Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Depending on your point of view, Charlotte Corday is either a heroine or villainess. Read on to learn more about the story of this assassin.
Table of contents
13 July 1793, Paris, the eve of Bastille Day, the French Revolution in full swing. Charlotte Corday, the daughter of an impoverished Normandy aristocrat, arrives at Jean Paul Marat’s residence. Hidden in her corset is a six-inch knife Corday is a Girondin, a moderate Revolutionary. Marat is a Jacobin journalist and publisher of Friend of the People. Corday has come to his home with a single mission in mind: assassination.
Charlotte had recently been in Caen on family business. There she learnt that many young men were gathering to release prisoners in Paris. They were plotting the downfall and death of Marat. She considered that “so many brave youths were going to Paris for the head of a single man who did not merit such honour … the arm of a woman might be sufficient.”
Fatal Meeting with Jean Paul Marat
On the morning of 13th July 1793, Charlotte Corday arrived at Marat’s home. But, Marat’s fiancée’s sister turned her away. Later that day, Charlotte returned, claiming to carry with her a list of Girondins. This pretence admitted her entry into Marat’s presence, in his bathroom.
Early on in the Revolution, Marat attacked liberal revolutionaries in his newspaper. He hid from his opponents in the sewers of Paris. While hiding, Marat acquired a skin condition. Spending hours in a medicinal bath helped. Consequently, he regularly conducted business in his bathroom. When Charlotte met him that evening, Marat reclined in his bath and spoke with Charlotte about the insurrections in Calvados. Charlotte reeled off a list of names. Corday claimed that Marat replied, ‘their heads will fall within a fortnight’. These words sealed his death warrant. With one lucky strike, Charlotte stabbed Marat in the chest, hitting an artery.
Marat’s cries alert his fiancée Simonne Evrad. She rushed to his aid, with a newspaper distributer. He took hold of Charlotte, while two of Marat’s neighbours, a dentist and surgeon, fought to save his life. But they failed to revive him. Outside, a heated mob gathered to lynch Charlotte. Republican officials intervened to calm the frenetic scenes, and then took Charlotte to prison in the Abbaye. There she awaited trial..
The Trial of Charlotte Corday
At her trial, Charlotte was calm. She maintained that she “killed one man to save a hundred thousand. The Scots Magazine later reported that:
‘Her deportment during the trial was modest and dignified. There was so engaging a softness in her countenance that it was difficult to conceive how she could have armed herself with sufficient intrepidity to execute the deed. Her answers to the interrogatories of the court were full of point and energy. She sometimes surprised the audience by her wit, and excited their admiration by her eloquence. Her face sometimes beamed with sublimity, and was sometime covered with smiles. At the close of her trial she took three letters from her bosom, and presented them to the judges, and requested that they might be forwarded to the people to whom they were addressed. Two letters were written to Barbaroux, in which with great case and spirit, she relates her adventures from her leaving Caen to the morning of her trial. The other was an affectionate and solemn adieu to her father. She retired while the jury deliberated on their verdict, and when she again entered the Tribunal, there was a majestic solemnity in her demeanour which perfectly became her situation. She heard her sentence with attention and composure ; and after conversing for a few minutes with her counsel, and a friend of mine who had sat near her during the trial, and whom she requested to discharge some trifling debts she had incurred in the prison, she left the court with the same serenity and, and prepared herself for the last scene.‘The Scots Magazine, 1st October 1795, entitled: Affecting Incidence In The Revolutionary Prisons of France, p648
Painting of Charlotte Corday
During the trial, , a German painter, Jean-Jacques Hauer sat in the gallery, sketching her. Charlotte, with a nod to ensuring she was remembered to history, made a simple request. “Since I still have a few moments to live, might I hope citizens, that you will allow me to have myself painted?”
Permission granted, Charlotte asked the janitor to admit Hauer to her cell. She watched the painting develop, commenting and making suggestions. Hauer finished the work moments before her jailers led Charlotte to the tumbril. She asked that a copy be sent to her parents.
