Napoleon’s "divorce"

Period : Directory / 1st Empire
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Marriage and the Empire

This timeline forms part of our close-up on: Napoleon’s “divorce”.

9 March, 1796: Napoleon Bonaparte married Josephine Tascher de la Pagerie, widow of the Viscount de Beauharnais, before an officer of the state, in the town hall of Paris’ 2nd arrondissement.

April, 1804 (Germinal, An XII): there were discussions in the Conseil d’état regarding the establishment of Empire. Count Roederer, a conseiler d’Etat who was an active participant in the Coup d’Etat on 18 Brumaire and close friend of Joseph Bonaparte, noted in his memoirs an exchange at the time between Napoleon’s elder brother and his wife:

“Joseph Bonaparte had a conversation with Madame [Josephine] Bonaparte.
She wanted to prove to him that heredity was contrary to their interests: ‘If he [Napoleon] establishes heredity, she said, he will divorce me in order to have children: these children will distance you from power.'”

18 May, 1804 (28 Floréal, An XII): the sénatus-consulte organique transformed the French Republic into a French Empire. Included in the articles was the important section concerning Napoleon’s potential successor:

“Title II: on Heredity

3. The imperial dignity is hereditary through the direct, natural and legitimate line of descent from Napoleon Bonaparte, from male to male, in order of primogeniture, with the eternal exclusion of females and their descendents.

4. Napoleon Bonaparte may adopt the children or grandchildren of his brothers, provided that they have reached the age of eighteen, and that he himself has no children at the time of adoption. These adopted sons enter the line of descent.”

1 December, 1804 (10 Frimaire, an XIII): before he would ‘anoint’ Napoleon emperor, Pius VII demanded that Napoleon and Josephine be married before God. Cardinal Fesch performed the ceremony.

16 February, 1806: Eugène de Beauharnais was formally adopted by Napoleon.

31 March, 1806: Cambacérès announced a series of decrees cementing the Napoleonic imperial system, including a statute on the imperial house, which contained article 7, a ban on divorce for imperial members.

13 December, 1806: the birth of Charles Léon (the future Comte Léon), son of Napoleon and his mistress, Eléonore Denuelle de la Plaigne. What is important about this birth is that it proved that Napoleon was not sterile, as had been believed following the failure of his and Josephine’s union to produce an heir. The child was, it was said, the very image of his father.

Talk of divorce

1 September, 1807: in a letter dated 1 September, 1807, Josephine noted to Eugène that Murat had been intriguing to get Napoleon to divorce her [Jean Hanoteau, Les Beauharnais et l’Empereur : Lettres de l’Impératrice Joséphine et de la Reine Hortense au Prince Eugène, pp. 47-49].

19 November, 1807: in a Police Bulletin Fouché described to Napoleon the rumours circulating in Paris:

“At court, amongst the princes, and in every circle, talk is off the dissolution of the Empress’s marriage. At court, opinion is divided on the subject. There are those in the Empress’s confidence who appear persuaded that the Emperor will never agree to such a dissolution; they say that the Empress is loved in France; that her popularity is useful to the Emperor and the Empire; that the happiness of one and the other is attached to the continuance of this union; that the Empress is the Emperor’s talisman; that their separation would put an end to his fortune, and other such myths that have more in keeping with fairy tales, told by fortune tellers; these people foster such ideas in the Empress, distract her from any possible resolution to the contrary, encourage her to appear in public to dispel, through her presence, any rumour that circulates. The other half of the court, which considers the dissolution as something which the establishment of a dynasty will necessarily require, is seeking to prepare the Empress for this event, advising her as deemed appropriate to the situation. Within the imperial family, there is but one opinion: it is unanimous in favour of divorce. In the circles of Paris, there is only one opinion expressed by those who are devoted to the dynasty: they appear convinced that only the Emperor’s own children can assure its continuance. Only the selfish and unthinking members of society remain indifferent. The malcontents, hypocrites that they are, are critical of the treatment to be meted out to the Empress, demonstrating certain feelings for her which they previously have failed to manifest up to this point.” [Bulletin n° 1174, La Police secrète du Premier Empire, vol. III 1806-1807, pp. 436-437]

The French Emperor saw the bulletin as an attempt to manipulate him and to push him towards divorce. He reprimanded Fouché for this approach in a letter a few days later (30 November, 1807):

