The French Revolution transformed not only France but the wider political, social and cultural landscape of Europe, turning long-held ideas and practices upside down. Revolutionaries were far from united in their aims, however, and tensions and divisions quickly developed between differing factions.
Charlotte Corday belonged to one of the more moderate factions of the revolution, and she changed the course of events dramatically through her assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, one of the leaders of the radical Jacobin group. Nicknamed ‘l’ange de l’assassinat’ (the angel of assassination) for her actions, she has since become a legendary figure in the history of the French Revolution.
But who exactly was Corday, and why did she assassinate Marat?
An influential woman
Born in Normandy, into minor nobility, Corday was sent off to a convent in Caen where she received a rudimentary education. This was supplemented by the abbey’s extensive library, which included texts by various leading Enlightenment figures including Rosseau and Voltaire.
When Corday left the abbey, she lived with her cousin in Caen: the pair became close and Corday inherited her cousin’s estate. By the time the revolution arrived in France, Corday was 21 years old, with a head full of political ideas.
Once the initial revolutionary fervour swept France, it became increasingly clear that there were different levels of radicalisation within various groups. Corday found herself sympathising with a group known as the Girondists, who were relatively moderate in their outlook. Whilst they campaigned for the end of the monarchy, they were opposed to the atmosphere of increasing violence and terror which the Jacobins had escalated.
The Girondins also believed it was the duty of the revolution to spread ideas outside of France and turn the movement into a pan-European one, earning them the nickname of the ‘war party’. The Girondins were generally seen as the leading faction until 1793, when they were purged from the leadership and the Jacobins’ infamous ‘Reign of Terror’ began.
The escalating violence, purges and executions during the Terror were far from the idealistic revolutionary values of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ that had originally been espoused. Corday was dismayed by this change in direction. Desperate to turn the tide on the Jacobins, Corday began to plot radical action.
Marat was an uncompromising firebrand: he believed in the necessity of revolution in order to achieve rights for the very poorest members of society. His views were widely known: Marat had started a newspaper called L’Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People) which published polemics regularly.
He was often attributed as being the leading figure behind the September Massacres of 1792, in which hundreds of political prisoners in Paris were killed due to fears they were devising a counterrevolutionary plot.
Corday had been repulsed by the September Massacres and disagreed with the execution of King Louis XVI. She was concerned that the radicals were alienating other revolutionaries to the extent that they might drag France into civil war, undermining the progress of the revolution.
Determined to take action to prevent civil war from becoming a reality, Corday decided that the best course of action would be to kill Marat. She detailed her motivation in a document titled Adresse aux Français Amis des Lois et de la Paix (Address to the French, Friends of Law and Peace) before she departed to do the deed.
On 9 July 1793, Corday bought a kitchen knife with a 6-inch blade en route to Paris, taking up lodgings there. The original plan was to assassinate Marat in front of the entire National Convention.
However, Marat had a skin condition which was causing him more and more issues, forcing him to stop attending meetings. He instead spent most of his time conducting his affairs from a medicinal bathtub. This meant Corday was forced to visit his house, claiming to have knowledge of a planned Girondist uprising which she was keen to inform Marat about.
She was initially turned away, but after returning in the evening, Marat admitted her. She began to tell him of the Girondists’ supposed plan, but as he was writing down the names of those she said were involved, she pulled out a knife and stabbed him in the chest.
Crying out, “aidez-moi, ma chère amie!” (help me, my dear friend!), he died before his friends could reach him. Corday was immediately seized.
Trial and execution
Corday was almost immediately interrogated for her crime. Her interrogators, primarily made up of senior revolutionary judicial officials, quickly established her actions were premeditated. She defended herself vigorously, stressing her republican nature and politics, and the fact that she acted alone, without any co-conspirators or as part of a wider plot.
One of the most famous lines attributed to her is her justification for the assassination: “I have killed one man to save a hundred thousand.” Corday was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Before her execution, she requested to have her portrait painted by an officer of the National Guard named Hauer. He depicted her as a blonde (she had powdered her chestnut hair before the sitting), which lent a youthful, virginal air of innocence to the portrait.
Corday was executed by guillotine on 17 July 1793, just 4 days after the killing of Marat. She quickly became described as a martyr by those sympathetic to the Girondist cause and many considered her a hero for her actions. Equally, many view Corday’s actions as a direct catalyst for the subsequent subjugation of women within revolutionary France, and women from all sides distanced themselves from Corday, fearing that any association would taint the growing feminist movement.