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Chapter 19

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Empress Josephine

by
Ernest John Knapton

published by
Harvard University Press,
New York, 1963

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 21

p299 Chapter 20
Divorce

The divorce that struck Josephine like the lash of a whip at the close of the year 1809 could not have been a startlingly unexpected development. It hurt, nevertheless, and hurt deeply. The childless marriage had raised more than once the gnawing possibility of such an outcome, yet this prospect seemed less likely when again and again Josephine gratefully recognized Napoleon's husbandly affection for her. The marriage, undertaken so casually in 1796, had brought both passionate delight and moments of profound despondency to her husband. Yet it had weathered every storm and had created unquestioned happiness for both partners. The turbulent beginnings, when the ardours of the young general had aroused so curiously mixed a response from his wife, had been followed by her reckless association (no doubt for money as much as for love) with the ineffable Captain Hippolyte Charles. These disordered years of the Directory had revealed Josephine at her attractive worst, and it is understandable that Napoleon's sense of outrage at his wife's foolish behaviour while he campaigned in Italy should have been exceeded only by his anger at her even more outrageous conduct while he was in Egypt. At this latter point he had written to his brother Joseph, telling him of his desire to get a house and bury himself in the country. On the eve of Brumaire there can be little doubt that Josephine's marriage stood on a most precarious foundation.

After Brumaire Josephine had seen the light. She then began to play the role of wife of the first consul with every mark of bourgeois respectability. It would have been most dangerous for her to do otherwise. She accepted the solid position her husband had created for her, and amid surroundings of growing p300splendour she found some security against the never-ceasing opposition of the Bonaparte clan. At the close of the year Josephine had left her somewhat gaudy surroundings in the old rue Chantereine for the new life of the palace — at the Luxembourg, at the Tuileries, at the Élysée, at Saint-Cloud, at Fontainebleau, and at Malmaison. Within a few years after her coronation, the brilliance of the Empress had dimmed the memories of her reckless widowhood and the unsavoury episodes of her first married years.

Josephine revealed herself as an affectionate, gracefully mannered, and warm-hearted wife — the principal ornament of the imperial court. Here, in contrast to the scandalous goings‑on of a Caroline Murat or of a Pauline Bonaparte, she set a tone of elegant respectability. The uncertain marriage had at last grown to be an accepted, comfortable accommodation — good for both parties. Napoleon realized this. Amid all the bitterness of his exile at St Helena he more than once found time to speak nostalgic words about this woman whom he had married and made an empress.

The recurrent minor infidelities of the Emperor had begun during the Egyptian campaign. These accompaniments of the soldier's life were in part a protest against Josephine's indefensible behaviour at Paris. They continued to flourish in a fashion the conventional morality of the times easily accepted. Few people would have thought that an occasional rustle of skirts in the back corridors of the Tuileries, indicating the fleeting passage of an actress from the theatre or a singer from the opera, could raise any threat at all to the solidity of the imperial marriage. Whatever insecurity Josephine may have felt when she realized that such affairs were going on was a personal sorrow about which she could do little save to make momentary, tearful protests to her husband. If she had any larger concern as to her future, it was most surely allayed when on the very eve of the coronation Cardinal Fesch had performed the secret nuptial service at the chapel of the Tuileries. In the eyes of the Church, the marriage then became secure. But was it?

The threat to the marriage did not come from the rather colourful record of Josephine's past, nor did it come from p301the bright eyes of any current rival. Most certainly it did not come from the feminine extravagances that so often irked the tidy mind of her husband. These were matters he could manage to keep from getting out of hand. There is, indeed, in his later comments a suggestion of grudging admiration for Josephine's expensive elegance — an elegance that, after all, flattered his own position and that the budget of France could well afford. 'Josephine,' Napoleon told Caulaincourt during the retreat from Russia in 1812, 'was always begging me for things, and could even cry me into granting what I ought to have refused her.'1

The threat to the marriage came rather from the inescapable realization of the needs of public policy. There was, first, the ever-present problem of the succession. Secondary, there was the need for a family connexion with one of the historic European dynasties. Napoleon was childless; his own brothers aroused little enthusiasm in him; and the right of 'adoptive succession' he had assumed at the time of the coronation carried the possible inheritance no further than to the children of Hortense and Eugène. The latter, to be sure, he had made viceroy of Italy and 'Son of France'. But then in 1807 Hortense's first son, and great favourite of Napoleon's, had tragically died. Although there were two other brothers, Napoléon-Louis, born in 1804, and Charles-Louis-Napoléon, born in 1808, their future was uncertain. It was likewise uncertain whether Eugène could stand up in face of the manifest and relentless hostility of the Bonapartes. And so the difficulties remained.