“I have already informed you of my opinion concerning the folly of your approaches made at Fontainebleau regarding my personal affairs (see Metternich’s letter, below, on Fouché’s attempts to pressurise Josephine). Having read your bulletin from the 19th, and well informed as to your conversations in Paris, I cannot but reiterate to you that your work is to respect my wishes and not to do as you please. In acting differently, you mislead public opinion and you stray from the path that every honest man must follow. [Letter from Napoleon to Fouché dated 30 November, 1807, N° 13373, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, p. 180]

Napoleon followed this up with a letter on 6 December, to M. Maret:

“It saddens me to note that your bulletins continue to speak of things that must pain the Empress and which are entirely unacceptable. I have written strongly on the matter to the Minister of Police [Fouché].” [Letter from Napoleon to Maret dated 6 December, 1807, N° 13379, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, pp. 184-185]

30 November, 1807: Metternich reported to Stadion on certain rumours regarding the divorce that were circulating in Paris.

“Having spread silently, [these rumours] have, for more than two months, formed the subject of general and public discussion. As with all rumours that are not destroyed early on, they are based on a grain of truth and would have been stamped out very quickly had they not been openly tolerated.


The Emperor, since his return from the army, has maintained a cold and often uncomfortable disposition with regards to his wife. He no longer shares the same room as her, and many of their daily practices have taken on a different form from what they previously were. At the same time, rumours of the Empress’s repudiation began to take on a far more serious nature; [Josephine], aware of them, has decided to wait for these rumours to be confirmed directly, without displaying to the Emperor the slightest concern.

The Minister of Police arrived one day at the Empress’s home at Fontainebleau, and, following a short stroll, he informed her that the public good, that above all the consolidation of the current dynasty, required that the Emperor have children; that she should address her wishes to the Senate in order that they meet to press upon her husband the need for his heart’s most difficult sacrifice. The Empress, prepared for the question, asked, with the greatest of self-control, whether his visit had been ordered by the Emperor. ‘No, he replied, I am speaking to Your Majesty as a Minister charged with the public surveillance, as an individual, and as a subject concerned for the glory of his nation.’ ‘I owe you no response then, interrupted the Empress. ‘I consider my bond with the Emperor to be written into the cannon of the greatest of destinies. I shall never explain myself except to him alone, and shall do nothing except that which he orders.'” [Letter from Metternich to Stadion dated 30 November, 1807, in Mémoires, documents et écrits divers laissés par le Prince de Metternich, vol. II, pp. 140-141]

Napoleon confirmed to Joséphine that he had played no role in this approach, although Fouché reportedly made another attempt later on in a letter addressed to the Empress, a move that was again quashed by Napoleon. Metternich proceeded to muse on the identity of the potential future Empress, hypothetical discussions between Alexander and Napoleon at Tilsit, and the possibility of it being a member of the Russian royal family. Sometime in 1807, a list of potential empresses for Napoleon (Liste des princesses des grandes maisons de l’Europe 1807) was drawn up. It included Marie-Louise (then 16), daughter of Austrian Emperor, Francis I (who had ruled as Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor prior to Napoleon’s dissolution of the central European union in 1806); Catherine-Paulowna and Anne-Paulowna, sisters of Tsar Alexander of Russia; and Marie-Isabelle, Spanish infanta. It also included a note, “the list of the other ruling houses is not in keeping with the great lords of France.” [List quoted in Welschinger, Le Divorce de Napoléon, 1889, pp. 270-271] For Welschinger, the existence of this “liste des princesses” indicates that the decision of divorce had already been made.

6 December, 1807: Metternich wrote to Stadion, Austrian Foreign Minister:

“Sadly, the marriage affair seems to be gaining in substance day by day. Rumours of it are so widespread that the Empress herself is forced to justify herself openly as concerns the divorce. It is difficult not to believe that the latter will take place; it is equally difficult to believe that the court would tolerate such rumours of alliance, if it did not believe that it had even the smallest of hopes of succeeding in its choice of princess. Monsieur le Grand-duc de Berg has been nominated to make the formal request. This affair will, in one way or another, have immense consequences. It may have been proven that alliances between ruling families have almost no influence in the long-term on their political relations, but it is nevertheless true that this [alliance] will have a far more immediate influence on the actions of the Russian cabinet than any other proposition. If Alexander refuses his sister, complications, the extent of which is impossible to determine, will arise immediately.” [Letter from Metternich to Stadion dated 6 December, 1807, in Mémoires, documents et écrits divers laissés par le Prince de Metternich, vol. II, p. 143]

