Biographies & Memoirs


“Your Imperial Majesty”

Napoleon’s empire was announced on May 18, 1804, to a twenty-one-gun salute. He was the only person at ease, receiving the senators as they stumbled between “Citizen Consul” and “Citizen Emperor.” Josephine visibly trembled when she was called “Your Imperial Majesty.” She was now the empress of France. Surely no mere actress could unseat her now.

Madame de Staël was shocked. “For a man who had risen above every throne, to come down willingly and take his place amongst the kings!” But Napoleon’s supporters, particularly the workingmen who cheered his military victories, thought he could do no wrong. The liberals, who had deluded themselves that he was an heir of the Revolution, were scandalized. But the majority of the French were weary of bloodshed, afraid of the British threat, and desperate for security. Napoleon, a strong ruler who would brook no opposition, seemed their only option.

He had chosen “emperor” as his title. “King” was impossible, but “emperor,” he felt, would remind the French of the grandeur of Charlemagne, the holy Roman emperor. Unlike Charlemagne, he would not be traveling to Rome for the coronation. Pope Pius VII would have to come to Paris. Napoleon’s Council of State, many of them fanatical anti-clerics, were livid. They had been infuriated by Napoleon’s reestablishment of the church, and a religious coronation was, they declared, the last straw. But Napoleon brushed off their complaints. He assured them that a coronation was necessary to ensure the greatness of France, inspiring the people with pride and putting him on the same footing as every monarch in Europe.

Sixty-two-year-old Pope Pius was reluctant to minister over the coronation, for he had been deeply distressed by Napoleon’s treatment of the Duc d’Enghien. Cardinal Joseph Fesch was sent to persuade him. Fesch pleaded, he flattered, he offered gifts, and he gave a heavy-handed reminder of Napoleon’s military strength. Eventually, Pius gave in and agreed to come. As a thank-you, Napoleon gave Fesch a seat in the French senate, the position of grand almoner of the empire, and the grand cordon of the Légion d’Honneur.

Napoleon was the ruler of an empire, but unfortunately for him, his family was as ungovernable as ever. On the evening he was proclaimed emperor, he dined with them, and they did nothing but attack him for not treating them well. He decreed that his heir would be Joseph, followed by Joseph’s male descendants, and then Louis, followed by Louis’s descendants. Jérôme and Lucien, he decided, should be ruled out of inheriting, since he did not approve of their marriages. He felt that Lucien’s wife, the illiterate sister of an innkeeper, was hardly a woman to be elevated to Napoleon’s magnificent succession. Joseph and Louis were each given the title prince of the empire, a million francs a year, and an additional one third of a million francs a year in expenses. That their sisters-in-law would be princesses was too much for Elisa and Caroline, who would be without titles because Napoleon had not made their husbands princes. The sisters screamed and railed as they accused their brother of condemning them to “obscurity and contempt.”1Napoleon vainly puffed that he was emperor and should be able to hand out honors as he liked. Letizia was incandescent that her title would be merely “Madame Mère de Sa Majesté l’Empereur” and not “The Imperial Mother” and declared she would not attend the coronation.

Napoleon finally gave in and allowed his sisters to take the title of imperial highness. They would be princesses, although their husbands would remain commoners. Pauline had the same privileges, but she was disdainful. As she pointed out, she was already a real princess, since she was the wife of Prince Borghese. Lucien was so furious to be excluded from the succession that he stormed off to Rome. The Bonaparte family was united in only one wish: that Josephine would not become empress. The thought of having to bow and curtsey to the whore from Martinique was simply too much. The family’s hatred plunged Hortense into further suffering; her husband and his family never refrained from attacking her mother and listing her sins.

