Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself



Convinced that an heir of his blood was necessary for the future of France and the Empress Josephine could not give this child that he wanted so much, Napoleon was forced to consider divorce: but it was only with the greatest tenderness that he tried to convince his wife of this painful sacrifice.  He appealed to her reason; and, although such a separation had to break her heart, the Empress was able to find a kind of consolation in the idea that her dedication would consolidate the power of the man she cherished more than anything in world.  She did more: when she learned later of the birth of the King of Rome, she forgot all her sufferings by only thinking of the wonderful hour as Napoleon; but also it must be said that, in turn, the Emperor kept with her the most tender friendship, and one filled with respects and benefits.

There is no doubt about this, that before 1809, Napoleon had already determined to break the marriage contract on reasons of affection and gratitude.  More than once he thought to avail it to his wife but never dared to speak out, fearing for her, and perhaps for him, the resulting despair: the tears of Josephine always knew ways to find his heart.  Fouché was the first who had the boldness to openly reach this delicate subject.  For a long time, he too had been clairvoyant enough to guess all of the projects that the Emperor may have concealed with the greatest care; holding that the time had come, he took advantage of when Napoleon was at Schoenbrunn to go without an official charge, to advise the Empress to dissolve her marriage.  This clever approach caused less grief to Josephine than anger for the Emperor; and as he did not offer this delicate mission to the portfolio of Fouché, moreover, he had to ask him a little later, was it not, as alleged, at the request of his wife because he himself had secretly resolved to accomplish this major political act.  Accordingly, arriving in Paris, one of his first cares was to submit to the officials his desire that his marriage with Josephine be declared invalid.  The delicate negotiations were dealt with in the mystery of the Chancery.  Napoleon allowed only one person in confidence, the Grand Marshal, who was as quiet as the grave, and, of course, said nothing to anyone.  However the court was soon informed.  It is these events as with certain conditions, which cannot remain hidden long.

Although the visits of foreign sovereigns broke every evening, the monotony that existed at the court, the boredom of Napoleon had increased in proportion to the worries concerning Josephine.  Wanting at any price as it was, to find some distraction, and perhaps enjoy himself, the Emperor warned the Prince of Neufchatel that he would go with the Empress, one day of the week he would designate, to hunt and sleep at Grosbois.

—Monsieur Grand Hunter, he said with joy, I want you to give us, after hunting, violins and comedy, as acted once ... in the good times, he added with a sardonic smile.

Berthier made all his preparations on the spot to offer his guests a noble feast fit for them.  For its completion, he thought to bring the troop from the Variétés.  The choice of the show was left to Brunet, who expressed the intention to play the most fashionable piece of his repertoire entitled Cadet Roussel, Master of Bombast.  Berthier, who has not seen Cadet Roussel, had no objection to a vaudeville saying something that was very gay was preferential to another that could be very boring.  He accepted the piece without prior examination. Napoleon had himself compiled the list of people he wanted from the court to have at this feast, and, despite a rigorous cold, not one of the women who were invited failed to appear.

The hunt was sad.  Everyone had noticed the despondency of the Emperor upon his arrival; but when he was preparing for dinner and for the ball which was to follow the show, he showed his pain with all its bitterness; so that the illustrious guests were no gayer during the meal than they had been during the hunt.  Napoleon, to whom nothing escaped, had insight into the constraint that prevailed around him.  To stop it, it felt it best to say before leaving the table and going into the theater:

—Goodness!  I intend everyone to be amused and to laugh a lot more than has been done so far.  I do not want to make people uncomfortable or stand on etiquette: we are not at the Tuileries!

We know what happens ordinarily with such orders by a sovereign: they completely paralyze very one that are still only partially uncomfortable.  But we can only judge the astonishment of the spectators when they heard, from the beginning of the piece, Cadet Roussel complain bitterly that his wife did not give him heirs!

“It is painful for a man like me,” said Brunet, “who has no one to pass on the legacy of his glory! Decidedly, I will divorce myself from Madame Cadet Roussel, to marry a woman whose children I can have.”