If it was Napoleon, and not Josephine, who was responsible for the failure of their union to produce an heir, as she more than once whispered to her ladies, then divorce and remarriage would be of no help. That is why the news of the birth of the infant Léon to Eléanore de la Plaigne, which reached the Emperor in Poland on the last day of 1806, was so momentous. If Napoleon had been a father once, he could be so again; to do this he must now find himself a wife younger than Josephine.

Chance is never absent from human affairs. Nothing in the logic of events could explain why at the very moment when Eléanore de la Plaigne had so conveniently demonstrated p302Napoleon's capacities as a sire, the imperative need for a close alliance with one of the great European dynasties should have so deeply concerned the Emperor and his advisers. In 1806 Napoleon's diplomacy had been at work on a grand scale. He had destroyed the Holy Roman Empire. He had created the Confederation of the Rhine. He was in process of still further reorganization in Italy. He was about to create a new Poland. As arbiter of the Continent he wished to take his place among the crowned heads of Europe, not as an upstart adventurer but as one of them. The right marriage could do this for him.

Such ideas, which automatically presumed divorce, were as much present in the minds of the advisers of Napoleon as in his own. Talleyrand, Fouché, and Napoleon's own brother-in‑law, Joachim Murat, were the most insistent; Fouché was bold enough to tell Josephine in July 1807 that a divorce was essential to the welfare of France. His notion was that reasons of state required Napoleon to seek the hand of a Russian grand duchess. Talleyrand, much less bluntly, whispered similar views.

Josephine reported these alarming prospects to her children. Though the hostility of Napoleon's brothers and sisters was an old story, she never tired of repeating it:

Prince Murat enjoys great favour [she wrote to Eugène in September 1807]. I have certain proof that while the Emperor was with the army he [Murat] used every effort to push him into a divorce. . . . It is clear that he wishes to succeed him.

Josephine then spoke candidly to her son about her problems:

As for myself, you know that I aspire for nothing but his love. If they should succeed in separating me from him, it is not the loss of rank that I should regret. . . . Sooner or later he would discover that all those who surround him think rather of themselves than of him, and he would know how he has been deceived.

However, my dear Eugène, I have nothing to complain of in him, and I am happy to count on his justice and his affection. As for you, my dear son, keep on behaving with the same zeal for the Emperor as you have done up till now; you will command general respect, and even the greatest favour cannot guarantee you this.2

p303 Eugène's reply was touching evidence of the devoted, warm-hearted, yet sober attachment he had for his mother. Urging Josephine not to be upset by hostile tongues, he went on:

There is much talk of divorce; I have heard of it both from Paris and Munich, but I am reassured by your conversation with the Emperor, if it was such as you have described it. You must always speak frankly to his Majesty; to do otherwise would be to love him no more.

Eugène was realist enough to know that divorce was now an active possibility.

If the Emperor still pesters you on the subject of children, say it is not for him to keep on reproaching you over such matters. If he thinks that his own happiness, and that of France, require him to have some, let him not look abroad.

He must treat you well, give you an adequate settlement, and let you live in Italy with your children. The Emperor then will be able to make the marriage which his policy and his happiness demand. We shall remain no less attached to him, for there is no need for his sentiments towards us to change, even though circumstances should have obliged him to separate from our family. If the Emperor wishes to have children who are truly his, there is no other way. . . .

