The woman most associated with Napoleon Bonaparte is Josephine, whose real name was Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie. Apparently, Napoleon did not like the name “Rose,” which is what Josephine’s family and friends called her, telling the attractive widow: “I don’t like your name; from now on I will call you Josephine.” (1) The pair met in 1795 when Napoleon was just beginning to make a name for himself in the French military and was seen as one of its greatest up-and-coming officers.
There are several stories as to how and where the two met, but it is most likely it happened at a social event. At the time, Josephine – who was a well-known figure in French society – was the mistress of Paul Barras, Napoleon’s mentor and “de facto” governor of France. Realizing that she was not getting any younger (Josephine was 32 in 1795) and with Barras’ attention being directed toward another woman, Josephine knew she was facing the possibility of losing financial support for herself and her two children, Eugene and Hortense. Ever the smart and captivating woman, she set her eyes on the unrefined Napoleon, who, young and inexperienced, immediately fell for her advances. Josephine could see that the young officer was destined for greatness. The pair was married in March 1796 with Napoleon receiving a promotion to commander-in-chief of the army of Italy as a wedding present from Paul Barras. (2)
Three days after the wedding, Napoleon left for Nice leaving his beloved bride behind. His love letters to Josephine at this time are quite passionate and reveal how love-sick he was without her. However, Josephine, who unlike her new husband married as a matter of convenience, was back in Paris enjoying the companionship different lovers, most notably a lieutenant named Hippolyte Charles. The news of Josephine’s indiscretions were eventually revealed to Napoleon who had remained completely devoted to his wife refusing to take on a mistress, like many of his officers had done. After finally taking on a mistress while in Egypt, he resolved to divorce Josephine but when he returned to France in 1799, she again used her charms to reconcile with her husband. Josephine, an infamous spender, had gone into deep debt while Napoleon had been away and she realized it behooved her to stay married.
Even though the couple seemingly worked things out, Napoleon’s initial passion for his wife was gone. This is quite ironic as Josephine’s love for the man blossomed and grew. This set the stage for a number of mistresses Napoleon would have over his career. Being a man of growing power and eventually Emperor of France, he had no problems getting any woman he wanted. At the height of his power in 1807, Napoleon met the Countess Maria Walewska in Warsaw, Poland. The beautiful 20-year-old Maria quickly caught the wandering eye of Emperor Bonaparte who was quick to ask for a private meeting with the young noble woman. Maria was married to 71-year-old Count Anastase Walewski who, allegedly, encouraged his young bride to do whatever it took to ingratiate herself to Napoleon with the goal of helping Poland become in independent state.
And so it was that Maria Walewska, much to Josephine’s chagrin, became not only Napoleon’s friend and confidant, but mistress. In fact, she joined him for several weeks in Paris and then Vienna. In May 1810, Alexandre Florian Joseph Walewski was born to Maria. The baby was allegedly the illegitimate son of Napoleon, although Alexandre claimed in later years that his father was Count Walewski who had legally recognized him as his son. Be that as it may, the birth of Maria’s son was seen as further proof that Josephine, and not Napoleon, was physically incapable of bearing a child. This would eventually lead to the couple divorcing in 1809 so he could marry the young and fertile Marie-Louise of Austria who would give birth to a son in 1811, Napoleon François Joseph Charles.
Maria claimed her relationship with Napoleon was born solely out of patriotic duty. Despite this, Maria’s devotion and love for Napoleon – however it began – was clear to all; Maria even visited Napoleon when he was in exile in Elba. Although Poland did not reach the large independent state it hoped, it did reach independence as the smaller, but free, Grand Duchy of Warsaw, thanks to Emperor Bonaparte.
The final outcome of this triangle is very interesting and history-making. Although it was proven, through the birth of Maria’s son, that Napoleon was not infertile thus making the case for his divorce from Josephine and the birth of a legitimate heir, Napoleon lost his most arduous supporter and “good luck charm” in Josephine. Napoleon’s Grand Armee suffered extraordinary losses in Russia in 1812 and never fully recovered until he was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The once great Emperor of France died in exile on the British island of St. Helena in 1821. But what of his son, Napoleon II, the King of Rome, as he was called?
After his father abdicated in 1814, Marie-Louise escaped with the boy to Austria and was given the title Duke of Reichstadt by his maternal grandfather. Marie-Louise remarried Austrian General Count von Neipperg in 1821, only a few months after Bonaparte’s death. Apparently, Marie-Louise had two illegitimate children by Count von Neipperg prior to their marriage, a fact that the young Napoleon François saw as a weakness in his mother allegedly saying, “If Josephine had been my mother, my father would not have been buried at Saint Helena, and I should not be at Vienna. My mother is kind but weak; she was not the wife my father deserved.” (3) Clearly, Josephine’s reputation as a strong woman preceded her, not being lost even in the eyes of the boy who was the reason for her divorce. The young Napoleon II would die at age 21 of tuberculosis.
As far as Maria Walewska, she divorced Count Walewski and married a Count d’Ornano in 1816. She died shortly after giving birth to a son in 1817. Maria’s legacy is two-fold: first, her success in convincing Napoleon of Poland’s need to be independent. Second, her giving birth of Napoleon’s illegitimate son, Alexandre. It is through Alexandre that Napoleon Bonaparte’s direct lineage continues … ironically, it’s through several descendants of a child he had out-of-wedlock with an actress, Rachel Felix and whom he later adopted.
At Villa Finale’s upcoming La Fête Napoléon, a gala celebrating the Napoleonic era, costumed actors portraying Napoleon, Josephine and Maria Walewska will be in attendance greeting and interacting with guests. Now that you know how this triangle affected the course of history, what would you ask?
La Fête Napoléon, a gala celebrating the Napoleonic era: Thursday, March 27, 2014 at 7:00pm. Admissions begin at $200 per person. Proceeds support Villa Finale’s ongoing community efforts. Call (210) 223-9800 for admissions or further information.
1. Proctor Patterson Jones, Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy (San Francisco, California: Proctor James Publishing Company, 1992), xxxiii.
3. Felix Markham, Napoleon: A Startling New Interpretation of His Life and Legend Based on Recently Discovered Documents (New York, New York: Signet, 1966), 249.
Jones, Proctor Patterson. Napoleon: An Intimate Account of the Years of Supremacy. San Francisco: Proctor Jones Publishing Company, 1992.
Markham, David J. Napoleon for Dummies. Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2005.
Markham, Felix. Napoleon: A Startling New Interpretation of His Life and Legend Based on Recently Discovered Documents. New York: Signet, 1963.