Most other scenes carried on this theme, and the word divorce was repeated twenty times.  Seeking to paint the embarrassment of the whole scene would be impossible, especially that of Berthier which was unimaginable.  Josephine was only barely contained; with every moment she found herself wronged.  As for Napoleon, he seemed not to care about the piece, and tried to laugh; but this was only lip service and grimacing.  No one dared look, for fear of the resulting attention; one expected at any moment an explosion.  It did not happen, thanks to Berthier, who, placed behind the Emperor, used the rights he had granted, to inject by voice, at intervals, a loud laugh that contrasted oddly with his dismayed face.  The show ending, Napoleon stood up and, taking the arm of the Grand Marshal, he said with a lively emphasis, albeit in a half-voice:

—Duroc, I see you've kept the secret of my divorce, because if it had been known, nobody would have been bold enough to afford me such an impertinence.

During this time the noise of this great event acquired from day to day consistency.  It is true, that one spoke of it only in a low voice, but eventually it was talked about everywhere.  Therefore, Napoleon, who wasn’t ignorant of these particularities, wanted what he called an end.  One morning (it was November 30), he ordered into his office the Queen of Holland and her brother Eugene, and admitted with sadness the cruel necessity that he was reduced to separate from their mother, and the sacrifice of the most cherished affections of his heart to the interests of his people.  He urged them to always remain united, and he assured them that the new marriage that he must endure to contract could not change the feelings he had always had for them.  Then, without wanting to hear the respectful objections that the children of Josephine tried to oppose him, he dismissed them in a fatherly way; but in the afternoon, he called the Queen of Holland alone.

—Hortense, he said, the nation has done so much for me and you that I believe it is owed the sacrifice it has imposed on me.  Its peace and happiness desires that I choose a new companion.  For a month, your mother lived in the torment of anxiety; all will be completed soon.  It is you, Hortense, who have managed to earn her trust the most: will you prepare her for her new destiny? ... You could ease my heart of a great weight.

—Sire, replied Hortense with tears in her eyes, it is because my unhappy mother gave me all this confidence and because I know that after Your Majesty and the feeling of indebtedness, my brother and I are what she loves most in the world, that it is impossible to charge me with this commission.

—You refuse me then, Hortense?

—Sire, I would never plunge a dagger into the heart of my mother...

—Hey!  My God! It is not a question here of a dagger!  Napoleon replied by making a small movement of the shoulders; women must exaggerate everything...

—Sire, let me return to my mother, interrupted the Queen with a reverence full of dignity.

—That is right, go, said Napoleon without appearing offended by such a clearly expressed refusal, it is the duty of a good and honorable daughter as you have always been; and it is thus, he added, for a man who has just made a decision; it is I who am responsible for this duty ... It is one of those things you need to know how to do for oneself.  Adieu, Hortense.

The same day, Their Majesties went to the table, as usual, at seven o'clock in the evening.  Josephine had been crying all morning, and, to hide as much as possible the traces of her grief, she was wearing a hat of white crepe knotted under the chin, and in this situation the view of her face was partially hidden.  Those who could have seen her face would have noticed that she still had red eyes and very colorful cheeks very.  During the short time that dinner lasted (ten minutes), Napoleon kept his eyes constantly downcast on his plate; if they rose at times, it was only to throw his wife a glance, in which was painted the painful feelings that filled him.  The officers of his household, motionless as this situation, watched with uneasy curiosity that silent scene.  The deepest silence reigned during this meal, which was served in the normal manner, as Napoleon and Josephine had not touched or anything.  There was only the sound of plates being changed, and the bringing of food and its being taken away.  This kind of bustle was sadly changed by the whispers of officers who came and went by their office and by the continual ringing that was produced by the Emperor beating rhythmically on the table with his knife, that he held lightly between two fingers.  Finally he broke the silence, but he was only asking as the cantonade (line prompter) and not speaking directly to anyone:

—What time is it?