Napoleon expected Josephine to assume the role of the most splendid empress. The old days of informal gatherings and conversations with the public were over. “She is a good, easy-going woman,” Napoleon told his minister of the interior. “Her progress and her conduct will have to be dictated to her.” She now had fourteen ladies-in-waiting, copious jewels, and a huge household. Most of her ladies were drawn from the old aristocracy and, when her back was turned, complained about serving “Madame Bonaparte.” One of her new ladies-in-waiting was Elisabeth de Vaudey, a pretty thirty-one-year-old blonde with a good singing voice and a passion for intrigue. She was fond of Josephine but scornfully thought her “need to open her heart, to repeat all that happens between herself and the Emperor, takes away much of Napoleon’s confidence in her.” She saw her mistress as superficial. “Josephine is like a ten-year-old child in her generosity, her frivolity and her rapid emotions, she can weep and be comforted in minutes.” Elisabeth thought Josephine was as “ignorant as most Creoles” but had acquired “graceful manners” and wit, although she did admit that the empress was “perfectly gentle and equable; it is impossible not to be fond of her.”2 Josephine made a mistake in telling Elisabeth her secrets, for the young woman liked to gossip, and everything Josephine told her found its way back to the emperor.

In July, Napoleon was due to travel to the coast to inspect the naval bases in preparation for another proposed invasion of Britain. Josephine, perhaps in a last-ditch attempt to get pregnant, traveled in the same month to take the spa waters at Aix-la-Chapelle, the burial place of Charlemagne. The journeys to Plombières, eating spinach dressed in lamp oil en route, were a thing of the past. Napoleon set his ministers to creating a twenty-four-page directive on the empress’s triumphal progress, the style of her entourage, and what gifts she would offer. And while Madame de La Rochefoucauld and Josephine supervised the packing of her gowns, all the mayors and shopkeepers along the way prepared gun salutes, rehearsed bands to play fanfares as she approached, and strung illuminations across their towns.

Josephine arrived in imperial magnificence (if not always exactly on time). She took four of her ladies, two women of the bedchamber, two chamberlains, a comptroller, a master of the horse, two ushers, ten footmen, coachmen, and her own kitchen staff. At least seventy horses accompanied her carriage. It was grandeur all the way, and she was greeted with “enthusiasm that erupted at the sight of the Empress in the towns through which she passed,” in the words of Mademoiselle Avrillon, one of her ladies.3

While inspecting the troops, Napoleon was gratified to hear excellent reports of Josephine. At Charlemagne’s tomb, she was presented with a rather grimy bone said to be that of the holy Roman emperor. She declined it graciously, saying she had “for her own support an arm as strong as Charlemagne’s.” “You are still essential to my happiness,” Napoleon wrote to her. To Josephine’s joy, he announced that he would meet her at Aix and accompany her party on a visit along the Rhine. “I cannot wait to see you and to cover you with kisses. A bachelor’s life is a horrid life and I miss my good, tender and beautiful wife.”4 Unfortunately, he also wanted to see her lady-in-waiting, Elisabeth de Vaudey.

Like queens and princesses throughout history, Josephine chose beautiful, graceful, and accomplished ladies-in-waiting only to find her husband attempting to seduce them. “Every liberty which he takes pleases him as though it were a victory,” Madame de Rémusat observed.5 As the party progressed through the towns of the Rhine, Napoleon and Elisabeth began an affair. As always, a new romance meant he was even more irritable with his wife. One night he hauled her out of bed in the middle of the night, demanding that she get dressed and attend him immediately, as if sleeping were an act of neglect. Another woman Napoleon pounced on was blond twenty-year-old Anna Roche de La Coste, whose main task was to read to Josephine in her chamber. She gave in to Napoleon but refused to relinquish her lover, his chamberlain, Theodore de Thiard. The emperor stumbled across them in bed together (no doubt notified by Fouché) and sent Thiard off to the Vatican. His attention was piqued by Anna’s disinterest, and in front ofeverybody at court, he gave her an incredibly expensive ring and demanded that Josephine bring her to a state reception. Luckily, Anna soon fell out of favor, and Napoleon amused himself by toying with Thiard and sending him on ever more impossible missions. It was unfortunate for the empress that her old friend Juliette Récamier, who had long been able to withstand Napoleon’s advances, had declined the role of lady-in-waiting (Napoleon later exiled her).