You must not fear either events or wicked persons. Don't pester the Emperor; and do make an effort to regulate your private expenses. Don't be so friendly with those about you, or you will soon be their dupe. Pardon me, dear Mother. I am eager to speak prudently to you, and give you good advice, because I have need of it also myself.3

Rumours of impending divorce continued to spread throughout 1807. Metternich, now Austrian ambassador in Paris, reported such rumours to his government. Napoleon grew furious at the blatant way in which Fouché, minister of police and a pillar of his administration, persistently ventured opinions concerning Napoleon's private life. 'I cannot,' the Emperor exploded, 'have confidence in a minister who one day is rummaging in my bed, and another day in my portfolio.'4 In January Napoleon sent a stern letter to Fouché: 'For two weeks I have been hearing of foolishness from you. It is p304time for this to stop, and for you to cease meddling, directly or indirectly, in a matter which does not concern you in any possible way.'5 Fouché, strangely enough, kept on talking, and it took another letter from Italy at the end of November and still another to Maret, one of Napoleon's most trusted ministers of state, to bring the uncharacteristically loquacious minister of police to silence.

Despite all attempts to repress rumours, it was clear by the end of 1807 that plans for divorce and remarriage were beginning to assume reality. When Josephine asked to accompany Napoleon to Italy he refused, saying that the journey would be too hard for her. One suspects that he was somewhat awkward in her presence. High questions of state were involved in the search for a new bride, and, while a Russian or Austrian marriage was the most likely, many other possibilities existed. As early as August the methodical Napoleon had obtained a list of the eligible princesses to be found among great continental families, classified according to age, religion, and country. The complete list totalled seventeen, with members ranging in age from the scarcely thirteen-year‑old Anna Pavlovna of Russia to Sophia Frederika of Saxe-Coburg who was twenty-nine. Little question existed but that the nineteen-year‑old Catharina Pavlovna, sister of Alexander I of Russia, and the sixteen-year‑old Marie Louise, daughter of Francis I of Austria, were the two most likely possibilities.

Throughout 1808 the tense situation continued.

You can easily guess that I have had much cause for unhappiness [Joseph wrote to Eugène in February after the Emperor's return from Italy], and I still have; the rumours circulating during the Emperor's absence haven't stopped on his return, and at this very moment there are more gossips than ever. . . . Well. I entrust myself to Providence and the Emperor's will; my only defence is my conduct which I shall try to make blameless. . . .

How unhappy do thrones make people, dear Eugène! I would resign mine tomorrow without any regret. For me the affection of the Emperor is everything. If I should lose that I would have few regrets about anything else. . . .6

Napoleon was too busy with other, urgent matters to bring p305the question of divorce to a head. For part of the year 1808 he was at Bayonne, where for a brief spell Josephine was permitted to be with him. Here he concerned himself with the tangled affairs of Spain. In the early autumn he made the long trip to Erfurt, in Thuringia, where he renewed his alliance and friendship with Tsar Alexander. Following that, he went for a second time to Spain where, though he could as yet hardly foresee it, disaster was brewing for him. On the few occasions when he could find time to see Josephine he was a model of affection and devotion — as Eugène quickly was told. 'For six months,' she exulted, 'he has never been less than perfect towards me.'7 Clearly, if the divorce was to come, as Josephine now more than ever feared, she would have the consolation of knowing that it would be the consequence of questions of high policy and not of the drying up of Napoleon's affections. During his second absence in Spain he sent Josephine fourteen letters in nine weeks — letters that were short and, understandably enough in view of his worries, perfunctory — yet he did not forget the woman whom once he had loved so ardently.

The year 1809 was decisive in the life of Josephine. She received Count Girardin late in February when he brought her news of Napoleon in Spain, and in reply she poured out the ominous information that Talleyrand and Fouché were planning what to do if Napoleon should be killed. Murat, so the reports went, would probably succeed the Emperor. Efforts were being made, Josephine told Girardin, to get Napoleon to divorce her. This could hardly have been news, but when Josephine went on further to say that Fouché was spreading the rumour that Napoleon had made one of the ladies of the household pregnant and that Josephine was intending eventually to claim this child of 'Madame XXX' as her own in order to try to save her crown, Girardin was too embarrassed to answer.