At the same moment he rose from table, and, as we must believe, without waiting for reply.  Josephine followed him slowly into the small green salon; it was there that he used to take coffee.  Typically, a page presented to the Empress coffee on a vermilion tray, so she could personally pour the liquid in the cup she offered to the Emperor; but this time Napoleon went to the page, poured it himself, and, without waiting for the sugar to dissolve, swallowed liquor in one gulp, looking fixedly at his wife, who had remained standing before him; then placing the empty cup on the tray that the page was still holding: “Hold! He said, passing his handkerchief over his lips, and making to the other a sign to tell those present that he did not need anything else.  Everyone left, filled with concern and sad spirit, worried about the outcome of the scene that was coming.  In the salon where Their Majesties had dined, one watched as the valets mechanically remove all the objects that were still on the table.  Suddenly complaints and snatches of words came from the room where the Emperor and Empress were.  One heard Josephine exclaimed with a ripping accent:

—No, my friend, do not do this! ... You do not want to see me die! ... Bonaparte, I beseech you ...

Then moans and the sound as if a piece of furniture was struck violently.  The doorman of the chamber, thinking the Emperor was in trouble (this happened often over the past few days), rushed to the door to open it.  A chamberlain stopped him pointing out that the Emperor would call if it was deemed necessary.  When the doorman left, Napoleon himself opened the door forcefully, and among those that his eyes caught on, he saw M. de Beausset, who he said in a quick tone:

—Come, Beausset, and close the door behind you.

Just the prefect of the palace entered, he saw the Empress lying on the carpet near fireplace, beset by terrible convulsions, twisting arms and uttering painful cries:

—I cannot survive! ... she said by striking her head against the foot of a chair; I have to die! ...

Napoleon was kneeling beside his wife, holding her in his arms and trying to calm her producing the most tender words.

—Josephine, he said to her while getting her attention, my dear friend, that's me ... listen to me, therefore, be reasonable ... M. Beausset, are you strong enough to take the Empress? ... He asked the prefect of the palace in a half-voice, that this spectacle had moved to a distant point, but remained by the respect, saying nothing and did not dare approach.  —It is an attack of nerves that has just happened, added Napoleon in making useless efforts to raise his wife; she should be brought down by the little staircase; there we can call her ladies, and we will provide the care required by her condition ... Come on, Beausset! Do not worry and help me.

M. de Beausset approached finally, raised the Empress to her feet, and with the help of the Emperor, carried her in his arms.  It goes to the door of the salon which leads through a corridor by a small staircase, to the bathroom of Josephine.  Reaching the staircase, the prefect of the palace said to the Emperor that the passage is very dark and narrow,  he did not want to risk the Empress by carrying her alone.  Napoleon went back the way he came, fetching the custodian of the portfolio, which night and day sat at the door of his office on the landing, leading him into the corridor; taking up a torch in hand, and putting him before them saying:

—Go down slowly and light our way.

While this servant obeyed mechanically, without appearing to even notice the painful spectacle that hit his eyes, Napoleon took the feet of Josephine, and all three began to descend with care.  The Emperor was in the middle; M. de Beausset still with the arms of the fainted Empress; her back pressed on his chest and her head leaning on his right shoulder.  Arriving at the turn of the staircase, the sword which the prefect had not thought about getting rid of, passed between his legs and made him trip.  To avoid a fall which could only have been disastrous for all, M. de Beausset was forced to stop and rest against the wall; he gathered his strength, and embraced tighter his precious burden, in fear of letting it escape, but it must be presumed that Josephine had not entirely lost her senses, because as soon as she felt the pressure of M. Beausset, without making any movement, she said very softly:

—You shake me too hard.

With these words, she made a sudden movement that forced the Emperor to descend two steps faster than he wanted:

—Slowly therefore Beausset!  He said in a half-voice, you almost made us fall on each other.

Finally they arrive safely at the bedroom of Josephine, and they laid her gently on the small ottoman to the right of the window; then Napoleon reached for the bell cord which corresponded to the first lady of the Empress: it was responded to immediately:

—Madame, he said with vivacity, vinegar, salt! Call your companions and care for the Empress, who has just gone wrong.

