Charlotte Corday

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Charlotte Corday
Charlotte Corday.PNG
Charlotte Corday, painted at her request by Jean-Jacques Hauer, a few hours before her execution
Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont

27 July 1768
Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries, Écorches (in present-day Orne), Normandy, France
Died17 July 1793(1793-07-17) (aged 24)
Cause of deathExecution by guillotine
Known forAssassination of Jean-Paul Marat
  • Jacques François de Corday, seigneur d'Armont
  • Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival
Charlotte Corday signature.png

Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont (27 July 1768 – 17 July 1793), known as Charlotte Corday (French:  [kɔʁdɛ] ), was a figure of the French Revolution. In 1793, she was executed by guillotine for the assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, who was in part responsible for the more radical course the Revolution had taken through his role as a politician and journalist. [1] Marat had played a substantial role in the political purge of the Girondins, with whom Corday sympathized. His murder was depicted in the painting The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, which shows Marat's dead body after Corday had stabbed him in his medicinal bath. In 1847, writer Alphonse de Lamartine gave Corday the posthumous nickname l'ange de l'assassinat (the Angel of Assassination).



Corday's birth house in Normandy Corday maison.JPG
Corday's birth house in Normandy

Born in Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries, a hamlet in the commune of Écorches (Orne), in Normandy, Charlotte Corday was a member of a minor aristocratic family. She was a fifth-generation matrilineal descendant of the dramatist Pierre Corneille. Her parents were cousins. [2]

While Corday was a young girl, her older sister and their mother, Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival, died. Her father, Jacques François de Corday, Seigneur d'Armont (1737–1798), unable to cope with his grief over their death, sent Corday and her younger sister to the Abbaye aux Dames convent in Caen, where she had access to the abbey's library and first encountered the writings of Plutarch, Rousseau and Voltaire. [3] :154–55 After 1791, she lived in Caen with her cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville. The two developed a close relationship, and Corday was the sole heir to her cousin's estate. [3] :157

Corday's physical appearance is described on her passport as "five feet and one inch... hair and eyebrows auburn, eyes gray, forehead high, mouth medium size, chin dimpled, and an oval face." [4]

Political influence

Charlotte Corday a Caen en 1793 by Tony Robert-Fleury, Musee Bonnat-Helleu Tony Robert-Fleury - Charlotte Corday a Caen en 1793.jpg
Charlotte Corday à Caen en 1793 by Tony Robert-Fleury, Musée Bonnat-Helleu

After the revolution radicalized further and headed towards terror, Charlotte Corday began to sympathize with the Girondins. She admired their speeches and grew fond of many of the Girondist groups whom she met while living in Caen. She respected the political principles of the Girondins and came to align herself with their thinking. She regarded them as a movement that would ultimately save France. [5] The Girondins represented a more moderate approach to the revolution and they, like Corday, were skeptical about the direction the revolution was taking. They opposed the Montagnards, who advocated a more radical approach to the revolution, which included the extreme idea that the only way the revolution would survive invasion and civil war was through terrorizing and executing those opposed to it. [6] The opposition to this radical thinking, coupled with the influence of the Girondins, ultimately led Corday to carry out her plan to murder the most radical of them all, Jean-Paul Marat.

Corday's action aided in restructuring the private versus public role of the woman in society at the time. The idea of women as second class or "less than" was challenged, and Corday was considered a hero to those who were against the teachings of Marat. There have been suggestions that her act incited the banning of women's political clubs, and the executions of female activists such as the Girondin Madame Roland. [7]

The influence of Girondin ideas on Corday is evident in her words at her trial: "I knew that he Marat was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand." As the revolution progressed, the Girondins had become progressively more opposed to the radical, violent propositions of the Montagnards such as Marat and Robespierre. Corday's notion that she was saving a hundred thousand lives echoes this Girondin sentiment as they attempted to slow the revolution and reverse the violence that had escalated since the September Massacres of 1792.