Dispatches were brought to Napoleon at the Élysée on the evening of 12 April 1809 with the news that Austria for the fourth time had taken the plunge and had opened hostilities against the French. 'They have crossed the Inn River,' Napoleon said. 'This means war.'8 When Josephine during dinner p306asked to accompany him, he somewhat unexpectedly agreed. He went to his study, dictated half a dozen dispatches, read a report from Milan, talked to Fouché, and retired at midnight. He was awakened at two. At three o'clock his travelling carriage stood waiting in the darkness. At four fifteen Josephine, attended by only one maid, climbed in and five minutes later, the Emperor having arrived, they set off. It was to be their last journey together. Two days later, at dawn, they reached Strasbourg, where an exhausted Josephine sought rest and a tireless Napoleon set off shortly after midday to direct in person the historic campaign of Wagram against Austria.

As she had been required to do on earlier occasions, Josephine kept solitary state at Strasbourg, writing to her children, receiving Metternich in an audience as he returned from Paris to Vienna, and generally pursuing the empty life of a woman who awaits the news of her husband's exploits on the field of battle. In June, following a long established custom, she left for Plombières for a two months' stay. By mid‑August she was back at Malmaison.

Napoleon's letters to his wife during this summer of battle shed little light on the fate of their marriage. Brief notes about his campaigns, a few exultant references to his victories, polite solicitude concerning his wife — there was little more, save a touch of brusqueness.

I haven't had a letter from you in several days [he wrote at the end of August]; the pleasures of Malmaison with its fine greenhouses and lovely gardens cause the absent to be forgotten; that's the rule, they say, among people such as you. Everyone tells me of your good health; I trust they are right.

Tomorrow I go for two days to Hungary with Eugène. My health is fairly good. Adieu, my dear,

Yours, Napoleon9

This brusqueness was perhaps related to the consciousness of his own devious behaviour. The Countess Walewska had arrived at Schoenbrunn in June, and Napoleon, victorious on 6 July in the bloody battle of Wagram, did not leave that lovely palace until mid‑October, when peace was signed. By then he knew, and Josephine also knew, that the Countess Walewska p307was pregnant by him. Reason enough here, surely, for the reserved tone of his letters to Josephine. Yet he could — and did — dissimulate. 'I shall make a celebration,' he wrote from Munich to Josephine, en route to Paris, 'when we are reunited and I impatiently wait this moment.'10

Napoleon reached Fontainebleau on 26 October, and Josephine hastened breathlessly from Malmaison to be with him. In the library the Emperor greeted her with shattering coldness. 'Ah, madame,' he said, 'here you are! You have done well to come, for I was about to leave for Saint-Cloud,' and with that he made as if to leave.11 When Josephine wept, he melted to the extent of embracing her and arranging for them to dine together. Josephine dressed in her most elegant attire for the evening, but the cruel blow came later when she found that by the Emperor's orders the door connecting their two apartments was locked.

For more than two weeks Napoleon stayed at Fontainebleau, hunting and entertaining in imperial state, while a numbed Josephine moved like a ghost beside him in the mechanical performance of her duties. By mid‑November they were back in Paris. Soon after, Napoleon wrote to Eugène in Italy, instructing him to come at once. It was clear that the climax of the domestic drama could not be far away.

Josephine broke down when Madame Junot and her little daughter, Josephine's namesake, paid a friendly visit:

I have felt [she sobbed] as if a deadly poison were creeping through my veins when I have looked upon the fresh and rosy cheeks of a beautiful child, the joy of its mother, but above all, the hope of its father! And I! struck with barrenness, shall be driven in disgrace from the bed of him who has given me a crown! Yet God is my witness that I love him more than my life, and much more than that throne which he has given me.12

She told Lavalette that Fouché had urged her for the good of France to divorce Napoleon. Did Lavalette, she asked, think that Fouché was really sent by the Emperor? Lavalette's answer, unhappily, seemed to be in the affirmative, yet both Josephine and her consultant agreed that she should wait for p308the initiative to come from the Emperor. 'Her grief,' the visitor recalled simply, 'was genuine and profound.'

