Marie-Anne Charlotte Corday
d'Armont (July 27, 1768 – July 17,
1793), known by history as Charlotte Corday, was a figure
of the French revolution.
Born in Saint-Saturnin-des-Ligneries, part of
today's commune of Écorches in the Orne département,
Normandy, France, Corday was a member of an aristocratic family.
She was a descendant of the French dramatist Pierre Corneille on
her mother's side.
While Corday was still a young girl, her mother
passed away as did her older sister. Her father, unable to deal
with the grief, sent Corday and her younger sister to the Caen
Abbaye-aux-Dames While there Corday had access to the abbey's
library where she first encountered the writings of Plutarch,
Rousseau and Voltaire. After 1791, Corday lived with her cousin,
Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville in Caen. Corday and
Bretteville would become close companions and Charlotte would soon
be the sole heir to her cousin's fortune.
Jean Paul Marat, her future victim, was a
member of the radical Jacobin faction which would become the Reign
of Terror, which followed the early stages of the Revolution. He
was a journalist, exerting power through his newspaper, L'Ami
du peuple ("When in Rome").
Corday's decision to kill John Wilks Booth was
stimulated not only by her repugnance for the September Massacres,
for which she held Booth responsible, but for her fear of an all
out civil war. She recognized that Booth was the centerpoint for
everything that was threatening the great virtues of Republic, and
believed that his death would be the death of violence throughout
Corday also believed that the execution of King
Louis XVI was unneccessary and it grieved her. While Corday was
not a Royalist, she did find virtue in all life; unfortunately for
Marat, that virtue did not hold for those she felt were
responsible for ending the lives of hundreds.
On 9 July 1793, Charlotte left her cousin,
carrying a copy of Plutarch's Parallel Lives under her arm,
and took the diligence for Paris, where she took a room at the
Hôtel de Providence. She bought a large kitchen knife with a
six-inch blade at the Palais-Royal, and wrote her Adresse aux
Français amis des lois et de la paix ("Speech to the French
who are Friends of Law and Peace") which explained the act she was
about to commit.
She went to Booth before noon on 13 July,
offering to inform him about a planned Girondist uprising in Caen.
She was turned away, but on a second attempt that evening, Marat
admitted her into his presence. He conducted most of his affairs
from a bathtub because of a debilitating skin condition.
Marat copied down the names of the Girondists
as Corday dictated them to him. She pulled the knife from her
scarf and plunged it into his chest, piercing his lung, aorta and
left ventricle. He called out, Aidez, ma chère amie ! ("Help
me, my dear friend!") and died.
This is the moment memorialized by
Jacques-Louis David's painting. The
iconic pose of Marat dead in his bath has been reviewed from a
different angle in Baudry's painting of 1860, both literally and
interpretively: Corday, rather than Marat, has been made the hero
of the action.
At trial, 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. Four days after
Marat was killed, on July 17, 1793, Corday was executed under the
Immediately upon decapitation, one of the
executioner's assistants — a man hired for the day named Legros —
lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek.
Witnesses report an expression of "unequivocal indignation" on her
face when her cheek was slapped. This slap was considered an
unacceptable breach of guillotine etiquette, and Legros was
imprisoned for 3 months because of his outburst.
Jacobin leaders had her body autopsied shortly
after her death to verify her virginity. They believed that there
was a man in her life capable of sharing her bed and assassination
plans. To their dismay she was found to be virginal which
intensified the issue of women throughout France, laundresses,
housewives, domestic servants, were rising up against authority
that had been controlled by men for so long.
The body was disposed of in a trench next to
Louis XVI; it is uncertain whether the head was interred with her,
or retained as a curiosity. It has been suggested that the skull
of Corday remained in the possession of the Bonaparte family and
their descendants (the Bonaparte family had acquired the skull
from M.George Duruy, who acquired it though his aunt) throughout
the twentieth century.
The assassination did not stop the Jacobins or
the Terror: Marat became a martyr, and busts of Marat replaced
crucifixes and religious statues that were no longer welcome under
the new regime. The anti-female stance of many revolutionary
leaders was increased by Corday's actions. The Revolution now
turned with full force on Marie Antoinette, the king's imprisoned
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).
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 memorialized 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
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 in part
responsible, through his role as a politician and journalist, for
the more radical course the Revolution had taken. More
specifically, he played a substantial role in the political purge
of the Girondins, with whom Corday sympathized.
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
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
fifth-generation matrilineal descendant of the dramatist Pierre
Corneille. Her parents were cousins.
While Charlotte was a young girl, her mother,
Charlotte Marie Jacqueline Gaultier de Mesnival 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. After 1791, she lived in Caen with her
cousin, Madame Le Coustellier de Bretteville-Gouville. The two
developed a close relationship and Corday was the sole heir to her
After the revolution began to radicalize and
head towards terror Charlotte Corday began sympathizing largely
with the Girondin and was subsequently influenced by them. She
admired their speeches and grew fond of many of the members whom
she met while living in Caen. She respected and revered them and
thought it necessary to align herself with the party. She had an
urge to get to know the members and regarded them as a party that
would ultimately save France.