10 February, 1808: in a letter from Joséphine to her son Eugène, she noted that these intrigues were continuing, and rumour still circulated regarding the divorce. [Jean Hanoteau, Les Beauharnais et l’Empereur : Lettres de l’Impératrice Joséphine et de la Reine Hortense au Prince Eugène, pp. 51-53]

End-March, 1808: Hortense de Beauharnais, wife of Louis Bonaparte and daughter of Joséphine, penned the following for the end of March 1808:

“They no longer speak of divorce, but everything confirms to me that the Emperor is struggling between the desire for a successor and the pain of separating from a woman so dear to his heart and always so devoted to his person. A few days before his trip to Bayonne, I entered his room to say goodbye. My mother had just left. The Emperor was seated and appeared preoccupied. Seeing me enter, he did not get up but studied me without saying a word. Suddenly, he cried: ‘It grieves me to see you thus [Hortense was heavily pregnant at the time]. How I would love your mother to be in your state.’ […] This preoccupation, demonstrated by this exclamation that he let slip, proved to me that he was constantly tormented by the idea of separation.” [Mémoires de la Reine Hortense, vol. I, pp. 340-341]

27 April, 1808: Josephine joined Napoleon in Bayonne, from where she wrote to Eugène of better relations between her and Napoleon. [Jean Hanoteau, Les Beauharnais et l’Empereur : Lettres de l’Impératrice Joséphine et de la Reine Hortense au Prince Eugène, letter dated 31 May, 1808, pp. 53-54]

17 June, 1808: In a letter to Cambacérès, Napoleon was again critical of Fouché’s conduct:

“Mon Cousin, I have been assured that Fouché continues to make the most extravagant claims. Since the rumours of the divorce, it is said that it is still discussed in his salon, despite my having informed him ten times already of my opinion on the matter.” [Letter from Napoleon to Cambacérès dated 17 June, 1808, N° 14110, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier, p. 318]

October, 1808: At Erfurt, Napoleon raised the issue of divorce with Talleyrand.

“My destiny demands it and France’s tranquility demands it also. I have no successor. Joseph is nothing, and he has only daughters. It is I who must found a dynasty; I cannot found one except by allying myself to a princess who belongs to one of the great ruling houses of Europe. The Emperor Alexander has sisters; there is one whose age suits me. Speak of it to Romanzoff: tell him that once the affair in Spain is finished, I shall consider his views regarding the partition of Turkey. Nor will you lack for other arguments; I know that you are in favour of divorce, and, I should warn you, the Empress knows it too.” [Mémoires du Prince de Talleyrand, ed. Emmanuel de Waresquiel, 2007, pp. 330-331]

Napoleon also discussed the matter with Caulaincourt:

“It is to be seen whether Alexander is really a friend of mine, if he is really interested in France’s happiness; for I love Josephine, and never shall I be happier. But we shall know, through this, the feelings of the rulers regarding this act, which will be for me a sacrifice. My family, Talleyrand, Fouché, all my ministers, demand this of me in France’s name. A son would offer you far more stability than my brothers, who are disliked and incapable. Perhaps you would prefer Eugène? It is the wish of certain people, because he is a made-man, he has married a Bavarian princess and he has children. But that does not serve your argument. Adoptions do not found new dynasties. I have other projects for him.”

Caulaincourt continued:

“The Emperor asked me several questions on the grand-duchesses, asking me what I thought of these princesses.

‘- Only one, I replied, is of marrying age, but it should not be forgotten what happened to the marriage with Sweden: a change of religion will not be tolerated.'”

A proposed marriage between Marie, Alexander’s sister, and Gustave IV Adolphus, King of Sweden, had fallen through due to religious differences (Marie belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church).