Whatever the crisis, Josephine would have to face it in the presence of an exalted company. The close of the Austrian campaign had brought an extraordinary swarm of royalty to Paris: the rulers of Saxony, Westphalia, Württemberg, and Bavaria, the king and queen of Holland, the king and queen of Naples, the queen of Spain, and most of the ruling princes of the Confederation of the Rhine. This under other auspices could have been the period of Josephine's greatest triumph; it became instead a time of gnawing fear, of humiliation, and of personal sorrow.

Napoleon and Josephine dined tête‑à‑tête on Thursday 30 November in the Emperor's suite at the Tuileries. The hasty meal lasted just ten minutes; it proceeded in complete silence, and Josephine could only with difficulty keep back her tears. At its end the servants were quickly dismissed, and then Napoleon bluntly, but not unkindly, told Josephine of his decision: for reasons of state, which she should try to accept bravely, their marriage must come to an end. Count Bausset, who, as prefect of the palace, was in attendance in the next room, heard loud sobs through the door and then suddenly the Emperor appeared, most agitated in manner, and commanded Bausset to come in and help him. Josephine was lying on the floor, uttering hysterical cries. Napoleon held a torch, while Bausset tried to pick up the Empress with the intention of carrying her down the narrow private staircase that led to her apartments below. This failing, the Emperor called in the doorkeeper to hold the torch, and the two men then began the awkward descent, Bausset holding the Empress by the shoulders and Napoleon holding her by the legs. By all outward signs Josephine was unconscious. On the steep stairs Bausset's court sword became entangled between his legs and he nearly fell. Instinctively he tightened his hold on the Empress who, still with her eyes closed, whispered hoarsely to him: 'You are holding me too tight!' The tragedy, it seems, was something less than complete.13

p309 The journey safely accomplished, Josephine was placed full length on a sofa. Amid great commotion the ladies in attendance were summoned, as was Napoleon's physician, Dr Corvisart, and Queen Hortense. The Emperor gave every sign of being deeply moved; almost apologetically he explained the situation to Bausset, a man, surely, in whom he was not accustomed to confide, saying that 'divorce has become a rigorous duty for me'. When the distraught Hortense told the Emperor that she and Eugène would now be obliged to follow their mother into exile, Napoleon was appalled. 'You would leave me thus?' he exclaimed, and shook with sobs. In the end Dr Corvisart's restoratives did their work, emotions subsided, and the painful bit of melodrama was over.

A few days later Josephine was able to attend the great reception at the Hôtel de Ville that marked the anniversary of the coronation and celebrated the signing of peace with Austria. She also found courage to be present at the huge banquet and reception at the Tuileries that night in honour of the visiting royalties. Yet the strain must have been acute for her, and she begged to be excused from the elaborate court that was held three days later.

Happily for Josephine, Eugène arrived from Italy on 7 December, and was thus able by his presence to give her the assistance upon which she had always counted. On the day after Eugène's coming, mother and son saw Napoleon in a formal interview. The Emperor said he would treat Josephine and her children most generously. Josephine was now sufficiently in command of herself to raise the question of a settlement for Eugène. She would do her duty, she said, but Eugène must be well treated. At this her son spoke up to say that under no circumstances would he make a bargain for himself out of his mother's suffering. It was agreed that there should soon be a formal gathering of the family in the Tuileries at which both the Emperor and Empress would make their views and desires clear. A document would then be signed and sent to the Senate, whose duty it would be to issue a formal Senatus Consultum recognizing the dissolution of the civil marriage.

p310 The first official steps to terminate the marriage were taken on the evening of 14 December 1809 amid a blaze of splendour. The Bonaparte family, in full court dress of silks and jewels, faced the Emperor and Empress in the throne room of the Tuileries. Louis, king of Holland, with his wife, Hortense, was there; Jérôme, king of Westphalia, with his wife, Catherine; Joachim Murat, king of Naples, whose queen was Napoleon's sister, Caroline; Pauline, Princess Borghese; and Eugène, viceroy of Italy. Talleyrand was there as vice-grand elector, Cambacérès was in attendance as arch-chancellor of the Empire, and Regnault de Saint-Jean d'Angely as secretary of state to the imperial family. Josephine, armed only with the support of her son and daughter, and doubtless conscious of the conflicting feelings of her husband, faced an icy Bonaparte family in what, after a contest of more than thirteen years, was the moment of their triumph.