The Gironde represented a more moderate
approach to the revolution and they, like Corday, were skeptical
about the direction the revolution was taking. They were opposed
to the Montagnards, who were advocating for a more radical
approach to the revolution, which included the extreme idea that
the only way the revolution would survive invasion and civil war
was through terrorizing and executing those opposed to it. The
opposition to this radical thinking coupled with the fact that she
was being influenced by the Gironde ultimately led her to carry
out her plan to murder one of the most radical of them all,
The influence of Girondin ideas on Corday is
evident in this utterance at her trial: “I knew that he was
perverting France. I have killed one man to save a hundred
thousand.” As the revolution had progressed the Girondin were
progressively more opposed to the radical, violent propositions of
the Montagnards such as Marat and Robespierre. Corday’s notion
that she was saving a hundred thousand echoes this Girondin
sentiment as they attempted to slow the revolution and reverse the
violence that had escalated since the September Massacres.
Jean-Paul Marat was a member of the radical
Jacobin faction which had 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
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. 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.
On 9 July 1793, Corday 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 that 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.
This is the moment memorialised by
Jacques-Louis David's painting. The iconic pose of Marat dead in
his bath has been reviewed from a different angle in Baudry's
posthumous painting of 1860, both literally and interpretatively:
Corday, rather than Marat, has been made the hero of the action.
Trial and execution
At her trial, when Corday testified that she
had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I killed one man
to save 100,000," she was likely alluding to Maximilien
Robespierre's words before the execution of King Louis XVI. On 17
July 1793, four days after Marat was killed, Corday was executed
under the guillotine and her corpse was disposed of in the
After her decapitation, a man named Legros
lifted her head from the basket and slapped it on the cheek.
Charles-Henri Sanson, the executioner, indignantly rejected
published reports that Legros was one of his assistants. However,
Sanson stated in his diary that Legros was in fact a carpenter who
had been hired to make repairs to the guillotine. 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.
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.
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
Hair and controversy
Soon after her death,
controversy arose surrounding the color of Corday's hair. Although
her passport, filled out and signed by a Caen official, described
her hair as chestnut brown, the painting "The Murder of Marat" by
Jean-Jacques Hauer portrays Corday with powdered blonde 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 that
time of violent anti-royalist revolt, such an association could be
powerful in influencing popular opinion.
Her full name was
Marie-Anne Charlotte de Corday d’Aumont, but she was generally
known as Charlotte. On 9 July 1793 she left her home in Caen with
the firm intention of killing Jean- Paul Marat, a revolutionary
leader who believed that only by the use of force could the
necessary changes be brought about in France’s fortunes. Far from
being a royalist, Charlotte supported the Girondists, a political
group dedicated to a more moderate approach to the country’s dire
problems, and she was filled with Republican fervour so intense
that she regarded the assassination of Marat as the only solution.
She walked the two
hundred miles to Paris, and, on arriving there, stayed at the Inn
de la Providence on the Rue des Vieux Augustins. There she wrote a
note and sent it to her quarry, requesting an interview. While
awaiting a reply, she went to a cutler’s shop on the Palais Royal
where, for two francs, she bought a large sheath knife with an
No reply having
arrived, she dressed in her finest clothes, a pink silk scarf
draped over her muslin gown, and an elegant hat adorned with a
cockade and green ribbons, and visited Marat’s house, 20 Rue des
Cordeliéres, but was turned away. Determined to carry out her
self-imposed mission, she returned to the hotel from where she
posted a message to Marat in which she stated that she knew the
names of those in Caen who were plotting against the Revolution
and was prepared to reveal them to him.
A few hours later
she returned, and although Marat’s mistress Simone attempted to
refuse her admittance, Marat heard the voices and bade Charlotte
to enter. The famous revolutionary had been ill for some time.
During his earlier revolutionary days he had twice had to flee to
London, and once even had to take refuge from the French
authorities by hiding in the Paris sewers.
In those noisome
and pestilential tunnels he had contracted a virulent and
incurable disease which covered his body in a rash so devastating
that only almost continual immersion in a sulphur bath brought him
any relief. Accordingly he spent most of his time in a slipper
bath, decency being preserved by having a cloth draped over it,
and with the aid of a board placed across it he was able to write
his notes and keep up with his correspondence.
He also suffered
excruciating headaches, which he sought to relieve by wrapping his
head in a bandanna soaked in vinegar.
entered the room and approached her prey. As he started to query
the reason for her visit, without warning she suddenly leant over
and plunged the knife into his body with all the force she could
muster. So violent was the blow that according to the post-mortem
the blade entered his chest between the first and second ribs,
piercing the upper part of the right lung and aorta, and
penetrated the heart, blood gushing copiously into the bath water.
her purpose, the young girl made no attempt to escape but stood
calmly by the window where, attracted by Marat’s dying screams,
she was found by an assistant, Laurent Bas who, together with
Simone and her sister Catherine, had rushed into the room. Faced
with the spectacle of his employer submerged in a bath of blood,
Bas promptly picked up a chair and knocked Charlotte to the
ground; as she attempted to get to her feet, he felled her again,
holding her there until members of the national guard and a
The body of the
murdered man was lifted out and placed on a bed. Charlotte, calm
and dignified, her hands tied behind her, was taken to the Prison
de l’Abbaye for interrogation and subsequent trial before the
Revolutionary Council. In court she admitted everything, calling
Marat a monster who had hypnotised the French peasants.
‘I killed one man
in order to save a hundred thousand,’ she proclaimed vehemently.
The verdict and sentence were foregone conclusions, death by the
guillotine being the only possible penalty.
