When Napoleon Met and Married Josephine de Beauharnais

Napoleon. Public Domain.

Napoleon would marry twice, but his first marriage was to Josephine de Beauharnais. Josephine was born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie in Les Trois-Îlets, Martinique, to a wealthy white Creole family that owned a sugarcane plantation. She met Napoleon in late 1795 and within weeks she was his mistress.

Napoleon was quickly intoxicated by her charms and his love letters to her were filled with passion. They contained such lines as “Your letters … make up my daily pleasure,” “The love with which you have inspired me has bereft me of reason,” or “Without appetite, without sleep, without care for my friends, for glory, for fatherland, you, you alone — the rest of the world exists no more for me than if it were annihilated.”[1] Moreover, although Napoleon may have sometimes worried about Josephine’s love for him, he once remarked that she always accompanied him on his journeys and that neither fatigue nor privation deterred her:

Napoleon’s wife, Joséphine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

“If I stepped into my carriage at midnight, to set out on the longest journey, to my surprise I would find Josephine all ready prepared though I had no idea of her accompanying me. But I would say to her, ‘you cannot possible go, the journey is too long, and will be too fatiguing for you.’ – ‘Not at all,’ Josephine would reply.’” [2]

There are several stories about how Napoleon and Josephine met. One story in particular has long circulated and begins after Parisians were ordered to give up their swords. Supposedly, Josephine’s son Eugene went to Napoleon and appealed to keep his father’s sword because his father had been guillotined. Eugene’s appeal so touched Napoleon, he asked to meet the boy’s mother.

Napoleon provided two different versions of this story and there are also several other slightly different versions that exist. However, despite Napoleon’s support for the sword story, a French politician and the main executive leader of the Directory regime of 1795–1799, named Paul Barras, maintains that Napoleon met Josephine long before the sword incident. Barras says that he and Josephine were at Jean-Lambert Tallien’s home at La Chaumière and that he provided the first introduction.

Theresa Cabarrus. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Tallien was a French political figure who helped bring down Maximilien Robespierre and served as a political leader during the Thermidor reaction. In addition, he had freed Josephine from prison and restored her property. Josephine also knew Tallien’s wife, Theresa Cabarrus, as they had been incarcerated together at the Carmes Prison between April and July 1794. In fact, Josephine wrote a message on the prison wall and Theresa countersigned it:

“O liberty! When will you cease to be a vain word? We have been to-day shut up for seventeen days. We are told that we shall be let out to-morrow, But is not this a vain hope?”[3]

After Napoleon was appointed general-in-chief of the Army of Italy, Josephine and Napoleon decided to marry as his new appointment meant he would have to leave to take charge of the army. Their banns of marriage were published on 7 February 1796, and the wedding was set for 9 March 1796 at 3 rue d’Autin in a house that had been requisitioned during the revolution and handed over to the city of Paris.

The wedding was to occur at 8pm, and although Josephine arrived on time, Napoleon was nowhere in sight. Among those at the civil ceremony were four witnesses and a public officer in the municipality named Charles-Theodore-François Leclerc. Leclerc arrived at 6pm but got tired waiting for Napoleon. He left and went home to bed. Napoleon did not arrive until 10pm as he had gotten sidetracked pouring over maps.

Unlike Napoleon’s wedding to Marie Louise in 1810, there were no festivities and there was no bride dressed in luxurious finery or swathed in diamonds. Josephine appeared dressed in a fashionable muslin dress, and because it was winter, she was wrapped in a warm coat.

Among the witnesses to Josephine and Napoleon’s marriage was Barras. Josephine had met the cultured, intelligent, and worldly Barras before she met Napoleon. She sometimes served as Barras’s hostess, and although there are allegations that they were lovers, it is highly doubtful that their relationship was anything but friendship because Barras was likely homosexual (or at the least, bisexual). Moreover, their relationship seems to have operated on a realm where he helped her financially and she aided him by improving his business connections.

