The Court of the Empress Josephine

Produced by Anne Soulard, Charles Aldarondo, Keren Vergon,
Shawn Wheeler, and the Project Online Distributed
Proofreading Team









“Two-thirds of my life is passed, why should I so distress myself about
what remains? The most brilliant fortune does not deserve all the trouble
I take, the pettiness I detect in myself, or the humiliations and shame I
endure; thirty years will destroy those giants of power which can be seen
only by raising the head; we shall disappear, I who am so petty, and those
whom I regard so eagerly, from whom I expected all my greatness. The most
desirable of all blessings is repose, seclusion, a little spot we can call
our own.” When La Bruyère expressed himself so bitterly, when he spoke of
the court “which satisfies no one,” but “prevents one from being satisfied
anywhere else,” of the court, “that country where the joys are visible but
false, and the sorrows hidden, but real,” he had before him the brilliant
Palace of Versailles, the unrivalled glory of the Sun King, a monarchy
which thought itself immovable and eternal. What would he say in this
century when dynasties fail like autumn leaves, and it takes much less
than thirty years to destroy the giants of power; when the exile of to-day
repeats to the exile of the morrow the motto of the churchyard: Hodie
mihi, eras tibi?
What would this Christian philosopher say at a time when
royal and imperial palaces have been like caravansaries through which
sovereigns have passed like travellers, when their brief resting-places
have been consumed by the blaze of petroleum and are now but a heap of

The study of any court is sure to teach wisdom and indifference to human
glories. In our France of the nineteenth century, fickle as it has been,
inconstant, fertile in revolutions, recantations, and changes of every
sort, this lesson is more impressive than it has been at any period of our
history. Never has Providence shown more clearly the nothingness of this
world’s grandeur and magnificence. Never has the saying of Ecclesiastes
been more exactly verified: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” We have
before us the task of describing one of the most sumptuous courts that has
ever existed, and of reviewing splendors all the more brilliant for their
brevity. To this court of Napoleon and Josephine, to this majestic court,
resplendent with glory, wealth, and fame, may well be applied Corneille’s

 ”All your happiness

  Subject to instability

  In a moment falls to the ground,

  And as it has the brilliancy of glass

  It also has its fragility.”

We shall evoke the memory of the dead to revive this vanished court, and
we shall consult, one after another, the persons who were eye-witnesses of
these short-lived wonders. A prefect of the palace, M. de Bausset, wrote:
“When I recall the memorable times of which I have just given a faint
idea, I feel, after so many years, as if I had been taking part in the
gorgeous scenes of the Arabian Tales or of the Thousand and One
. The magic picture of all those splendors and glories has
disappeared, and with it all the prestige of ambition and power.” One of
the ladies of the palace of the Empress Josephine, Madame de Rémusat, has
expressed the same thought: “I seem to be recalling a dream, but a dream
resembling an Oriental tale, when I describe the lavish luxury of that
period, the disputes for precedence, the claims of rank, the demands of
every one.” Yes, in all that there was something dreamlike, and the actors
in that fairy spectacle which is called the Empire, that great show piece,
with its scenery, now brilliant, now terrible, but ever changing, must
have been even more astonished than the spectators. Aix-la-Chapelle and
the court of Charlemagne, the castle of Fontainebleau and the Pope, Notre
Dame and the coronation, the Champ de Mars and the distribution of eagles,
the Cathedral of Milan and the Iron Crown, Genoa the superb and its naval
festival, Austerlitz and the three emperors,—what a setting! what
accessories! what personages! The peal of organs, the intoning of priests,
the applause of the multitude and of the soldiers, the groans of the
dying, the trumpet call, the roll of the drum, ball music, military bands,
the cannon’s roar, were the joyful and mournful harmonies heard while the
play went on. What we shall study amid this tumult and agitation is one
woman. We have already studied her as the Viscountess of Beauharnais, as
Citizeness Bonaparte, and as the wife of the First Consul. We shall now
study her in her new part, that of Empress.