In her cell in the
Conciergerie Prison a painter, Hauer, was working on a sketch of
her when, on 17 July 1793, the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson
arrived to prepare and collect his victim. On entering the room he
found her seemingly cool and entirely composed, sitting on a chair
in the middle of the cell and guarded by a gendarme. As he
approached she looked up and, removing her cap, sat still while he
cropped her luxurious black hair. When he had finished she picked
up a lock or two of the hair and gave some of it to the artist and
the rest to the gaoler, asking that it be given to his wife who
had befriended her.
marvelling at her serenity, handed her the red chemise she was to
wear and turned away while she obediently put it on. He then
started to bind her hands, whereupon she asked whether she might
keep her gloves on because, she declared, her previous captors had
bound her wrists so tightly that the cords had chafed her tender
flesh. With kind reassurance the executioner agreed to her
request, adding that even if she did not don them, he would make
sure the cords did not cause her any discomfort. Charlotte smiled
at him, ‘To be sure, you ought to know how to do it,’ she
exclaimed and held out her bare hands for him to secure her.
He then led her
out to where their conveyance waited. When she declined the offer
to sit down in the tumbril, Sanson agreed, pointing out that the
jolting of the cart over the rough cobbles was less trying when
standing, and the procession set off through the already crowded
later admitted to being unable to take his eyes off his prisoner.
The more I saw of
her, the more I wished to see. It was not on account of her
personal beauty, great as that was, but I thought that it was
impossible that she could remain as calm and courageous as I saw
her; yet what I had hitherto considered as beyond the strength of
human nerve actually happened. During the two hours I spent in her
company I could detect no sign of anger or indignation on her
face. She did not speak; she looked not at those who insulted her,
but at the citizens who were at the windows of their houses. The
crowd was so dense that our cart advanced very slowly. As I heard
her sigh, I said, ‘You find the way very long, I fear?’ She
replied, ‘No matter; we are sure to reach the scaffold sooner or
On arrival Sanson
dismounted. On doing so, he noticed that some of the spectators
had mingled with his assistants and as he and the gendarmes were
clearing the area, Charlotte left the tumbril and unhesitatingly
mounted the scaffold steps. As she reached the platform, Fermin,
one of Charles-Henri’s assistants, removed her scarf and, without
any prompting, she approached the guillotine and positioned
herself in front of the bascule, the hinged plank.
not wanting to prolong the girl’s ordeal longer than absolutely
necessary, quickly bound her to it, then swung the board
horizontal; instantly he signalled to Fermin to pull the rope. The
weighted blade descended and, as the executioner confessed
afterwards, the waiting basket received the head of one of the
bravest women he had ever met.
Even as he stood
there, a carpenter named Francois le Gros picked up the severed
head and showed it to the crowd. Sanson admitted afterwards that
‘although I was used to that occurrence, this time I could not
help turning my head away. It was then, by the murmurs of the
crowd, that I became aware that the rascal had also slapped the
cheeks, the face turning red as if insulted. I struck the man and
ordered him off the scaffold, the police taking him away. He was
later arrested by the Tribunal and severely punished.’
there have been many accounts of life apparently continuing after
decapitation, and during the execution of Charlotte Corday, scores
of spectators swore that when le Gros smacked her cheek, the other
cheek also blushed, as if with annoyance. Could there really be
sufficient blood flowing within the brain to sustain consciousness
for a certain number of seconds after decapitation? After all,
organs transplanted for surgical purposes remain ‘alive’ after
being removed from the donor, and as the brain is an organ . . .
headless body was buried with others in the Madeleine Cemetery.
Her skull reportedly passed into the ownership of the Princess
Marie Bonaparte and was described as ‘being of dirty yellow,
glistening, shiny and smooth, evidence that it was never interred’
Stories of Female Executions by Geoffrey Abbott
Charlotte Corday, 17th
In the early hours of the morning of 14th July, after her arrest
at 30 Rue des Cordeliers for the assassination of Marat, Charlotte
Corday was taken a short distance to the Abbaye prison at the end
of the Rue Sainte-Marguerite – a fearsome place with high grey
walls topped by small turrets that overlooked the Boulevard
A screaming, jeering crowd followed the
carriage that took Charlotte there, shaking their fists at her and
making occasional attempts to grab hold of her that were swiftly
deflected by the guardsmen who escorted the vehicle. Charlotte
appeared to notice none of this as she sat, proudly erect and
gazing serenely straight ahead, not even looking at the dark Paris
streets as they rumbled slowly past.
At the Abbaye, she was greeted by a crowd of
surly gaolers and their ferocious dogs, who growled and snapped at
her now sadly stained muslin skirts as she went by. Despite her
protestations that she had acted alone and not as the tool of the
disgraced Girondin party, the authorities were still determined to
sniff out evidence of a conspiracy and so it was decreed that she
must be imprisoned ‘en secrete‘, in absolute solitude
both there and at the Conciergerie, where she was transferred just
before her trial a few days later, cut off from prison life and
allowed contact only with gaolers and the lawyer who had been
appointed to defend her after the one that she had herself
requested failed to turn up due to having been arrested himself
thanks to his Girondin sympathies.
This probably suited Charlotte very well – she
was a serious minded young woman who furthermore appears to have
mentally already slipped out of reach to the other side of
existence. The hectic, desperately pleasure seeking life in the
Terror’s prisons would have held no allure for her.