Marat's assassination

Jean-Paul Marat was a member of the radical Jacobin faction that had a leading role during the Reign of Terror. As a journalist, he exerted power and influence through his newspaper, L'Ami du peuple ("The Friend of the People"). [8]

Corday's decision to kill Marat was stimulated not only by her revulsion at the September Massacres, for which she held Marat responsible, but by her fear of an all-out civil war. [3] :161 She believed that Marat was threatening the Republic, and that his death would end violence throughout the nation. She also believed that King Louis XVI should not have been executed. [3] :160 Corday believed in a structure like that of Ancient Greece or Rome, the realization of which was made unlikely by the efforts of Marat. [9]

On 9 July 1793, Corday left her cousin, carrying a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives , and went to Paris, where she took a room at the Hôtel de Providence. [10] She bought a kitchen knife with a 6-inch (15 cm) blade. During the next few days, she wrote her Addresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix ("Address to the French people friends of Law and Peace") to explain her motives for assassinating Marat. [11]

The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793) Death of Marat by David.jpg
The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David (1793)

Corday initially planned to assassinate Marat in front of the entire National Convention. She intended to make an example of him, but upon arriving in Paris she discovered that Marat no longer attended meetings because his health was deteriorating due to a skin disorder (perhaps dermatitis herpetiformis). She was then forced to change her plan. She went to Marat's home before noon on 13 July, claiming to have knowledge of a planned Girondist uprising in Caen; she was turned away by Catherine Evrard, the sister of Marat's fiancée Simonne. [12]

On her return that evening, Marat admitted her. At the time, he conducted most of his affairs from a bathtub because of his skin condition. Marat wrote down the names of the Girondins that she gave to him; she then pulled out the knife and plunged it into his chest. He called out: Aidez-moi, ma chère amie! ("Help me, my dear friend!"), and then died. [13]

This is the moment memorialized by Jacques-Louis David's painting. The iconic pose of Marat dead in his bath is viewed from a different angle in Baudry's painting of 1860 (illustration, below).

In response to Marat's dying shout, Simonne Evrard rushed into the room. She was joined by a distributor of Marat's newspaper, who seized Corday. Two neighbors, a military surgeon and a dentist, attempted to revive Marat. Republican officials arrived to interrogate Corday and to calm a hysterical crowd who appeared ready to lynch her. [14]


Caricature of Corday's trial by James Gillray, 1793. Corday-Gillray-color.jpeg
Caricature of Corday's trial by James Gillray, 1793.

Charlotte Corday sent the following farewell letter to her father which was intercepted and read during the trial, the letter helping to establish that Marat's murder was premeditated:

     Pardonnez-moi, mon cher papa, d’avoir disposé de mon existence sans votre permission. J’ai vengé bien d’innocentes victimes, j’ai prévenu bien d’autres désastres. Le peuple, un jour désabusé, se réjouira d’être délivré d’un tyran. Si j’ai cherché à vous persuader que je passais en Angleterre, c’est que j’espérais garder l’incognito, mais j’en ai reconnu l’impossibilité. J’espère que vous ne serez point tourmenté. En tout cas, je crois que vous auriez des défenseurs à Caen. J’ai pris pour défenseur Gustave Doulcet : un tel attentat ne permet nulle défense, c’est pour la forme. Adieu, mon cher papa, je vous prie de m’oublier, ou plutôt de vous réjouir de mon sort, la cause en est belle. J’embrasse ma sœur que j’aime de tout mon cœur, ainsi que tous mes parents. N’oubliez pas ce vers de Corneille:     Le Crime fait la honte, et non pas l’échafaud !

     C’est demain à huit heures, qu’on me juge. Ce 16 juillet

     Forgive me, my dear papa, for having disposed of my existence without your permission. I have avenged many innocent victims, I have prevented many other disasters. The people, one day disillusioned, will rejoice in being delivered from a tyrant. If I tried to persuade you that I was passing through England, it was because I hoped to keep it incognito, but I recognized the impossibility. I hope you will not be tormented. In any case, I believe that you would have defenders in Caen. I took Gustave Doulcet as a defender: such an attack allows no defense, it's for the form. Goodbye, my dear papa, please forget me, or rather rejoice in my fate, the cause is good. I kiss my sister whom I love with all my heart, as well as all my parents. Do not forget this verse by Corneille:     Crime is shame, not the scaffold!

     It is tomorrow at eight o'clock that I am judged. This July 16

Corday underwent three separate cross-examinations by senior revolutionary judicial officials, including the President of the Revolutionary Tribunal and the chief prosecutor. She stressed that she was a republican and had been so even before the Revolution, citing the values of ancient Rome as an ideal model. [15]

The focus of the questioning was to establish whether she had been part of a wider Girondist conspiracy. Corday remained constant in insisting that "I alone conceived the plan and executed it." She referred to Marat as a "hoarder" and a "monster" who was respected only in Paris. She credited her fatal knifing of Marat with one blow not to practicing in advance but to luck. [16]

Charlotte Corday asked for Gustave le Doulcet, an old acquaintance, to defend her, but he did not receive the letter she wrote to him in time, so Claude François Chauveau-Lagarde was appointed instead to assist her during the trial. [17] [18] It is believed that Fouquier-Tinville voluntarily delayed the letter, [1] however, it is said that Corday thought that Le Doulcet refused to defend her and sent to him a last letter of reproach just before going to the scaffold. [19] [20]


Charlotte Corday being conducted to her execution, by Arturo Michelena (1889); the warden carries the red blouse worn by Corday and the painter Hauer stands at the right. Carlota Corday 1889 by Arturo Michelena.jpg
Charlotte Corday being conducted to her execution, by Arturo Michelena (1889); the warden carries the red blouse worn by Corday and the painter Hauer stands at the right.