Caulaincourt added:

“The Emperor resumed, saying that he had not thought about the grand-duchesses, that he had not yet made his decision, that he simply wished to know whether they would approve of his divorce, whether such an act would not damage Russia’s plans, in essence, what Alexander would think of it. It occurred to me that he hoped that the idea would please the cabinet in Petersburg, that it would perhaps be an attractive lure for Russia, and that their conduct would govern his actions.” [Mémoires du Général de Caulaincourt, pp. 274-275]

8 October, 1808: Napoleon and Alexander discussed the divorce question for the first time.

August 1809: Napoleon’s Polish mistress, Maria Walewska, became pregnant. Hortense noted in her memoirs that this renewed Napoleon’s belief that taking a new wife would give him a successor:

“The young woman [Maria Walewska] had fallen pregnant. The Emperor, although suspicious, could not doubt that he was the father, and from that point, the hope of fathering a successor through a new union acquired a new certainty in his eyes.” [Mémoires de la Reine Hortense, vol. II, p. 40]

3 August, 1809: Catherine Pavlovna, one of Alexander’s eligible sisters, married Duke Frederick-George of Holstein Oldenburg.

22 November, 1809: Napoleon was rumoured to have dictated to Champagny a letter destined for Caulaincourt, in which the French Emperor instructed the latter to ask Alexander for Archduchess Anne’s hand in marriage. Anne was fourteen years old at the time.

30 November, 1809: after a tense dinner together in which Napoleon announced to Josephine that he was decided on separation, the empress suffered a nervous fit and fainted. She had to be carried back to her chambers by Napoleon and Bausset. The next day, the French Emperor declared to Hortense:

“My decision is made. It is irreversible. The whole of France wants the divorce: they cry out for it. I cannot ignore their wishes. Nothing will bring me back, not tears, not prayers.” Hortense replied that she and her brother would leave with her mother.

“What! replied Napoleon. “You will all leave me, you will abandon me! You no longer love me, is that it? If it were simply for my happiness, I would sacrifice it, but it is for France. You should be consoling me for being forced to give up the dearest of my affections.” Napoleon then proceeded to explain himself:

“These men that I have made great demand stability for our institutions and our people. I owe myself to them, and it seems that in me alone reside all their strength and happiness. After me, anarchy will return and the prize for so much effort will be lost for France. Instead, in leaving a son raised in my image, a son which France will be prepared to regard as my successor, [France] will profit from the good that I have left her as the very least of the fruits of my labour. I will have suffered, but others will profit from it.” [Mémoires de la Reine Hortense, vol. II, pp. 44-45]

8 December, 1809: Eugène de Beauharnais arrived at the Palais des Tuileries and Napoleon informed him of his decision.

13 December, 1809: Napoleon made it known to the Russian cabinet that any decision regarding a possible marriage had to be made before the end of January. A major stumbling block was the fact that Maria Feodorovna, Alexander’s mother and resolutely anti-Napoleon, maintained the final say in whom her daughters married. The Baron Ernouf, in his biography of Maret, the Duc de Bassano and Secretary of State, notes that her opposition was widely known and considered an “invincible resistance” regarding Napoleon [Maret, Duc de Bassano, Nouveau Monde Editions, 2008, p. 247]. Albert Vandal, author of Napoléon et Alexandre Ier, argues however that matters were far more complex than they initially appeared. Indeed, he suggests that although Caulaincourt appears to have been convinced as to Alexander’s honest intentions regarding a union between the two countries, the Tsar in actual fact was using his mother and the reticence of his court to avoid having to declare outright his opposition to such an alliance. The issue for Napoleon thus became when, rather than whether, he should abandon his overtures to Russia and turn his attention towards Austria. Maret, once again in Ernouf, noted that Napoleon was “too proud and too perceptive to let the [affair] drag on to the end.” [Maret, Duc de Bassano, Nouveau Monde Editions, 2008, p. 247] At the same time, however, he could not simply call off the proposed union for fear of damaging Franco-Russian relations. The proposed union with Russia thus had to be kept open, whilst at the same time the Austrian alternative had to be prepared, but not overly developed, in case of refusal. [Vandal, Napoléon et Alexandre Ier, Tome 2, pp. 234-237] The issue of who would be Napoleon’s new bride would be discussed on 21 January, 1810.

Annulment, not divorce

15 December, 1809, 9pm: at the Assemblée de famille, present at which were Napoleon, Josephine, Murat, Jérôme Bonaparte, Louis Bonaparte, Eugène de Beauharnais, Cambacérès, Regnault de St Jean d’Angély (Secretary of State for the Imperial Family) Julie Clary (wife of Joseph Bonaparte), Hortense de Beauharnais, Pauline Bonaparte and Caroline Bonaparte, the official dissolution of the civil marriage was announced.

