Napoleon’s Marshals, Wives of (Companions)

Wives of the twenty-six marshals created during the reign of Napoleon I. The women who married Napoleon’s marshals crossed the spectrum of social classes, nationalities, religious orientations, and educational levels. Despite these differences, an underlying common bond remained. These women were the constant supporters of husbands who spent the vast majority of their married lives campaigning in the Napoleonic Wars. They were compelled in certain circumstances to accompany their husbands to various posts and even on military campaigns. The marshals’ wives would become an integral component of Napoleon’s court during the First Empire.

Duty was the creed of the marshals’ wives. The role of military wife was unending for the wives of Napoleon’s marshals. As a result of the constant campaigning, the women were required to supervise the home life; they maintained their households, raised children, attended to duties at court, and represented their husbands at appropriate activities. In many cases, however, the wives were active in campaigning, tending to wounded husbands, and two would experience the pain of losing their husbands on the field of honor.

The marshals’ wives joined their husbands whenever circumstances allowed. Aglae Ney joined her husband, Michel, who was given command of the 6th Corps at the Boulogne camp, settling first in Montreuil, then in the Chateau de Recque, which the marshal had procured specifically for her. Consequently, a courtlike atmosphere was facilitated by the presence of Madame Ney. Frequent visitors from Paris enjoyed the abundant diversions that were constantly offered (Atteridge 1912, 126-127). When the marshals were on campaign or serving the French government in some other capacity, their wives might be present with them. In many cases, the marshals were appointed as ambassadors and governors throughout France and French-conquered territories. Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte received an appointment as governor and commander-in-chief of Hanover shortly before the coronation of Napoleon as emperor of France in 1804 (Palmer 1990, 119). Bernadotte was to command and administer the army occupying land that had once been under English control. Desiree Bernadotte joined her husband in the summer of 1805 and settled into the sumptuous Schloss Herrenhausen, the official residence of the governor. The tides of war were such that Desiree was not able to enjoy her new abode for very long. The threat of a Third Coalition, formed by Russia, Austria, and Prussia, forced Napoleon to order Bernadotte to Wurzburg (Palmer 1990, 121-124). The lives of the marshals and their wives were spent constantly adjusting to such sudden changes caused by shifting political alliances and military pursuits.

The Peninsular War bore witness to the truly grim nature of guerrilla warfare. Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet commanded an army in Catalonia and was awarded his marshal’s baton during the desolate war fighting against Spanish guerrillas. Although he celebrated his marriage on November 16, 1808, by December 1, he was departing for Madrid and the commencement of his role in that fateful campaign. By all accounts, the Peninsular War and its ramifications made the lives of the marshals’ wives dangerous and unpredictable. As a result, the emperor expressly forbade wives to accompany their husbands to Spain. Ignoring this directive, Hon-orine Suchet joined her husband in Aragon in 1810, after he had been appointed military governor for that province. The courage of the young wife is further underscored by the fact that she lived in such inhospitable conditions while pregnant with the couple’s first child. As her due date approached, it became necessary for Honorine to leave Spain and she returned to Paris in April of 1811 (Horward and Ojala 1987, 490-497).

Not all of the marshals returned home safely at the end of a campaign. The loss of Marshals Jean Lannes and Jean Baptiste Bessieres, who played important roles in the success of the empire, was particularly difficult for Napoleon. Adele Bessieres received consolation directly from Napoleon and Josephine after her husband fell at the Battle of Lutzen in 1813 (Junot 1893, 212). The widow of Lannes, Louise, received Napoleon’s earnest condolences (Horward and Ojala 1987, 212). She retired from court life for a time but returned to serve as lady of honor to Napoleon’s second wife, Marie-Louise.

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