Josephine Before Napoleon: Fact and Fiction

From a speech given to the Napoleonic Society of America; Atlanta, Georgia.

Josephine was born on June 23, 1763, in Martinique, a Creole. In the 18th century, the word Creole signified someone of Caucasian French or Spanish extraction who was born and raised in the Carribeen. She was born on the family sugar plantation near Trois Islets, a village across the bay from Fort de France (then called Fort Royal).

She was not then Josephine—she was Marie-Joseph Rose Tascher de La Pagerie. Until she was renamed Josephine by Napoleon, she was known as Rose. (However, to avoid confusion, I will refer to her as Josephine.)

In the 18th century, the life of a typical sugar plantation owner was a life of incredible wealth. One good-size sugar plantation was capable of generating in one year the same amount of money as England collected in taxes. However, Josephine’s father was not a typical plantation owner. A gambler, what money his wife’s property earned he managed to squander.

The Tascher homestead was far from grand. When Josephine was three, her home was destroyed by a hurricane, and the family moved into the second floor of the sucrerie, the building that was used to boil down the sugar syrup.

Living above huge cauldrons of boiling syrup must have been hot and sticky—and a tremendous attraction for insects, no doubt.

Legend has it that when Josephine was ten she was told by a fortuneteller that she would be unhappily married, widowed, and then become Queen of France. “More than a queen,” she was told, precisely, “but only for a short time.”

Was she actually told this? I believe so, for there are references made to this prediction in various diaries and memoirs long before the prediction came true.

Dr. Rose-Rosette, a Martinique expert on Josephine, states that Josephine was severely punished for having visited the fortuneteller. She was locked in a shack and condemned to a diet of bread and water for eight days.1

At ten Josephine began convent school across the bay in Fort Royal. Her school career was only to last four years, for in the fall of 1777 her younger sister Catherine died of tuberculosis2 and Josephine returned home.

Early the following year two important letters arrived from Paris. One was from Josephine’s aunt Désirée. Another was from Desirée’s “common-law” husband, the Marquis de Beauharnais, a retired naval commander who had once been governor of all the islands. The letters from Désirée and the Marquis proposed marriage between Catherine and the Marquis’s son Alexandre.

But Catherine had just died! Joseph, Josephine’s father, wrote back offering Manette instead, his youngest daughter. One can only imagine Josephine’s heartbreak – she, the eldest daughter, passed over in favour of her eleven-year-old sister!

However, several months later, Joseph wrote again: Manette had fallen ill. How about Josephine? The marquis wrote back, somewhat impatiently: bring anyone.

And so it was that sixteen-year-old Josephine was brought to France and was introduced to the nineteen-year-old youth she was to marry.

Imagine that meeting: the provincial, (then plump), poorly-educated but good-hearted Josephine being introduced to the worldly, well-educated, lady’s man Alexandre. For although still a boy, a lady’s man he certainly was. Renown as the best dancer in Paris, Alexandre was said to seduce for the sport of it, and to boast of it to boot. One mistress, Laure Longpré, eleven years older than he (and in fact related to Josephine), had only recently given birth to a boy suspected to be Alexandre’s. The energetic Alexandre was to produce several illegitimate children over the years, children Josephine would end up helping to support in some way (which only led to rumors that she was the guilty parent).

The two adolescents were not to enjoy a long courtship. Six weeks after they’d met, they were joined in marriage. Shortly after that Alexandre left to return to his regiment. It was to be the first of many long absences. In four years of married life, Josephine was to see her husband for not more than ten months. Most of their relationship was conducted by mail, an unfortunate thing for Josephine, who had difficulty spelling and, I suspect, had a phobia about writing.

Alexandre, horrified by his wife’s illiteracy, immediately set about trying to educate her – a tactic few marital counsellors would recommend. I can, to some degree, understand Alexandre’s concern. A recently discovered letter3, written by Josephine at eighteen (and the earliest known by her, in fact), reveals a shocking number of spelling errors.

But it also reveals something of considerable historical interest. In the letter Josephine made reference to the Lodge of the Three Lights, a Masonic lodge. A number interesting discoveries have been made recently regarding Josephine’s masonic connection. Most of this research has been done by Dr. Maurice Catinat, who is affiliated with Malmaison, and who is in the process of preparing for publication an extensive collection of Josephine’s letters. He has shown how Josephine, as Empress, would on occassion sign her letters with two parallel bars in front of her name.4 Sometimes she used three bars, sometimes there were dots as well. Such marks were used in the 18th century by the Freemasons. The evidence suggests that Josephine herself was a Freemason. (I should note that at that time, in France, a woman could belong.) Dr. Catinat is of the belief that Freemasonry played an important part in Josephine’s life, that through the Freemasons, for example, she made important contacts that would later prove to be quite useful to her.