Let us go back to May 18, 1804, to the Palace of Saint Cloud. The Emperor
had just been proclaimed by the Senate before the plébiscite which was
to ratify the new state of things. The curtain has risen, the play begins,
and no drama is fuller of contrasts, of incidents, of movement. The
leading actor, Napoleon, was already as familiar with his part as if he
had played it since his childhood. Josephine is also at home in hers. As a
woman of the world, she had learned, by practice in the drawing-room, to
win even greater victories. For a fashionable beauty there is no great
difference between an armchair and a throne. The minor actors are not so
accustomed to their new position. Nothing is more amusing than the
embarrassment of the courtiers when they have to answer the Emperor’s
questions. They begin with a blunder; then, in correcting themselves, they
fall into still worse confusion; ten times a minute was repeated, Sire,
General, Your Majesty, Citizen, First Consul. Constant, the Emperor’s
valet de chambre, has given us a description of this 18th of May, 1804, a
day devoted to receptions, presentations, interviews, and congratulations:
“Every one,” he says, “was filled with joy in the Palace of Saint Cloud;
every one imagined that he had risen a step, like General Bonaparte, who,
from First Consul, had become a monarch. Men were embracing and
complimenting one another; confiding their share of hopes and plans for
the future; there was no official so humble that he was not fired with
ambition.” In a word, the ante-chamber, barring the difference of persons,
presented an exact imitation of what was going on in the drawing-room. It
seemed like a first performance which had long been eagerly expected,
arousing the same eager excitement among the players and the public. The
day which had started bright grew dark; for a long time there were
threatenings of a thunder-storm; but none looked on this as an evil omen.
All were inclined to cheery views. The courtiers displayed their zeal with
all the ardor, the passion, the furia francese, which is a national
characteristic, and appears on the battle-field as well as in the ante-
chamber. The French fight and flatter with equal enthusiasm.

Amid all these manifestations of devotion and delight, the members of the
Imperial family alone, who should have been the most satisfied, and
certainly the most astonished by their greatness, wore an anxious, almost
a grieved look. They alone appeared discontented with their master. Their
pride knew no bounds; their irritability was extreme. Nothing seemed good
enough, for them. In the way of honors privileges, and when we recall
their father’s modest at Ajaccio, it is hard to keep from smiling at the
vanity of these new Princes of the blood. Of Napoleon’s four brothers, two
were absent and on bad terms with him: Lucien, on account of his marriage
with Madame Jouberton; Jerome, on account of his marriage with Miss
Paterson. His mother, Madame Letitia Bonaparte, an able woman, who
combined great courage with uncommon good sense, had not lost her head
over the wonderful good fortune of the modern Caesar. Having a
presentiment that all this could not last, she economized from motives of
prudence, not of avarice. While the courtiers were celebrating the
Emperor’s new triumphs, she lingered in Rome with her son Lucien, whom she
had followed in his voluntary exile, having pronounced in his favor in his
quarrel with Napoleon. As for Joseph and Louis, who, with their wives, had
been raised to the dignity of Grand Elector and Constable, respectively,
one might think that they were overburdened with wealth and honors, and
would be perfectly satisfied. But not at all! They were indignant that
they were not personally mentioned, in the plébiscite, by which their
posterity was appointed to succeed to the French crown. This plébiscite
ran thus: “The French people desire the Inheritance of the Imperial
dignity in the direct, natural, or adoptive line of descent from Napoleon
Bonaparte, and in the direct, natural, legitimate line of descent from
Joseph Bonaparte and from Louis Bonaparte, as is determined by the organic
senatus-consultum of the twenty-eighth Floréal, year XII.” For the
Emperor’s family, these stipulations were the cause of incessant squabbles
and recriminations. Lucien and Jerome regarded their exclusion as an act
of injustice. Joseph and Louis asked indignantly why their descendants
were mentioned when they themselves were excluded. They were very jealous
of Josephine, and of her son, Eugene de Beauharnais, and much annoyed by
the Emperor’s reservation of the right of adoption, which threatened them
and held out hopes for Eugene. Louis Bonaparte, indignant with the
slanderous story, according to which his wife, Hortense, had been
Napoleon’s mistress, treated her ill, and conceived a dislike for his own
son, who was reported to be that of the Emperor. As for Elisa Bacciochi,
Caroline Murat, and Pauline Borghese, they could not endure the
mortification of being placed below the Empress, their sister-in-law, and
the thought that they had not yet been given the title of Princesses of
the blood, which had been granted to the wife of Joseph and the wife of
Louis, filled them with actual despair.