When Napoleon and Josephine returned to Paris, he took up with Adèle Duchâtel, a golden-haired court beauty in possession of a complaisant older husband. Josephine was in paroxysms of misery at the affair. One day at Saint-Cloud, she saw Adèle secretly leave the room and convinced herself that her rival was on her way to Napoleon. Madame de Rémusat tried to dissuade her, but Josephine was determined to find out what was happening. She hurtled up the stairs to Napoleon’s chamber, listened at the door, and heard the voices of Adèle and her husband. She knocked and begged to be allowed in, then burst through the door, ran to the bed, and began upbraiding her husband. Adèle started crying, and Napoleon was inflamed with fury; as Josephine recounted to Madame de Rémusat, “Bonaparte flew into so violent a passion that I hardly had time to fly before him and escape his rage. I am still trembling at the thought of it.”6 Adèle fled and Josephine dashed away to her rooms, but he followed, screaming and shouting so loudly that the whole palace could hear. He threw every insult at her and smashed her furniture. Shrieking that she was now beyond redemption and that he’d had enough, he ordered her to leave the palace immediately. He roared that he was tired of her spying and that it was time to think of his legacy, “which demanded that he should take a wife capable of having children.”7

Finally confronting divorce, Josephine implored Hortense to try and win Napoleon around, but she declined. “I cannot; Louis has forbidden it. My mother will only lose a crown and there are women more unhappy than she.”8 Poor Hortense knew from experience that Bonaparte was immovable these days. “Besides, her only hope lies in the influence she exercises over Napoleon by means of her sweet and gentle nature and her tears.” That evening he sent for Eugène and told the young man that he would divorce his mother. Eugène took the news with dignity. Rather than begging his stepfather to change his mind, he told him that if that were to happen, then it was his duty to accompany his mother wherever she went, even if she wished to return to Martinique.

As usual, Josephine wept and pleaded with Napoleon to forgive her. He gave in and took her back into his bed—partly because he was so annoyed that his family had been delighted by the news of their argument. But he was still thinking of divorce. Like a coward, he hoped she might choose to leave. As he told her, “I feel that I shall never have the strength to oblige you to leave me. I tell you plainly, however, that it is my earnest desire that you shall resign yourself to the interest of my policy and yourself spare me all the difficulties of this painful separation.”9 Josephine, left to rely on her wits, conjured up a brilliant strategy: She bent her head in submission and said she would leave the minute she received a “direct order from Napoleon to descend the throne.”10 He could not bear to ask her, so the question remained unresolved.

Josephine, who had come to understand how much jealousy infuriated her husband, was now playing the most docile and obedient wife. Claire de Rémusat noted how her “complete submissiveness and her attitude of unresisting victim” threw Napoleon into nervous uncertainty. His wife was jealous, too old to have children, and had been unfaithful in the early days. But she had stood by him, married him when few other women had deigned to speak to him, and perhaps most important, cared for him rather than his power. After Egypt, he declared he had forgiven her because of his love for Eugène and Hortense. Similarly, in 1804 he confessed he was very fond of his stepchildren (who, he said, never asked him for anything) and thought he owed Josephine kindness for their sake. He declared that it just didn’t seem fair to throw her aside. “My wife is a good woman who never does anyone any harm,” he sighed. He depended on her and doubted that any foreign princess could make him so content. When his minister Pierre Louis Roederer asked what he planned to do, Napoleon was muddleheaded. “It is only fair that she should be an Empress. If I was thrown into prison instead of ascending a throne, she would share my misfortune. She should share my grandeur,” he said. As he put it, “She will be crowned if it costs me 200,000 men!”11 But he would make no firm decision.

While Josephine waited and restrained herself from losing her temper, plans for the coronation were moving ahead. Napoleon was overseeing every aspect of the ceremony at Notre-Dame. To allow his procession full access to the cathedral, he ordered that some of the surrounding houses be demolished. He instructed Percier and Fontaine, along with Jacques-Louis David, to cover the exterior of Notre-Dame with wooden boards to hide the displeasing Gothic style. The interior would look less like a cathedral and more like a themed ball at the Tuileries. Workmen erected huge slabs of painted board, strung candelabra from the ceiling, decorated the floor with tapestries and rugs, and swathed velvet over the walls. David and Isabey were instructed to design the outfits for the men, and they selected the Renaissance style of Francis I of France. They meant to evoke a more heroic age, but the ruffs and doublets were not flattering to stocky Napoleon or others in his rather corpulent court.

