Empress Josephine’s Last Days and Death

Empress Josephine's last days
Empress Josephine in 1804. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 10 January 1810 the Emperor Napoleon divorced the Empress Josephine. He still loved her and she loved him, but France needed an heir. When he told her he wanted a divorce, her cries and shrieks reverberated throughout the palace before she collapsed onto the floor and was carried to her apartments. After the divorce Josephine went to live at the Château de Malmaison, the house she had bought for herself and Napoleon while he was still a general. After a time she left Malmaison for her stately home of Navarre, where she was busy replanting and restoring the grounds. However, she returned to Malmaison around the time Napoleon abdicated the throne on 6 April 1814, which is also when the Russian Tsar, Alexander I, came to visit her. He was 35 years old at the time, and although “his golden hair had begun to recede from his forehead, his sky-blue eyes, rather short-sighted, were full of amiability, and a benevolent smile was habitual on his lips.”[1] The two forged a friendship partly because they shared a similar appreciation for art. In addition, “Alexander, who desired to know Josephine’s wishes in reference to herself and to her children [Eugène and Hortense], and who sincerely wished to become acquainted with her, … [was willing to] offer her his homage, and transfer to her the friendship he once cherished for Napoleon.”[2]

Josephine’s children, Eugène and Hortense. Public domain.

Hortense came to visit her mother around the same as Alexander, and, in early May, Eugène arrived. The family was once again reunited, and despite Napoleon’s fall and the Bourbons gaining power, everything appeared to be going well for the Beauharnais family.

“Eugène was well received by the Bourbons, Hortense was offered and accepted the Duchy of Saint-Leu, and French visitors, as soon as they saw that it was the desire of the Court, went like the rest of the world to Malmaison, which had never seen so varied and brilliant a society since 1809. … [In fact,] Josephine might have almost have imagined herself Empress again, did she judge only by the crowds thronging her rooms.”[3]

In mid-May, Josephine and her guests visited Hortense at the Château Saint Leu. The Empress was also managing a cold, but, nonetheless, a simple cold was not enough to deter her from taking a ride in damp weather into the woods of Montmorency. Alexander, Hortense, Eugène, and others four others joined her when she climbed into a char-à-banc for the outing. Unfortunately, when the group returned to Saint Leu, Josephine felt worse. Josephine was also suffering from “frightful melancholy” and went to great lengths to disguise this fact from her children. She did, however, mention her sadness in a conversation with Hortense’s friend, a Mademoiselle Cochelet by telling her, “I cannot overcome the fearful sadness which has seized me … I do all I can to hide my cares from my children, but I suffer only the more.”[4]

Hoping to feel better, Josephine ordered an infusion of orange-flower, a remedy Napoleon had encouraged her to use when she was ill, and she took a short nap. When she awoke, despite the infusion and the nap, she felt no better but refused to stay in bed and appeared at dinner wearing one of her customary light, low-cut dresses. She still did not feel well, found she had no appetite, excused herself, retired again, and reappeared after dinner to assist Eugène and Hortense in entertaining. Hortense sang some songs for Alexander, and when he left, he appeared very pleased with his day, but, nevertheless, despite the nice evening, Josephine remained uneasy:

“Still depressed by her bodily state, Josephine sadly remarked that, though Alexander was charming, he was not the only master. ‘My poor children, I am very much afraid that you will reap nothing but fine words!’ After this gloomy prediction she rested in an easy-chair for some time before she felt well enough to go up to bed.”[5]

Napoleon. Author’s collection.

The following day, Josephine returned to Malmaison and was given a slight dose of ipecacuanha, which did not help. She continued to feel unwell but also continued to meet her social obligations and accept visitors. One visitor Josephine soon received was the witty and brilliant conversationalist Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein. She had a rocky relationship with Napoleon, and the visit Josephine received was not a pleasant one because soon after her visitor departed, Josephine remarked:

“I have just had a very painful interview. Would you believe that, among other questions which Mme. de Staël was pleased to put to me, she asked if I still loved the Emperor? She appeared to wish to analyse my soul in the presence of this great misfortune. I, who never ceased to love the Emperor throughout his happy days … is it likely that to-day I should grow cold toward him?”[6]

A week or so after Madame de Staël’s visit, Josephine’s health still had not improved, but she refused to give up her social obligations. Thus, she hosted a dinner, and among her guests were the Emperor of Austria, the King of Prussia with his two sons, and Alexander. The dinner was a brilliant success, but the next morning, Josephine felt worse. Still she opened that night’s ball with Alexander by her side and later took his arm and walked with him into the park for some fresh night air.

