On This Day in Napoleonic History – 30 November 1809

9Napoleon tells Josephine he wants their marriage annulled

Although the Imperial couple had developed a close and comfortable relationship, staying married to Josephine had become a road block in Napoleon’s political and dynastic ambitions. It couldn’t have been an easy decision for Napoleon, after all, he loved his wife very much, despite her affair with Hippolyte Charles and his own subsequent infidelities. However, he convinced himself that divorcing Josephine was in the best interests of France.

Josephine must have known what was coming. Napoleon ordered the connecting door between their bedrooms to be walled up long before he mentioned the divorce. ‘All tenderness on the Emperor’s part, all consideration towards my mother has vanished,’ wrote Hortense. ‘He became unjust and vexatious in his attitude.’

For his young dynasty to survive, Napoleon needed an heir and 46-year old Josephine couldn’t give him one. ‘You have children. I have none. You must feel the necessity that lies upon me of strengthening my dynasty,’ he told her. It was a bitter blow to Josephine, who cried and begged him to change his mind, saying she couldn’t live without him.

To be able to remarry in church, Napoleon needed his marriage to Josephine annulled. Absurdly he argued it had been clandestine, there were insufficient witnesses and that he was forced into it by Josephine. The loyal Josephine went along with it, confirming everything he said. No one was duped by this comedy however, and 13 out of 27 of France’s cardinals refused to attend Napoleon’s next wedding.

Napoleon was very good to Josephine in the divorce settlement. He gave her Élysée Palace, Malmaison and another chateau in Normandy. She kept her rank of Empress, and when Napoleon married Marie Louise, there were two Empresses of France in Paris. Josephine’s debts of 2 million francs were paid off and she received 3 million francs per annum income for life. Their marriage was dissolved on 16 December.

Although Napoleon divorced his wife for an heir, ironically it would be Josephine’s grandson who would become the next Emperor of France. It is her direct descendants and not his who still rule Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Luxembourg.

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