By all accounts Charlotte Corday stepped on the scaffold on July 17, 1793 in Paris with remarkable calm and dignity. She knelt laying her reportedly lovely neck in the yoke of the apparatus. At the appointed time the sure knife of the guillotine fell and her head tumbled into the waiting basket. Suddenly, a man named Legros, who may, or may not, have been an assistant to the executioner or perhaps a carpenter who had worked on the machine that morning, rushed forward grabbing the head by its light brown hair and slapped it across the face. A witness wrote that Corday’s face had an expression of “unequivocal indignation” at the slap.
Twenty-four year old Corday had come to this final indignity by meddling in French politics—with a butcher knife.
She was born on July 27, 1768 in a Normandy village and was graced with the elaborate name of Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Armont because her father, Jacques François de Corday, seigneur d’Armont was a member of the minor, but impoverished, nobility. After her mother and older sister died of some sort of contagion, Charlotte and a younger sister were sent to a Convent in Caen. While there she had access to the library where she read widely, enjoying particularly the classics like Plutarch in Latin.
By 1791 she had left the convent and was living with a cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville who first brought her into the orbit of Girondin politics.
Mademoiselle Corday as portrayed by François-Séraphin Delpec.
The Girondin were the party of moderate Republicans who dominated the National Assembly when the King was overthrown. At first their main opposition came from moderate Royalists who favored a constitutional monarchy. Their main allies in the Assembly were the slightly more radical Montagnards. Both were factions of the Jacobin Club, the main revolutionary society.
Back in Normandy Corday avidly read the writings of the most important members of the Girondin and associated with other provincial supporters. And like the Girondin, she watched in horror as the Revolution seemed to spiral violently out of control. Two events particularly shocked her.
First was the sudden overthrow of Louis XVI in March of 1792. The Girondin were indeed in favor of abolishing the monarchy but had pinned their hopes on a more orderly transition to a republic. The second event was the September Massacres when thousands of priests, aristocrats, monarchists, and other political detainees were dragged from their prisons and murdered or hastily tried and executed by the sans-culottes of the Paris Mob.
Both of those events transpired as the Girondin held nominal power in the government. But the Montagnards, now assuming the mantel of the Jacobins, were scrambling for power, trying to keep up with the radicalized and angry poor of Paris. Under the leadership of Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, and Jean-Paul Marat Jacobins plotted the over-throw of their former allies and their complete elimination as a political force. In May of 1793 the people of Paris rose against the Girondin government which had threatened to attack them with loyal levies from the provinces. In early June the National Guard officially ousted the government. Within weeks the Reign of Terror was on.
Jean-Paul Marat by Jean Francois Garneray--a remarkably ugly little man.
Watching all of this with mounting horror in Normandy, Corday lay most of the blame not on the more active politicians, Robespierre and Danton, but on the movement’s ideological leader, Marat. The former physician and scientist had dedicated himself to revolutionary politics from the earliest stirring of the people. A radical democrat he made himself the champion of the poor—the sans culottes—and the stinging critic of any perceived conservatism or weakness in a parade of revolutionary governments in his newspaper Le Journal de la République française under the nom de plume L’Ami du people. He was often forced into hiding but kept, as best as he was able, his sometimes outlawed paper in print. He was an idol to the Mob in ways that ambitious politicians like Robespierre and Danton could only dream of. In the Reign of Terror he undertook the role of prosecutor.
Corday decided that if Marat was somehow removed from the scene the Reign of Terror would collapse and France would be spared a civil war. At some point she decided to act on her own.
She travelled from Normandy to Paris intent on killing Marat and composing a manifesto explaining the action she planned to take. She first tried to approach him at the National Assembly only to discover that he no longer attended the meetings. Next she sought him out at his house after having purchased a 6 inch butcher knife on the morning of July 13. A servant turned her away initially, but when she returned that night claiming to have a list of Caen Girondin who planned an insurrection, Marat allowed her to be admitted.
Marat, who suffered from a painful and debilitating skin condition was working as usual from a makeshift desk stretched across his bathtub. He conducted the interview and collected the list. According to her later statement he either said that those on the list would be immediately disposed of or arrested and put to death.
The Death of Marat by David.
With that Corday rose from her chair and strode to the bathtub pulling her knife from her corset. She plunged deep into the chest of the helpless man who could only manage to blurt out “Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!” (Help me, my dear friend) before dying. Corday had pierced Marat’s lung, aorta and left ventricle. He died all but instantly.
As the household responded with alarm, Corday sat quietly awaiting inevitable arrest.
Everything went quickly after that. She was interrogated at length—and most likely tortured in an attempt to find out if she was part of a wider conspiracy. In her hurried trial she told the court that “I killed one man to save 100,000.” She had no illusion that she would not pay with her life.
For their part the Jacobin authorities, terrified for their own lives and unsure if Corday acted alone, ordered her body examined to see if she was a virgin. They believed that she must have been sleeping with a man who controlled her. They steadfastly refused to believe a woman would be able to conceive and execute such a plan on her own. Unfortunately for them, she turned out to be a virtuous virgin.
Although her manifesto, Address to the French people, friends of Law and Peace was secretly published and circulated, at least in Paris, Marat was elevated to the status of martyr/hero. His bust would be installed on the altars of former churches when the new revolutionary Cult of Reason was proclaimed. The popular painter David portrayed Marat’s lifeless body in the bath in a picture that took Paris by storm and was widely reproduced.
If Marat’s reputation won the immediate propaganda war, it was not to last. The excess of the Reign of Terror spun rapidly out of control, appalling many former supporters and even eventually members of the notorious mob. Outside Paris the provinces seethed with resentment and rebellion brewed. Within a year they were ousted from power and on 9 Thermidor by its new Revolutionary calendar and July 10, 1794 by the Gregorian Robespierre’s head was separated from his shoulders, likely on the same busy guillotine that had been so effective on Corday.
The surviving moderate Republicans, surviving younger aristocrats, and royalists were back in sway for a while under the Directorate until the shrewd Napoleon Bonaparte, hero of the wars of invasion by the European powers seeking to restore the monarchy gathered up the power for his personal dictatorship and ultimate Empire.
The eventual fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy at the point of Europe’s bayonets calmed France for a while, but glaring class inequality continued to fester, particularly in Paris which erupted in street rebellions in 1830 and again in 1832. The latter was a paltry, doomed affair now remembered only because it inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and, of course the musical stage and screen blockbuster of our time.
The revisionist view with Corday as heroine by Paul Baudry.
Supporters of the monarchy sought out historical figures to write an alternative myth of the bloody past, someone of undeniable courage who dared to face the howling mob. Charlotte Corday was the perfect candidate. Her story was retold and embellished in books and stage melodramas, something that would be repeated after the brief Republic following the fall of the Bourbons to the 1848 uprising when Louis Napoleon came to power.
In 1860 Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry painted the same scene of Marat dead in the bathtub as celebrated by David from a different angle showing a heroic Corday surveying her work.
Marat/Sade on stage in London with Patrick Magee, Glenda Jackson, and Ian Richardson directed by Peter Brook in the 1967 Royal Shakespere Company film version.
In the 1960 the story was retold in the international theater sensation The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade better known simply as Marat/Sade and the 1967 film directed by Peter Brook based on his Royal Shakespeare Theater Company London production. Songs from the show including Poor Old Marat were recorded as a medley by Judy Collins on her best-selling album In My Life.
Marat and Corday remain to this day potent symbols in France to be extolled or reviled depending on one’s politics.