Emperor of France.
Letter Signed, February 26, 1810, quarto, in French. To Prince Eugène Napoleon.
“As the Emperor has granted the request I had made to him for the hand of his daughter, Archduchess Marie Louise, in whom I discerned merit and brilliant qualities, I have decided to fix the celebration of my marriage for Paris on March 29. I have sent the Prince of Neufchâtel to attend as witness the marriage, which will take place by proxy in Vienna on March 6. In this way, the Empress can arrive at Compiegne on the 23rd, to gather the Princes and Princesses of my family around me. I am notifying you of this with this letter and desire that no legitimate hindrance stand in the way of your being in Paris by March 20.
“Your affectionate father,”
An interesting letter to Josephine’s son, representing what happens when human and dynastic destinies collide, pulling apart a union based on love and replacing it with a union based on necessity. Napoleon’s decision to divorce his wife of fourteen years in 1810 was the major personal drama of his reign as Emperor.
Josephine de Beauharnais was a widow with two young children, Hortense and Eugene, when she met Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795. Her husband had been guillotined during the reign of terror and she sought the company, support and protection of powerful men. Napoleon, who was six years younger than the seductive Josephine, was more ardent than powerful but a year later, his star began to rise; he was appointed commander of the Army of Italy. Two days after their wedding, the young general left to lead the French army in Italy, sending Josephine many love letters during their separation.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s family was shocked by the marriage and never took to Josephine. While the relationship between Napoleon and Josephine (a French revolution love story) was tempestuous, there is no doubt that it was a love match. Napoleon adopted her son Eugène, of whom he was fond, in 1806 but he was excluded from succession to the French Empire. Over time, he would prove to be one of Napoleon’s most able relatives. He served under his command in the Italian campaigns and accompanied him to Egypt (from where he returned in the fall of 1799 to bring about the reconciliation of Bonaparte and his mother who had become estranged due to the extramarital affairs of both).
Napoleon’s divorce from Josephine had long been foreseen as the Emperor (as of 1804) needed an heir and she could not provide him one. Palace intrigues (some of them led by his own family) were commonplace but the impetus for the divorce was Napoleon’s triumph over Austria in 1809 and an attempt on his life at Schönbrunn the same year. On his return to Paris, Napoleon caused the news to be broken to Josephine that reasons of state of the most urgent kind compelled him to divorce her. An affecting scene was said to have taken place between them on November 30th, 1809; Napoleon, though moved by her distress (and reportedly, her screams), remained firm.
In the interests of France, Josephine found her way to agreeing to the divorce. In a divorce ceremony which took place on January 10th, 1810 – a grand but solemn social occasion – each party read statements of devotion to the other, and Josephine retired to Malmaison.
The only remaining question was whether the bride would be a Russian (the Tsar’s sister) or an Austrian (from the Hapsburg dynasty). With great skill, Count Metternich let it be known that a union with Marie-Louise, a niece of Marie-Antoinette, would be welcome. For Eugène, now a Prince, with an important role in the administration of the Empire, whose mother, however bitterly, had agreed to the divorce, and who had been allowed by Napoleon to retain the title of Empress, there could have been no choice but to do as his mother had done and bow to his adopted father’s demands.
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