On 17 July 1793, Charlotte wore the red shirt of a traitor as she embarked on her final journey to the guillotine. A summer downpour drenched her. The Scots Magazine continued,
‘She had concluded her letter to her father with this verse of Corneille, “Guilt, not the scaffold, constitutes disgrace,” and it is difficult to conceive the kind of heroism which she displayed in the way to execution. The women who were called furies of the guillotine, and who had assembled to insult her on leaving the prison, were awed into silence, by her demeanour, while some of the spectators uncovered their heads before her, and others gave loud tokens of applause. There was such an air of chastened exultation thrown over her countenance, that she inspired sentiments of love rather than sensations of pity. She ascended the scaffold with undaunted firmness and knowing, that she had only to die, was resolved to die with dignity. She had learned from her jailor the mode of punishment, but was not instructed in the detail, and when the executioner attempted to tie her feet to the plank, she resisted, from an apprehension that he had been ordered to insult her, but on his explaining himself she submitted with a smile. When he took of her handkerchief, the moment before she bent under the fatal stoke, she blushed deeply, and her head, which was held up to the multitude, the moment after, exhibited this last impression of offended modesty.‘The Scots Magazine, 1st October 1795, entitled: Affecting Incidence In The Revolutionary Prisons of France, p648
Fact or Fiction?
A lurid tale of Charlotte’s execution exists. According to the story, Legros, who was either a carpenter or executioner’s assistant, lifted Charlotte’s head from the basket. He then slapped her cheek. It reportedly turned red at the contact. The anecdote lent credence to the theory that guillotine victims may retain consciousness for a short while.
During her trial, Charlotte Corday said she hoped that the assassination would see the violence abate. Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect. The terror did not stop, and instead it intensified. An intense fear of counter-revolution overcame France. Revolutionary leaders rounded up and executed the moderates.
Charlotte’s actions scandalised many in France. Women distanced themselves from her. But, her actions redefined what it meant to be a female revolutionary. In October 1793, the French National Convention admitted a deputation of Republican women to speak at the bar. One complained that intriguers and caluminators, who were not able to find crimes among the women, had dared to compare them to “the Medicis, to an English Elizabeth, to an Antoinette, and to a Charlotte Corday.”
The women decried Charlotte as a monster. Were they answerable for her crime? “Was Corday a member of our Society? We are more generous than the men ; our sex has produced but one monster, while for these four years past, we have been betrayed and assassinated by numberless monsters of the masculine sex. Our rights are those of the people.” Commentators have suggested that Charlotte’s actions led to more female counter-revolutionaries being executed. Distancing themselves from Charlotte, was not only horror at how she stepped outside social norms, but also a matter of survival.
Villain or Heroine?
In the immediate aftermath, Marat became an instant martyr. While Charlotte Corday was a heroine to the Girondins, Jacobins saw her as a monster. As Charlotte herself foresaw, with the distance of decades, historians now judge her actions as those of a heroine. But this division in viewpoints is shown in works of art. It brings to mind Samuel Johnson’s words that “it is impossible to read the different accounts of any great event without a wish that truth had more power over partiality.”
British Reactions to Charlotte Corday’s Actions
In Britain, fearful of a Revolution, the government was rounding up publishers of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. The court at the Old Bailey had already found Paine guilty of seditious libel.
Gilray published a cartoon of her trial, headed. “The heroic Charlotte La Corde, upon her trial, at the bar of the revolutionary tribunal of Paris, July 17, 1793. For having rid the world of that monster of Atheism and Murder, the Regicide Marat, whom she stabbed in a bath, where he had retired on account of a Leprosy, with which Heaven had begun the punishment of his crimes. The noble enthusiasm with which this woman met the charge, and the elevated disdain with which she treated the self-created Tribunal, struck the whole assembly with terror and astonishment.”
From her mouth comes the words, “Wretches, I did not expect to appear before you – I always thought that I should be delivered up to the outrage of the people, torn in pieces, and that my head, struck on top of a pike, would have preceded Marat on his state bed, to serve as a rallying point to Frenchmen, if there still are any worthy of that name. But happen what will, if I have the honours of the guillotine, and my clay-cold remains are buried, they will soon have conferred upon them the honours of the Pantheon, and my memory will be more honoured in France than that of Judith in Bethulia.”
Her followers buried her remains in the Madeleine Cemetery. Marie Antoinette’s remains joined her there later that year. But whether Charlotte’s remains lay undisturbed is a mystery. Someone supposedly dug up her Charlotte’s skull. While others, passed it around in later years.
We learn about Charlotte’s story through newspaper accounts, trial records and letters of people who knew her. But Charlotte also ensured she told her story through the letters she delivered at her trial.
Julia is a corporate lawyer by day, and a historical detective in her spare time. She researches the 18th century and the women history has overlooked. She competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, for fencing and was granted an OBE in 1999. Today, she lives outside Edinburgh. Follow the instagram link below for daily posts on inspirational and controversial women.