Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Napoleon's Wives

Napoleon was a brilliant military, political, and marriage strategist. Yes, marriage strategist. The famous Frenchman married twice - first to Josephine de Beaumarchais, a widow whose husband was murdered in the Reign of Terror, and then to Marie Louise, daughter of Austrian Emperor Francis I. Both of Napoleon's marriages were predominantly governed by political and social calculations.

Napoleon and his first wife seem to have been motivated to marry by more than just love. Josephine de Beauharnais was a widow in search of a husband, father to her children, and a financier for her well-known shopping habit. In her relationships with the upper echelon of French society, Josephine was never able to satisfy all of her needs - until she met Napoleon, a major-general in the French Army.

In Josephine, Napoleon saw a mother to his future heir and a public showpiece whom he could mold to his liking. Napoleon began and ended his relationship with Josephine on his terms. He forced her to change her name from "Rose" to "Josephine" shortly after meeting her. Letters written between Napoleon and Josephine reveal sparks of love, but only amidst jealousy and a desire for control on the part of Napoleon. Perhaps his true emotions towards Josephine were expressed when she failed to bear him a son - and Napoleon proceeded to divorce her.

This image of Napoleon and Josephine captures the spirit of their marriage.
Once Napoleon was Emperor, his quest for a second marriage was governed totally by political savvy. Marie Louise was a pawn in the chess match being played amongst the leaders of Europe. Whereas Napoleon may have at least initially felt some attraction towards Josephine, he did not mince words regarding Marie Louise. Of his second wife he remarked, "I have married a womb." In fact, Napoleon was not even present for the marriage ceremony! Marie Louise's uncle represented Napoleon in the marriage which took place in Austria.

Marie Louise's interest in the marriage was one of survival. She did not wish to disrupt the delicate transaction in which she was involved. Had she rebuffed Napoleon's proposal, she would have disgraced both her family and country. Indeed, when Marie Louise was asked how she felt about Napoleon's proposal, she diplomatically responded: "I wish only what my duty commands me to wish."

Napoleon's second marriage was a much cleaner transaction than his first - for both parties. Napoleon was now allied with Austria. He also got an heir. As for Marie Louise, she reportedly found Napoleon more attractive in person than in portrait. She even became Empress of the French Empire. When things went sour for Napoleon and he was exiled to Elba, Marie Louise was made Duchess of Parma.

Additional Resources

Napoleon's Women (Christopher Hibbert)

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