Showing evident signs of emotion, Napoleon read a statement declaring that his only motive was the good of the state; that it was of concern to all his people that he should leave an heir for the throne on which Providence had placed him; and that he was sacrificing the dearest affections of his heart. He referred to Josephine as 'the one who has adorned fifteen years of my life', whose memory 'will always be engraved on my heart', who will retain her title of Empress, and for whom Napoleon will always be 'her best and dearest friend'.14

Josephine then undertook to read her reply — a statement prepared by Napoleon and passed to her by Talleyrand. 'With the permission of our august and dear husband,' it began, 'I declare that having no further hope of children who would satisfy the needs of his policy and the interest of France, I am pleased to offer him the greatest proof of attachment and devotion that could be given. . . .' At this point Josephine's voice choked with sobs. With an imploring gesture she passed the paper to Regnault, who solemnly read the document, ending with Josephine's declaration that she would now 'consent to end a marriage which henceforth is an obstacle to the well-being of France'.15

A statement had been prepared by Cambacérès in which both p311parties agreed to the civil dissolution of their marriage. This was now formally signed and witnessed by the family. The Council of State, already assembled, received this document at ten P.M. and on the strength of it drafted a Senatus Consultum to be acted upon by the Senate itself. On 15 December the Senate met. Eugène then addressed it, explaining the motives of his mother and asking for the ratification of the Senatus Consultum intended to give legal sanction to the dissolution of the civil marriage of 1796. Approval was hardly to be doubted. 'Omnia animalia dicentia amen,' Talleyrand commented.16 He was not quite right, for the decision was less than unanimous. When the secret vote came, the results showed 76 in favour of dissolution, 7 against, and 4 blanks.

Thus the civil marriage had been dissolved — or had it? The Civil Code said that divorce could be obtained only for adultery, excesses, cruelty, or grave injuries. Moreover, a decree of 1806 exempted members of the imperial family from even these procedures, stipulating that the Emperor alone could grant or refuse a séparation de corps. Article 277 of the Civil Code said that mutual consent could not be invoked as a basis for divorce if a woman had reached the age of forty-five, and Josephine was now forty‑six. Article 297, moreover, declared that in the case of a devote by mutual consent neither party could contract another marriage for three years. In the Napoleonic scheme of things these were hardly more than quibbles. Article I of the Senatus Consultum of 16 December stated flatly and unequivocally, 'The marriage contracted between the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine is dissolved.'17 Few in France or elsewhere would have cared to argue differently.

On that same day, in pouring rain, Josephine made a forlorn departure for Malmaison. Though she was still an empress, no pomp accompanied her going. She left in a closed carriage, followed by several others piled high with hat boxes, dresses, odds and ends of furniture, a parrot in a cage, and two of her favourite mongrels, each with its litter of puppies.

The annulment of Josephine's civil marriage left unsolved p312the problem of her religious marriage. Since no civil legislation could affect the validity of this ceremony, the Church itself would now have to agree to the separation of those whom it had once joined together. Fouché, delighted at the Senate's action, had told Napoleon that 'only the sanctimonious, the trouble-makers, and the women between forty and fifty will not approve'.18 Though this may indeed have been largely true, it did not affect the point at issue. How could the Church now be brought to agree to a religious annulment?

For Napoleon few problems were insoluble. Pope Pius VII was clearly out of the picture. Outraged at the French confiscation of his last temporal possessions in Italy, he had excommunicated Napoleon and was held a prisoner by the French at Savona, in northern Italy. His cooperation was impossible. But with respect to the Church in France, with its long tradition of action independent of Rome, the matter was quite different. There was always Napoleon's Uncle Fesch, once Corsican priest, then war contractor, and now cardinal and archbishop of Lyons. He had performed the secret ceremony of 1804. What could be more proper than to approach him and those high clergy in the capital known collectively as the Officiality of Paris?