As the day approached, Joseph told Napoleon repeatedly that it would be best for all concerned if Josephine sat in the pews and watched the ceremony rather than being crowned. At the Tuileries, there was a model of Notre-Dame occupied by several hundred paper dolls to represent all the dignitaries who would attend the coronation. Isabey had created the model instead of drawing the series of events in pictures. The emperor doll was purple and center stage. The Josephine doll had no official seating—she was moved around and sometimes abandoned at the side of the model cathedral.

Napoleon decided that the icon of his reign would be the eagle of the Caesars, the bird of power and victory. Hunting for another symbol, something suitably memorable to outdo the fleur-de-lys, he chose the bee to evoke Childeric, the fifth-century king of the Franks. When Childeric’s tomb had been found by a mason in 1653, it was filled with precious objects and more than three hundred gold bees. Napoleon felt that the bee—symbol of resurrection, immortality, and royal authority—was another ideal icon for his reign. Fabric and carpet makers were at once set to weaving bees into every piece of material that would take them. He commissioned Fontaine to design an imperial state coach covered with stars, laurel leaves, and bees and bearing an eagle and Charlemagne’s crown at the top. Embroidered bees, gilt bees, bronze bees, all hovered and buzzed on the curtains, floor coverings, wall hangings, books, and furniture of the Tuileries, in the workshops of dressmakers and jewelers, and across the apartments of the ever loyal Josephine. She chose the symbol of the swan, graceful on the surface but scrabbling hard underwater.

The gossips were whispering that Josephine would not require a particularly handsome gown for the coronation. The celebration was only weeks away and her position was still undecided. Her paper doll was without a home in the model of Notre-Dame. As the weeks progressed and Napoleon flirted with his mistresses, courtiers began to be openly rude to her. Everyone still laughed behind their hands at Josephine’s humiliation over Adèle Duchâtel. The Bonapartes cut her out completely and refused to stand when she entered the room. They counted their chickens too quickly; they forgot how mercurial the emperor could be. One night in November, frustrated with his demanding family and their evident pleasure at Josephine’s fall, Napoleon made up his mind for good. As he watched her crumple under their cruelties, he leaped up and, in front of everyone, went to his wife, seized her in his arms, and stroked her like a child. “The Pope will be here at the end of the month,” he said. “He will crown us both. Start to prepare for the ceremony.” Josephine threw herself at Napoleon’s feet.

Now she had to beg a favor from her dressmaker. Napoleon knew exactly how he wished her to appear, and she had under five weeks to perfect her costume. She would wear an elaborate white dress swathed in gold tulle and embroidered with golden bees; there was to be a magnificent train of twenty-five yards of red velvet, adorned with yet more bees and bordered in ermine. Josephine’s apartments were a flurry of great artists, all conferring with her on the design for the costume for her ladies as well as herself. There was talk of resurrecting the old hoop of Marie Antoinette, but Josephine refused, suggesting a tulle ruff around the neck—which corresponded perfectly to Napoleon’s desire for the coronation to have a Renaissance look (although some worried that it evoked the terrifying Catherine de Medici).

Every dressmaker in Paris was working around the clock. Gold thread was at a premium, and fine embroiderers—who had fallen out of fashion in the Republic—could name their price. “It seems like a dream or a story from the Arabian nights when I remember the luxury that was displayed at that period,” recalled Madame de Rémusat.12 The population of the city seemed to double, people were repainting their houses, dancers at the Opéra were learning new ballets, and delivery boys ran all over the city with food and drink for receptions. Notre-Dame was a hive of activity, so covered in embroidered hangings that one visitor thought God Himself would get lost there. Carts of furniture, cloth, jewels, and fine glass and china arrived daily. The “gaiety, anticipation and celebration in Paris then was unimaginable,” Josephine noted.13 The moneylenders did the best business of all. Each lady-in-waiting was given ten thousand francs to compensate for her expenditure and gowns, but they all spent much more, even four times that amount—a huge sum when the average wage was around seven hundred francs a year.

