Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont (1768 – 1793), known to history as Charlotte Corday, was a figure of the French Revolution. In 1793, she was executed under the guillotine for the assassination of Jacobin leader Jean-Paul Marat, who was in part responsible, through his role as a politician and journalist, for the more radical course the Revolution had taken. More specifically, he played a substantial role in the political purge of the Girondins, with whom Corday sympathized.
Born in Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries, a hamlet in the commune of Écorches (Orne), in Normandy, France, 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.
While Corday was a young girl, her mother, Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival and her older sister 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. 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.
After the revolution began to radicalize and head towards terror Charlotte Corday began sympathizing largely with the Girondin and was subsequently influenced by them. She admired their speeches and grew fond of many of the members whom she met while living in Caen. She respected and revered them and thought it necessary to align herself with the party. She had an urge to get to know the members and regarded them as a party that would ultimately save France. The Gironde represented a more moderate approach to the revolution and they, like Corday, were skeptical about the direction the revolution was taking. They were opposed to the Montagnards, who were advocating for 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. The opposition to this radical thinking coupled with the fact that she was being influenced by the Gironde ultimately led her to carry out her plan to murder one of the most radical of them all, Jean-Paul Marat.
The influence of Girondin ideas on Corday is evident in this utterance at her trial: “I knew that he was perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.” As the revolution had progressed the Girondin were 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 echoes this Girondin sentiment as they attempted to slow the revolution and reverse the violence that had escalated since the September Massacres.
Originally a doctor, Marat founded the journal L’Ami du Peuple in 1789, and its fiery criticism of those in power was a contributing factor to the bloody turn of the Revolution in 1792. With the arrest of the king in August of that year, Marat was elected as a deputy of Paris to the Convention. In France’s revolutionary legislature, Marat opposed the Girondists–a faction made up of moderate republicans who advocated a constitutional government and continental war.
By 1793, Charlotte Corday, the daughter of an impoverished aristocrat and an ally of the Girondists in Normandy, came to regard Marat as the unholy enemy of France and plotted his assassination. Leaving her native Caen for Paris, she had planned to kill Marat at the Bastille Day parade on July 14 but was forced to seek him out in his home when the festivities were canceled. On July 13, she gained an audience with Marat by promising to betray the Caen Girondists. Marat, who had a persistent skin disease, was working as usual in his bath when Corday pulled a knife from her bodice and stabbed him in his chest. He died almost immediately, and Corday waited calmly for the police to come and arrest her. She was guillotined four days later.
His murder was memorialized in a celebrated painting by Jacques-Louis David which shows Marat after Corday had stabbed him to death in his bathtub. In 1847, writer Alphonse de Lamartine gave Corday the posthumous nickname l’ange de l’assassinat (the Angel of Assassination). This assassination captured the attention of many artists, most notably, Jacques-Louis David (1793), whose starkly realistic portrayal is often cited as an example of neo-classical art that came before the more florid romantic and pre-Raphaelite works of the mid and late 1800s.
Artists also enjoyed portraying her death,as you can see below.
At her trial, when Corday testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying “I killed one man to save 100,000,” she was likely alluding to Maximilien Robespierre’s words before the execution of King Louis XVI. On 17 July 1793, four days after Marat was killed, Corday was executed under the guillotine and her corpse was disposed of in the Madeleine Cemetery.
After her 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. However, Sanson stated in his diary that Legros was in fact a carpenter who had been hired to make repairs to the guillotine. Witnesses report an expression of “unequivocal indignation” on her face when her cheek was slapped. This slap was considered unacceptable and Legros was imprisoned for three months because of his outburst.
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), a condition that focused more attention on women throughout France – laundresses, housewives, domestic servants – who were also rising up against authority after having been controlled by men for so long.
The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or the Terror: Marat became a martyr, and busts of him replaced crucifixes and religious statues that had been banished under the new regime.
Hair and controversy
Soon after her death, controversy arose surrounding the color of Corday’s hair. Although her passport, filled out and signed by a Caen official, described her hair as chestnut brown, the painting “The Murder of Marat” by Jean-Jacques Hauer portrays Corday with powdered blonde hair. Following Corday’s execution and the popularity of Hauer’s painting, stories quickly spread about how Corday had hired a local coiffeur to straighten and lighten her hair. Although this story rapidly became popular in Paris at the time, there is no historical evidence to support that it actually happened. Part of the reason for the discrepancy in descriptions of Corday can be attributed to the stigma attached to powdered hair. At the time, only nobility and royalty ever powdered their hair, and in that time of violent anti-royalist revolt, such an association could be powerful in influencing popular opinion.