Mention the Medieval period and people free-associate themselves right into visions of plague, violence, and shit-covered peasants. The term “Renaissance,” on the other hand, conjures up stuff like humanism, science, and paintings of people that actually look like people. But late 14th-, 15th-, and 16th-century Italy consisted of more than just painters with Ninja Turtle names wanking their way from one Tuscan villa to another; it was also full of intrigue, murder, and complex intergenerational family drama. If there was one family that featured heavily in some of the most violent and licentious stories of the period, it was the Borgias — even today their name is a by-word for depravity. And at the center of many of the wildest Borgia stories was the beautiful, wily, thrice-wed Lucrezia.
People have called Lucrezia many things over the years: seductress, murderess, femme fatale of the Borgia cabal. The attributes assigned to her didn’t come out of nowhere; as we shall see — and as Lucrezia noted herself — many of the men around her came to unfortunate ends. In portrayals where she escapes the villainess role, she’s often made out to be another hapless aristocratic daughter traded off into various political marriages, someone with no agency or ambitions of her own. The reality, of course, is much more nuanced. While Lucrezia was indeed married off several times to further her family’s agenda, as an adult she proved herself to be a skilled ruler loved and respected by her subjects.
The year was 54 BC, but not really, because Christ hadn’t been born yet. In Rome, it was 700 ab urbe condita, or 700 years since the founding of the city; at the northern edge of the empire, Julius Caesar was veni, vidi, vici-ing his way into Britain for a second time. In Egypt, it was the 251st year of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and a 15-year-old Cleopatra was scheming. In Judea, which had recently lost its full sovereignty and become a client state of Rome, the year was… who even knows? The Judeans of the time would count it as year 258 in the Era of Contracts, though for Jewish people living after the 12th century, it’s anno mundi 3707. Either way, it was there that a new princess was born into a royal family torn apart by usurpers, civil war, and aggressive foreign meddling. In spite of all the chaos in the Hasmonean household, no one could have imagined that tiny Miriam would one day be that dynasty’s last hope.
Like so many women from ancient history, we have very few concrete facts about Miriam, who would gain wider infamy under the Hellenized version of her name, Mariamne. What little information we do have was recorded by men. Even her birth year is pure speculation, based on the typical ages for engagement and marriage in her culture during the 1st century BCE. What we do know for certain is that things were not going well for the Hasmoneans when Mariamne entered the scene.
Late into the 16th century, Kengela ka Nkombe gave birth to her second child. Her first had been a son, and she had dutifully named him after his father, Mbande, the future king of Ndongo. This one was a girl. The birth was difficult; the baby was breech, her face was upturned, and the umbilical cord was wrapped firmly around her neck. Royal attendants were able to safely guide the baby out of her mother’s body, but everyone present agreed that the birth foretold an unusual life. Mbande, who openly doted on Kengela as his favourite concubine, was immediately smitten with his newest child. He named her Njinga, from the Kimbundu verb kujinga, which means to twist or turn — ostensibly a reference to the cord wrapped around her neck. But perhaps as he held his daughter for the first time, he caught a brief glimpse of her future: how she would twist and turn to outwit her enemies, gain the throne, and, ultimately, fight for her country’s freedom.
“When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.”
When we left the future Empress, she was 32 and had just completed her third transformation — and name change — in as many decades. First she had been Yeyette, the coarse, uneducated girl from the colonies struggling to find her place in Paris society; then she had been Marie-Josèphe, the beautiful and popular estranged wife of a Revolutionary hero with a whiff of the courtesan about her; now she was a survivor of the Reign of Terror, a Merveilleuse famous for her revealing clothing, and a semi-professional mistress to the rich and powerful. It was in this latest incarnation that she was christened Josephine by her newest bedmate, a young general named Napoleon Bonaparte.
The young lovers had met through Paul Barras, who was both Napoleon’s boss and Josephine’s sugar daddy. After being aggressively pursued by the famously uncouth Corsican for months, Josephine had, for her own inscrutable reasons, decided to give in to his advances.
If she’d hoped that sleeping with him would somehow slake his obsession with her, she was wrong. Very wrong.
Napoleon’s fixation on Josephine only deepened once they became lovers, and often it tipped over into vicious fits of jealousy. In a letter to a friend, Josephine wrote, “I am afraid, I admit, of the empire he seems to want over all those who surround him.” She also wrote that the “force of [his] passion” made her uncomfortable, although she couldn’t quite articulate why; she knew that she should find his devotion to her attractive, but it creeped her out. Still, after weighing the pros and cons, she eventually gave in to his marriage proposal. She was getting older, and she wanted the security of a husband. Plus, he did seem to genuinely love her, even if his particular brand of love sometimes had a frightening edge.