Madame de Rémusat, who was present at the first Imperial dinner at St.
Cloud, May 18, 1804, describes this curious repast. General Duroc, Grand
Marshal of the Palace, told all the guests in succession of the titles of
Prince and Princess to be given to Joseph and Louis, and their wives, but
not to the Emperor’s sisters, or to their husbands. This fatal news
prostrated Elisa, Caroline, and Pauline. When they sat down at table,
Napoleon was good-humored and merry, possibly at heart enjoying the slight
constraint that this novel formality enforced upon his guests. Madame
Murat, when she heard the Emperor saying frequently Princess Louis,
could not hide her mortification or her tears. Every one was embarrassed,
while Napoleon smiled maliciously.

The next day the Emperor went to Paris to hold a grand reception at the
Tuileries, for he was not a man to postpone the enjoyment of the splendor
which his satisfied ambition could draw from his new title. In this
palace, where had ruled the Committee of Public Safety, where the
Convention had sat, whence Robespierre had departed in triumph to preside
over the festival in honor of the Supreme Being, nothing was heard but the
titles of Emperor, Empress, My Lord, Prince, Princess, Imperial Highness,
Most Serene Highness. It was asserted that Bonaparte had cut up the red
caps to make the ribbons of the Legions of Honor. The most fanatical
Revolutionists had become conservative as soon as they had anything to
preserve. The Empire was but a few hours old, and already the new-born
court was alive with the same rivalries, jealousies, and vanities that
fill the courts of the oldest monarchies. It was like Versailles, in the
reign of Louis XIV., in the Gallery of Mirrors, or in the drawing-room of
the Oeil de Boeuf. It would have taken a Dangeau to record, hour by hour,
the minute points of etiquette. The Emperor walked, spoke, thought, acted,
like a monarch of an old line. To nothing does a man so readily adapt
himself as to power. One who has been invested with the highest rank is
sure to imagine himself eternal; to think that he has always held it and
will always keep it. Indeed, how is it possible to escape intoxication by
the fumes of perpetual incense? How can a man tell the truth to himself
when there is no one about him courageous enough to tell it to him? When
the press is muzzled, and public power rests only on general approval,
when there is no slave even to remind the triumphant hero, as in the
ancient ovations, that he is only a man, how is it possible to avoid being
infatuated by one’s greatness and not to imagine one’s self the absolute
master of one’s destiny? The new Caesar met with no resistance. He was to
publish scornfully in the Moniteur the protest of Louis XVIII. against
his accession. He was to be adored both by fierce Revolutionists and by
great lords, by regicides and by Royalists and ecclesiastics. It seemed as
if with him everything began, or rather started anew. “The old world was
submerged,” says Chateaubriand; “when the flood of anarchy withdrew,
Napoleon appeared at the beginning of a new world, like those giants
described by profane and sacred history at the beginning of society,
appearing on earth after the Deluge.”

The former general of the Revolution enjoyed his situation as absolute
sovereign. He studied the laws of etiquette as closely as he studied the
condition of his troops. He saw that the men of the old régime were more
conversant in the art of flattery, more eager than the new men. As Madame
de Staël says: “Whenever a gentleman of the old court recalled the ancient
etiquette, suggested an additional bow, a certain way at knocking at the
door of an ante-chamber, a ceremonious method of presenting a despatch, of
folding a letter, of concluding it with this or that formula, he greeted
as if he had helped on the happiness of the human race.” Napoleon
attached, or pretended to attach, great importance to the thousand
nothings which up the life of courts. He established in the palace the
same discipline as in the camps. Everything became a matter of rule.
Courtiers studied formalities as officers studied the art of war.
Regulations were as closely observed in the drawing-rooms as in the tents.
At the end of a few months Napoleon was to have the most brilliant, the
most rigid court of Europe. At times the whirl of vanities surrounded him
filled with impatience the great central sun, without whom his satellites
would have been nothing. At other times, however, his pride was gratified
by the thought that it was his will, his fancy, which evoked from nothing
all the grandees of the earth. He was not pained at seeing such eagerness
in behalf of trifles that he had invented. He liked to fill his courtiers
with raptures or with despair, by a smile or a frown. He thought his
sisters’ ambition childish, but it amused him; and if they had to cry a
little at first, he finally granted them what they wanted.

