Joséphine of Leuchtenberg was born Joséphine Maximilienne Eugénie Napoléone on 14 March 1807 in Milan, Italy. Her parents were French general Eugène de Beauharnais and Princess Augusta of Bavaria. The oldest of seven children, Joséphine spent the first years of her childhood in Milan, where the family lived at Villa Bonaparte. The summers were spent at the family’s residence in the nearby city of Monza. Joséphine received a good education with classes in History, Mathematics, and Geography. In addition to French, she was fluent in German and Italian.
Joséphine’s father was the adopted child and step-son of Napoleon I. Her biological grandfather had been executed during the Reign of Terror in 1794, and her grandmother, Joséphine de Beauharnais, married Napoleon only two years later. Although her father never became heir to the imperial throne, he did command the Army of Italy and served as Viceroy of Italy for his step-father.
In 1814, when Joséphine was only seven years old, Napoleon was forced to abdicate as a result of the Treaty of Fontainebleau. Consequently, her father lost his position of power in Italy, and the family was forced to leave the country. They returned to Bavaria, the native land of Joséphine’s mother, and her father was given the title Duke of Leuchtenberg. Now living in Germany, the Leuchtenberg family spent their summers at Eichstädt and their winters in Munich.
In 1822, 15-year old Joséphine met her future husband, Crown Prince Oscar of Sweden, who was travelling around Europe looking for a suitable spouse. His father, Charles XIV, had made a list of potential candidates and Joséphine was reportedly listed as number two. Candidate number one, Princess Vilhelmine Marie of Denmark, did not succeed in catching the Prince’s interest. When he met Joséphine, however, they fell in love, and the King accepted their engagement. The bride-to-be began taking Swedish lessons, and although she was a devout Catholic, she agreed to raise her future children according to the Lutheran religion.
A Catholic wedding ceremony took place on 22 May 1823 in Munich at the Palais Leuchtenberg, and a Lutheran ceremony was arranged two months later in Stockholm. The new Crown Princess was received by members of the Swedish royal family on the island of Djurgården and escorted to Haga Palace. Her name was changed to Josefina, and since Sweden had fought against Napoleon in the war, her name Napoléone was removed. Joséphine’s presence in Stockholm’s high society was an immediate success, and she became a very popular member of the royal family. Together with her husband, she travelled through Sweden and Norway, engaging in various public appearances to promote the monarchy. Described as beautiful and charming, Joséphine was adored by the public and impressed everyone with her fluency in the Swedish language. Artist Fritz von Dardel said the following about her during a ball: “As for the Crown Princess, she was beautiful and dignified, perhaps too thin but very intelligent and quite delightful to all. No one has anything to reproach her for other than for her Catholic religion.”1 Joséphine got along exceptionally well with her father-in-law, which initially caused tension between her and the Queen, Désirée Clary. After a few years though, the relationship between the two women improved.
The royal couple had a seemingly happy relationship as they became parents to a total of five children, but Oscar’s extramarital affairs throughout their marriage deeply affected Joséphine. Her diary from this time is an excellent source, and in it, she describes in detail the hopeless situation in which she found herself. Perhaps the most well-known of Oscar’s relationships was the one he had with famed actress Emilie Högquist. It lasted for several years and resulted in two illegitimate children, a period of time which Joséphine described as “a walk through fire”2. Despite her heartbreak, she continued to appear in public with her husband, and her dignity won the sympathies of the public. Joséphine loved art, culture, gardening, and painting. Her only daughter, Princess Eugenie, was a talented painter and Joséphine encouraged her interests. As Crown Princess, she financially supported artist Sophie Adlersparre.
In 1844, the King died, and Joséphine was crowned Queen of Sweden and Norway on 28 September. As such, she maintained a certain degree of political power as she served as an adviser to her husband. At the time of their accession to the throne, Joséphine’s role was described by feminist reformer Fredrika Bremer, who said that the new Queen “prefers to act out of her own pulse and will. Granted, I have not heard this from court, but I believe it to be the truth. Out of the two royal spouses, she is, without question, believed to be the stronger character.”3
After several years of suffering from poor health, Oscar passed away in 1859 and Joséphine became Queen Dowager. She thus lost all of her political influence and spent the following years committed to philanthropy and travelled across Europe to visit relatives. In the summer of 1876, Joséphine fell in with pneumonia and passed away on 7 June. She was 69.
- Robert Braun (1950). Silvertronen, En bok om drottning Josefine av Sverige-Norge. (The Silver Throne. A Book about Queen Josefine of Sweden-Norway) Stockholm: Norlin Förlag AB. (Swedish) page 93
- Gunnel Becker & Kjell Blückert, red (2007). Drottning Josefina av Sverige och Norge. (Queen Josefina of Sweden and Norway) Stockholm: Veritas Förlag. ISBN 978-91-89684-44-7 (Swedish) page 54
- Robert Braun (1950). Silvertronen, En bok om drottning Josefine av Sverige-Norge. (The Silver Throne. A Book about Queen Josefine of Sweden-Norway) Stockholm: Norlin Förlag AB. (Swedish) page 135