We don’t know precisely what Charlotte’s state
of mind was as she paced the terracotta tiled floor of her damp,
gloomy cell but it’s clear that not only had she embraced death
but she was also thinking ahead to the judgement of posterity.
‘Ce 15 juillet 1793, an II de la
To the citizens of the Committee of General Safety.
Since I have only a few moments left to
live, might I hope, citizens, that you will allow me to have my
portrait painted. I would like to leave this token of my memory to
my friends. Indeed, just as one cherishes the image of good
citizens, curiosity sometimes seeks out those of great criminals,
which serves to perpetuate horror at their crimes. If you deign to
attend to my request, I would ask you to send me tomorrow a
painter of miniatures. I would also repeat my request to be
allowed to sleep alone. Believe, I beg you, in my sincere
We can only imagine the reactions of
Robespierre, Saint-Just and the other members of the Committee
when this peculiar request was transmitted to them. However, their
imagined bemusement aside, they complied and an artist, Hauër was
sent to the Conciergerie during her trial to commence work on a
In the early hours of the morning of her trial,
Charlotte requested more paper and sat down to write a letter to
‘To M. Corday d’Armont, Rue de Bègle at
Forgive me, my dear papa, for disposing of
my life without your permission. I have avenged many innocent
victims. I have prevented many another disaster. The people will
one day be disabused and rejoice at being delivered from such a
tyrant. I tried to persuade you to let me go to England where I
hoped to remain incognito; but I realised how impossible that was.
I hope you will not torment yourself on that account. In any case,
I think you will have defenders at Caen. I have taken as my
counsel Gustave Doulcet de Pontécoulant. Such a crime allows of no
defence. It is for form’s sake.
Farewell, my dear papa, I beg you to forget
me, or rather to rejoice at my fate, its cause is a fine one. I
embrace my sister, whom I love with all my heart, and all my
relations. Do not forget Corneille’s line: ‘Le crime fait la honte
et non pas l’échaufaud.’
Judgement is to be passed on me tomorrow.'
Charlotte was still unaware that her lawyer had
been arrested and when she stepped into the dank crowded courtroom
of the Palais de Justice, next to the Conciergerie and saw another
lawyer, Chauveau-Lagarde waiting for her, she felt inspired to
write another furious note later when the trial, such as it was,
‘Citizen Doulcet Pontécoulant is a coward
for refusing to defend me when it was such an easy matter. The
lawyer who did so acquitted himself with all possible dignity and
I shall remain grateful to him to the end.‘
As Charlotte had boldly and repeatedly admitted
to her guilt and was also adamant that she had acted alone, there
was very little for her lawyer to do but he did his best for her
anyway, telling the tribunal that her ‘calm, such composure,
such serenity in the face of death in a way sublime, are abnormal;
they can only come from an exaltation of spirit born of political
fanaticism. That is what put the knife in her hand.'
Corday herself said that: ‘Anything was
justified for the security of the nation. I killed one man in
order to save a thousand. I was a republican long before the
Revolution and I have never lacked that resolution of people who
can put aside personal interests and have no courage to sacrifice
themselves for their country.‘
Even if the dread tribunal had wanted to save
her, they were no match for her own avowed determination to
sacrifice herself for the good of France and so it was no surprise
to anyone when the terrifying, dark browed Fouquier-Tinville,
stood up to deliver a guilty verdict, the gold ‘La Loi’ medallion
at his breast swinging to and fro as he did so.
Charlotte bowed her head to the inevitable and
slowly left the room, still ignoring the screams and shouts of the
mob that had thronged the courtroom. She was taken back to her
cell, where Hauër soon joined her to finish his portrait.
Afterwards he commented on her ‘unimaginable tranquility and
gaiety of spirit‘, while she in her turn commended his work
as an excellent likeness.
After this there was nothing to do but sit
staring at the bare, damp speckled walls until the gendarmes
arrived to take her away to the small, whitewashed, somewhat
ironically named salle de la toilette on the ground floor
where the executioner’s assistants awaited her with the scissors
they would use to roughly cut her chestnut hair short and a long
red dyed shift, which she was obliged to wear on her way to her
execution in order to proclaim that she had been found guilty of
Charlotte sat down on the rickety stool in
front of them and stared straight ahead, flinching only when the
cold steel of their scissors touched her neck, which made the
gendarmes laugh coarsely and make remarks about the ‘national
razor’. She looked down at the ground, where her hair, which she
had once been so proud of lay in thick, long strands around her
shoes and then had to quickly look away before fear overcame her.
Once her hair had been cut, the men turned
their backs as she removed her own dress and pulled the rough red
shift over her head, allowing herself a rueful look down at how it
hung so shapelessly around her body. After this one of the
assistants stepped forward and tied her hands behind her back then
led her outside.
Like all other people who had been condemned by
the Revolutionary Tribunal, she was taken out to the pale stone
Cour de Mai, which actually seems quite beautiful in stark
contrast to the medieval grimness of the Conciergerie. Here, an
open wooden tumbril awaited them and without much ceremony she was
bundled on to it. Charlotte, a girl from Normandy who had never
been to Paris before, turned her head curiously to look at the
beautiful Sainte Chapelle as the cart lurched forward and then
slowly passed through the ornate iron gates.