The wedding was set for March 9, 1796. Since Catholicism was still banned in France, it was a civil service held at a small town hall. Napoleon arrived two hours late, a total asshole power move. The rest of the event was as messy as its beginning: the ages on the marriage certificate were wrong, one of the witnesses was too young to legally be a witness, and everyone was in a bad mood. It almost certainly wasn’t the wedding Josephine had expected, but she grimaced her way through it. When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.
If Josephine found one bright spot on her second wedding day, it might have been the inscription on the wedding band Napoleon placed on her finger: “au destin,” to destiny. Both husband and wife believed that they were marked by fate, and nothing could have been a more fitting motto for them. Their shared faith that their marriage — and, indeed, their entire lives — had been predestined would shape many of their choices in the coming years.
* * *
Two days after the wedding, Napoleon left for a military campaign in Italy. His letters from this time are textbook examples of the cycle of abuse, heady declarations of love alternating with vicious scolding for not writing back often enough or with the right emotion. That being said, Josephine’s reasons for not replying in a timely fashion were less than virtuous: she’d begun an affair with a beautiful young soldier named Hippolyte Charles and, through him, had become involved with some shady backroom arms dealing. In Josephine’s defense, taking a lover or two on the side was a normal part of the world she lived in; after all, it hadn’t been that long since she’d been a fixture at Thérésa Tallien’s orgies. Still, she must have known that Napoleon expected monogamy. She must have known that she was playing a dangerous game.
While Josephine was ignoring her husband’s letters and living the high life in Paris, Napoleon was growing more and more anguished, and when he told Barras that he hated all women and was consumed with despair, the older man decided that he needed to step in. Napoleon had been racking up astonishing victories in Italy, and Barras couldn’t afford to have him distracted from his work. So one night, after a dinner given in her honor, he muscled Josephine into a carriage bound for Milan. She cried and begged him to let her stay, but Barras was adamant. He was going to give Napoleon whatever he wanted, including, once again, Josephine.
When they got home, Josephine refused to move her beloved dog Fortuné off the bed to make room for Napoleon. When his mistress’ new husband tried to push him aside, the pug bit him. Sometimes dogs just know.
Napoleon was overjoyed by his wife’s arrival. Their time apart had only heightened his obsession and when they met in Italy, he couldn’t stop fondling her, even in front of his staff. Josephine found his attentions overwhelming. “My husband doesn’t love me, he worships me,” she wrote to an acquaintance. Even though her life in Milan was lavish — she was staying in a literal palace — Josephine was miserable. She missed her life in Paris, she missed her children, she missed her freedom.
Napoleon had to return to the front lines soon after Josephine’s arrival, from whence he sent her letters about her vagina, calling it “the little black forest” and writing that “[t]o live within Josephine is to live in the Elysian fields.” Truly, this man missed his calling as a romance writer.
JOSEPHINE: on the whole, Italy was kind of a wash
JOSEPHINE: I mean, the plundering part was pretty fun
JOSEPHINE: the Italians make great art, I’ll give them that
JOSEPHINE: but then Napoleon’s family arrived from Marseilles
JOSEPHINE: I mean, they basically moved in with us!
JOSEPHINE: and there are not enough Correggio paintings in the world to make it worth putting up with them
Napoleon’s family had been less than enthused to learn about his marriage. Josephine was infamous by this point, and her scandals well-known. Napoleon’s mother opposed the match from a moral standpoint as well as a financial one — her son had been supporting the family ever since his father’s death several years earlier, and she didn’t relish seeing that support drained away by a depraved slattern from the colonies. In spite of Josephine’s attempts to charm her new husband’s family, they would openly loathe her for the rest of her life. His 16-year-old sister Pauline was especially heinous to Josephine: she referred to her as “la vielle” (the old woman), stuck her tongue out at her behind her back, and did her best to outdress her sister-in-law on every occasion.
Josephine left Italy in November, ostensibly bound for Paris. Napoleon left at the same time, but headed to peace talks in Austria first. He was shocked when he returned to Paris in December and his wife still wasn’t there. Instead of going straight back, Josephine had met up with Hippolyte in Nevers, and the two were leisurely fucking their way across France. A ball dedicated to her was organized by Napoleon’s ally Talleyrand in Paris for December 25th, but when she still hadn’t arrived it was postponed until the 28th. Josephine didn’t show up until January 3rd, by which point organizers had been forced to throw out two rounds of food and flowers. The event went grimly ahead but Napoleon was furious, as Josephine must have known he’d be. Josephine and Napoleon reconciled with a Big Dramatic Scene, a completely healthy relationship dynamic they both seemed to relish. This was something that played out over and over again throughout their time together: Napoleon would stomp around and yell, while Josephine wept and begged for his forgiveness. Eventually he would play the part of Big Merciful Daddy and take her into his arms and comfort her; nothing made Napoleon feel more secure in his masculinity than reducing his wife to tears and then comforting her. Josephine, for her part, seemed to feel like she could get away with almost anything as long as she cried hard enough about it later.
