Thursday, January 20, 2011

Napoléon's Joséphine at Chateau Malmaison

In my recent meeting with a sage rosarian at Luther Burbank Gardens we observed the old rose, Rosa francofurtana, or "Empress Joséphine" (a hearty, heavily blooming, bright pink cottage-garden style rose).  This sparked my interest in reading up on the Empress, her beautiful manor garden and her rose collection.

Joséphine de Beauharnais was born Marie Joséphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie - renamed Josephine by her second husband, General Napoléon Bonaparte.  Joséphine had two children, Eugéne and Hortense with her first husband, Alexandre de Beauharnais, who was guillotined during France's Reign of Terror.

As Napoléon's wife and the first Empress of France, Joséphine was popular with the public but beset by scandal.  From the book, Josephine: A Life of the Empress (1999), I learned that she had difficulties coping with the social demands made upon her.  As Napoléon's career expanded, she was expected to launch herself into the social activities expected of a famous general's wife, which she found exhausting, and she and her new husband were mostly apart.

Much to Napoléon dismay, Joséphine purchased a run-down 150-acre manor just outside of Paris while he was on campaign in Egypt.  Joséphine spent a fortune renovating the house and property, Chateau Malmaison, creating there a "delicious spot" where she and her husband were to be very happy. 


Joséphine sought to transform the estate into "the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation," gathering plants from her native Martinique and from other places around the world.  She acquired exotic birds and animals that roamed freely around the grounds. At the height of her days at Malmaison, Joséphine kept kangaroos, emus, black swans, zebras, sheep, gazelles, ostriches, chamois, a seal, antelopes and llamas.  From the foreword to Jardin de la Malmaison (1803):

                  "You have gathered around you the rarest plants growing on French we
                  inspect them in the beautiful gardens of Malmaison, an impressive reminder of the
                  conquests of your illustrious husband."

The property achieved great acclaim for its rose garden.  Joséphine had some 250 varieties of roses on the property, and her rosarians created an extensive collection of new roses, which I will write on in my next post.

Napoléon left Joséphine in 1810 due to her inability to produce an heir, and she retired to her Malmaison, where she died in 1814. Napoléon returned to Malmaison after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and before his exile to the island of Saint Helena.

Chateau Malmaison Today


  1. The latest issue of How to Find Great Plants is here and your rock purslane post is listed. Thanks so much for participating, I hope you will again next month. Here’s the issue:

    I love the illustrations you found for this post about Josephine. I'm not sure if the 150 acres of the manor or the 250 roses in the garden impress me more (though both of them sound like far too much work)!

  2. Eliza, I enjoyed your Find Great Plants event. I found a lot of great blogs through the issue, thank you!