Cambacérès, a skilled lawyer, submitted his arguments on 2 December. Proceeding on a narrowly legal basis he held that the religious ceremony was null for three reasons: witnesses were not present, the priest of the parish was not present, and the consent of the Emperor (to his own marriage!) had not formally been obtained. The Officiality of Paris astutely sidestepped an immediate decision by referring the question to a specifically created diocesan tribunal composed of three cardinals, an archbishop, and three bishops. Statements were taken. Cardinal Fesch explained that he had officiated under instructions from the Pope, thinking that these would suffice. He had been so satisfied at the time as to the validity of the nuptial benediction that he had given Josephine a certificate of legality. He was now prepared to agree that the procedure had been faulty. Both Talleyrand and Berthier, in flat contradiction p313to what seems to have been the contemporary evidence of 1804, declared that they were not present.

In the light of this testimony the decision of the diocesan tribunal could be foreseen. On 9 January, less than a month after the tensely unhappy evening in the Tuileries, the tribunal ruled that the marriage of Napoleon and Josephine 'must be regarded as badly and illegally undertaken, and null quo ad foedus, lacking the presence of the proper priest and of witnesses as stipulated by the Council of Trent. . . .' Napoleon and Josephine could therefore cease to regard each other as husband and wife. 'They are free from this marriage,' the ruling went, 'with the right to contract another.'19 Apparently, in the eyes of Holy Church, Josephine had been living in a state of concubinage. This sweeping decision was confirmed by a formal report from the Officiality of Paris on 12 January and publicly proclaimed in the Moniteur two days later. And so, in what surely must have been record time, the annulment, both civil and religious, was completed.a

Josephine's new status had been fixed in part by the Senatus Consultum of December. It was now clarified in further arrangements made by Napoleon. Josephine was to keep the title and rank of Empress-Queen. She was to have Malmaison in full ownership — a substantial gift, seeing that the income from its farms and woodland more than met the routine operating costs. She was to have the Élysée Palace for her lifetime as a city residence. The Senatus Consultum provided that Josephine was to get two million francs annually from the Treasury of the State. To this, in view of Josephine's continuing debts, Napoleon belatedly added another million annually from the Treasury of the Crown. For the second time in her life Josephine was a free woman.

Josephine was soon made aware of the steps by which Napoleon was taking to himself a new wife. These matters are more a part of the history of Europe than they are of the life of Josephine, yet, curiously enough, she was brought into them. In essence the process was one by which the prospects of a Russian bride steadily receded in the face of the more promising p314Austrian candidate. An 'extraordinary council' of grand dignitaries and ministers was held at the Tuileries on 28 January 1810 at that point of time when Josephine was seeking to adapt herself to the now lonely life of Malmaison. At this meeting only three voices spoke up in favour of a Russian marriage. Several weighty voices, including those of Eugène and Talleyrand, spoke in behalf of the Austrian alliance. Other alternatives were briefly considered. Yet such diverse opinions could not seriously affect the decision; for Napoleon, working closely with Metternich, had to all intents and purposes now made up his mind.

Even Josephine was prepared to give what help she could to the rising star of Marie Louise. When Madame Metternich paid a courtesy visit in these first difficult days, Eugène and Hortense offered assurance that they were 'Austrian in their souls'. Then, when Josephine joined them, she took pains to re‑emphasize her children's pledge, declaring that since Napoleon was clearly determined to marry again, a wedding with Marie Louise was closest to her heart. She would do all she could to further it, and once it was accomplished she would work heart and soul to see that the Emperor and his new bride would be mutually happy. This report the Austrian ambassador quickly passed along to Vienna.

The way was soon cleared for the Austrian marriage. Early in February an inconclusive reply to Napoleon's tentative overture came in from Russia, whereupon, thanking Alexander politely, Napoleon immediately ordered the information to be sent to Vienna that he desired to arrange a marriage with Marie Louise. A contract was prepared, and Berthier drove off post-haste as a special ambassador to Vienna, bearing magnificent gifts.

