Saturday, 27 July 2013

"I killed one man to save 100,000": Charlotte Corday

Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d'Armont (Normandy, France, 27th July 1768 – Paris, France, 17th July 1793)

Portrait of Charlotte Corday painted in the condemned cell by Jean-Jacques Hauer
Charlotte Corday painted in the condemned cell by Jean-Jacques Hauer

My not so happy ever after tale of the death of Marat has proven one of the most popular stories here at the Guide and the little ones of Gin Lane never tire of hearing it. Funny thing is, they're not so fussed about the man in the bath, it's the girl on the guillotine who grabs their fancy so, on the anniversary of her birth, I thought the time had come to tell a little more of Charlotte Corday.

Charlotte was born in the tiny Normandy hamlet of Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries to a minor line of aristocrats. Following the death of her mother and sister, Charlotte and her surviving sibling were raised in the Abbaye-aux-Dames convent at Caen. Here she studied the work of philosophers including Rousseau and Voltaire, proving herself to be a bright and serious-minded girl. When she reached adulthood Charlotte did not take holy orders but instead left the convent. She remained in Caen and set up home with her cousin and good friend, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville. 

Photograph of Charlotte Corday's childhood home
Charlotte's childhood home

Charlotte met a number Girondins in Caen and came to sympathise with their political ideals. Already unsure about the direction in which the revolutionaries were steering her country, she admired the moderate approach of the Girondin leaders and shared their distrust and dislike of the Montagnards. As she grew more politicised and her opinions more firm, Charlotte watched in horror as violence swept through France. After the September Massacres, she began to fear that the country was teetering on the brink of civil war.

Fired by fear for the future, Corday began to conceive of a plan to remove one of the most outspoken and radical Jacobins, Jean-Paul Marat. She was, of course, not Marat's only enemy and he had spent time in hiding before due to threats on his life but he could hardly have conceived of the threat posed by the seemingly harmless young woman who would finally bring him down.

On 9th July 1793, Charlotte travelled from Caen to Paris, where she took lodgings at the Hôtel de Providence and wrote a document explaining her forthcoming violent actions, Addresse aux Français Amis des Lois et de la Paix ("Address to the French People, Friends of Law and Peace"). Four days later she concealed a kitchen knife in her clothing and went to visit Marat, supposedly to share intelligence with him.

Despite his wife's reservations, Charlotte was admitted to Marat's home, the revolutionary forced to conduct his business from a bathtub due to an agonising skin condition. As the short meeting concluded, Charlotte rose to her feet, drew the concealed blade, and plunged it deep into the revolutionary's chest. 

Painting of Charlotte Corday by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, 1860
Charlotte Corday by Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry, 1860 
The assassin asked for no mercy at her trial, declaring that she had "killed one man to save 100,000." During her short imprisonment she wrote a number of letters and even sat for a portrait; her lawyer, Chauveau-Lagarde had previously defended Marie Antoinette but once again his efforts were to be in vain. Happy to lay down her life for her beliefs, Charlotte repeatedly admitted her guilt and the revolutionary tribunal sentenced her to death.

Just four days after Marat breathed his last, Charlotte was taken to the guillotine and executed. Moments after the blade fell, executioner's assistant Legros lifted her head from the basket and slapped her cheek. Charlotte's executioner, Charles-Henri Sanson, echoed the crowd's outrage at this affront and Legros was rewarded with a three month prison sentence for his troubles.

In fact, Charlotte's actions were to have little impact on the path of the revolution and instead Marat was hailed as a martyr whilst Corday's name was left to languish. Now they are forever linked, bound by art, literature and history.




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