In 1797, Napoleon began planning his next big military campaign.
NAPOLEON: babe, I’m going to conquer Egypt
JOSEPHINE: can I ask why?
NAPOLEON: for the empire
JOSEPHINE: sure, but, why Egypt specifically?
JOSEPHINE: I mean, isn’t it kind of … out of the way?
NAPOLEON: Alexander the Great conquered Egypt
JOSEPHINE: I don’t know if that’s really a reason
NAPOLEON: it’s an empire-building thing, you wouldn’t understand
If Josephine had been reluctant to join Napoleon in Italy, she was now desperate to accompany him to Egypt: her involvement in Hippolyte’s shady business had been revealed and the resulting scandal had been deeply unpleasant; she wanted to have Napoleon’s baby and solidify her position as his wife; she owed a lot of people a lot of money. But Napoleon refused to take her, so instead she headed to the spa town of Plombières, where she hoped to recover her fertility. Both she and Napoleon were desperate for a baby, but lingering physical trauma from her time in prison coupled with years of using what then passed for the morning-after pill (highly toxic douches, mostly) had left her unable to conceive. She hoped that “taking the waters” would improve her reproductive system. Instead, her time at Plombières made her chances of getting pregnant even more remote when a balcony she was standing on collapsed, leaving her with a broken pelvis and a severe spinal injury. Although she would go on to make an incredible recovery, the incident almost guaranteed that she would never have another child.
Meanwhile, things in Egypt weren’t going so great. The British were sinking Napoleon’s ships, and his friend Junot was sinking his hopes by telling him what everyone in Paris already knew — that Josephine was fucking Hippolyte. You would think Napoleon might have figured this fact out on his own, but denial is a powerful drug. Admitting that Josephine had betrayed him shook not only his relationship with her, but also his relationship with himself: maybe he wasn’t actually the most virile and powerful man in the world, but a cuckold and a laughingstock. He swore to divorce Josephine, and for once she wasn’t there to weep and rend her garments and beg forgiveness.
And then the unthinkable happened: the British seized a French mail ship containing a letter from Napoleon to his brother about Josephine’s unfaithfulness. Then, like an 18th-century WikiLeaks, the London Morning Chronicle published selections from the letter. If the French had been tittering behind their hands about the military genius and his cheating wife, the English were outright guffawing.
* * *
Now the entire world knew about Napoleon’s humiliation.
Josephine, ever practical, decided that this would be a great time to buy a house. Actually, not just a house — a proper country estate called Malmaison (a name that roughly translates to “bad house,” which is … a choice). Josephine’s reasons were twofold: she wanted somewhere to live if Napoleon divorced her, but she also hoped that a beautiful property like Malmaison might lure him back. Barras, who obviously had a vested interest in her marriage, loaned Josephine the money she needed. She moved in almost as soon as the sale was completed, and quickly realized Malmaison was a great place to carry on her relationship with Hippolyte away from prying Parisian eyes.
Napoleon didn’t return to France immediately after finding out about his wife’s relationship with Hippolyte, partly because he preferred to bury himself in his work, partly because the situation he’d started in Egypt was still unstable, and partly because he wanted to have his own revenge affair. Josephine spent the better part of a year on tenterhooks, waiting for her husband and praying that she could pull off the most audacious weep ‘n’ beg of her life. Finally, in October of 1799, while dining at a friend’s house, she received word that Napoleon was back in the country. She dashed from Paris to Lyon, hoping to get to him before anyone else could, but arrived to find that he had already left by a different road. When Napoleon arrived in Paris and found his house empty, he assumed Josephine was off with her lover. Furious, he ordered his staff to begin packing up her clothes.
When Josephine finally got back to Paris she went straight to Napoleon, but he had locked himself in his room and refused to see her. She sat on the floor outside of his door and cried all night, but her old tricks failed to move him. At 5 o’clock in the blessed morning, Josephine sensed she would need stronger ammunition, so she roused Eugène and Hortense. The two sleepy teenagers, still in their nightwear, joined their mother and begged their stepfather not to abandon them. Napoleon was genuinely fond of Josephine’s children, and it was their pleading that finally softened his heart. He allowed Josephine to come into the room and then, not long after, into his bed. Plus ça change!