At about 9.15pm that same day in the Salle du Trône, Napoleon and Josephine presented the decision to the assembled dignitaries:

“God knows what such a decision has cost to my heart! But there is no sacrifice that is beyond my courage if it is shown to be for the good of France. I must add that, far from having any reason for reproach, I have nothing but praise for the attachment and the affection of my beloved wife: she has graced fifteen years of my life; the memory of them will remain engraved in my heart. She was crowned by my hand; I desire that she retain the rank and title of crowned empress, but more than this, that she never doubt my feelings and that she value me as her best and dearest friend.”

Napoleon, 15 December, 1809

Next was Josephine’s turn:

“With our most august and dear husband’s permission, I must declare that no longer holding out any hope for a child that could satisfy both his political needs and the good of France, I give to him the greatest proof of attachment and devotion that has ever been given on this earth. Everything I have comes from his greatness; it is his hand that crowned me, and up on this throne, I have received evidence of nothing but affection and love from the French people.

I acknowledge these feelings in agreeing to the dissolution of this marriage, which from this moment on is an obstruction to the well-being of France, depriving it from the joy of one day being governed by the descendants of a great man clearly chosen by Providence to eradicate the evils of a terrible revolution and re-establish the altar, the throne and social order. Nevertheless, the dissolution of my marriage will change nothing of the feelings in my heart: the Emperor will have in me always his greatest friend. I know how much this act, called for by politics and greater interests, has pained his heart; but glorious is the sacrifice that he and I make for the good of our nation.

Josephine, 15 December 1809.”

At 10pm, a Privy Council (chaired by Cambacérès) was called to draw up the sénatus-consulte based on the decision announced at the Assemblée de famille.

16 December, 1809, 11am: The sénatus-consulte was adopted by the Senate, 76 to 7 with 4 abstentions. The first article announced: “The marriage contracted between the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine is dissolved.”

It is worth noting that the marriage was dissolved; there is no mention of divorce at this point. Such an act would have contravened the Code Civil in a number of ways: firstly, article 7 of the 1806 statute forbad divorce for princes and princesses of the imperial family (imperial decree of 31 March, 1806). Article 277 also stipulated that mutually-agreed divorce could not take place if the wife had reached forty-five (Josephine was forty-six by this point). The other very important reason for avoiding a divorce was that Napoleon would have then been obliged to turn to the Pope for an annulment, which would have almost certainly been refused.

The same day, Josephine left the Tuileries in the company of Hortense.

Mid-December, 1809: Cambacérès notes in his memoirs that it was around this time that he addressed the issue of the religious marriage conducted between Josephine and the French Emperor with Napoleon, and asked for one or two ‘precisions’ on the matter. He records Napoleon’s account of the ceremony:

“-Having been informed by the Pope that he would be unable to crown the Empress if I did not renew my marriage in the presence of a priest, I summoned the Cardinal Fesch, who pronounced the nuptial blessing in the inner chapel. I informed him [Fesch], as well as the Empress, that it was merely ceremony, as dictated by the Pope’s scruples; but that in reality, I intended for nothing to change in terms of our mutual situation, and that in consequence, everything would take place without witnesses, and no record of it would be made; the Cardinal would simply inform the Holy Father that he had married us.”

Cambacérès, in tandem with M. Guieu, a lawyer and councillor in the Court of Cassation who had experience of canonical affairs, formulated a plan to ensure an annulment, which would be based on three points:

1) “The laws of the Church and those of the State dictate that the marriage celebration take place before an official priest, and before four witnesses, in default of which the marriage would be annulled. As the nuptial blessing was pronounced before the Cardinal Fesch, and him only, with no witnesses present, an investigation will be conducted, during which will be heard the cardinal; the General Duroc, Grand Maréchal du palais, who was charged with informing the cardinal; and the Prince de Neufchatel (Berthier) and the Prince de Bénévent (Talleyrand), who both were present in the chambers when their Majesties emerged from the chapel, and to whom the Emperor spoke of what had just taken place.”

2) “In acknowledging that the question relating to the absence of consent is clouded in obscurity, it is impossible to recognise in the Emperor’s behaviour the formal and voluntary consent that is required in all of these commitments.”

