Why Didn’t Napoleon and Joséphine Have Kids?

Ridley Scott’s biographical drama film ‘Napoleon’ sheds light on Napoleon Bonaparte and Joséphine Bonaparte’s married life, which becomes fragile due to their inability to welcome a child, the heir to the throne of France, together. In reality, as the film depicts, both Napoleon and Joséphine had children with other partners but they didn’t have a kid together. The empress’ failure to conceive one led the emperor to marry Marie Louise of Austria, who gave birth to his successor, Napoleon Francis Joseph Charles. Over the years, several historians and biographers have tried to make sense of why the couple didn’t have a child!

Joséphine Bonaparte’s Infertility

Ever since Joséphine Bonaparte became the empress of France, Napoleon and his family wanted her to conceive the heir to his throne. When she failed to get pregnant, as per several biographies of the emperor, the people around him even started to doubt his potency. However, Napoleon welcomed a son after separating from Joséphine and marrying Marie Louise, indicating that the first wife was the one who couldn’t conceive. Kate Williams, who wrote ‘Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte,’ suggested in her book that Joséphine’s imprisonment at Carmes Prison during the French Revolution was a contributing factor.

Image Credit: Château de Fontainebleau/Wikimedia Commons

“She [Joséphine] was only thirty-three, but her health had been wrecked by her period of imprisonment,” Williams wrote in the biography. Dr. Maurice Catinat, a collector of Joséphine’s letters and the co-editor of ‘Impératrice Joséphine – Correspondance, 1782-1814,’ reportedly suggested that stress-induced menopause, likely triggered by her imprisonment, was the reason behind her infertility. Furthermore, the contraceptive measures she relied on while living as a mistress must have further affected her ability to get pregnant. “[Joséphine’s health] weakened further by her years as a kept mistress, during which time she was using contraceptive measures such as noxious douches. She was in all likelihood infertile by the time of her marriage,” added Williams.

The decline in Joséphine’s health and the side effects of the contraceptives might not be the only reasons. The revered historian Vincent Cronin, in his book ‘Napoleon Bonaparte: An Intimate Biography,’ stated another possible reason. Joséphine sustained an injury while she was staying in the spa town of Plombières-les-Bains in eastern France. “One day, in her apartment at Plombières, when Napoleon was sailing to Egypt, Josephine had been hemming handkerchiefs when a friend on the balcony noticed a pretty dog in the street and called Josephine to see it. Josephine hurried out with two other friends: suddenly the balcony collapsed and Josephine fell fifteen feet, sustaining internal injuries, as the result of which doctors feared that she would never have another child,” wrote Cronin.

Image Credit: National Gallery of Art/Wikimedia Commons

At the time, the “waters” in Plombières were known to have “magic powers” that helped women to get pregnant. Joséphine reportedly believed the same and went to the baths in the region to renew her fertility, only to return to her husband in disappointment. “Josephine kept going to Plombières every summer, in the hope that the spa would renew her fertility, and she tended to become hypochondriac,” added Cronin. According to Williams, Napoleon’s family “continuously exploited” Joséphine’s infertility and even went on to tell the former “to discard her because she was barren.”

When it became evident that Joséphine could not give Napoleon an heir to his throne, it didn’t take long for several people to bring up the matter of separation. “Josephine’s many enemies were constantly plotting her downfall — and hissing to Napoleon that he should get a divorce,” further reads ‘Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte.’

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