Jean-Lambert Tallien. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Besides Barras, three other witnesses were also in attendance. Tallien was one. Another witness was Etienne-Jacques-Jerome Calmelet. Calmelet was a lawyer and also Josephine’s business advisor. He was supposedly not impressed by Napoleon, and, in fact, before the wedding, he purportedly advised Josephine not to marry the penniless Napoleon as he feared, Napoleon would never amount to anything. Finally, the last witness was a captain aide-de-camp named Jean Léonor François, Count Le Marois (Le Marrois or Lemarrois) who would later become a general.

The marriage was a civil ceremony and there was no religious ceremony afterwards. That was because during the French Revolution, the Catholic Church lost most of its power, and although persecutions against the church stopped by 1795, a schism still existed between the government and the Catholic Church. However, a few years later when Pope Pius VII came to crown Napoleon Emperor, the consecration could not go ahead without Josephine and Napoleon being religiously married. Thus, Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch, arranged a secret and hasty marriage on 1 December 1804.

As mentioned, Leclerc had left because Napoleon was so late. In Leclerc’s place was the acting registrar, a man named Antoine Collin-Lacombe. The marriage took less than 30 minutes to complete. Unfortunately, the wooden-legged Collin-Lacombe had no authority to marry anyone, but that did not stop Leclerc from signing and attesting to the fact that the marriage occurred. Afterwards, Leclerc noted:

“[A]fter Napolione Buonaparte and Marie-Joseph-Rose Detascher had declared, with a loud voice, that they took each other, by mutual consent, for husband and wife, I promised, with a loud voice, Napolione Buonaparte, and Marie-Joseph-Rose Detascher, to be united in marriage, and that in the presence of witnesses, of the age of majority, hereafter named to wit: – Paul Barras … Jean Lemarais … Jean-Lambert Tallien … Etienne-Jacques-Jerome Calmelet … all of whom, the parties, and myself had signed after reading.”[4]

The wedding certificate purposely contained all sorts of false information. Josephine’s birth date was changed from 23 June 1763 to 23 June 1767, which made her four years younger, and perhaps out of gallantry, Napoleon’s birth date was also changed to make him 18 months older. Napoleon’s impassioned love for Josephine reputedly resulted in him later destroying the certificates of their baptism, so that he could spare her any humiliation she might feel that she was six years older than him.

Of the wedding ceremony, one twenty-first century biographer commented that Josephine and Napoleon could have easily obtained a divorce because their marriage was a sham. The biographer wrote:

“There were many legal flaws in the civil wedding process. Napoleon and Josephine lied about their age and presented false documents; Lemarois was not yet of age and therefore could not be a witness; and the ceremony was illegally performed by Collin-Lacombe, who had not authority to officiate. André Castelot [who wrote a biography of Josephine in 1965] thought that Lerclerq signed the marriage act the next day to legalize it and Max Gallo [a twenty-first century historian] believed that Leclerq himself performed the marriage ceremony.”[5]

“A Pug” by Thomas Gainsborough, 1780-1785. Public domain.

After the ceremony, there was no celebration. Everyone just went home. Napoleon went with Josephine to the house she was leasing at No. 6 rue Chantereine, located in a fashionable part of Paris called the Chaussee D’Antin. However, the wedding night appears to have had problems just like the wedding.

Josephine owned a pug named Fortuné. Apparently, Fortuné was not inclined to share the bed with Napoleon, even on his wedding night. When Napoleon attempted to get into bed, Fortuné bit him on the shin. Further, the couple hardly enjoyed a honeymoon because two days later Napoleon left Paris to join his army in Italy. He told Josephine before he left:

“I must hasten to my post … for an army without a chief is like a widow who can commit foolish deeds and endanger her reputation. I am responsible for the army’s conduct from the moment of my appointment.”[6]


  • [1] London Daily News, “Napoleon’s Letters to Josephine,” February 20, 1902, p. 6.
  • [2] A. Cunningham, Anecdotes of Napoleon Bonaparte and His Times (Philadelphia: J.B. Perry, 1855), p. 40–41.
  • [3] John Sanford Saltus, Mystery of a Royal House (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1900), p. 143.
  • [4] A. Cunningham, p. 39.
  • [5] Avner Falk, Napoleon Against Himself: A Psychobiography (Charlottesville: Pitchstone Publishing, 2015), Kindle version.
  • [6] Louise Mühlbach, The Empress Josephine (New York: P.F. Collier, 1902), p. 272.

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