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A man in 19th Century formal dress puts a crown on the head of a woman in the same.
Napoleon Bonaparte (Joaquin Phoenix) crowns his wife Josephine (Vanessa Kirby) Empress of France.
Columbia Pictures

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The truth about Napoleon and Josephine’s marriage, divorce, and lasting legacy

The Bonaparte marriage, not quite explained by Ridley Scott’s new movie.

Nylah Burton is an award-winning travel, entertainment, and lifestyle writer with bylines in New York Magazine, Travel + Leisure, and Vogue.

What viewers might want or expect from Ridley Scott’s Napoleon — epic scenes of war, sexily torn bodices, and a very short emperor — won’t be exactly what they get. The battle scenes drag on, the ruler is shown to be a truly appalling lover — neighing as foreplay and thrusting like a hammer — and Joaquin Phoenix is a perfectly reasonable 5-foot-8. What they will get, however, besides a difficult-to-place tone and the sight of a horse exploding from cannon fire, is a whole lot of Napoleon’s (Phoenix) relationship with Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), his wife of 14 years and the empress of France. The movie goes deep into their love story: his letters, her affairs, his affairs, and ultimately their very strange divorce ceremony, necessary because Josephine — six years older than Napoleon — couldn’t give the upstart emperor an heir.

In the film, the ceremony is attended by luminaries and family, and stresses the couple’s love for each other even through the dissolution of their union. “You have embellished my life for 15 years, the memories of which have been etched in my heart,” Napoleon reads during his speech. Josephine tries to get through her similarly loving speech and the insistence that they’re doing this for the good of France, but she struggles and Napoleon shakes and slaps her, telling her to do it for her country. Bizarre, to say the least. It leaves viewers wondering how much of this relationship — and its undoing — is fact and how much is fiction.

But before we dive into that divorce ceremony and whether it really went down like that — and why — a little background on the world’s favorite little man in a funny hat.

Napoleon didn’t start off as royalty, but rather as a French army officer from a minor Italian noble family from Corsica. But he was a voracious reader and brilliant military strategist, which caused him to rise further in the ranks. Louis Sarkozy, son of former French President Nicholas Sarkozy and author of the upcoming book Napoleon’s Library: The Emperor, His Books and Their Influence on the Napoleonic Era, says that Napoleon was “an amazing, multifaceted character.”

After the infamous French Revolution that deposed (to put it gently) King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, via guillotine, Napoleon’s power and influence grew with his military and political victories, eventually leading him to stage a coup and become first consul of the French Republic in 1799 — alongside two other consuls, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès and Pierre-Roger Ducos, who were mere figureheads — before declaring himself Emperor of France in 1804. Legend (and the movie) says he snatched the crown from Pope Pius VII and crowned himself, an unheard-of act that demonstrated a lack of respect for the Church. (Perhaps this was the error he sought to correct by handling his divorce very — some might say too — respectfully.)

A man in a wide hat in front of the pyramids
Napoleon in Egypt, thinking about his wife cheating on him.
Columbia Pictures

As a member of the aristocracy that France had turned on — Josephine was once imprisoned in the Bastille, as the movie shows — Napoleon’s choice of wife was beneficial for him politically. Katherine Astbury, professor of French studies at the University of Warwick, tells Vox that “Josephine was an important part of Napoleon’s policy to reconcile those who had been on opposing sides during the Revolution. Her position in society enabled her to smooth over political differences. As wife of the first consul and then empress, her role was to enhance the glory of the regime.” Josephine was a dazzling host and diplomat, presenting France as a prosperous and sophisticated nation during a time when many were wondering if the recent executions meant it had turned barbaric. In fact, Astbury says, Josephine spent far more on clothing than Marie Antoinette, famously reviled for her extravagance.

And during his reign, Napoleon did a lot. “He invented the [Corps d’Armée] system, a way to move armies in the field, which was absolutely revolutionary,” Sarkozy tells Vox. “It’s why he won so many battles in the beginning. It was virtually copied by everybody. His Egyptian expedition pretty much created modern archeology, and his discovery of the Rosetta Stone led to the deciphering of the hieroglyphs.” Sarkozy goes so far as to call him a “sublime genius,” albeit one “full of faults.”