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Napoleon did not live to regret this decision. Josephine’s ability to wield soft power — flattery, distraction, general diplomacy — soon came in very handy. While Napoleon was in Egypt, several of his sources informed him that the current government was deeply unpopular and France was in dire straits. The rumors were not an exaggeration. He plotted with Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, one of the five leaders of the Directory — the committee that had governed France since the end of the Revolution — to overthrow the other four. As soon as that was done, Napoleon immediately double-crossed Sieyès and declared himself First Consul of France, an authoritarian title that basically put him in complete control of the country. Like many two-bit despots, Napoleon claimed to be acting in the interests of liberty and democracy; like many two-bit despots, he felt that this was a personal victory that he had earned because he was destined to rule. But the truth was that Josephine had done much of the backroom work for him: hosting dinners, inflating egos, and diverting attention. Without her, it’s unlikely that the rough-mannered general would have succeeded.
Shortly after his coup, Napoleon decided that he needed a residence more befitting a ruler. First he and Josephine moved into the Luxembourg Palace, and a few months later into the Tuileries. The latter was a symbol of the ostentatious excesses of the French monarchy; built by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century, the Tuileries was where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were kept after their removal from Versailles. Napoleon’s choice to align himself with the kings of the Ancien Régime was obviously intentional, and he immediately installed his wife in Marie Antoinette’s old chambers. Josephine, though, was ill at ease. She hated the stiffness and formality of her new role, and complained to Hortense that she felt haunted by the dead queen’s ghost. Still, she did her best to fulfill her new role as consuless, even though her heart longed to return to Malmaison.
She soon had her chance, as Napoleon gave her permission to renovate Malmaison to use as a country estate for entertaining guests. Once that was completed, Josephine began working on the estate’s grounds. She discovered that she had a natural aptitude for horticulture, and began cultivating as many species of plants as she could. Tired of the formal gardens of Paris, Josephine hired an English gardener to achieve the jardin à l’anglaise look, much to Napoleon’s horror; she also used her husband’s connections to solicit seeds and plants from around the world, delighting especially in the rare and difficult to grow. Although she was entirely self-taught, Josephine’s botanical knowledge and ability impressed even the experts, and gardening was a passion she would keep up for the rest of her life. She even convinced Napoleon to let her import plants from England during the trade blockades that would mark the wars between Britain and the Napoleonic Empire.
JOSEPHINE: I also built a giant greenhouse and started importing exotic animals
JOSEPHINE: I had llamas and an orangutan that could eat with a knife and fork
JOSEPHINE: I know this all sounds ridiculously expensive
JOSEPHINE: but if life has taught me anything, it’s that you should spend money while you can
JOSEPHINE: because tomorrow you could go to jail
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: seriously, that’s your takeaway from the Revolution?
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: not that monarchy is oppressive, or that we should strive for freedom and equality
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you’re as bad as any of those Bourbon kings
JOSEPHINE: stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre
* * *
Josephine succeeded in building an estate that both she and the First Consul could love. Napoleon began to use Malmaison to meet with all kinds of dignitaries and officials; in the early years of his rule, much of his government business was conducted at the country estate. They hosted days-long events that involved outdoor dinners and games, and even theatrical interludes starring Bonaparte family and friends. Josephine had transformed herself once again, from sexually adventurous good-times Merveilleuse into a consuless at the height of sophistication and good taste. Unfortunately for her, this state of affairs couldn’t and wouldn’t last long.
As Napoleon’s authority grew, so did his royal ambitions. He began to consider Malmaison beneath his station, preferring life at the Tuileries. Josephine was forced to spend more and more time in the city (and more and more time with her miserable in-laws). Napoleon, meanwhile, was sleeping with as many women as possible. These affairs — if you can call them that — took an odd form. The consul would have the women he chose wait for him, naked, in bed; he would be in and out (so to speak) in a matter of minutes. More than sex, he seemed to enjoy his ability to order his mistresses around, to control how they interacted with him. These liaisons also gave him another type of power, over Josephine: the ability to reduce her to tears, push her to the brink of despair, then soothe her like a fretful child.
Napoleon’s attitudes toward women oscillated between furious resentment and paternal infantilization. Both of these were reflected in his Napoleonic Code, which severely restricted the rights women had gained during the Revolution and even the few they’d held under the Ancien Régime. He also made chattel slavery legal again, in spite of his promises to uphold abolition, a decision many blamed on Josephine’s influence. Whether or not she advocated for the reinstatement of slavery, Josephine certainly didn’t seem to oppose it, writing to her mother that Napoleon was “very attached to Martinique and is counting on the support of the planters of that colony.” Josephine was uniquely positioned to understand both the brutality of chattel slavery — she had witnessed it firsthand, after all — as well as the Revolutionary arguments that had led to its abolition. Her entire personal brand was built on the indignities of losing her freedom during the Reign of Terror. She either knew on every level that slavery was a violation of basic human rights and didn’t care, or she found some way to rationalize it to herself, which is functionally the same as not caring.