Alexandre put Josephine on a rigorous academic study-programme. She tried, but the truth was, she had other things on her mind: a pregnancy, a miscarriage, and another pregnancy.

On September 3, 1781, Josephine gave birth to a son, Eugène. Alexandre returned home for the birth, but immediately left on an eight-month tour of Italy. He returned long enough to get Josephine pregnant before sailing for Martinique to court fame and glory in the American War of Independance.

Unfortunately, fame and glory were not the only things he courted. When Josephine learned that Alexandre’s mistress, Laure Longpré, was on the same boat as her husband, she stopped corresponding entirely. For her, it was the final straw.

The following spring Josephine gave birth to her second child, a daughter: Hortense. Back in Martinique, news arrived of the birth. Laure Longpré informed Alexandre, loudly, at a social gathering, that since the baby had been born a week and a half early, Alexandre could not possibly be the father. It was then believed that a baby could be born late, but never early.

Alexandre went on a witch-hunt in search of proof of his wife’s infidelity. Spurred on by his mistress, he and Laure Longpré bribed slaves of the Tascher family with the equivalent of $3,000 to come forward with incriminating evidence. Only one slave co-operated, a boy who’d been only five years old when Josephine had left for France. They offered him what amounted to $5,000 dollars to come up with a story.5

Alexandre then sent Josephine a long letter accusing her of infidelity, disclaiming parentage of the new baby, and ordering her to move immediately into a convent. He then gave this letter to his mistress to deliver to his wife in Paris.

I would like, at this point, to say a few words about the historical interpretation of Josephine. Was she promiscious? I’d like to see the evidence. I have been given to believe that her love letters to Hippolyte Charles, for example, have yet to be seen. And what of other stories? A number of nasty statements about Josephine can be traced, for example, to Bertrand. And who was Bertrand’s wife? Fanny Dillon, the daughter of Laure Longpré, Alexandre’s mistress. I wonder, under the circumstances, if the memoirs of Bertrand can be entirely trusted when referring to Josephine.

But to get back to our narrative. Josephine is twenty, mother of two babies, forced to take up residence in a convent. She came out of this trauma all the stronger on two counts.

First, the convent she was accepted into was an elegant establishment, home to aristocratic ladies in distress. There Josephine came in contact with the highest French society.

Second, she responded to her husband’s attack on her virtue with immediate legal action. In an age when women had few rights against a man, much less a husband, Josephine took her husband to court and won. Alexandre was forced to publicly admit that he had been wrong.

She was now a free woman – but often strapped for cash, for Alexandre rarely paid the court-ordered child-support payments. To save money, she moved in with her aunt and father-in-law in Fontainebleau. When Eugène turned five, Alexandre gained custody, and in 1788, just as the first rumblings of revolution were being heard, Josephine and her five-year-old daughter Hortense set sail for Martinique. Much has been made of this trip. Historians have described it as suspiciously abrupt. They deduced that she must have been pregnant. They deduced that the child must have been the Martinique girl to whom Josephine was later to provide a substantial dowry. What they should have deduced was that they did not have enough information.

What were Josephine’s reasons for going? The emotional draw was that her one remaining sister and her father were dying. Good enough. But there was a practical reason as well. Her mission, in returning, was to find out what was going on with respect to the family plantation and to help turn it, if possible, into a profitable operation. It is a tribute to her tact and good business sense that she was, in fact, able to do this.

And, as for this mysterious infant, the most recent theory is that she was yet another of Alexandre’s illegitimate offspring.6 Josephine stayed in Martinique for two years. She left in the heat of a violent revolutionary uprising, escaping with her daughter at dawn, cannon fire all around her. No luggage, no clothing, no money – such is how she returned to France.

The country Josephine returned to had changed. The Bastille had fallen and democracy had emerged triumphant. As for Alexandre, the revolution had brought out the best in him. He’d became a politician, and a very good one. A passionate advocate of the new liberal views, he steadily rose in power until becoming President of the National Assembly. It was he who was in charge when the King fled the country. For a short two-week period, Alexandre was considered King. When war came Alexandre joined the revolutionary army, rising through the ranks to become Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Rhine.

