Saturday, July 17, 2010

Execution Day: Charlotte Corday 1768-1793 French Assassin

Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont (27 July 1768 – 17 July 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 partly responsible for the Reign of Terror. 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).


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 descendant of the dramatist Pierre Corneille, in direct line (5th generation) from his daughter and down the women's side of the family. Her parents were cousins. [[1]]

While Charlotte Corday was a young girl, her mother, Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival (1737-1782) 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 Charlotte 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.[1] After 1791, she lived in Caen with her cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville. The two developed a close relationship and Charlotte was the sole heir to her cousin's estate.[2]

Marat's assassination

Charlotte Corday by Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry, posthumous (1860): Under the Second Empire, Marat was seen as a revolutionary monster and Corday as a heroine of France, represented in the wall-map.Jean-Paul Marat was a member of the radical Jacobin faction which would have a leading role during the Reign of Terror. As a journalist, he exerted power and influence through his newspaper, L'Ami du peuple ("The Friend of the People").

Charlotte Corday's decision to kill Marat was stimulated not only by her revulsion at the September Massacres, for which she held Marat responsible, but for her fear of an all out civil war.[3] She believed that Marat was threatening the Republic, and that his death would end violence throughout the nation. She also believed that King Louis XVI should not have been executed.[4]

On 9 July 1793, Charlotte left her cousin, carrying a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives, and went to Paris, where she took a room at the Hôtel de Providence. She bought a kitchen knife with a six-inch blade. She then wrote her Addresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix ("Address to the French people, friends of Law and Peace") to explain her motives for assassinating Marat.

She went first to the National Assembly to carry out her plan, but discovered Marat no longer attended meetings. She went to Marat's home before noon on 13 July, claiming to have knowledge of a planned Girondist uprising in Caen; she was turned away. On her return that evening, Marat admitted her. At the time, he conducted most of his affairs from a bathtub because of a debilitating skin condition. Marat wrote down the names of the Girondists that she gave to him, then she pulled out the knife and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung, aorta and left ventricle. He called out, Aidez-moi, ma chère amie! ("Help me, my dear friend!") and died.


At her trial, Charlotte Corday testified that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I killed one man to save 100,000." It was likely a reference to Maximilien Robespierre's words before the execution of King Louis XVI. On 17 July 1793, four days after Marat was killed, Charlotte Corday was executed under the guillotine.

After her decapitation, a man named Legros lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek.[5] 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.[6]

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.[7]

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, confusion arose surrounding the color of Corday's hair. Although her passport, filled out and signed by a Caen official, describes her hair as chestnut brown, the painting "The Murder of Marat" by Jean-Jacques Hauer pictures Corday as having powdered blond 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 a time of violent anti-royalist revolt, such association can be powerful in influencing popular opinion.[8]

Cultural references

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about her in his Posthumous Fragments of Margret Nicholson (1810).

Alphonse de Lamartine devoted to her a book of his Histoire des Girondins (1847), in which he gave her this now famous nickname: "l'ange de l'assassinat" (the angel of assassination).

Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero (1951– ) composed an opera in three acts Charlotte Corday, which was premièred at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma in February, 1989.

In Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, the assassination of Marat is presented as a play, written by the Marquis de Sade, to be performed by inmates of the asylum at Charenton, for the public.

American dramatist Sarah Pogson Smith (1774–1870) also memorialised Corday in her verse drama The Female Enthusiast: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1807).

A minor character in P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves series is named after Charlotte Corday.

British singer-songwriter Al Stewart included a song co-written by Tori Amos about Corday on his album Famous Last Words (1993).

In Katherine Neville's novel The Eight, Charlotte Corday changes place with the heroine Mireille, who kills Jean-Paul Marat for revenge.

French dramatist François Ponsard (1814–1867) wrote a play, Charlotte Corday, which was premièred at the Théâtre-Français in March, 1850.

A novel by the English writer Graeme Fife, "Angel of the Assassination" tells Charlotte's story. It was first published in 2009 by the American publisher Merit Publishing International.

The historical-fiction "My Bonny Light Horseman," part of the Bloody Jack series by L.A. Meyer, references a Jean-Paul de Valdon, who claims to be the cousin of Charlotte Corday


1.^ Whitham, John Mills, Men and Women of the French Revolution, Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, Inc., 1968, pp. 154-155.
2.^ ib. Whitham, p. 157.
3.^ ib. Whitham, p. 161.
4.^ ib. Whitham, p. 160.
5.^ Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner, indignantly rejected published reports that Legros was one of his assistants. In his diary, Sanson stated that Legros was in fact a carpenter who had been hired to make repairs to the guillotine. See:La Révolution française vue par son bourreau : Journal de Charles-Henri Sanson, Éditions de l'Instant, 1988; Le Cherche Midi, 2007, p. 65, ISBN 2-7491-0930-2, ISBN 978-2-7491-0930-5,(French).
6.^ Mignet, François, History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, (1824).
7.^ Corazzo, Nina, and Catherine R. Montfort, Charlotte Corday: femme-homme, in Literate Women and the French Revolution of 1789, ed. Catherine R. Montfort, 47 (Birmingham, Alabama: Summa Publications, Inc., 1994), 45.
8.^ "The Blonding of Charlotte Corday", in Eighteenth Century Studies, by Nina Rattner Gelbart, (Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004)

Further reading

Guillaume Mazeau, "Le bain de l'histoire. Charlotte Corday et l'attentat contre Marat (1793-2009"), Seyssel, Champ Vallon, 2009.
Guillaume Mazeau, "Corday contre Marat. Deux siècles d'images", Versailles, Artlys, 2009.
Guillaume Mazeau, "Charlotte Corday en 30 Questions", La Crèche, Geste éditions, 2006.
Charlotte Corday, L’Addresse aux Français amis des lois et de la paix ("Address to French friends of the Law and Peace").
Stanley Loomis, Paris in the Terror, J. B. Lippincott, 1964.
Franklin, Charles, Woman in the Case, New York: Taplinger, 1967.
Goldsmith, Margaret, Seven Women Against the World, Methuen, London, 1935.
Sokolnikova, Halina, Nine Women Drawn from the Epoch of the French Revolution, Trans. H C Stevens, Cape, New York, 1932.
Corazzo, Nina, and Catherine R. Montfort, Charlotte Corday: femme-homme, In Literate Women and the French Revolution of 1789, edited by Catherine R. Montfort, umma Publications, Inc., Birmingham, Alabama, 1994.
Gutwirth, Madelyn, The Twilight of the Goddesses; Women and Representation in the French Revolutionary Era, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1992.
Kindleberger, Elizabeth R, Charlotte Corday in Text and Image: A Case Study in the French Revolution and Women's History, French Historical Studies 18, no. 4 (1994): 969-999.
Outram, Dorinda, The Body and the French Revolution: Sex, Class and Political Culture, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989.
Whitham, John Mills, Men and Women of the French Revolution, Books for Libraries Press, Inc., Freeport, New York, 1968.

The Skull of Charlotte CordayJules Champagne, Charlotte Corday Reproduction Poster 24"x36"Charlotte Corday And Certain Men Of The Revolutionary Torment

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