To justify his regressive laws, Napoleon reinstated Catholicism as the state religion. He explained his rationale to the senator Pierre Louis Roederer succinctly: “Society cannot exist without inequality of wealth and inequality of wealth cannot exist without religion.” With the Catholic Church back in business, nearly every change wrought by the Revolution was undone.
* * *
As time went on, Napoleon became increasingly preoccupied with having a child. It was becoming clearer and clearer that Josephine was not going conceive, although she suggested that the problem lay with him — after all, hadn’t she already had two healthy pregnancies? Her fertility was, according to her, demonstrably fine. But still Josephine was terrified that her husband would leave her for a younger woman who might provide him with a baby. Eventually, she came up with an idea straight out of Aunt Edmée’s playbook: Hortense, now 18, could marry Napoleon’s brother Louis. The children of that union would bear both Napoleon and Josephine’s blood, and would make the perfect Bonaparte heir.
HORTENSE: but Louis is awful!
JOSEPHINE: well, we all have to do our duty
JOSEPHINE: to the empire, you know
HORTENSE: this feels more like me taking one for the team so that you can get what you want
JOSEPHINE: aren’t we all on the same team?
JOSEPHINE: really, you’re helping me to help yourself
Louis, like the rest of Napoleon’s extended family, hated Josephine and spent his wedding night reciting all the reasons why his new bride’s mother was a slut. In spite of this, Hortense gave birth to a son almost exactly nine months later, who she christened Napoleon Louis Charles. Her mother and stepfather were exultant.
Shortly before the birth of his heir, Napoleon was made “Consul for Life.” He officially moved his country seat from Malmaison to the Chateau de Saint-Cloud, one of Marie Antoinette’s former residences, where he did his utmost to recreate the court life of the Bourbon dynasty. He dressed his staff in red velvet and gilded everything in sight. He insisted that Josephine order extravagant new gowns for every occasion — including one covered with real rose petals — although he balked when her bills arrived. Few people remembered all the arcane rules and rituals of court, so Napoleon had Josephine consult with Henriette Campan, who had been Marie Antoinette’s First Lady of the Bedchamber, about things like who was supposed to bow when.
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: what was the point of even having a revolution??
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: did 40,000 people die in vain?? So that we could have another KING?
NAPOLEON: well, I didn’t start the Revolution, I just finished it
NAPOLEON: so that sounds like more of a you problem than a me problem
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I’m dead, I don’t have any problems
NAPOLEON: with all due respect, Max, I would say that even in death you have a lot of unresolved issues
If Josephine had been overwhelmed by the grandeur of the Tuileries, Saint-Cloud was even worse. She missed the casual country vibes of Malmaison, not to mention the public affection her husband had showered her with there. His liaisons were becoming more and more public, and Josephine knew that pushing back against his infidelity would only put her position at risk; in spite of Hortense’s child, Josephine was still terrified that her husband would leave her. Napoleon wielded his new relationships like weapons — he loved to recount graphic details about his conquests to Josephine, demanding that she applaud his sexual prowess. If she got upset, he grew vicious, reminding her that she had been unfaithful first. By Napoleon’s logic, she deserved payback for humiliating him in front of the entire world.
In January of 1804, a plot to assassinate Napoleon was discovered. The Duc of Enghien, a nephew of Louis XVI, was arrested at his home in Baden (even though there was no evidence linking him to the plot), found guilty in a secret military trial, and summarily executed. The rest of Europe was appalled — Baden was a neutral territory, and the legal proceedings had hardly been fair. But in France, Napoleon successfully spun the story; he was the hero his country needed, protecting it from anarchy and the dregs of the Bourbon dynasty. Riding a wave of popularity, Napoleon launched a referendum and was elected Emperor of the French. “I am the man of the State,” he declared. “I am the French Revolution.”
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I just want to say I totally called it that you would make yourself king
NAPOLEON: technically, an emperor is not a king
NAPOLEON: spiritually, it’s more in the tradition of the Roman Empire? Anyway, it polls well
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: I fail to see how the Roman emperors were less oppressive or corrupt than the French kings
NAPOLEON: Max, you know I always treasure your input
NAPOLEON: but don’t you have anyone else to haunt?