May 19, after the family dinner, Madame Murat was more and more distressed
at not being a Princess, when she was a Bonaparte by birth, while Madame
Joseph and Madame Louis, one of whom was a Clary, the other a Beauharnais,
bore that title, and burst out into complaints and reproaches. “Why,” she
asked of her all-powerful brother, “why condemn me and my sisters to
obscurity, to contempt, while covering strangers with honors and
dignities?” At first these words annoyed Napoleon. “In fact,” he
exclaimed, “judging from your pretensions, one would suppose that we
inherited the crown from the late King our father.” At the end of the
interview, Madame Murat, not satisfied with crying, fainted away. Napoleon
softened at once, and a few days later there appeared a notification in
the Moniteur that henceforth the Emperor’s sisters should be called
Princesses and Imperial Highnesses.

The Empress’s Maid of Honor was Madame de La Rochefoucauld; her Lady of
the Bedchamber was Madame de Lavalette. Her Ladies of the Palace, whose
number was soon raised to twelve, and later still more augmented, were at
first only four: Madame de Talhouët, Madame de Luçay, Madame de Lauriston,
and Madame de Rémusat. These ladies, too, aroused the hottest jealousies,
and soon they gave rise to a sort of parody of the questions of vanity
that agitated the Emperor’s family. The women who were admitted to the
Empress’s intimacy could never console themselves for the privileges
accorded to the Ladies of the Palace.

In essentials all courts are alike. On a greater or smaller scale they are
rank with the same pettinesses, the same chattering gossip, the same
trivial squabbles as the porter’s lodge, ante-chambers, and servants’
quarters. If we examine these things from the standpoint of a philosopher,
we shall find but little difference between a steward and a chamberlain,
between a chambermaid and a lady of the palace. We may go further and say
that as soon as they have places and money at their disposal, republicans
have courtesies, as much as monarchs, and everywhere and always there are
to be found people ready to bow low if there is anything on the ground
that they can pick up. Revolutions alter the forms of government, but not
the human heart; afterwards, as before, there exist the same pretensions,
the same prejudices, the same flatteries. The incense may be burned before
a tribune, a dictator, or a Caesar, there are always the same flattering
genuflections, the same cringing.

The new Empire began most brilliantly, but there was no lack of morose
criticism. The Faubourg Saint Germain was for the most part hostile and
scornful. It looked upon the high dignitaries of the Empire and on the
Emperor himself as upstarts, and all the men of the old régime who went
over to him they branded as renegades. The title of “Citizen” was
suppressed and that of “Monsieur” restored, after having been abandoned in
conversation and writing for twelve years. Miot de Mélito tells us in his
Memoirs that at first public opinion was opposed to this change; even
those who at the beginning had shown the greatest repugnance to being
addressed as Citizen, disliked conferring the title of Monsieur upon
Revolutionists and the rabble, and they pretended to address as Citizen
those whom they saw fit to include in this class. Many turned the new
state of affairs to ridicule. The Parisians, always of a malicious humor,
made perpetual puns and epigrams in abundance.

The Faubourg Saint Germain, in spite of a few adhesions from personal
motives, preserved an ironical attitude. General de Ségur, then a captain
under the orders of the Grand Marshal of the Palace, observed that in
1804, with the exception of several obscure nobles, either poor or ruined,
and others already attached to Napoleon’s civil and military fortune, many
negotiations and various temptations were required to persuade well-known
persons to appear at the court as it was at first constituted. He goes on:
“As a spectator and confidant of the means employed, I witnessed in those
early days many refusals, and some I had to announce myself. I even heard
many bitter complaints on this subject. I remember that in reply I
mentioned to the Empress my own case, and told her what it had cost me to
enlist under the tricolor, and then to enter the First Consul’s military
household. The Empress understood me so well that she made to me a similar
confidence, confessing her own struggles, her almost invincible
repugnance, at the end of 1795, in spite of her feeling for Bonaparte,
before she could make up her mind to marry the man whom at that time she
herself used to call General Vendémiaire.”