Seeing the condition of her mistress, the first duty of this lady was to ring all the bells of the apartment.  A few seconds later, this room was crowded with women who came and went, and cut laces and cords to undress the Empress as quickly as possible.  M. de Beausset, reassured about her condition, had passed into the salon that preceded the bedroom.  Napoleon was soon to come there.  Since the beginning of this scene, which lasted just a few minutes, M. de Beausset had held that the Empress, whose condition was at first frightening.  He had paid no attention to the Emperor, whose restlessness and anxiety seemed to be extreme.  Napoleon informed him of the cause of what had just happened.

—The interest of France does violence to my heart, he said, divorce became necessary ... It is a duty required of me ... I am even more frightened of the state of Josephine, that for only a few days she could no longer ignore it.  Eugene and his sister had to tell her this morning.  She is to be pitied, poor woman! ... But I thought she would have had more character, more fortitude...

The emotion that Napoleon had in speaking, as well as while walking to the corner, forced him to put quite a long pause between each of his sentences.  The words had barely escaped from his panting chest, his voice trembling, tears rolled him in the eye; he had to be, what he called away from her to give an officer of his household, so well positioned in his intimacy, such a mark of confidence.  When he was a little calmed down, he sent for Corvisart, Queen Hortense, Eugene and Cambacérès, but before returning to his apartment, he wanted to assure himself of the state of Josephine; he found there much more calm and almost resignation.  After tenderly kissing her, he went into his office, followed by M. de Beausset, which he had signaled to accompany him. Arriving at the little staircase, where he had stumbled a few times before, he stopped:

—In truth, he said noting the small size of this passage; it was a miracle to be able to pass through here with a woman completely deprived of his senses, a true dead body!

This reflection was made to M. de Beausset, and despite himself a slight smile came out his mouth, and then respect soon suppressed it.  Arriving in the green room, he picked up his hat that he had thrown on the carpet to make his movements freer when Josephine was taken in his arms.

—Parbleu! You should have gotten rid that at the same time your sword, said Napoleon.  It is true that in such a crises one cannot think of everything... And as the prefect was about to leave the office: —A moment Beausset, Napoleon said, you know how you are talkative and curious: to avoid any kind of comments, you should say that the Empress has had a slight attack of nerves, caused by poor digestion ... She still eats too quickly, he said to him.  Then, giving him his hand as a sign full of kindness:

—M. de Beausset, he said in closing, this remains between us, I pray you.

There was barely a half-hour as Napoleon was in his office, gathering his thoughts and still impressed with the scene that had occurred, when Eugene entered, pale, and pain painted on his face.  He had just learned from his mother everything that had happened in the evening; he was overwhelmed.  On seeing him, Napoleon gave him his hand without moving from his chair.

—Sire, said Eugene, with downcast eyes, from that moment allow me to leave Your Majesty.

—You want this, Eugene? Asked Napoleon rising suddenly.

—Yes, Sire: the son of a woman who is no longer Empress cannot stay any longer as Viceroy.  It is his duty to follow his mother into the retirement that you choose ...

—Ah! Eugene ... is it really you who threatens to leave me?  Napoleon said with moving emphasis.  Do you not know how compelling the reasons are that forced me to take such a departure! ... Your mother did not explain to you as much! ... And if I get this son, the subject of my most cherished desires, who will replace me with him when I am absent? ... Who will serve as a father? ... That will raise him? ... In a word, will make him a man? ... I'll admit, I counted on you; because, finally, have I not acted as a father, myself, to you and your sister? ...

Here Napoleon could not say more. The Prince, unable to control his emotions, ran to the hand that the Emperor taken from him, and repeatedly pressed his lips on it with the greatest outpouring.  But Napoleon drew him softly to him, and kissing with great tenderness:

—Yes ... I repeat that you will not leave me, he murmured in an unintelligible voice.

—Never, Sire, never...

And Napoleon, who diverted his head to hide his tears, made a sign to Eugene with his hand to make him understand that he needed to be alone.