GHOST OF ROBESPIERRE: you know I don’t, I beheaded all of my enemies 10 years ago
Josephine was going to be “greater than a queen,” just as Euphémie had said — she was going to be an Empress. Or was she? Even though her husband was going to be Emperor, she didn’t have an official title. Napoleon himself didn’t seem to be too sure about which direction to jump. On the one hand, crowning Josephine as Empress would make it a lot harder to get rid of her if and when he wanted to take a new wife who would give him an heir. On the other hand, he was deeply superstitious and believed that his wife was his good luck charm; without her, he worried that his winning streak would break. Plus, every time he leaned toward not crowning Josephine his terrible family rejoiced, which infuriated him.
Josephine and Napoleon began playing a dangerous game of chicken. He told her that he was too loyal to leave her, and begged her to do the leaving for the sake of his dynasty. She retaliated by saying that she would separate from him as soon as he gave her a direct order to do so. Every time Napoleon was on the brink of breaking it off, something — his love for his stepchildren, his fear of a life without Josephine, her ability to lure him into the bedroom — stopped him. Finally, less than a month before his coronation, his family made up his mind for him. The Bonapartes, feeling triumphant, had spent weeks alternating between snubbing and teasing Josephine, sure that her downfall was imminent. Piqued by their disrespect, Napoleon publicly announced her coronation, then rubbed salt in the wound by telling his sisters that they’d be carrying Josephine’s train during the ceremony.
The night before the coronation, Josephine made the ultimate move to keep her husband at her side. The Pope was in town to do the coronating — although Napoleon actually ended up crowning himself, because despots will despot — and Josephine sought a private audience with him. She confessed that her wedding to the Emperor had been a civil service, which meant that they weren’t truly married in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Horrified, the Pope refused to participate in the coronation unless Napoleon and Josephine were married in a religious ceremony. Knowing that the Pope’s support was key to legitimizing his reign, Napoleon gave in. Josephine’s gamble had paid off.
* * *
On December 2, 1804, Josephine — heroine of the Reign of Terror, scantily clad Merveilleuse, former mistress of half a dozen men — was crowned Empress of France in front of the Pope himself.
All of this was, of course, set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s military career. He managed to spin even his defeats as successes, and used them to justify further expansion of his empire. In the summer of 1805, he turned his attention once more toward Austria, which was still salty about the whole Marie Antoinette thing and allied with Britain and Russia against France. Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England in order to head east to quash the Austrian army, and he was hugely successful. The next year, he pressed even farther, into Prussia, and in early 1807, into Poland. He wrote to Josephine often, but even as he proclaimed his love, he was distracted by news out of France: one of his mistresses was pregnant. Josephine, who had traveled with Napoleon as far as Mainz, knew exactly what that pregnancy could mean for her marriage. She begged her husband to let her join him in Warsaw but he ordered her back to Paris, where she spent the winter white-faced and weeping, certain that orders for a divorce would come through any day.
Josephine had little reprieve from her unhappiness. In the spring of 1807, her grandson and heir Napoleon Louis Charles died. Hortense and the Empress were inconsolable; Napoleon, who thought they should be paying attention to his victories in the east, grew impatient with their grief. Less than a month later, Josephine’s mother died in Martinique. Napoleon refused to make the news of his mother-in-law’s death public, claiming that it would cast a shadow over his victories, and refused to name Hortense’s younger son his heir, which Josephine took as a further sign that he was about to leave her. When the Emperor returned to France after sealing an armistice with Tsar Alexander, his manner toward his wife was noticeably chilly.
Now that he was secure in his fertility, Napoleon began to consider a divorce in earnest. The idea of solidifying his new alliances with Austria and Poland with a marriage was deeply appealing and, he reasoned, the death of his heir was a good excuse to find and impregnate a new wife. Josephine, knowing she was about to be discarded, fell into an emotional spiral, dragging Napoleon with her: the more miserable she became, the more he resented her. But he still loved her, too, and couldn’t picture life without her gentling influence. Plus, he was sure that she brought him luck; his greatest victories had come after their wedding, and after all, what about “au destin”? Would his military winning streak continue without her? But in 1809, after learning that a Polish mistress was pregnant with another one of his children, he made up his mind: he had to divorce Josephine.
On November 30th, just two days before the 5th anniversary of their coronation, Napoleon and Josephine dined together. At the end of a nearly silent meal, the Emperor took his wife’s hand and told her that, while he would always adore her, he had to put the interests of France in front of his own wants. Josephine fell into hysterics, and Napoleon began to cry too, becoming even more upset when he realized that losing his wife meant losing his stepchildren. He had thought this through thousands of times, but faced with the reality of divorce, he blanched. In the end it was Eugène who insisted that the separation happen. He knew that a reconciliation would be brief and ultimately unhappy for everyone.