The portraits of Josephine during these years have a decidedly revolutionary look. Josephine was proud of being a Republican. In time, however, revolutionary glory became revolutionary horror. Friends all around Josephine were being arrested. She is credited many times over for her courageous efforts on their behalf. It is during this time that she learned that friends in high places could be helpful indeed and she put this knowledge to use saving lives.

It must have been awful living in the midst of such violent upheaval, all the while trying to raise two young children, trying to protect them. But it became increasingly dangerous. Shortly after the September Massacres Josephine made the move of a truly desperate mother. She attempted to send her children out of the country, to safety.

I confess I get tearful thinking how difficult it must have been for her – she was an exceptionally tender-hearted mother. Her son was eleven, her daughter only nine. She had no way of knowing if she would ever see them again. But see them again she did, considerably sooner than expected. Alexandre got wind of the scheme and sent a courier to stop them.

Meanwhile, Alexandre’s star continued to rise – he was nominated for Minister of War. Wisely he declined. One month later he lost to the Prussians and came under suspicion of treason. (I should note that any general who lost ground came under suspicion of treason.)

At that time Josephine and her children were living in a rented chateau in the rural village of Croissy, not far from Paris – “laying low” as the saying goes, trying not to attract attention. But when Josephine learned that her cousin-in-law had been put in prison, she returned to Paris to try to get her out. A short time later, in spite of her efforts, Alexandre was arrested. And shortly after that, likely due to her lobbying, Josephine was arrested as well, on Easter Sunday, at four in the morning, her two children left in the care of servants. Ironically, she and Alexandre were united once again, husband and wife, prisoners in the Carmes convent.

It is possible that Josephine and Alexandre reconciled in prison. Alexandre, however, soon fell madly in love with the recently widowed Delphine Custine. (Grace Elliott writes that she begged Alexandre not to allow this, for the sake of Josephine’s feelings.7) It is also rumored that Josephine became tenderly attached to the young and dashing General Hoche.

The Carmes was one of the worst prisons in Paris; overcrowded, filthy, the conditions were appalling. Daily names were called; daily some from their number went to trial, and then to the guillotine. There were six hundred in the Carmes when Josephine entered; only two hundred were still there three months later.

Many touching stories arise out of these months – stories of the children writing out laundry lists so that their mother and father might know they were alive. Stories of the children hiding letters under their pet dog’s collar, the little thing running through the prison gates to find Josephine. The story of the children being brought to a shed behind the prison. Looking up at the Carmes, they saw their mother and father standing at a window. Days later their father was beheaded, only five days before Robespierre’s fall.

Josephine emerged from three and a half months in prison in very bad shape. She had been dangerously ill. As well, there is reason to believe that the trauma of prison had triggered an early menopause in her – a nightmare for a woman of only thirty in an age that knew little about menopause. She had no money, no home, furnishings, clothes. She was a widow, the sole-support of two traumatized children. She didn’t even have the money to send them to school. Where to begin?

Josephine took refuge in the one thing she still had lots of: friends. Her closest friend was the beautiful, talented and kind-hearted Thérèse. “Our Lady of Liberty” she was called, for it was for love of her, it was said, that Tallien confronted Robespierre. And then, of course, there was Barras, one of the most powerful men in France after the Terror-King, according to many. Was Josephine Barras’s lover? Dr. Catinat thinks not, and I concur. For one thing, Barras was a homosexual; possibly bisexual; in any case a flagrant libertine.

Josephine was, no doubt, attached to Barras. He was cultured, intelligent, entertaining. Talleyrand describes him as a sensitive, emotional man.8 Certainly Josephine took on the role of hostess for him on occassion at his elegant salons. Certainly Barras was in a position to be helpful to her and her children, as well as to her desperately-needy friends. And likely Barras was the source of the money that enabled Josephine to lease a home and to enroll her children in school (at last).

But did this mean she was his mistress? People have tended to assume that when a woman receives money from a man, that there must be a sexual relationship. The possibility of a business relationship is not usually considered. Yet there is reason to believe that Josephine’s value to Barras was financial rather than sexual, that Barras greatly profited from Josephine’s business connections, connections she in turn had made as a result of being a Freemason.

It is around this time that we come to The Grand Event – the union of Josephine and Napoleon. How did they meet? All of you are no doubt aware of the story of the sword. The citizens of Paris had been ordered to give up their arms. Josephine’s son Eugene went to Napoleon to beg permission to keep his father’s sword. Napoleon was so touched by the boy that he wished to meet his mother. The rest, as they say, is history.