Although Josephine had become Empress, she remained a Legitimist, and saw
clearly the weak points in the Empire. At the Tuileries, in the chamber of
Marie Antoinette, she felt out of place; she was surprised to have for
Lady of Honor a duchess of an old family, and her sole ambition was to be
pardoned by the Royalists for her elevation, to the highest rank.
Napoleon, too, was much concerned about the Bourbons, in whom he foresaw
his successors, “One of his keenest regrets,” wrote Prince Metternich,
“was his inability to invoke legitimacy as the foundation of his power.
Few men have felt more deeply than he the precariousness and fragility of
power when it lacks this foundation, its susceptibility to attack.”

After recalling the Emperor’s attempt to induce Louis XVIII. to abandon
his claims to the throne, Prince Metternich goes on: “In speaking to me of
this matter, Napoleon said: ‘His reply was noble, full of noble
traditions. In those Legitimists there is something outside of mere
intellectual force.'” The Emperor, who, at the beginning of his career,
displayed such intense Republican enthusiasm, was by nature essentially a
lover of authority and of the monarchy. He would have liked to be a
sovereign of the old stamp. His pleasure in surrounding himself with
members of the old aristocracy attests the aristocratic instincts of the
so-called crowned apostle of democracy. The few Republicans who remained
faithful to the principles were indignant with these tendencies; it was
with grief that they saw the reappearance of the throne; and thus, from
different motives the unreconciled Jacobins and the men of Coblentz who
had not joined the court, showed the same feeling of bitterness and of
hostility to the Empire.

The trial of General Moreau made clear the germs of opposition which
existed in a latent condition. It is difficult to form an idea of the
enormous throng that blocked all the approaches to the Palace of Justice
the day the trial opened, and continued to crowd them during the twelve
days that the trial lasted, which was as interesting to Royalists as to
Republicans. The most fashionable people of Paris made a point of being
present. Sentence was pronounced June 10. Georges Cadoudal and nineteen of
the accused, among whom were M. Armand de Polignac, and M. de Rivière,
were condemned to death.

To the Emperor’s great surprise, Moreau was sentenced to only two years of
prison. This penalty was remitted, and he was allowed to betake himself to
the United States. To facilitate his establishing himself there, the
Emperor bought his house in the rue d’Anjou Saint Honoré, paying for it
eight hundred thousand francs, much more than it was worth, and then he
gave it to Bernadotte, who did not scruple to accept it. The sum was paid
to Moreau out of the secret fund of the police before he left for Cadiz.
Josephine’s urgent solicitations saved the life of the Duke Armand de
Polignac, whose death-sentence was commuted to four years’ imprisonment
before being transported. Madame Murat secured a modification of the
sentence of the Marquis de Rivière; and these two acts of leniency, to
which great publicity was given, were of great service in diminishing the
irritation of the Royalists. After Moreau’s trial, the opposition, having
become discouraged, and conscious of its weakness, laid down its arms, at
least for a time. Napoleon was everywhere master.

The Republic was forgotten. Its name still appeared on the coins: “French
Republic, Napoleon, Emperor”; but it survived as a mere ghost.
Nevertheless, the Emperor was anxious to celebrate in 1804 the Republican
festival of July 14; but the object of this festival was so modified that
it would have been hard to see in it the anniversary of the taking of the
Bastille and of the first federation. In the celebration, not a single
word was said about these two events. The official eulogy of the
Revolution was replaced by a formal distribution of crosses of the Legion
of Honor.

