Charlotte Corday (1768-17930): French revolutionary woman
Charlotte Corday was born Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d’Armont on 27 July 1768 in the village of Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries in Normandy (northwestern part of France) and was the descendant of the great XVIIth century playwright, Pierre Corneille. She was the third child of a minor noble family and had two older brothers, one younger sister, Eleonore, and another sister who died shortly after birth. She spent a lot of time reading Corneille and was inspired by the heroism and valor of his characters who would make a lifelong impression on her. On 9 April 1782, she lost her mother a few months before turning 14.
Her father faced with financial difficulties placed her and his other daughter, Eleonore, in an abbey in Caen. There, she deepened her faith and belief in God. She was educated by both the nuns who let her read classic authors like Plutarch and her father who encouraged her to read the great French philosophers like Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. The latter was particularly influential on her young mind. While at the abbey, she developed a friendship with the abbess’s nephew, Louis Gustave Doulcet de Pontécoulant, a young lawyer, who would later become Convention President and would be made Count of the Empire by Napoleon. Charlotte and her new acquaintance shared political inclinations; both were enraptured by the new ideals of equality and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. She believed that the ideals of Rousseau were close to realization and that France would see a new dawn with equality as the status quo. However, Charlotte was first awakened to the bloody reality of the Revolution when she witnessed first-hand the murder, mutilation, and subsequent parading on a pike the head of a young soldier from the Bourbon regiment.
In 1791, monasteries in France were being closed down and after a brief stay in her father’s estates, she moved back to Caen with a wealthy cousin, Madame de Bretteville, who was a widow and childless. 1791 also saw the revival of Marat’s journal, L’Ami du peuple, in which he let out his virulent and vitriolic hatred of the monarchy and the Gironde, the more moderate revolutionary party. Corday’s entourage has often described her as serene, attractive and even angelical. While in Caen, she continued to follow the happenings in Paris. She considered the leaders of the Girondin Party—Roland, Brissot, Vergniaud, Buzot, Condorcet, and Louvet—as true republican disciples of Rousseau and the only force capable of withstanding the violent inclinations of Robespierre, Marat and Danton of the Montagnard Party. Charlotte, who adopted the new last name of “Corday” during the revolution, devoured Girondin newspapers, such as Le Courrier français and Le Patriote français, and became a staunch supporter of the Party. Her admiration for the Gironde caused conflicts with her father who was still loyal to the king, Louis XVI. She renewed her friendship with Doulcet de Pontécoulant who provided her with yet more Girondist literature. In spite of her close relationship with Pontécoulant, she fiercely wanted to stay single; in correspondence to a friend she wrote that her liberty and independence would not be sacrificed for marriage. Her love seemed to have been exclusively for her country.
The September 1792 massacres in which the Parisian mob murdered 1,600 inmates (mainly royalist sympathizers and refractory priests) tormented and distressed her; she blamed Marat and his venomous articles for inciting the bloodshed. In April 1793, when General Dumouriez, Charles, a Girondin ally defected to the Austrians, the Montagnards used the General’s desertion to accuse the Girondin leaders of betraying the revolution. The Girondins’ link to a traitor triggered their arrest and Marat in his L’Ami du peuple, played a major role in their detention. In Charlotte Corday’s eyes, Marat had been responsible at every step of the Girondins’ fall. The Reign of Terror had started and would not end before July 1794. Several proscribed Girondins had escaped before being jailed and found refuge in Caen, the very city where Charlotte Corday resided. They had chosen this region (Calvados) because at the same time a counter revolution movement was being staged in Normandy and Brittany. The deputies that had managed to escape were hoping to recruit an army and march to Paris. Charlotte had met several of the deputies but had specifically befriended Barbaroux, from Marseille, for his courage in denouncing the massacres of September 1792 and open criticism of Marat for the part he played in it.
On July 9th 1793, Charlotte left for Paris with the goal of eliminating Marat, the man who had served as the impetus for the wave of violence. Her plan was to kill him either at the Convention or during outdoors activities on the Champ de Mars. However, she had to modify her strategy upon learning that Marat suffered a painful skin disease and had to rest in a slipper sulfur bath to alleviate his aches. On July 13th, she went to the Palais-Egalité, a gallery of shops and restaurants owned by the Duc d’Orléans, aka Philippe Egalité, where she bought a six-inch knife. She had left behind a document entitled, “L’Adresse aux Français,” in which she justified her actions and cleared herself of criminal intent. She would give her life to get rid of the tyrant that had terrorized the nation and obstructed the hope for peace and justice. She finally arrived at 20 rue des Cordeliers, Marat’s home who lived with his lover, Simonne Evrard and her sister Catherine. The two sisters refused to let Charlotte in. Determined to kill Marat that very day, Charlotte sent him two messages asking to meet. At seven o’clock, she again tried to carry on her mission but again the two sisters denied her request. This time however, she insisted on an audience, claiming to have critical information on the Girondins hiding in Caen. Marat hearing of the commotion decided to grant his soon to be assassin her wish and started taking notes back in his bath. Charlotte Corday took advantage of the distraction to plunge her knife in his chest all the way to the hilt. Unable to leave the scene, she was arrested and showed great composure in front of the two Evrard sisters along with the neighbors screaming insults and assaulting her. A doctor who tried to save Marat observed that the knife stab was surgically precise, leading to a death almost as instantaneous as the guillotine. Chabot, a Convention deputy, in charge of her interrogation, in spite of his rage, was amazed by her coolness and courage. Even Camille Desmoulins, who had precipitated the fall of the Girondins, admitted that her answers ridiculed the people in charge of the investigation. While in jail, she asked the Comité de Salut Public for an artist to make her portrait. The Comité accepted and sent one of Jacques-Louis David‘s students, Hauer, who did several sketches and worked on a portrait. Jacobins, Montagnards, and Sans Culottes expected an immediate execution. Hebert, Jacques in his Père Duchesne demanded a harder punishment than the guillotine. At her trial, on July 17th, she impressed the crowd with her beauty and calm. She had wanted her old acquaintance Doulcet de Pontécoulant to be her lawyer but her request only reached him after the trial. She unjustly reproached him of being a coward. She openly admitted her crime and justified it by her desire to serve and save France. She went to the scaffold without displaying neither fear nor dread.
The court was unwilling to believe she acted on her own and tried to push the narrative that she was merely the tool that executed the conspiracy to murder Marat. They suspected her chastity and had to verify the fact after her death. She was declared a virgin which gained her the epithet, “the Virgin of Peace.” David, Jacques Louis immortalized the assassination in one of the most famous paintings of the revolution, “The Death of Marat.” In 1847, Lamartine (XIXth century Romantic writer) wrote a book on Corday, L’Ange de l’assassinat (The Angel of Assassination) a title which also earned her another nickname.
The demise of Marat did not have the expected effect, the Montagnards used it to take much harsher measures against people suspected of counter revolutionary activities, the terror worsened, and the Girondins, considered responsible for Charlotte Corday’s crime, were hunted without mercy.
Bernardine Melchior-Bonnet, Charlotte Corday, 2000.