There are numerous accounts of this “legend” – all of them different.9 Napoleon himself is credited with two distinctly different versions. In some accounts the sword just happens to be there (coincidently), in others it’s in an arsenal, or a section office. In some accounts Josephine goes to thank Napoleon, in others he goes to her. In still another account, she sends an invitation but he’s busy so he sends an aide instead, who returns with reports that she was lovely. And etc. etc.

Yet both Ouvrard and Barras insist that Napoleon had met Josephine long before this time – at Tallien and Thérèse’s home, at La Chaumière. Barras claims the honor of having made the introduction himself.10

My own hunch is that all accounts have some truth in them. It’s almost impossible to believe that Napoleon and Josephine didn’t meet in various salons long before the event of the sword. However, it is also quite possible that a romantic interest could well date from the sword incident.

In any case, not long after, Josephine accepted Napoleon’s proposal of marriage. Josephine’s daughter wept. The Minister of War told her she would be making a fool of herself if she were to marry Napoleon. Her accountant told her she would be a fool to sign the wedding contract, which stipulated that they were to share all living expenses equally, even the wedding expenses.

As for the wedding itself, Napoleon managed to be two hours late. Two hours waiting for your fiancé to show up must be the longest two hours imaginable. I can just see Josephine sitting in the dusty, dark section office, wondering if Napoleon had forgotten her; wondering, no doubt, if she was doing the right thing. Did she think of the prediction the Martinique fortuneteller had told her, that she would become Queen? And if she did, did she laugh? How ludicrous, how entirely unlikely it would have seemed.


1. Rose-Rosette, Les Jeunes Années de l’Impératrice Josephine, p. 35.
2. Malignant fever according to some, tuberculosis according to Françoise Wagener, La Reine Hortense, p. 34.
3. Catinat, “Une lettre inédite de la future impératrice Josephine.” Société des Amis de Malmaison 1991, pgs. 48-50.
4. Catinat, “Lettre signée de l’impératrice Josephine à Lacépède afin de nommer le sculpteur Chinard dans l’Order de la Légion d’honneur.” Société des Amis de Malmaison 1992, pgs. 37-38.
5. According to Hubert Cole, Josephine, p. 60: “When Brigitte refused, he raised the offer to 20 moëdes per letter. Twenty moëdes, nearly 700 livres… yet Brigitte stood fast … But at last they found one, Maximin, who agreed to invent incidents, or corroborate those invented by Alexandre and Laure, in return for a reward of 30 moëdes.” If, as Cole states, 20 moêdes is nearly 700 livres, 30 would be nearly 1050. A rough conversion of 18th century livres to dollars is 1:5; therefore, 1000 livres would be approximately $5000.
6. Wagener, La Reine Hortense. Other theories exist: that she might have been Josephine’s sister’s child, or even possibly her father’s.
7. Elliott, Journal of My Life during the French Revolution, p. 141.
8. Bernard, Talleyrand.
9. Savant, Tel Fut Barras. Appendix.
10. Furthermore, Bernard Chevallier and Christophe Pincemaille, L’impératrice Josephine, p. 117, date the following letter from Josephine to Napoleon at September 28, 1795, two weeks before the sword episode: “Vous ne venez plus voir une amie qui vous aime … .”


Bernard, J. F. Talleyrand, A Biography. G.P. Putnam’s sons, New York, 1973.

Catinat, Docteur Maurice. “Lettre signée de l’impératrice Josephine à Lacépède afin de nommer le sculpteur Chinard dans l’Ordre de la Légion d’honneur.” Société des Amis de Malmaison 1992, pgs. 37-38.

Catinat, Docteur Maurice. “Une lettre inédite de la future impératrice Josephine.” Société des Amis de Malmaison 1991, pgs. 48-50.

Chevallier, Bernard and Pincemaille, Christophe. L’impératrice Josephine. Presses de la Renaissance, Paris, 1988.

Cole, Hubert. Josephine. Heinemann, London, 1962.

Elliott, Grace Dalrymple. Journal of My Life during the French Revolution. The Rodale Press reprint of the edition published in 1859.

Knapton, Ernest John. Empress Josephine. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1963.

Rose-Rosette, Robert. Les Jeunes Années de l’Impératrice Josephine. Publié avec le concours de la Fondation Napoléon, Martinique, 1992.

Savant, Jean. Tel Fut Barras; l’homme qui “inventa” Bonaparte. Fasquelle Éditeurs, Paris, 1954.

Wagener, Françoise. La Reine Hortense (1783-1837). Éditions Jean-Claude Lattès, 1992.

 See also “Did a fortuneteller in fact tell Josephine that she would become Queen?”