On December 14, 1809, Napoleon and Josephine convened a grand ceremony in the throne room to announce their divorce. The Emperor wept as he described what a wonderful wife the Empress had been. Josephine — whose face was a mess of tears and makeup — swore that Napoleon would always be her dearest love. Together, they signed the record of proceedings. That night they clung to each other in Napoleon’s bed, both sobbing, before Josephine retreated to her own chamber.
Josephine decamped to Malmaison, where Napoleon visited her. The pair continued to cry together over the dissolution of their grand love affair, more united in their separation than they had been over the last year of their marriage. But the Emperor’s grief didn’t stop him from marrying 18-year-old Marie Louise of Austria (who happened to be Marie Antoinette’s great-niece) on March 11th, 1810, just months after his divorce. He told Josephine that she would have to leave Paris before his new wife’s arrival, and at the end of March the deposed Empress set off for a chateau in Navarre.
Josephine did her best to rally her spirits, even though the lovely new home Napoleon had promised was a damp, drafty monstrosity, so hideous that people called it “la marmite” (the cooking pot). She began renovating its gardens, and occupied her evenings doing tarot readings for her ladies; years before, she had developed a close relationship with cartomancer Marie Anne Lenormand, and remained obsessed with Lenormand’s fortune-telling deck of cards for the rest of her life. Between her love of plants, her tarot fixation, and her (still ongoing) debt, Josephine was basically a prototype for the modern millennial lady.
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In March of 1811, Marie Louise gave birth to a son. Napoleon was beyond exultant — he finally had a legitimate child and heir. In a fit of good temper, he allowed Josephine to return permanently to Malmaison (she had been there the year before, but was only allowed to stay briefly before traveling onward to Aix-en-Provence). She began to build a quiet life for herself — collecting art, hosting intimate soirées, and spoiling her grandchildren. She grew sugarcane in her greenhouse and let Hortense’s young sons suck on it just like she had as a child. Napoleon remained close to her, writing to her often and spending two hours visiting her before he left to conquer Russia; he even let her kiss and cuddle his son, although Marie Louise was furious when she found out.
I probably don’t have to tell you that things didn’t go well in Russia. Things never go well for invading armies in Russia. Over 500,000 French soldiers died; fewer than 100,000 came home. Napoleon was ousted from power in the spring of 1814, and Paris was soon overrun with triumphant Cossack forces. By the beginning of May, they would restore the Bourbon dynasty to the French throne. Napoleon, meanwhile, had been exiled.
Tsar Alexander, who was in Paris to ensure that Louis XVIII acceded peacefully, began visiting Josephine. He was fascinated by the legendary woman who had held his enemy in thrall for so long, and the former Empress, for her part, received him graciously. She understood that this man held her life — and the lives of her children and grandchildren — in the palm of his hand, and turned on the charm accordingly. Other conquering dignitaries began to visit her as well; she was, after all, one of the spoils of war. She belonged to them now.
Stay away from my fucking llamas, Robespierre.
In the middle of May, Josephine caught a chill while out walking around the grounds of Malmaison with the Tsar. By the end of the month, she was desperately ill with a high fever and a rash. On the morning of May 29th, delirious but still the same old Josephine, she insisted on being dressed in a pink satin gown and rubies in case the Tsar came. She was dead by the time the clock struck noon.
French public opinion had run hot and cold on Napoleon — mostly cold over the last years of his reign — but Josephine had been almost universally beloved. She represented so many things to so many people, from the wild hope of the early days of the Revolution to the desperation of the Reign of Terror to the grandeur of the French Empire. Perhaps above everything else, she represented pragmatism and tenacity; she’d never been ashamed to do what was necessary to survive. Thousands upon thousands attended her funeral, weeping for their Empress. Her legacy was complicated, but it was the legacy of their people.
And Napoleon? In his disgrace, he was abandoned by almost everyone, including Marie Louise; Eugène and Hortense were among the few that remained loyal to him. He died seven years later, exiled to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic. His last word was “Josephine.”
There is a statue of Josephine in Fort-de-France, Martinique. In 1991, it was beheaded, just as she would have been if not for Robespierre’s timely downfall. It was a fitting tribute to the heroine of the Terror who had watched the restoration of slavery with the same secretive Mona Lisa smile she wears in all of her portraits.
Long live the dissolution of oppressive monarchies. Long live freedom. Liberté, fraternité, égalité forever.
Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.