This was the first time that the Emperor and Empress appeared in public in
full pomp. It was also the first time that they availed themselves of the
privilege of driving through the broad road of the garden of the
Tuileries. Accompanied by a magnificent procession, they went in great
splendor to the Invalides, which the Revolution had turned into a Temple
of Mars, and the Empire had turned again to a Catholic Church. At the door
they were received by the Governor and M. de Ségur, Grand Master of
Ceremonies, and at the entrance to the church by the Cardinal du Belloy at
the head of numerous priests. Napoleon and Josephine listened attentively
to the mass; then, after a speech was uttered by the Grand Chancellor of
the Legion of Honor, M. de Lacépède, the Emperor recited the form of the
oath; at the end of which all the members of the Legion shouted “I swear.”
This sight aroused the enthusiasm of the crowd, and the applause was loud.
In the middle of the ceremony, Napoleon called up to him Cardinal Caprara,
who had taken a very important part in the negotiations concerning the
Concordat, and was soon to help to persuade the Pope to come to Paris for
the coronation. The Emperor took from his own neck the ribbon of the
Legion of Honor, and gave it to the worthy and aged prelate. Then the
knights of the new order passed in line before the Imperial throne, while
a man of the people, wearing a blouse, took his station on the steps of
the throne. This excited some surprise, and he was asked what he wanted;
he took out his appointment to the Legion. The Emperor at once called him
up, and gave him the cross with the usual kiss.

The Empress’s beauty made a great impression, as we learn from Madame de
Rémusat, who generally prejudiced against her, but on this occasion was
forced to recognize that Josephine, by her tasteful and careful dressing,
succeeded in appearing young and charming amid the many young and pretty
women by whom she was for the first time surrounded. “She stood there,”
Madame de Rémusat goes on, “in the full light of the setting sun, wearing
a dress of pink tulle, adorned with silver stars, cut very low after the
fashion of the time, and crowned by a great many diamond clusters; and
this fresh and brilliant dress, her graceful bearing, her delightful
smile, her gentle expression produced such an effect that I heard a number
of persons who had been present at the ceremony say that she effaced all
her suite.” Three days later the Emperor started for the camp at Boulogne.

In spite of the enthusiasm of the people and the army, one thing became
clear to every thoughtful observer, and that was that the new régime,
lacking strength to resist misfortunes, must have perpetual success in
order to live. Napoleon was condemned, by the form of his government, not
merely to succeed, but to dazzle, to astonish, to subjugate. His Empire
required extraordinary magnificence, prodigious effects, Babylonian
festivities, gigantic adventures, colossal victories. His Imperial
escutcheon, to escape contempt, needed rich coats of gilding, and demanded
glory to make up for the lack of antiquity. In order to make himself
acceptable to the European, monarchs, his new brothers, and to remove the
memory of the venerable titles of the Bourbons, this former officer of the
armies of Louis XVI., the former second-lieutenant of artillery, who had
suddenly become a Caesar, a Charlemagne, could make this sudden and
strange transformation comprehensible only through unprecedented fame and
splendor. He desired to have a feudal, majestic court, surrounded by all
the pomp and ceremony of the Middle Ages. He saw how hard was the part he
had to play, and he knew very well how much a nation needs glory to make
it forget liberty. Hence a perpetual effort to make every day outshine the
one before, and first to equal, then to surpass, the splendors of the
oldest and most famous dynasties. This insatiable thirst for action and
for renown was to be the source of Napoleon’s strength and also of his
weakness. But only a few clear-sighted men made these reflections when the
Empire began. The masses, with their easy optimism, looked upon the new
Emperor as an infallibly impeccable being, and thought that since he had
not yet been beaten, he was invincible. Josephine indulged in no such
illusions; she knew the defects in her husband’s character, and dreaded
the future for him as well as for herself. Singularly enough for one so
surrounded by flatteries, in her whole life her head was never for a
moment turned by pride or infatuation.



Before having himself crowned by the Pope, after the example of
Charlemagne, Napoleon was anxious to go to meditate at the tomb of the
great Carlovingian Emperor, of whom he regarded himself as the worthy
successor. A journey on the banks of the Rhine, a triumphal tour in the
famous German cities which the France of the Revolution had been so proud
to conquer, seemed to the new sovereign a fitting prologue to the pomp of
the coronation. Napoleon was desirous of impressing the imaginations of
people in his new Empire and in the old Empire of Germany. He wished the
trumpets of fame to sound in his honor on both banks of the famous and
disputed river.

The Empress, who had gone to Aix-la-Chapelle to take the waters, arrived

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