Starting the day on which her new destiny had been revealed by the Emperor, Josephine was barely out of her apartment and very rarely appeared in the Tuileries Circle.  Madam mother had done the honors of the court. However Napoleon wanted the Empress to assist with the Te Deum sung at Notre Dame two days later (December 2) for the anniversary of the coronation and the Battle of Austerlitz. Josephine came to a podium, surrounded by all the princesses of the imperial family, and Napoleon went alone, with great ceremony, to the métropole.  The next day she was still obliged to attend the party that the City of Paris gave on this occasion. The Emperor had requested that this feast commence early, because (he said) he wanted to see everyone and especially in the least possible courtly robes.

This dance was wonderful.  The throne room, among others, was resplendent with flowers, lights, diamonds and women all dressed more finely than one another; one would have said it was a fairytale.  Josephine came first; her appearance had never seemed so dazzling; never had her face, always so sweet, but that day marked by sadness, also expressed sublime resignation; and when arriving in the great hall, having passed under the eyes of first judges and the elite people of this good city, she walked slowly towards the throne on which she would sit for the last time, her eyes half closed, her knees weak ... she was obliged, to keep from falling, to support herself on the arm of Madame de Larochefoucault, her lady of honor.

—I would never have had the strength to get so far, she said in a feeble voice: I'm dying.

—A little bit of courage, Madam, replied the latter in a half voice, all eyes are directed on Your Majesty.

—Oh! The weight of a crown! She said even lower.

And, making a last effort, she began to smile: the Emperor had wanted it.

A moment later, the champs were beaten to announce the arrival of Napoleon. He advanced with a rapid step, accompanied by six kings who walked with him1, and came to sit next to the Empress, after talking to most of those who had been on his way.  The feast began. Napoleon, who wanted to be friendly, got up from his seat soon to do what he called his tour, but before descending to the stage he had looked to Josephine and told her a few words to the ear likely to ask her to accompany him because she got up at the moment.

M. de Talleyrand, who, in his capacity as Grand Chamberlain, was standing behind the Emperor rushed to follow him, but he tripped on the tail of the mantle of the Empress and keeping her from falling almost fell himself. Once released, he joined Napoleon without even the slightest apology to Josephine.  It would seem that the Prince of Benevento had no intention to insult the misery of the Empress; for he knew none of the secrets of the great drama that was being played; he knew that was the last act to perform; and certainly if he was polite to whoever it was, he would not have acted the same way a year ago.

As for Josephine, she stopped, and, with remarkable dignity, smiled at M. de Talleyrand, as to the clumsiness that was common to them both; but at the same time her eyes filled with tears and her lips became white and trembling with anger.

Arriving at the end of the large gallery, their Majesties separated; Napoleon went right and the Empress left.  Everyone went on her side to see her because she was adored by the bourgeoisie and even women of the court, who all liked to proclaim her goodness and forgiving; so this sad walk produced a strong impression on the crowd.  This was the last time the Empress appeared in public.

The religious formalities that the Pope had demanded once strictly observed, and the procedure prescribed by the canons of the Church completed, the consent was made by M. de Boislèvre, high official of the Archbishopric of Paris.  The marriage was dissolved by Napoleon, and he himself sentenced to a fine of six francs to the poor. The civil officials noted this consent soon after, because in submitting to the ruling of pure form, it made him laugh a lot, because he sent the same day one hundred twenty thousand francs to the mayors of Paris for distribution, each in their district, to the most needy.

—In my capacity as Emperor, he said, this time I must pay more than others.

On this occasion, we can get an idea of Napoleon's submission to the laws of the Empire in the acts of his private life. This procedure resulted in considerable ecclesiastical advances, both for the assistants' fees for the registration fees and for a host of acts that had become necessary; not only those expenses were paid in taxes and returned to the treasury, but by Napoleon who paid for them with the funds of his special purse.