In 1768, a 15-year-old girl traveled to the hills near her family home in Martinique to visit a local wise woman. Desperately curious to know what her future held, the girl handed a few coins to the Afro-Caribbean obeah, Euphémie David, in exchange for a palm reading. Euphémie obligingly delivered an impressive-sounding prediction: the girl would marry twice — first, unhappily, to a family connection in France, and later to a “dark man of little fortune.” This second husband would achieve undreamed of glory and triumph, rendering her “greater than a queen.” But before the girl had time to gloat over her thrilling fate, Euphémie delivered a parting blow: in spite of her incredible success, the girl would die miserable, filled with regret, pining for the “easy, pleasant life” of her childhood. This prophecy would stay with the girl for the rest of her life, and she would think of it often — sometimes with fervent hope, sometimes with despair, always with unwavering belief that it would come true.
That girl was the future Empress Josephine Bonaparte. Everything Euphémie predicted would come to pass, but young Josephine could not have imagined the events that would propel her to her zenith: the rise through Paris society, the cataclysm of the French Revolution, the brutal imprisonment during the Reign of Terror, the transformation into an infamous Merveilleuse, the pivotal dinner at her lover’s house where she would meet her second husband.
She wouldn’t even have recognized the name Josephine — that sobriquet would be bestowed by Napoleon some 18 years hence. The wide-eyed teenager who asked Euphémie to tell her fortune still went by her childhood nickname, Yeyette.
When one thinks about Roman triumvirates, insofar as one ever thinks about Roman triumvirates, there are two that spring immediately to mind: the First Triumvirate and the Second Triumvirate. The former involved a would-be emperor (Julius Caesar), a man with a beautiful head of hair (Pompey), and a guy whose name no one can ever remember (Crassus); the latter included an actual emperor (Augustus), a noted piss artist who also happened to have great hair (Mark Antony), and another guy whose name no one can ever remember (Lepidus). But I propose we add another Ancient Roman triumvirate and turn this list into a triumvirate of triumvirates. This last (and, frankly, greatest) of the triumvirates consists of the three queens who led revolts against the Roman occupation of their lands: Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia.
Do I understand that the term “triumvirate” means “three people who operate together as a governing coalition”? Yes. Since vir is Latin for “man,” wouldn’t the term refer specifically to men? Sure, whatever. Given that Cleopatra, Boudicca, and Zenobia were women whose lives were separated by the vagaries of time and geography, doesn’t that suggest that I’m applying “triumvirate” incorrectly here? Probably. Do I care about your petty and pedantic opinions on this matter? Not especially.
Cleopatra and Boudicca’s stories are both fairly well-known in the West, if somewhat distorted in their retellings (the Egyptian queen wanted her legacy to be tax reform and a stable, drought-resistant economy, but instead we mostly remember her as being sexily embroiled in Roman politics). Zenobia is a popular historical figure in the Arab world, especially in her native Syria, where her image appears on banknotes and where her story featured heavily in the 1997 historical soap opera Al-Ababeed (The Anarchy). Outside of the Middle East, though, she seems to be half-forgotten aside from a few works produced during the Enlightenment and the Romantic period, all of which employ extreme artistic license. Part of the problem is that when it comes to Zenobia, hard facts are few and far between. This is almost certainly related to gender; while historians were studiously chronicling the frequency and texture of royal men’s bowel movements, the most basic details of women’s lives are lost to time. The Romans were particularly reluctant to include women in their accounts, so it’s unsurprising that they didn’t leave much information behind about the queen who conquered a solid chunk of their empire.
When we last left the Serpent Queen, things were looking dire. She had been married to Henri, the heir to the French throne, for nearly five years. Although the Dauphin and Dauphine were both young and healthy, Catherine was failing in her most fundamental duty: providing the country with an heir. Rumors had spread throughout the court that she was incapable of conceiving. Since her husband’s only living brother was unmarried and childless, the entire fate of the Valois dynasty rested on Catherine’s ability to produce a child.
Faced with a rival noble faction, the Guises, who wanted to replace the apparently barren queen-to-be with one of their own, Catherine had thrown aside her pride and made a risky preemptive strike. Swooning pathetically at Francis I’s feet, the young woman tearfully begged the king to go ahead and replace her, saying that she loved Henri beyond measure and just wanted him to have a wife who could give him heirs. Catherine asked only that she be allowed to stay in France and humbly serve her beloved’s new bride.
It was a risky move, but Catherine had banked on the fact that the aging king couldn’t bear to see a young woman crying. Francis, nearly in tears himself, declared that it was God’s will that Catherine be the Dauphin’s wife. The question of replacing the Dauphine was resolved, for now.