3) “In old jurisprudence, it was the case that if a marriage had been annulled due to an absence of the correct legal forms, for reasons of equality and in the interest of public order, the judges would order the marriage to be rehabilitated. In this particular case, such a form could not take place: such principles of rehabilitation cannot be applied, for they are founded on the prior existence of a civil contract. As the civil contract between Napoleon and Josephine was officially dissolved by a sénatus-consulte dated 16 December, and as the dissolution was required for reasons of the upmost importance, it is therefore impossible to insist on a rehabilitation of the religious bond which would be based on the prior existence of a civil contract that no longer exists.” [Mémoires inédits: éclaircissements publiés par Cambaceres sur les principaux événements de sa vie politique, II, pp. 314-317]

22 December, 1809: Cambacérès summoned a number of religious officials for a meeting concerning the divorce, informing them that he expected the Officiality’s agreement to a religious annulment. He also announced that “[Napoleon] intends to marry and wishes to take a Catholic bride,” indicating that any ideas for an alliance with Russia had been dropped [Narré de la procedure à l’occasion de la demande en nullité du mariage de Napoléon et de Joséphine by the Abbé Rudemare, quoted in Welschinger, Le Divorce de Napoléon, pp. 84-85]. The religious officials declined to be involved in the affair, informing him that tradition dictated that only the Pope could annul a sovereign’s marriage and announcing that any decision of this magnitude had to be made by the Pope. The head of the Catholic Church, however, was no longer consultable, given his treatment at the hands of Napoleon.

25 December, 1809: Metternich wrote to Schwarzenberg, Austrian ambassador in Paris, of Napoleon’s divorce:

“If Napoleon’s divorce takes place, it is possible that you will be consulted regarding an alliance with the house of Austria. I know a certain party in Paris that will be greatly in favour of this idea: it is the one which for a long time has sought to put a stop to the upheaval in Europe.” [Letter from Metternich to Schwarzenberg dated 25 December, 1809, in Mémoires, documents et écrits divers laissés par le Prince de Metternich, vol. II, p. 312]

It seems impossible, however, that Metternich could not be unaware of Napoleon’s civil divorce; one can presume that he is referring to the religious divorce that was still being negotiated.

26 December, 1809: The competency of the officialities to pronounce on Napoleon’s divorce was discussed in a meeting at Fesch’s home in Paris. It was finally agreed that the Diocesan Officiality was capable of pronouncing on the matter.

3 January, 1810: Metternich’s wife wrote to her husband:

“[T]he Empress entered [the room], and, having spoken to me of all the events that had happened to her, and of all that she had suffered, she said to me: ‘I have a project that occupies me exclusively, and the success of which is the only thing that keeps me believing that the sacrifice I have just made will not be in vain; it is that the Emperor marries your archduchess; I spoke to him yesterday, and he said that his choice was not yet fixed, but, she added, I’m sure it would be, were he sure of being accepted by you [Austria].’ I told her all I could to show her that, at least personally, I would consider such a marriage a moment of great happiness; but I could not stop myself from adding that, for an Austrian Archduchess, it could be terrible to have to settle in France.”

Josephine added, as reported by Mme de Metternich, “Your Emperor must be made to understand that his ruin and that of his country is certain if he does not agree [to the marriage], and that it is also perhaps the only way to prevent a schism between the [French] Emperor and the Holy See.” [Letter from the Countess de Metternich to her husband dated 3 January, 1810, in Mémoires, documents et écrits divers laissés par le Prince de Metternich, vol. II, p. 315]

6 January, 1810: Having consulted the eccliastical committee in Paris, a hearing was called to pronounce on the matter, with three levels of jurisdiction: diocesan, metropolitan and primatial. The argument in favour of an annulment was twofold: 1) absence of a priest qualified to perform the religious wedding held on 1 December, 1804, as well as witnesses, and 2) Napoleon had not consented to the marriage and had been forced into it by the Empress. Napoleon argued that the basis of marriage, according to the Ultramontane (i.e. Roman and not Gallican) doctrine, was the consent of both partners to the marriage. Debate over simulated consent and forced consent led to this argument being rejected by the tribunal.

Four witnesses were called: Cardinal Fesch (11am), Berthier (12 noon), Duroc (1pm) and Talleyrand (2pm). Fesch, having administered the blessing himself, could not really accept the absence of a priest and witnesses. It was also dangerous for Napoleon to cast doubt on Fesch’s capabilities, considering that he would be called upon to conduct Napoleon’s upcoming marriage with Marie-Louise. Fesch nevertheless confirmed that he had been accorded such appropriate powers by the Pope. However, he admitted that following the ceremony, the Emperor had explained to him that the ceremony was simply to pacify the empress and that he had “yielded to circumstance.”

