Tue, 04 Oct 2022

There was also a rumor that this secret relationship eventually led to her death.

Emperor Alexander of Russia (1777-1825) had a long-lasting and troubled relationship with his arch-nemesis, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon asked for the hand of both of Alexander's sisters, but was met with a cold refusal. But could Alexander and Napoleon's wife, Josephine de Beauharnais, meanwhile, have been having a love affair - or at least been planning a big political game together?

In love with the greats

Josephine de Beauharnais

Josephine de Beauharnais

Henry Thomas Ryall

Alexander and Josephine first met in 1808, when Alexander came to Erfurt in Thuringia for a meeting with Napoleon. The 'Erfurt Congress' didn't yield any serious political agreements, but was remembered for brilliant receptions, hunting trips and nightly theatrical performances. During these festivities, Alexander met Josephine, the French Empress.

The Congress of Erfurt

The Congress of Erfurt

Nicolas Gosse

Alexander was 31 and Josephine 45 at the time. However, Napoleon's valet, Louis Constant Wairy, remembered in his memoirs that in Erfurt, Alexander and Josephine spent a night together, while Napoleon himself was merrily sleeping in his private bedroom after a long busy day. "After the first intimate meeting of Alexander and Josephine," Wairy wrote, "the Russian tsar came to the Empress' bedroom every morning and they talked alone for a long time, like old acquaintances." Six years would pass before Alexander would meet Josephine again.

In 1808, when Alexander and Josephine first met in Erfurt, they were both probably heartbroken. Months earlier, Alexander's wife, Empress Elizabeth Alekseevna, lost her second daughter, Elizabeth, who didn't even reach two years of age. But rumors were strong that the poor girl wasn't even the Emperor's daughter - Alexander and Elizabeth, by that time, had fallen out of love and the Empress was rumored to have had lovers.

Maria Naryshkina

Maria Naryshkina

Salvatore (Nikolai) Tonci

Alexander, on the other hand, had an "official" favorite (she was known as the Emperor's lover at court) named Maria Naryshkina and had an overall reputation of a womanizer. He actually left Erfurt with a new lover "presented" to him by Napoleon: Marie-Therèse-Etiennette Bourgoin was a French actress who was ordered by Napoleon to go to St. Petersburg with Emperor Alexander (she returned to France two years later). On the other hand, by 1808, it became clear for Napoleon that Josephine couldn't give him an heir. In 1809, they would be divorced. Although Napoleon married Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma, and had a son with her, ​​Josephine kept the title of the Empress of France and didn't break the friendship and correspondence with Napoleon.

Marie-Therèse-Etiennette Bourgoin

Marie-Therèse-Etiennette Bourgoin

Henri-Francois Riesener

The next time Alexander and Josephine met, it happened under completely different circumstances. It was April 1814 and the Russian army was entering Paris after its victorious campaign, defeating Napoleon, who was exiled to Elba. On April 6, the Bourbon monarchy was formally restored in France. However, Louis XVIII, the king, was allowed by Alexander I to enter Paris only after he had signed a written commitment to rule as a constitutional monarch.

Expensive gifts

The Gonzaga Cameo

The Gonzaga Cameo

Sailko (CC BY-SA 3.0)

On April 16, 1814, Alexander went to the Château de Malmaison, a castle near Paris, where Josephine lived. "I would have come to you earlier," the Emperor joked, "but I was delayed by the bravery of your soldiers." Upon his arrival, Alexander was shocked by the "poor" conditions (for an ex-empress) Josephine was living in. This time, Alexander met Josephine's 31-year old daughter and grandsons and gave orders to protect and support Josephine and her family to his subjects. However, judging by the expensive gifts that Alexander and Josephine exchanged, there was something more important behind their meeting.

The Malmaison Palace

The Malmaison Palace

Public domain

Josephine gave Alexander the famous treasure she kept in her collection, the Gonzaga Cameo - a Hellenistic engraved gem cut out from the three layers of an Indian sardonyx, dating from, perhaps, the 3rd century BC. Alexander, on his behalf, also presented Josephine with a truly royal gift - a necklace with 11 diamonds.

The Russian Emperor started coming to Malmaison frequently, having long walks and conversations with Josephine. For the Paris political society, this seemed suspicious. Emperor Alexander, who could be entertaining himself at the court, preferred to spend time with the ex-Empress, who, in the eyes of the public, still represented Napoleon. She even wanted to follow him to the island of Elba, but was forbidden to do so by the allies.

The Leichtenberg tiara, made from the diamonds Alexander presented to Josephine

The Leichtenberg tiara, made from the diamonds Alexander presented to Josephine

etee (CC BY-SA 2.0)

On May 25, Josephine suddenly felt very ill and died four days later, just a month before her 51st birthday. She was rumored to have caught a cold during her walks with Alexander - she allegedly wore summer dresses to impress him, although it wasn't yet so warm that May.

There is, however, another side to this story. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs and later Prime Minister, was very concerned with Josephine's and Alexander's communications, as he suspected that might lead to the replacement of Louis XVIII with Napoleon's son, three-year old Napoleon II, with his mother Marie-Loiuse as a regent. It was known that Alexander I detested Louis XVIII and didn't want him on the French throne. It was quite natural to suspect that Alexander's frequent visits to Malmaison had a secret agenda - even Napoleon himself defined Alexander as "a real Byzantine", implying the Russian Emperor's elusive nature.

Josephine Bonaparte, 1812

Josephine Bonaparte, 1812

Firmin Massot

Rumors existed that Josephine could have been in some way poisoned by Talleyrand's agents to prevent her from being Alexander's proxy. So, it might have well been not the cold she caught during walks with Alexander, but something else that caused her death. After Josephine's passing, Alexander bought her art collection from her children.

Josephine's diamonds that Alexander gave her were inherited by her son Eugène, the Duke of Leuchtenberg and, later, became a part of the Leuchtenberg tiara made by Faberge for Eugene's descendants. The tiara is still intact. It was bought in 2007 by an American art collector and is now on display in The Houston Museum of Natural Science. The Gonzaga cameo is a part of the collection of the State Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

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