Not everyone was swept away with delight and excitement. The Bonaparte family immediately started on the counterattack. The last queen of France to be crowned was Marie de Medici in 1610, and her husband had been assassinated the next day. Did Napoleon want the same to happen? He tried to brush off their insinuations. Caroline, Elisa, and Pauline were told firmly that they would be expected to carry Josephine’s marvelous train of ermine and velvet, along with Hortense and Julie, wife of Joseph. The sisters practically fainted at the news, and Joseph roared that his wife, as a virtuous woman, could not carry Josephine’s train. He complained that even when Marie de Medici had been crowned, a distant relative had carried her train, “not the King’s own sister.” Caroline led the others in a hysterical strike of tears, pleas, and attempts at haranguing Napoleon into changing his mind. Finally, after suffering six days of constant complaints, he gave in and told his sisters that they would merely have to support the mantle during the ceremony. Each one would have a chamberlain to carry her own train. “Only my family can exert such influence over me,” sighed Napoleon, the terrifying ruler of the French empire brought low by his cross sisters—“I’ve lost sleep over this.”14Although the sisters had escaped the public humiliation of playing Josephine’s bridesmaids, they had lost the bigger battle. The hated “la Beauharnais,” the reviled “la vieille,” was to be crowned empress in the eyes of the world.

Josephine’s docile behavior had, as Hortense predicted, won Napoleon back to her side. But she was not satisfied. She still wished for the religious blessing Napoleon had denied her.

After the wearisome journey from Rome, Pope Pius VII, elderly and infirm, arrived and was greeted by cheering Parisians. After welcome celebrations at Fontainebleau, Pius and his attendants took up residence in fifty-six rooms of the Tuileries and, having expected a nation of atheists, were quite stunned by the religious fervor. Everyone from revolutionary generals to Jacobins flocked to the pope’s apartments, begging him to bless their belongings. Pius was presented with watches, pens, scissors, purses, and ink pots, and had to bless them all. He was followed wherever he went, and every morning huge crowds would appear under his balcony at the Tuileries, calling loudly for him to bless them.

The enthusiasm of the population was only half consolation to Pius for some of the shocking demands Napoleon had made. The new emperor had informed the pope that the service would be radically changed and that he would have to walk into the cathedral rather than be carried on a litter—an unfair demand for vainglorious Napoleon to make of the elderly and infirm pope.

On December 1, the day before the coronation, Josephine made her move. She had left it to the last minute to minimize any possible discussion. She begged for a private audience with the pope and then, weeping, told him that her marriage had been only a civil affair. Poor Pius was shocked to discover that he had been on the brink of anointing the emperor’s concubine with holy oil. Josephine had timed her attack superbly. Pius was annoyed at the constant humiliations he had received from Napoleon, and this was the final straw. He had accepted having to walk into the cathedral, he had given in to the curtailed ceremony, but he would not crown a sinful pair of cohabitees as emperor and empress. He declared that if Napoleon and Josephine were not married in a properly religious ceremony, he would not preside over the coronation.

Napoleon had to relent. He could not postpone the coronation, and Pius was not to be moved. Cardinal Fesch was sent to arrange an immediate marriage service. That night during a brief break from the preparations, at a makeshift altar hastily erected in Napoleon’s study, the emperor and empress were married by Fesch in a short ceremony at midnight. Their parish priest was not present, as was required, and the attendance of witnesses was debatable—Josephine claimed two aides-de-camp were present, but Napoleon later denied they had been there.15 It was thus hardly legal, which was perhaps why Napoleon went through with it without resentment. At the end, Josephine asked Fesch to give her a written certification of the marriage. She thought it her surefire protection against divorce.

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