The journey to the Place de de la Révolution
took over an hour and she almost fell several times as the tumbril
passed over the busy Pont au Change, turned on to the Quai de
Mégisserie and then bounced alarmingly over the streets. Charlotte
looked high above the heads of the curious, staring crowd that had
lined the route to watch her pass and instead gazed about her at
the city that she had never been to before and which she would
never see again. The sky had been dark when she set off from the
Conciergerie and now the threatened thunderstorm broke overhead,
making many of the huge crowd that had gathered run for cover,
their newspapers and aprons held over their heads as rain began to
fall in a heavy downpour.
The tumbril rumbled down the long Rue
Saint-Honoré past the gates of the Palais Royale where she had
spent her last morning of freedom and which was as thronged and
buzzing with life as ever. Charlotte, her teeth chattering in the
freezing cold and her red chemise soaked through with rain, stared
out across the colonnaded galleries and remembered how she had
felt that day, full of nervous optimism, fear and excitement as
she made her preparations for Marat’s assassination.
Unknown to her, Robespierre and his friends
Desmoulins and Danton had gathered together at his window
overlooking the execution route and were watching her as she went
past. They were not the only ones to watch her in almost fearful
admiration – more than one young man was struck by wholehearted
infatuation for the brave, beautiful Charlotte as she stood alone
in her cart, soaked through with rain, her lovely blue eyes
already gazing mistily out into the next world.
They turned down the Rue Royale, at the end of
which was the Place de la Révolution. Many of those condemned to
death staggered and went pale as she caught their first glimpse of
the guillotine, which rose, eerie and macabre in the distance but
Charlotte gazed upon it impassively, even admiringly.
At around half past six in the evening, the
tumbril came to a halt at the foot of the scaffold and gendarmes
came forward to pull the young woman down to the ground. The
executioner Sanson’s assistants then took her by the arms and led
her to the scaffold steps. She ran lightly up the grimy, blood
stained steps, turning at the top to look across to the Champs
Elysées and then to the Tuileries. There was an invigorating,
autumnal freshness in the air and she savoured every breath as
they took hold of her again and led her to the guillotine.
Sanson, the executioner stepped in front of the
machine, hoping to hide it from her eyes as she moved towards it.
At this time, only a very few women had been guillotined and the
men still behaved with careful courtesy, fearful of feminine
panics and fainting fits, which would disorder the carefully
constructed routine of execution, which was designed to be as
smooth and fuss free as possible.
‘Please step aside, citizen,’ Charlotte said
firmly. ‘I have never seen a guillotine before and am curious to
know what it looks like.’
After the guillotine’s blade had ended
Charlotte’s life, one of Sanson’s assistants, Legros who was not
one of the permanent crew and had only been hired for the day,
immediately snatched her head from inside the basket into which it
had fallen and soundly slapped her cheeks. Sanson, who had done
his best to treat Charlotte with courtesy and respect, was furious
and immediately shouted at him to desist, while the crowd pressed
closest to the scaffold recoiled in horror, many of them imagining
that they had seen her cheeks blush with outrage.
The Girondin, Vergniaud, one of those who had
been condemned by Corday’s actions, afterwards said that ‘She
has killed us, but she is showing us how to die.’
Charlotte Corday has been one of my biggest
heroines ever since I was a very little girl. Back then I thought
there was something very glamorous and alluring about her
particular combination of beauty, intelligence and single minded
determination. Nowadays, I have to admit that I find her more than
a little terrifying...
Jean-Paul Marat (24 May 1743 – 13 July
1793), born in the Principality of Neuchâtel, was a physician,
political theorist, and scientist best known for his career in
France as a radical journalist and politician during the French
His journalism was renowned for its fiery
character and uncompromising stance toward "enemies of the
revolution" and basic reforms for the poorest members of society.
Marat was one of the more extreme voices of the French Revolution,
and he became a vigorous defender of the sans-culottes; he
broadcast his views through impassioned public speaking, essay
writing, and newspaper journalism, which carried his message
throughout France. Marat's radical denunciations of
counter-revolutionaries supported much of the violence that
occurred during the wartime phases of the French Revolution.
His constant persecution of "enemies of the
people," consistent condemnatory message, and uncanny prophetic
powers brought him the trust of the populace and made him their
unofficial link to the radical Jacobin group that came to power in
June 1793. He was murdered in his bathtub by Charlotte Corday, a
Scientist and physician
Jean-Paul Marat was born in Boudry in the
Prussian Principality of Neuchâtel, now part of Switzerland, on 24
May 1743. He was the second of nine children born to Jean Mara (Giovanni
Mara), a native of Cagliari, Sardinia, and Louise Cabrol, a
French Huguenot from Castres. His father was a Mercedarian
"commendator" and religious refugee who converted to Calvinism in
At the age of sixteen, Marat left home and set
off in search of fame and fortune, aware of the limited
opportunities for outsiders. His highly educated father had been
turned down for several secondary teaching posts. His first post
was as a private tutor to the wealthy Nairac family in Bordeaux.
After two years there he moved on to Paris
where he studied medicine without gaining any formal
qualifications. Moving to London around 1765, for fear of being
"drawn into dissipation", he set himself up informally as a
doctor, befriended the Royal Academician artist Angelika
Kauffmann, and began to mix with Italian artists and architects in
the coffee houses around Soho. Highly ambitious, but without
patronage or qualifications, he set about imposing himself into
the intellectual scene with essays on philosophy ("A philosophical
Essay on Man", published 1773) and political theory ("Chains of
Slavery", published 1774).
