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Charlotte Corday: The Revolutionary Assassin who Transformed History

Picture: Charlotte Corday Charlotte Corday (1768-1793) played a pivotal role in the French Revolution (1789-1799) when she bravely assassinated radical activist Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub on July 13, 1793. Born into an aristocratic family,...

Hauer Picture: Charlotte Corday

Charlotte Corday (1768-1793) played a pivotal role in the French Revolution (1789-1799) when she bravely assassinated radical activist Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub on July 13, 1793. Born into an aristocratic family, Corday was a devoted republican who believed that Marat and his Jacobin allies were undermining the Revolution. Her execution on July 17 turned her into a revolutionary martyr.

Corday's act of assassinating Marat was significant not only as a protest against the brutal Reign of Terror but also as a demonstration of how women could shape the course of the Revolution. She challenged the prevailing notion that women were inherently apolitical. Over the centuries, Corday has been romanticized in poetry, art, and literature, earning her the nickname 'Angel of Assassination' by writer Alphonse de Lamartine in 1847.

Early Years

Corday, born Marie-Anne-Charlotte Corday d'Armont on July 27, 1768, in Saint-Saturnin, Normandy, grew up in a relatively ordinary manner. However, the death of her mother and eldest sister in April 1782 plunged her into grief and financial hardship. Her father, unable to provide for his children, sent Corday and her surviving sister to live in a convent in Caen, Normandy.

Under the guidance of the nuns, Corday received an excellent education and developed refined manners and elegance befitting her aristocratic background. Observers admired her artistic and musical talents, as well as her physical beauty. She also displayed a keen intellect and a love for studying Greek and Roman histories in the convent library.

As Corday grew older, she became more aware of the rising political tensions in France. She immersed herself in the works of Enlightenment philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, who espoused ideas such as natural rights and the separation of powers. Corday enthusiastically embraced the early accomplishments of the Revolution, such as the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

However, Corday's support for the Revolution estranged her from her family, as her brothers joined the royalist French émigré army. Her refusal to toast to King Louis XVI during a farewell dinner further highlighted her republican sentiments. Corday rarely discussed politics at home, fearing her family's disapproval.

To Save a Revolution

In July 1790, Corday found herself displaced when the National Assembly ordered the closure of all convents and monasteries in France. Instead of returning to her father, she stayed in Caen with her cousin, Madame de Bretheville. Despite their political differences, they became close friends, and Corday was named her cousin's sole heir.

As Corday lived her life in Caen, the Revolution took a more extreme and divisive turn. The Girondin and Jacobin factions clashed over the future of the Republic. Corday sympathized with the Girondins and was repulsed by the Jacobins' violence, such as the September Massacres of 1792, where Parisian prisoners were massacred. The political climate in Caen grew increasingly tense, with pamphlets criticizing the Jacobins circulating widely.

On June 2, 1793, the Girondins were purged from the National Convention, and their supporters rebelled in Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux, and Caen. Corday witnessed these events, increasingly concerned that the Jacobins were leading France toward chaos and bloodshed. She believed that by eliminating a prominent Jacobin leader, she could prevent further tragedies and save the Republic. She chose Jean-Paul Marat as her target.

Marat, a physician turned revolutionary activist, had played a central role in instigating violence during the Revolution. His newspaper, L'Ami du Peuple ("Friend of the People"), had fueled the September Massacres, and he was instrumental in the downfall of the Girondins. Corday believed that by killing Marat, she could halt the Jacobin excesses and preserve the Republic.

Charlotte Corday in Caen Picture: Charlotte Corday in Caen

Angel of Assassination

Corday arrived in Paris on July 11, 1793, and planned to publicly assassinate Marat. However, Marat's ill health confined him to his bathtub in his home on the rue des Cordeliers. Undeterred, Corday proceeded with her mission.

On July 13, she entered Marat's residence and, after a brief exchange with his fiancee's sister, gained access to Marat by claiming to have information about traitors in Normandy. As Marat sat in his bathtub, Corday struck, fatally stabbing him. The assassination shocked Paris and the world.

News of Marat's assassination quickly spread, and Corday was arrested without resistance. She confessed to acting alone and maintained that she had killed Marat to save the Republic. Corday's trial was short, and she was sentenced to death by guillotine on July 17.

Portrait of Charlotte Corday Picture: Portrait of Charlotte Corday

As she awaited her execution, Corday collaborated with an officer named Jean-Jacques Hauer to create her iconic portrait. The painting captured Corday's beauty and bravery and would immortalize her as a martyr for the Girondin cause. On July 17, 1793, Charlotte Corday was executed, leaving a lasting legacy that continues to fascinate and provoke debate.

Charlotte Corday's act of assassinating Jean-Paul Marat had far-reaching consequences. While she failed to prevent further violence and the Reign of Terror, her actions challenged prevailing gender norms and demonstrated that women could shape history. Corday's story has been romanticized over the centuries, solidifying her place as a captivating figure in French history.

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