On 15th December 1809 Napoleon Bonaparte divorced his wife of 13 years, Josephine de Beauharnais, so that he could marry a younger woman who might be able to produce an heir for him. She was 46 at the time, whereas Napoleon was only 40 and he had his eye on an 18-year-old Austrian princess, Marie Louise, who was unaware of his plan until it was presented to her as a done deal.
Although the marriage of Napoleon and Josephine appeared happy enough on the surface, Napoleon refused to let sentiment rule reality. As he said to Josephine: “In politics there is no heart, only head”. He announced his intention to her over dinner, just a few weeks before the divorce took place. Josephine screamed in horror at the idea, but had no choice but to comply with the wishes of the most powerful man in Europe.
The divorce papers were signed in Napoleon’s study, after which a tearful Josephine left on the arm of her daughter (by her first marriage) Hortense. She moved to the palace of Malmaison where she died five years later.
An ironical aspect of Napoleon’s somewhat cynical move is that his wish to ensure that another Napoleon became the Emperor of France was fulfilled not by any heir born to Marie Louise but by a grandson of Josephine de Beauharnais. This was Napoleon III, the son of Hortense, who became ruler of the Second Empire in 1852 and was eventually overthrown in 1870 after the Franco-Prussian War.
© John Welford