Joséphine de Beauharnais (born Marie Josèphe Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie June 23 1763 – May 29 1814) was the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, and thus the first Empress of the French. Through her daughter, Hortense, she was the maternal grandmother of Napoleon III. Through her son she was the great-grandmother of the latest Swedish and Danish Kings and Queens as well as the last Greek Queen. Further, the current reigning houses of Belgium, Norway and Luxembourg descend from her.
The family struggled financially when hurricanes destroyed their estate in 1766. Edmée, Joséphine's paternal aunt, had been the mistress of François, vicomte de Beauharnais, a French aristocrat. When François' health began to fail, Edmée arranged the advantageous marriage of her niece Catherine-Désirée to François' son Alexandre. This marriage would be highly beneficial for the Tascher family, because it would keep the de Beauharnais money in their hands; however, 12-year-old Catherine died on October 16, 1777, before even leaving Martinique for France. In service to their aunt Edmée's goals, Catherine was replaced by her older sister Joséphine.
In October 1779, Joséphine went to Europe with her father. She married Alexandre on December 13, 1779, in Noisy-le-Grand. Although their marriage was not extremely happy, they had two children: a son, Eugène de Beauharnais (1781–1824), and a daughter, Hortense de Beauharnais (1783–1837), who married Napoléon's brother Louis Bonaparte in 1802.
On March 2, 1794, during the Reign of Terror, the Comité de Salut public ordered the arrest of her husband. He was jailed in the Carmes prison. Considering Joséphine as too close to the counter-revolutionary financial circles, the Committee ordered her arrest on April 19, 1794. A warrant of arrest was issued against her on 2 Floréal, year II (April 21, 1794), and she was imprisoned in the Carmes prison until 10 Thermidor, year II (July 28, 1794). While her husband, accused of having poorly defended Mainz in 1793, and considered an aristocratic "suspect", was sentenced to death and guillotined on July 23, 1794, one year after the Siege of Mainz, together with his brother Augustin, on the Place de la Révolution (today's Place de la Concorde) in Paris, she was freed five days later, thanks to the trial and execution of Robespierre, which ended the reign of Terror. On July 27, 1794 (9 Thermidor), Tallien arranged the liberation of Thérèse Cabarrus, and soon after that of Joséphine.
In June 1795, thanks to a new law, she was allowed to recover the possessions of Alexandre.
As a widow, Joséphine de Beauharnais supposedly was mistress to several leading political figures, reportedly including Paul François Jean Nicolas Barras. She met General Napoléon Bonaparte, who was six years younger than she, in 1795, when their romance began. He wrote in a letter to her in December "I awake full of you. Your image and the memory of last night’s intoxicating pleasures has left no rest to my senses." Joséphine was a renowned spendthrift and Barras may have encouraged the relationship with Napoléon in order to get her off his hands. Joséphine was described as being of average height, svelte, shapely with silky, dark chestnut hair, hazel eyes, and a rather sallow complexion. Her nose was small and straight, and her mouth was well-formed; however she kept it closed most of the time so as not to reveal her bad teeth. She was praised for her elegance, style, and low, "silvery", beautifully-modulated voice. In January 1796, Napoléon Bonaparte proposed to her and they married on March 9, 1796. Until meeting Bonaparte, she had always been Rose. Instead of calling her this name, which he apparently disliked, he called her 'Joséphine,' which she adopted from then on. Two days after the wedding, Bonaparte left to lead the French army in Italy, but sent her many intensely romantic love letters. In February 1797, he wrote: “You to whom nature has given spirit, sweetness, and beauty, you who alone can move and rule my heart, you who know all too well the absolute empire you exercise over it!” Many of his letters are still intact today, while very few of hers have been found; it is not known whether this is due to their having been lost or to their initial scarcity.
Joséphine, less in love than Bonaparte, had begun an affair with a handsome Hussar lieutenant, Hippolyte Charles, in 1796. The rumours that reached Bonaparte so infuriated him that his love changed entirely.
During the Egyptian campaign of 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte started one of many affairs of his own with Pauline Bellisle Foures, the wife of a junior officer who became known as "Napoleon's Cleopatra." The relationship between Joséphine and Napoléon was never the same after this. His letters became less loving. No subsequent lovers of Joséphine are recorded, but Napoléon continued to take on mistresses. In 1804, he said, "Power is my mistress."
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, Elisabeth de Vaudey, and Napoléon threatened to divorce her as she had not produced an heir. This was impossible for Joséphine, who was infertile due either to the stresses of her imprisonment during the Terror triggering menopause or to injuries she suffered in a fall from a collapsing balcony in 1798. Eventually, however, through the efforts of Joséphine's daughter Hortense, the two were reconciled and Napoléon and Joséphine were crowned Emperor and Empress of the French in 1804 in the Notre-Dame cathedral.
When she died in 1814, she was buried not far from Malmaison, at the St. Pierre and St. Paul church in Rueil. Her daughter Hortense is interred near her.
Napoléon claimed to a friend, whilst in exile on Saint Helena, that "I truly loved my Joséphine, but I did not respect her. Despite his numerous affairs, eventual divorce, and remarriage, the Emperor's last words on the Island of St. Helena were "France, the Army, the Head of the Army, Joséphine."
Hortense's son became Napoleon III of France. Her granddaughter Joséphine, daughter of Eugène, married King Oscar I of Sweden, the son of Napoléon's one-time fiancée, Désirée Clary. Through her, Joséphine is a direct ancestor of the present heads of the royal houses of Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway and Sweden.