On 11 March 1810 a marriage by proxy was celebrated in the Augustine Church at Vienna, and immediately afterwards Marie Louise, now turned eighteen and instructed by her father to submit herself in every respect to her new husband's will, set out for the rendezvous with the Emperor, whom she had never seen. An impatient Napoleon, twenty‑two years older than his bride, met Marie Louise in the forest of Compiègne. p315Enchanted with his first sight of the buxom princess, the Emperor drove with her to the near‑by château and escorted her up to her apartments. Attendants and courtiers, assembled below, waited ceremoniously for the imperial couple to reappear — but they waited in vain. Assured by Fesch that the proxy marriage met all canonical requirements, Napoleon delayed not a moment in asserting his rights as a husband.

At Paris, when the religious service was celebrated in the Chapel of the Tuileries, the ceremonial, word for word, was that used in the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. By contrast to this splendid occasion, the civil ceremony uniting Bonaparte and Josephine in 1796 and even the hastily arranged religious ceremony of 1804 must have seemed to Napoleon trivial indeed. Within three months of the parting with Josephine, Napoleon had found himself an exalted bride. He had assured himself of a vast horde of Hapsburg relatives, and he was confident that Marie Louise would soon provide him with an heir.


The Author's Notes:

1 A. J. G. de Caulaincourt, With Napoleon in Russia (New York, 1935), p338.

2 Hanoteau, Empereur, pp48‑9.

3 Ibid., p49, n. 1.

4 H. G. de Bertrand, Cahiers de Sainte-Hélène: Journal, 1818‑1819 (Paris, 1959), p442.

5 Corr., XVI, no. 13329.

6 Hanoteau, Empereur, pp52‑3.

7 Ibid., p55.

8 Corr., XVIII, no. 15061.

9 Bourgeat, p181.

10 Ibid., p183.

11 Bourgeat, p187.

12 Abrantès, IV.126‑7.

13 De Bausset, Mémoires anecdotiques, I.370‑3.

14 Masson, JR, p80.

15 Ibid., pp81‑2.

16 R. Pichevin, Le Mariage de l'empereur (Paris, n. d.), p19.

Thayer's Note: I have not seen Pichevin, but I find no record elsewhere that Talleyrand was the one to say such an uncharacteristic thing — a rather apt parody of Revelation 5.14, mind you, for which he would have been fitted by his early career. Instead, I find it as a comment in Mathieu Tabaraud, Du divorce de Napoleon Buonaparte, avec Josephine, V.ve Beauharnais (Paris, 1815), p4; apparently by that author, whose paragraph reads, in its entirety:

Le rapport de cette comédie, dont nous omettons plusieurs circonstances, ayant été fait au Sénat par l'archi-chancelier, cette compagnie rendit le décret suivant, le 16 décembre 1809: "Le mariage contracté entre l'empereur Napoléon et l'impératrice Joséphine est dissous." Ce décret fut rendu sans aucune discussion : Omnia animalia dicentia, amen ; et sans qu'on fît la moindre mention de celui du 30 mars 1806, dont nous venons de parler.

So bluntly disrespectful a comment by Talleyrand — a man preëminent for knowing at all times on which side his bread was buttered, and most unlikely to wish to remind anyone in this context that he was an apostate bishop; the lack of attribution in Tabaraud and its fit with the general tone of that author's paragraph and indeed of his whole book; the fact that no one else seems to have picked up the bon mot, as we should expect had it been made by Talleyrand; and the similarity of the names Tabaraud and Talleyrand, especially when handwritten: all lead me to believe we have a mistake here, either by Knapton or by Pichevin, due to the hurried and unchecked transcription of a reading note, and that Talleyrand said no such thing. The only writer I find online quoting the tag is Henri Welschinger, Le divorce de Napoléon (Paris, 1889), p26: he attributes it to Tabaraud. If you have a copy of Pichevin, I'd be interested in hearing from you, of course.

17 Ibid., pp14‑15.

18 L. Madelin, Fouché (Paris, 1900), II.146.

19 R. Pichevin, Le Mariage de l'empereur, p16.


Thayer's Note:

a For a more recent Catholic view of the religious annulment, mainstream if somewhat shrill, see Fr. Reuben Parsons, "The Divorce of Napoleon and Josephine" in From Some Lies and Errors of History (Notre Dame, IN, 1892).


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