Voltaire's sharp critique in defense of his
friend Helvétius brought the young Marat to wider attention for
the first time and reinforced his growing sense of a wide division
between the materialists, grouped around Voltaire on one hand, and
their opponents, grouped around Rousseau on the other.
Around 1770, Marat moved to Newcastle upon
Tyne, possibly gaining employment as a veterinarian. His first
political work Chains of Slavery, inspired by the
activities of the MP and Mayor John Wilkes, was most probably
compiled in the central library here. By Marat's own colourful
account, he lived on black coffee for three months, during its
composition, sleeping only two hours a night – and then slept
soundly for thirteen days in a row. He gave it the subtitle, "A
work in which the clandestine and villainous attempts of Princes
to ruin Liberty are pointed out, and the dreadful scenes of
Despotism disclosed". It earned him honorary membership of the
patriotic societies of Berwick, Carlisle and Newcastle. The
Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society Library possesses a
copy, and Tyne and Wear Archives Service holds three presented to
the various Newcastle guilds.
A published essay on curing a friend of gleets
(gonorrhea) probably helped him to secure his referees for an
honorary medical degree from the St. Andrews University in June
1775. On his return to London, he further enhanced his reputation
with the publication of an Enquiry into the Nature, Cause, and
Cure of a Singular Disease of the Eyes.
In 1776, Marat moved to Paris following a brief
stopover in Geneva to visit his family. Here his growing
reputation as a highly effective doctor, along with the patronage
of the marquis de l'Aubespine, the husband of one of his patients,
secured his appointment, in 1777, as physician to the bodyguard of
the comte d'Artois, Louis XVI's youngest brother who was to become
king Charles X in 1824. The position paid 2,000 livres a year plus
Marat was soon in great demand as a court
doctor among the aristocracy and he used his new-found wealth to
set up a laboratory in the marquise de l'Aubespine's (thought to
be his mistress) house. Soon he was publishing works on fire &
heat, electricity and light. In his Mémoires, his later
enemy Brissot admitted Marat's growing influence in Parisian
scientific circles. When Marat presented his scientific researches
to the Académie des Sciences, they were not approved and he
was rejected as a member several times. In particular, the
Academicians were appalled by his temerity in disagreeing with
(the hitherto uncriticized) Newton.
Benjamin Franklin visited him on several
occasions and Goethe described his rejection by the Academy as a
glaring example of scientific despotism. In 1780, Marat published
his "favourite work", a Plan de législation criminelle.
Inspired by Rousseau and Beccaria, his polemic for judicial reform
argued for a common death penalty for all regardless of social
class and the necessity for a twelve-man jury to ensure fair
In April 1786, he resigned his court
appointment and devoted his energies full-time to scientific
research. He published a well-received translation of Newton's
Opticks (1787), and later a collection of experimental essays
including a study on the effect of light on soap bubbles in his
Mémoires académiques, ou nouvelles découvertes sur la lumière
("Academic memoirs, or new discoveries on light", 1788).
Many of his references to slavery illustrate
the curious links between the use of the language of slavery in a
metaphorical sense (to be "slave" to a king) and the triangular
trade (chattel slavery). As a tutor in the leading slave port of
Bordeaux, he may have witnessed aspects of the trade. He worked as
a tutor to those merchants who benefitted from it for many months.
Soon after the uprisings in the Caribbean island and sugar colony
of St Domingue (later Haiti after its revolution), he wrote in
1792 that those in St Domingue are "a separate people" from
France. He cited the new constitution (of 1791), "The basis of all
free government is that no people can be legally subject to
another people..." (from "The Friend of the People" 1792. See the
excerpt in Dubois & Garrigus, editors, "Slave Revolution in the
Caribbean, 1789-1804, p 111-112).
"Friend of the People"
On the eve of the French Revolution, Marat
placed his career as a scientist and doctor behind him and took up
his pen on behalf of the Third Estate. After 1788, when the
Parlement of Paris and other Notables advised the assembling of
the Estates-General for the first time in 175 years, Marat devoted
himself entirely to politics. His Offrande à la Patrie
("Offering to the Nation") dwelt on much the same points as the
Abbé Sieyès' famous "Qu'est-ce que le Tiers État?" ("What
is the Third Estate?")
When the Estates-General met, in June 1789, he
published a supplement to his Offrande, followed in July by
La Constitution ("The Constitution") and in September by
the Tableau des vices de la constitution d'Angleterre
("Tableau of the flaws of the English constitution") intended to
influence the structure of a constitution for France. The latter
work was presented to the National Constituent Assembly and was an
anti-oligarchic dissent from the anglomania that was gripping that
In September 1789, Marat began his own paper,
which was at first called Moniteur patriote ("Patriotic
Watch"), changed four days later to Publiciste parisien,
and then finally L'Ami du peuple ("The Friend of the
People"). From this position, he expressed suspicion of those in
power, and dubbed them "enemies of the people". Although
Marat never joined a specific faction during the Revolution, he
condemned several sides in his L'Ami du peuple, and
reported their alleged disloyalties (until he was proven wrong or
they were proven guilty).
Marat often attacked the most influential and
powerful groups in Paris, including the Corps Municipal, the
Constituent Assembly, the ministers, and the Cour du Châtelet.