The fatal day arrived: it was on 16 December 1809.  Already the Imperial Family and the great dignitaries of the crown were assembled at the Tuileries, in the gallery of Diana, which had been prepared for this purpose.  Napoleon sat on the seat that had been prepared to the right of the arch-chancellor.  He was as motionless as a statue, his hands crossed on each other, and he took his eyes constantly fixed on the door of the apartment interiors.   Suddenly the two wings open at once, two pages fall out to each side, and a bailiff announced loudly: Her Majesty the Empress and Queen!  At these words, there is a movement in the room soon followed by the deepest silence.  All eyes are directed to the same side: Napoleon rises, Josephine appears.  She is wearing a one piece muslin dress, a small blonde tortoiseshell comb in place this time instead of the jagged crown that usually framed the bun of her ebony hair; all her attire is remarkably simple: she did not wear a single jewel, only a small square-shaped medallion, suspended on a black silk cord, falls from her neck: it is the portrait of Napoleon when he was only Commander in Chief of the Army of Italy.  She moved slowly, supported on the arm of the Queen of Holland, as pale as her mother.  Eugene, standing next to the Emperor, with a fixed gaze, seemed to experience a violent shaking.  Napoleon approached him, searched for his hand and the squeezes it several times with emotion. Meanwhile, Josephine had come to sit before a small table covered with green velvet with gold fringe, placed a little forward and to the left of Cambacérès.  Napoleon made a graceful sign of the hand looking around him, as if to command the great dignitaries to sit.

So M. Regnault de Saint-Jean-d'Angély, as the Imperial Prosecutor, gave, in a weak voice, the reading of the act of separation.  He was listened to in a religious silence.  Great anxiety was painted on every face.  Josephine only seemed calm, her arm casually placed on the small table in front of her, head tilted, and large tears flowed from time to time on her cheeks.  Her daughter, standing behind her elbows supported on the back seat of her mother, continued to sob hiding her head in her hands ... As for Napoleon, he seemed to suffer a thousand times more than them both.

This reading completed, Josephine got up, wiped her eyes, and, in a firm voice, uttered the words of short accession, which had been made in advance; then took the pen that Cambacérès offered and signed the act that M. Regnault de Saint-Jean-d'Angély had laid before her, and immediately covering her eyes with her handkerchief, she retired quietly, supported by her daughter and without even looking at anyone.  On a signal by Napoleon, Eugene had jumped to his mother; but his strength failed him, he fell unconscious between the two doors of the gallery.  The bailiff, with the help of aide-de-camp of the Prince, who had followed him, raised him and carried him into the service lounge.  Napoleon then led them with great ceremony into his inner apartments, where he remained gloomy and silent the rest of the day.

People who observe all noticed that during the sad solemnity and despite the season, a terrible storm broke out in Paris.  Torrents of rain, terrible claps of thunder brought horror to mind; it would have been said that the sky showed its disapproval of the act which destroyed the happiness of Josephine.  No less extraordinary, a similar phenomenon happened also in Milan, the same day, at the same time.

The next day, after the adopted conventions, Josephine left the Tuileries to move to the Malmaison.  The persons attached to the service of Their Majesties, whose occupations did not allow into the interior apartments, had gathered in the vestibule of the Pavilion de l'Horloge to see once again, what had been for ten years their sovereign.   Sadly they watched without daring to speak.  Finally, at eleven o'clock, Josephine appeared, supported on the arm of Madame Darberg who became her Lady of Honor; but she was veiled and wrapped in a cashmere which completely disguised her. So it was a concert of inexpressible lamentations. She crossed the short space that separated her from her carriage and hurriedly crossed the step without even take a look at this palace that she never would see again; once the blinds were lowered, the horses left with the speed of light.

During the first week, the route between Paris and Malmaison was covered with a crowd of people of all ranks, which regarded like a sacred duty, to stand again at least once more, though deprived of the crown, before she who was not to retain the title of Empress.  As for Napoleon, who, in turn, was moved to Trianon, he made every effort to become accustomed to living alone, but he sent every day to know news about Josephine: he would have been there himself if he had dared.

1The kings of Spain, Holland, Westphalia, Naples, Bavaria and Württemberg.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2009


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