Birthday: July 27, 1768
Died At Age: 24
Sun Sign: Leo
Also Known As: Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont
Born Country: France
Born in: Ligneries
Famous as: Revolutionary
father: Jacques-François de Corday d’Armont
mother: Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival
Died on: July 17, 1793
place of death: Place de la Concorde, Paris
Cause of Death: Execution
Who was Charlotte Corday?
Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont, better known as Charlotte Corday, was a French moderate who was active during the French Revolution. After she assassinated Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, she was apprehended and executed by guillotine. Originally from Normandy, Corday lost her mother when she was quite young. She subsequently grew up in the Abbaye aux Dames convent in Caen. As the revolution became more radicalised and acts of terror started to occur more frequently, Corday was drawn towards the Girondins. She was inspired by their speeches and became close to various Girondist groups that she came across while residing in Caen. The Girondins believed in a moderate path to the revolution and were worried, along with Corday, about the trajectory on which the revolution was heading. Her vehement opposition towards the radicals and the instigators of the Reign of Terror eventually led her to the decision of going forward with the assassination of Marat, a highly influential politician and journalist who played a significant role in the radicalization of the revolution. Corday was 24 years old when she was executed. In 1847, author Alphonse de Lamartine bestowed upon her a posthumous nickname, l'ange de l'assassinat (the Angel of Assassination).
Childhood & Early Life
Charlotte Corday was born on July 27, 1768, in Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries, Écorches (in present-day Orne), Normandy, France, in a minor noble family. Dramatist Pierre Corneille was one of her ancestors from her mother’s side. Her father, Jacques François de Corday, Seigneur d'Armont, and mother, Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival, were cousins.
She was quite young when her mother and older sister passed away. Grief-stricken, her father put her and her younger sister in the Abbaye aux Dames convent in Caen. She grew up there, reading the works of Plutarch, Rousseau and Voltaire at the abbey’s library.
After 1791, she began residing with her cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville, in Caen. A deep bond developed between the two, and Corday was made the only heir to her cousin’s estate.
On her passport, her physical appearance was described as following, “five feet and one inch... hair and eyebrows auburn, eyes gray, forehead high, mouth medium size, chin dimpled, and an oval face."
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Involvement in the Revolution
As the French Revolution took a more radical turn and gradually descended towards what would become known as the Reign of Terror, Charlotte Corday became highly influenced by the Girondins.
She was drawn towards their impassioned speeches and took a liking to the groups of Girondists that she came across in Caen. She admired the core philosophy behind these groups and realised that her own beliefs were similar to theirs. She was convinced that the Girondins would eventually be France’s saviours.
Among the various groups involved in the French Revolution, the Girondins embodied a more moderate path to the revolution. Like Corday, they were concerned about the course of the revolution. They severely criticised the Montagnards, who wanted to pursue a more radical path. The latter group held the view that in order to protect the revolution from invasion and civil war, its detractors must be terrorized and killed.
Corday’s personal philosophy directly contradicted everything that the Montagnards advocated. She was also deeply moved by the Girondins. All these factors ultimately persuaded her to go through with her plan to assassinate the person responsible for the revolution’s shift to radicalization: Jean-Paul Marat.
Killing of Marat
Marat was part of the radical Jacobin faction that had been at the forefront during the Reign of Terror. Being a journalist, he could exercise significant authority and control via his newspaper, ‘L'Ami du peuple’ ("The Friend of the People").
Charlotte Corday took the decision to kill him for two primary reasons: her horror at the September Massacres, for which she blamed Marat, and her belief that a civil war was imminent.
She thought Marat posed a danger to the republic, and that his death would put a stop to the relentless violence throughout the nation. Furthermore, she considered the execution of King Louis XVI to be a mistake. She wanted the introduction of a political structure like in ancient Rome or Greece but knew that it would not be possible due to the works of Marat.
On July 9, 1793, Charlotte Corday spoke to her cousin for the last time before departing for Paris. She had a copy of Plutarch's ‘Parallel Lives’ with her. In Paris, she rented a room at the Hôtel de Providence and purchased a 6-inch (15 cm) blade.
In the ensuing few days, she penned down her Addresse aux Françaisamis des lois et de la paix ("Address to the French people friends of Law and Peace") to justify the assassination.
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Her initial plan was to murder Marat in front of the entire National Convention, so the assassination could have the most comprehensive impact. However, after she came to Paris, she found out that Marat did not take part in the meetings any longer. As a result, she was compelled to come up with a new plan.
Before noon on 13 July, Charlotte Corday visited Marat’s home but was not granted entry. She went back in the evening, and this time, Marat let her in. She had stated during her previous visit that she had information about a planned Girondist insurgency in Caen, and Marat wanted to know about it. He met her while he was in his bathtub, as he did with all his visitors due a skin condition (possibly dermatitis herpetiformis) he had.
Marat asked Corday to give him the names. She did, and he wrote them down. She then took out the knife and pushed it into his chest. Marat died after crying out, “Aidez-moi, ma chèreamie!" ("Help me, my dear friend!"). The murder is the subject matter of the painting ‘The Death of Marat’ by Jacques-Louis David.
After she heard Marat’s call, his fiancée, Simonne Evrard, came running into the room. She was followed by a distributor of L'Ami du peuple, who grabbed Corday. Two neighbours, a military surgeon and a dentist, attempted to resuscitate Marat. Republican officials came to question Corday and protect her from the vengeful crowd that was prepared to lynch her.
Prosecution & Death
Charlotte Corday was put through three different cross-examinations by senior revolutionary judicial officials. During these interrogations, she maintained that she had always been a republican and had no accomplice, thwarting the government’s plan to portray her actions as part of a wider Girondist conspiracy.
Initially, she wanted her old acquaintance Gustave le Doulcet to represent her, but her letter of request never reached him. Instead, Claude François Chauveau-Lagarde served as her defence attorney.
After Corday was found guilty and sentenced, her execution through guillotine was carried out on July 17, 1793, in the Place de Grève. She wore a red overblouse, which signified that she was a convicted traitor who had murdered a representative of the people. Facing a large and curious crowd that had gathered to watch the execution despite a sudden summer rainfall, she appeared calm and collected.
After her execution, the Jacobin leaders conducted an autopsy of her body to find out if she had been a virgin. They believed that she had a male co-conspirator, with whom she was in a sexual relationship. However, the autopsy proved that she was indeed a virgin. Her body was then discarded in the Madeleine Cemetery.
The assassination did not have the effect that Charlotte Corday was hoping for. The violence only intensified, and Marat was turned into a martyr.
Her action prompted a re-examination of women’s role in the revolution and contemporary society.
At her request, artist and National Guard Officer Jean-Jacques Hauer painted a portrait of her hours before her execution.