the forefront of Napoleon’s
mind as emperor of France, the growing need for an heir, a need that Josephine could not fulfil.
Le divorce de l’Impératrice Joséphine (The Divorce of Empress Josephine) – Henri Fréderic Schopin (1843)
Their marriage was annulled in 1810 and Napoleon married again soon after to Marie-Louise, daughter of Emperor Francis I of Austria, successfully delivering an heir and ally to France. Though he was re-married, it was never hidden that Napoleon loved Josephine until death, supporting her financially, housing her in a private residence, presenting her with gifts from his travels, allowing her to keep her title as Empress, and visiting her even after their divorce. He was absolutely inconsolable after her death, staying locked in his room for two days, refusing to see anyone.
It is said that Napoleon’s last word as he took his final breath, was ‘Josephine!’
Similarly, her last words are said to be ‘Bonaparte…Elba…the King of Rome.’
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