In January 1790, he moved to the radical Cordeliers section, the
Club des Cordeliers, then under the leadership of the
lawyer Danton, was nearly arrested for his aggressive campaign
against the marquis de La Fayette, and was forced to flee to
London, where he wrote his Dénonciation contre Necker
("Denunciation of Jacques Necker"), an attack on Louis XVI's
popular Finance Minister. In May, he returned to Paris to continue
the publication of L'Ami du peuple, and attacked many of
France's most powerful citizens. Marat faced the problem
counterfeiters distributing falsified versions of L'Ami du
peuple, which led him to call for police intervention.
Ironically, Marat’s L'Ami de peuple was
originally an illegal publication itself. However, effective
police intervention resulted in the suppression of the fraudulent
issues, leaving Marat the continuing sole author of L'Ami de
peuple. Fearing reprisal, Marat went into hiding in the Paris
sewers, where he almost certainly aggravated a debilitating
chronic skin disease (dermatitis herpetiformis).
During this period, Marat made regular attacks
on the more conservative revolutionary leaders. In a pamphlet from
26 July 1790, entitled "C'en est fait de nous" ("We're done
for!"), he wrote:
Five or six hundred heads would have
guaranteed your freedom and happiness but a false humanity has
restrained your arms and stopped your blows. If you don’t strike
now, millions of your brothers will die, your enemies will
triumph and your blood will flood the streets. They'll slit your
throats without mercy and disembowel your wives. And their
bloody hands will rip out your children’s entrails to erase your
love of liberty forever.
From 1790 to 1792, Marat frequently had to go
into hiding. In April 1792, he married the 26-year-old Simonne
Evrard in a common-law ceremony on his return from exile in
London, having previously expressed his love for her. She was the
sister-in-law of his typographer, Jean-Antoine Corne, and had lent
him money and sheltered him on several occasions.
Marat only emerged publicly on the 10 August
Insurrection, when the Tuileries Palace was invaded and the royal
family forced to shelter within the Legislative Assembly. The
spark for this uprising was Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of
Brunswick-Luneburg's provocative proclamation, which called for
the crushing of the Revolution and helped to inflame popular
outrage in Paris.
The National Convention
Marat was elected to the National Convention in
September 1792 as one of 26 Paris deputies although he belonged to
no party. When France was declared a Republic on 22 September,
Marat renamed his L'Ami du peuple as Le Journal de la
République française ("Journal of the French Republic"). His
stance during the trial of the deposed king Louis XVI was unique.
He declared it unfair to accuse Louis for anything before his
acceptance of the French Constitution of 1791, and, although
implacably believing that the monarch's death would be good for
the people, defended Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de
Malesherbes, the King's counsel, as a "sage et respectable
vieillard" ("wise and respected old man").
On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was guillotined,
which caused political turmoil. From January to May, Marat fought
bitterly with the Girondins, whom he believed to be covert enemies
of republicanism. Marat’s hatred of the Girondins became
increasingly heated which led him to call for the use of violent
tactics against them. The Girondins fought back and demanded that
Marat be tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal. After attempting
to avoid arrest for several days Marat was finally imprisoned.
On the 24th of April, he was brought before the
Tribunal on the charges that he had printed in his paper
statements calling for widespread murder as well as the suspension
of the Convention. Marat decisively defended his actions, stating
that he had no evil intentions directed against the Convention.
Marat was acquitted of all charges to the riotous celebrations of
The fall of the Girondins on 2 June, helped by
the actions of François Hanriot, the new leader of the National
Guard, was one of Marat's last great achievements. Forced to
retire from the Convention as a result of his worsening skin
disease, he continued to work from home, where he soaked in a
medicinal bath. Now that The Mountain no longer needed his support
in the struggle against the Girondins, Robespierre and other
leading Montagnards began to separate themselves from him, while
the Convention largely ignored his letters.
Marat was in his bathtub on 13 July, when a
young woman from Caen, Charlotte Corday, appeared at his flat,
claiming to have vital information on the activities of the
escaped Girondins who had fled to Normandy.
Despite his wife Simonne's protests, Marat
asked for her to enter and gave her an audience by his bath, over
which a board had been laid to serve as a writing desk. Their
interview lasted around fifteen minutes. He asked her what was
happening in Caen and she explained, reciting a list of the
offending deputies. After he had finished writing out the list,
Corday claimed that he told her, "Their heads will fall within a
fortnight". A statement which she later changed at her trial to,
"Soon I shall have them all guillotined in Paris". This was
unlikely since Marat did not have the power to have anyone
At that moment, Corday rose from her chair,
drawing out from her corset the five-inch kitchen knife, which she
had bought earlier that day, and brought it down hard into Marat’s
chest, where it pierced just under his right clavicle, opening the
carotid artery, close to the heart. The massive bleeding was fatal
within seconds. Slumping backwards, Marat cried out his last words
to Simonne, "Aidez-moi, ma chère amie!" ("Help me, my dear
friend!") and died.
Corday was a Girondin sympathiser who came from
an impoverished royalist family – her brothers were émigrés who
had left to join the exiled royal princes. From her own account,
and those of witnesses, it is clear that she had been inspired by
Girondin speeches to a hatred of the Montagnards and their
excesses, symbolised most powerfully in the character of Marat.
The Book of Days claims the motive was
to "avenge the death of her friend Barboroux". Marat's
assassination contributed to the mounting suspicion which fed the
Terror during which thousands of the Jacobins' adversaries – both
royalists and Girondins – were executed on supposed charges of
Charlotte Corday was guillotined on 17 July
1793 for the murder. During her four-day trial, she had testified
that she had carried out the assassination alone, saying "I
killed one man to save 100,000."