One of those faults, it is necessary to point out, is him reinstating slavery in Haiti after it had been abolished. This is one of the many reasons historians, like University of Virginia African Diaspora Studies professor Marlene L. Daut, caution us against making a hero of Napoleon. “Napoleon Bonaparte theoretically embraced this notion of revolution and breaking the chains of human beings everywhere. But he reinstated slavery in Haiti after it had been abolished in 1802, so he seemed to believe that actually that should only be the case for white people,” says Gillian Weiss, professor of history at Case Western University and author of Captives and Corsairs: France and Slavery in the Early Modern Mediterranean.

Josephine was born to a noble family in Martinique, a Caribbean country and French colony. The movie shows Josephine having a Caribbean multiracial maid but doesn’t explore her family’s connection to slavery: They owned a sugar plantation. In 2020, antiracism protesters in Martinique tore down a statue of the former empress that had been commissioned by Bonaparte’s nephew Napoléon III in 1859. The statue of Josephine had also been decapitated in 1991, so safe to say Black Caribbeans are no big fans of the Bonapartes. Josephine is a complicated character in the film as well, although not for her family’s economic interest in oppressing people: She’s shown — accurately — to have had affairs that became the talk of France and a feature of the newspapers. Surprisingly, this wasn’t what led to the divorce, which Astbury points out was actually an annulment.

Like any conqueror, Napoleon needed an heir. However, because Napoleon was self-crowned and self-made, having children was arguably even more crucial to his reign. Sarkozy tells Vox that Napoleon’s urge to secure his reign was the primary reason for the divorce. “He used to always say that the Bourbons, the French kings who were before him, that they had a thousand years to build their legitimacy. He did not have a thousand years. He barely had 10. He wanted to cement his dynasty. So, how do you do that? You have a son. And unfortunately, Josephine was unable to produce a son.”

As much as he loved Josephine, being six years older than him, she was unable to have any more children — she had two with her first husband, the Vicomte de Beauharnais, but none with Napoleon. In the movie, Napoleon’s overbearing mother forces him to have sex with an 18-year-old girl to see if he can get her pregnant, determining if the lack of pregnancy was Jospehine’s or Napoleon’s fault. In real life, cheating on Josephine wasn’t as unpleasant or forced a task. “I think we count throughout his life about 22 to 24 mistresses, including two or three illegitimate children,” says Sarkozy.

But children born outside of marriage can’t inherit the throne. The movie even shows Napoleon considering pawning off one of his other kids as Josephine’s child. But ultimately, the political mastermind knows he must have an heir from his marriage to protect his legacy. So he pushes on with the annulment and the ceremony: public display, speeches, and all. He then went on to marry the sister of the Austrian archduke, Marie Louise, duchess of Parma, making her the new empress of France.

“Legislation was introduced in 1806 to strengthen the idea of a hereditary empire, and one of the clauses said that members of the imperial family could not divorce,” says Astbury. “It took a lot of maneuvering for Napoleon to get out of his marriage to Josephine in order to have an heir.” She points to an 1807 police report that gives an indication of how people felt at the time, with some at court saying that the empress is an asset to the empire, while others feel that the need for an heir overrides other concerns.

It was out of this mixture of his love for Josephine and the importance of making sure he didn’t appear to discard her that the divorce ceremony was conceived. Astbury says the ceremony was “politically useful ... Josephine shows that she is doing this of her own free will. The speech she gives has been carefully prepared in conjunction with Napoleon so that Josephine is not humiliated by her inability to bear him an heir.” In real life, Josephine’s speech read: “I know how much this act, called for by politics and greater interests, has pained [Napoleon’s] heart; but glorious is the sacrifice that he and I make for the good of our nation.” To prevent her from even more humiliation, Josephine had the title of empress dowager after the divorce, got to keep their residence Malmaison, and received a hefty allowance. In real life and in the movie, Josephine seems to accept this halfway position she has in Napoleon’s life — not a wife but not quite an ex either. “One day you will know what I have sacrificed for you,” she whispers to Napoleon’s son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph, when he introduces her to him.

But divorcing Josephine was arguably useless, mostly because the alliance with Austria was a failure. “It was a mistake because Austria’s conflicts with France were irreconcilable,” says Sarkozy. “The two areas where Austria wanted to extend its influence were the same areas France wanted to extend its influence, northern Italy and Germany. So even though he married the daughter of the archduke, a couple years later, he was already back at war with them.”

Like many historians and Napoleon’s advisers of the day, Sarkozy thinks Russia would have been the superior choice of ally; he should have married the Tsar’s sister instead, as he is shown in the film requesting. “Had Russia been chosen and seduced by France and had the continental blockade not been imposed, I think it would’ve worked out a lot better,” Sarkozy says. “Although I’m speaking with the benefit of hindsight. Who knows what decisions I would’ve made were I present in 1810?”