“[…] [It] was the eve of the coronation that the Emperor, calling on me at around one or two o’clock in the afternoon, told me that the Empress was insisting on a marriage blessing and that, to appease her, he had decided to call me. But he declared that he wanted no witnesses and that the whole affair was to remain as secret as a confession. I had to answer ‘No witnesses, no marriage’. Seeing that he was insistent on no witnesses, I told him that I had no option but to obtain special dispensation, and, appearing immediately before the Pope, I explained to him that I would often have to appeal to him for the dispensations. I also asked him to accord me all [dispensations] that would occasionally be essential in fulfilling my role as Grand Chaplain, and, the Holy Father acquiescing to my request, I returned to His Majesty the Emperor with the rites to bless Their Majesties’ marriage, an event which took place at around four o’clock in the afternoon.” [Cardinal Fesch, quoted in Mgr Ricard, Le Cardinal Fesch, 1893, p. 251]

Fesch also explained that on the request of Joséphine, he had provided a marriage certificate. Upon learning this, Napoleon had flown into a rage, which indicated, according to the cardinal, that the Emperor did not consider the marriage to be for life. The remaining witnesses called, however, all maintained that Fesch was not invested with the powers to bless the marriage, confirming also that the Emperor had previously refused any marriage blessing and that it was simply a product of the situation which would have absolutely no effect on the future. Abbé Rudemare, the Diocesan promoter, concerned by the “non-consent” argument, later explained that for a man who was so widely feared, the argument usually reserved for minors who had been forced into the marriage held little water. Nevertheless, he pronounced in favour of an annulment due to the lack of witnesses and correct procedure (9 January, 1810). Despite Fesch having requested authorisation from the Pope to carry out the ceremony, it was ruled that he was acting outside of his responsibilities. The Metropolitan promoter, Abbé Corpet, agreed (confirming the decision on 11 January, 1810). The tribunal was conducted with great haste: the four testimonies were heard in four hours. The issue of witnesses is an important one: Thiers, in his Histoire du Consulat et de l’Empire notes that the marriage was performed in the presence of two witnesses: Talleyrand and Berthier. However, he later changed this following consultation of the national archives, arguing that he had made a mistake in his earlier versions of his Histoire… based on an error in memoirs (Thiers did not specify the author) that he had read, which they themselves had been based on Josephine’s account of events. Subsequent accounts from various different writers added to the confusion: the Prince Napoléon (otherwise known as Plon-Plon), in his Napoléon et ses détracteurs argued that Talleyrand and Berthier had indeed been witnesses, basing his assertion on “family traditions”. To complicate matters even further, Welschinger, in Le Divorce de Napoléon argued that Josephine had informed the Pope of the situation, and that the Pope was thus very aware of the dispensations that Fesch would need to marry the soon-to-be imperial couple in the absence of witnesses. However, the accounts from the tribunal, and in particular Fesch’s testimony, give no indication that the Pope was aware of the complicated situation.

14 January, 1810: the Moniteur announced that the Tribunal of the Officiality of Paris had annulled the marriage between Napoleon and Josephine.

“H.S.H. the Prince Arch chancellor of the Empire, as a consequence of the authorisation that he received from H.M. the Emperor and King and H.M. the Empress Josephine, presented a petition to the diocesan tribunal of the Paris officiality. This tribunal, after instruction and the formalities conforming to custom, and having heard the witnesses, declared, in a sentence dated 9th of this month, the nullity, regarding the spiritual bond, of the marriage between H.M. the Emperor Napoleon and H.M. the Empress Josephine.

The metropolitan officiality confirmed this decision on 12th of this month.” [Moniteur universel, 14 January, 1810]

Following the Moniteur‘s publication, however, Rudemare complained to Cambacérès in a letter, noting that, according to the Gallican doctrine as defined by the Council of Trent (1545-1563):

“In marriage, the Tribunal does not distinguish between the civil bond and the spiritual bond; it recognizes the bond, purely and simply, in terms of the holy canons, the foedus (alliance), the annulment of which the petition requested.”

This semantic objection, based purely on religious grounds, was not to change matters. The annulment was confirmed. Napoleon’s marriage to Josephine no longer existed, and he was free to continue his search for a new empress.

(H.D.W., December 2009)

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