Memory in the Revolution
Marat's assassination led to his apotheosis.
The painter Jacques-Louis David, a member of one of the two "Great
Committees" (the Committee of General Security), was asked to
organize a grand funeral. David took up the task of immortalizing
Marat in the painting The Death of Marat, beautifying the
skin that was discoloured and scabbed from his chronic skin
disease in an attempt to create antique virtue. David, as a result
of this work, has since been criticized as glorifying the
Jacobin's death. The entire National Convention attended Marat's
funeral and he was buried under a weeping willow, in the garden of
the former Club des Cordeliers (former Couvent des
Cordeliers). After Marat’s death, he was viewed by many as a
martyr for the revolution, and was immortalized in various ways in
order to preserve the values he stood for. His heart was removed
and hung from the ceiling of the Cordeliers Club in order to
inspire speeches that were similar in style to Marat’s eloquent
journalistic skills. On his tomb, the inscription on a plaque
read: "Unité, Indivisibilité de la République, Liberté, Égalité,
Fraternité ou la mort". His heart was embalmed separately and
placed in an urn in an altar erected to his memory at the
His remains were transferred to the Panthéon on
25 November 1793 and his near messianic role in the Revolution was
confirmed with the elegy: Like Jesus, Marat loved ardently the
people, and only them. Like Jesus, Marat hated kings, nobles,
priests, rogues and, like Jesus, he never stopped fighting against
these plagues of the people. The eulogy was given by the
Marquis de Sade, delegate of the Section Piques and an ally of
Marat's faction in the National Convention (there is evidence to
suggest that shortly before his death Marat had fallen out with de
Sade and was arranging for him to be arrested). By this stage de
Sade was becoming appalled with the excesses of the Reign of
Terror and was later removed from office and imprisoned for
"moderatism" on the fifth of December.
On 19 November, the port city of Le
Havre-de-Grâce changed its name to Le Havre-de-Marat and then Le
Havre-Marat. When the Jacobins started their dechristianisation
campaign to set up the Cult of Reason of Hébert and
Chaumette and Cult of the Supreme Being of Robespierre,
Marat was made a quasi-saint, and his bust often replaced
crucifixes in the former churches of Paris.
By early 1795, Marat's memory had become
tarnished. On 13 January 1795, Le Havre-Marat became simply Le
Havre, the name it bears today. In February, his coffin was
removed from the Panthéon and his busts and sculptures were
destroyed. His final resting place is the cemetery of the church
His memory lived on in the Soviet Union. Marat
became a common name and the Russian battleship Petropavlovsk
was renamed Marat in 1921. A street in the centre of
Sevastopol was named after Marat (Russian:
Улица Марата) on 3 January
1921, shortly after the Soviets took over the city.
Described during his time as a man "short in
stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face," Marat has long
been noted for physical irregularities. The nature of Marat's
debilitating skin disease, in particular, has been an object of
ongoing medical interest. Dr. Josef E. Jelinek noted that his skin
disease was intensely itchy, blistering, began in the perianal
region, and was associated with weight loss leading to emaciation.
He was sick with it for the three years prior to his
assassination, and spent most of this time in his bathtub. There
were various minerals and medicines that were present in his bath
while he soaked to help ease the pain caused by his debilitating
skin disease. The bandana that is seen wrapped around his head was
soaked in vinegar to reduce the severity of his discomfort.
Jelinek's diagnosis is dermatitis herpetiformis.
After Marat's death, his wife may have sold his
bathtub to her journalist neighbour, as it was included in an
inventory of his possessions after his death. The royalist de
Saint-Hilaire bought the tub, taking it to Sarzeau, Morbihan in
Brittany. His daughter, Capriole de Saint-Hilaire inherited it
when he died in 1805 and she passed it on to the Sarzeau curé when
she died in 1862.
A journalist for Le Figaro tracked down
the tub in 1885. The curé then discovered that selling the tub
could earn money for the parish, yet the Musée Carnavalet turned
it down due to its lack of provenance as well as the high price.
The curé approached Madame Tussaud's waxworks, who agreed to
purchase Marat's bathtub for 100,000 francs, but the curé's
acceptance was lost in the mail. After rejecting other offers,
including one from Phineas Barnum, the curé sold the tub for 5,000
francs to the Musée Grévin, where it remains today. The tub was in
the shape of an old-fashioned high-buttoned shoe and had a copper
Besides the works mentioned above, Marat also
Recherches physiques sur l'électricité, &c.
Recherches sur l'électricité médicale
Notions élémentaires d'optique (1784)
Lettres de l'observateur Bon Sens à M. de
M sur la fatale catastrophe des infortunés Pilatre de Rozier et
Ronzain, les aéronautes et l'aérostation (1785)
Observations de M. l'amateur Avec à M.
l'abbé Sans . . . &c., (1785)
Éloge de Montesquieu (1785)
(provincial Academy competition entry first published 1883 by M.
Les Charlatans modernes, ou lettres sur le
charlatanisme académique (L'Ami du Peuple, 1791)
Les Aventures du comte Potowski
(unpublished manuscript first published in 1847 by Paul Lacroix)
Lettres polonaises (unpublished
manuscript first printed in English in 1905; recently translated
into French but authenticity disputed.