A young and beautiful woman in a crown.
Vanessa Kirby, who plays Josephine in Napoleon, is 35 to Joaquin Phoenix’s 49.
Columbia Pictures

As for preserving his dynasty, well, it’s complicated. While he had a son with Marie Louise, Napoleon’s reign ended after he lost in Russia and went into exile on the island of Elba, then reclaimed his power and lost again at Waterloo, going into exile for good this time on St. Helena, a small island in the middle of the Atlantic, 1,200 miles from the coast of southwestern Africa — France really wanted him out of there. His son, Napoleon François Charles Joseph, had a short and disputed reign as Napoleon II for only 20 days , eventually being succeeded — with a king in between — by his cousin Napoleon III. (Napoleon III was, ironically, the son of Josephine’s only daughter, Hortense, and Bonaparte’s brother Louis.) After the third and final Napoleon, France went back to being a Republic with a proper president, and the short but memorable Bonaparte dynasty was effectively over.

Who do we blame for the fall of the empire and Napoleon? Could it be that maybe the “greatest general of all time” wasn’t really all that? Were they unavoidable military and political miscalculations? Or did the empire die the day of that divorce ceremony?

The movie plays with the idea that Napoleon’s fall was due to him divorcing Josephine. When the then-general first hears of the affair Josephine carried on while he was in Egypt, he comes to her and tells her to say she is nothing without him. Tearfully, she agrees, but later that same night, turns it back on him. “You want to be great. You are nothing without me. Say it. You are just a brute that is nothing without me,” Kirby’s Josephine tells Phoenix’s Napoleon, and he says it back. After she dies and he is in exile, he hears her voice from the dead saying, “I let you loose and let you come to ruin, next time I will be emperor and you will do as I say.”

However, Sarkozy refutes the idea that the divorce led to Napoleon’s ruin.

“That’s absolutely bogus,” Sarkozy says. “I know Ridley Scott focuses a lot on their love relationship, and there’s a good reason because, listen, it’s an awesome story. I mean, his letters to her are amazing. But the idea that the fault of the empire is reducible to him divorcing Josephine is complete nonsense. The empire fell because of crucial military and political decisions. It did not fall because of his personal life.” Astbury also says that Josephine didn’t have much influence over Napoleon politically.

However, Astbury says that the desire for a son and the fulfillment of that desire may have made Napoleon more autocratic and imperialist, which ultimately did lead the empire to fall. “Most historians agree that the Empire was at its height in 1807 and things deteriorated after that as Napoleon became more and more autocratic. The desire to leave France in safe hands became a growing concern (he didn’t feel his brother Joseph was the right man for the job) and intensified after his son was born in 1811,” says Astbury.

Hyperfocusing on his legacy made Napoleon reach further and further across Europe to expand his empire, which Astbury says made Britain, Austria, Prussia [now called Germany], and Russia “finally unified in their desire to do something to keep him in check. Each of the other monarchs would benefit from France being pushed back. Russia wanted to regain control of Poland, Prussia was keen to expand its borders, Austria wanted to reassert its power, and Britain was keen to expand its colonies. Forcing France back to its natural borders (that is to say up to the Rhine) or even further back to the borders of 1790 would rebalance the geopolitics of the continent.”

Astbury’s conclusion is this: “The birth of an heir accelerated the fall of the Empire, but I think the Allies would have decided to act sooner rather than later anyway.”

The moral of the story, then, seems to be that unchecked ambition and rampant imperialism, all fueled by the desire to leave behind a legacy and a male heir, is what led to the fall of the French Empire. This might be where the idea that the divorce led to Napoleon’s fall comes from, even if historians agree that’s not quite accurate — or at least not the whole story.

Poetically, though, Napoleon expressed feeling as though the loss of Josephine impacted him politically. “Napoleon used to always talk about his star, his star meaning his luck that allowed him to rise,” Sarkozy says. “And toward the end of his life, in exile, he does make a comment that his star began to fade when he divorced Josephine. But I don’t think he would have agreed that it was the reason why the empire fell.” Still, it makes for a heartwarming last line in a movie that otherwise offers little insight into the notorious ruler. As Scott’s vision of Josephine intones from beyond the grave, “Come to me, Napoleon, and let us try this again.”

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