Following her sentencing Corday asked the court if her portrait could be painted, purportedly to record her true self. [21] She made her request pleading, "Since I still have a few moments to live, might I hope, citizens, that you will allow me to have myself painted." [9] Given permission, she selected as the artist a National Guard officer, Jean-Jacques Hauer, who had already begun sketching her from the gallery of the courtroom. Hauer's likeness (see above) was completed shortly before Corday was summoned to the tumbril, after she had viewed it and suggested a few changes. [22]

On 17 July 1793, four days after Marat was killed, Corday was executed by the guillotine in the Place de Grève wearing the red overblouse denoting a condemned traitor who had assassinated a representative of the people. Standing alone in the tumbril amid a large and curious crowd she remained calm, although drenched by a sudden summer rainfall. [23] Her body was buried in the Madeleine Cemetery.[ citation needed ]


After Corday's decapitation, a man named Legros lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek. Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner, indignantly rejected published reports that Legros was one of his assistants. Sanson stated in his diary that Legros was in fact a carpenter who had been hired to make repairs to the guillotine. [24] Witnesses report an expression of "unequivocal indignation" on her face when her cheek was slapped. The oft-repeated anecdote has served to suggest that victims of the guillotine may in fact retain consciousness for a short while, including by Albert Camus in his Reflections on the Guillotine. ("Charlotte Corday's severed head blushed, it is said, under the executioner's slap."). [25]

This offense against a woman executed moments before was considered unacceptable and Legros was imprisoned for three months because of his outburst. [26]

Jacobin leaders had her body autopsied immediately after her death to see if she was a virgin. They believed there was a man sharing her bed and the assassination plans. To their dismay, she was found to be virgo intacta (a virgin). [27]

The direct consequence of her crime were opposite to what she expected: The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror, which intensified after the murder. [1] Also Marat became a martyr, a bust of him replaced a religious statue on the rue aux Ours and a number of place-names were changed to honor Marat. [28]

Corday's act transformed the idea of what a woman was capable of, and to those who did not shun her for her act, she was a heroine. André Chénier, for example, wrote a poem in honor of Corday. This highlighted the "masculinity" possessed by Corday during the revolution.[ citation needed ]

French (Original)English (Translation)
La vertu seule est libre. Honneur de notre histoire,

Notre immortel opprobre y vit avec ta gloire,

Seule tu fus un homme, et vengeas les humains.

Et nous, eunuques vils, troupeau lâche sans âme,

Nous savons répéter quelques plaintes de femme,

Mais le fer pèserait a nos dèbiles mains.

Virtue alone is free. Honor of our history,

Our immortal opprobrium lives there with your glory,

Only you were a man, and avenged the humans.

And we, vile eunuchs, a cowardly herd without a soul,

We know how to repeat a few complaints from a woman,

But the iron would be heavy in our feeble hands.

The Revolution and women

Charlotte Corday by Paul Jacques Aime Baudry, posthumous (1860). Under the Second Empire, Marat was seen as a revolutionary monster and Corday as a heroine of France, as indicated by her location in front of the map. Charlotte Corday.jpg
Charlotte Corday by Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry, posthumous (1860). Under the Second Empire, Marat was seen as a revolutionary monster and Corday as a heroine of France, as indicated by her location in front of the map.

Corday's killing of Marat was considered vile, an "arch-typically masculine statement", which reaction showed that whether or not one approved of what she did, it is clear that the murder of Marat changed the political role and position of women during the French Revolution. [29] Corday was surprised by the reaction of revolutionary women, stating, "As I was truly calm I suffered from the shouts of a few women. But to save your country means not noticing what it costs." [30]

After Corday murdered Marat, the majority of women distanced themselves from her because they believed that what she had done would spark a reaction against the now developing feminist movement, which was already facing criticism. Also, many of these women were attached to Marat in that they were supporters of his revolutionary efforts and sympathized with him as citizens of France. [9]

Cultural references

Related Research Articles

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Further reading

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