On 25 May, Josephine maintained her schedule and received visitors, but the following day, her health had notably deteriorated. She had a coughing attack that woke her, a scorching fever, and a slight inflammation on her neck. Her physician immediately ordered her to bed, demanded she stay there, and prescribed a blister for her neck.

Alexander I of Russia. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Alexander had expected to dine with Josephine on the 27th and arrived accompanied by a large group of guests. Josephine was still ill, and, in addition, Eugène was also now sick in bed. So, Hortense receive the guests alone, and, although a pleasant night ensued, Alexander was deeply concerned for Josephine’s welfare. He sent for his physician and Hortense likewise called in her doctor. The doctors consulted with Josephine’s physician, and they determined her condition to be “grave.” They also concluded she was likely suffering from “putrid” fever. Thus, they developed a course of action and agreed to meet in the morning at 10am. As for Josephine, she apparently realized the seriousness of her situation but wanted to soothe those around her because according to one source:

“From the morning of the 26th, she appears to have been perfectly sensible of her danger; for looking then steadily upon the physician, and perceiving his alarm, she silently pressed his hand in token of consciousness and acquiescence. She even took an interest in her former occupations, and on the 27th, when informed that the celebrated flower painter Redoubté had come … she sent for him, extended her hand, then pushed him gently away, saying, ‘You must not catch my sore throat for next week … I hope to see you advanced with a fresh masterpiece.’”[7]

Saturday passed with no improvement in Josephine’s condition. The following day was Whit Sunday, and that was the day her loved ones and friends realized that her death was imminent. Eugène and Hortense were called to their mother’s bedside. Sacraments were administered, and, at noon, on 29 May 1814, Josephine died. According to legend, her last words were “Napoleon … Elba!” Hortense later wrote that she died in the arms of her children, but Mademoiselle Cochelet’s version of her death was slightly different:  

“[At the end Josephine] held out her arms to her children and tried to speak, but not a word could be heard. Hortense fell in a faint upon the floor and was carried out insensible, while Eugène knelt down by the bed until his mother died in his arms a few moments later.”[8]

Empress Josephine. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As bells tolled the death knell, Josephine’s body was embalmed. Mademoiselle Cochelet clipped a few tresses of her hair and gave them to Hortense in remembrance of her mother. Josephine’s body was placed in a wooden lead-lined coffin,* and the French public was allowed one last glimpse of their former Empress. Her body lay in state for three days in a chamber lit by candles while all of Paris mourned:

“[N]ow that she was dead, [Josephine] was once more enthroned as empress in the hearts of the French people, and thousands of people poured into Malmaison to pay their last homage to their deceased empress. Even the Faubourg St. Germain mourned with the Parisians; these haughty and insolent royalists, who had returned with the Bourbons … for a moment, have recalled the benefits which the empress had shown them, when, as the mighty Empress of France, she employed the half of her allowance for the relief of the emigrants. They had returned without thinking of the thanks they owed their forgotten benefactress; now that she was dead, they no longer withheld the tribute of their admiration. ‘Alas!’ exclaimed Madame Ducayla, the king’s friend; ‘alas! how interesting a lady was this Josephine! What tact, what goodness! How well she knew how to do everything! And she shows her tact and good taste to the last, in dying just at this moment!”[9]

*Various accounts as to what the coffin was made from ranges from oak to mahogany to sycamore. There was also a silver gilt plate in the center of the coffin that was intended to have an inscription, but there was none. Rumors state that the lack of inscription was due to “jealousy” or “mean adulation” on some people’s part.

References:

  • [1] P. W. Sergeant, The Empress Josephine: Napoleon’s Enchantress v. 2 (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1909), p. 607.
  • [2] L. Mühlbach, The Empress Josephine: An Historical Sketch of the Days of Napoleon (New York: D. Appleton, 1911), p. 521–22.
  • [3] P. W. Sergeant, p. 611.
  • [4] L. Mühlbach, p. 522.
  • [5] P. W. Sergeant, p. 614.
  • [6] Ibid., p. 615.
  • [7] A. Constable, Constable’s Miscellany of Original and Selected Publications in the Various Departments of Literature, Science, & the Arts v. 72 (Edinburgh: Constable, 1831), p. 370.
  • [8] Ibid., p. 618.
  • [9] L. Mühlbach, Queen Hortense (London: Chesterfield Society, 1870), p. 104.

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