The assassination of Marat by Charlotte Corday is one of the most enduring events of the French Revolution. Deborah Nash traces the young woman’s footsteps from a farmhouse in Normandy to the guillotine in Paris
Explore the short and tragic life of a famous figure in the Revolution.
It was raining in Paris as Charlotte Corday stood in a tumbrel rumbling its way to her place of execution. ‘ La vierge rouge’, as she became known, wore a white bonnet and the red chemise of the assassin. Earlier that morning in July 1793, she had given a strand of her hair to thank the artist painting her portrait; the rest was shorn by her executioner, who now sat at the front of the cart.
The three-kilometre journey from the Prison de l’abbaye to Place de la Révolution (today’s Place de la Concorde) was halting. Weary, she sighed, and her executioner turned and asked, “Are you finding it a long way?” “We’ll get there soon enough!” she replied. On reaching the square, the crowds swelled and jeered at the killer of the rabble-rousing revolutionary Jean-paul Marat.
And it was over soon enough. The blade swooped down on the young woman and a moment later the executioner’s assistant swung her head in the air for the mob to see. Playfully, he slapped each cheek, for he was a supporter of Marat. There is a rumour that the head blushed.
Charlotte Corday was born the third of five children in 1768 in a farmhouse in the commune of Les Ligneries (presentday Les Champeaux) in the département of Orne in Normandy. Although her birthplace was modest, the Corday line was a wealthy one, with châteaux and manors scattered across the region, and roots dating from 1077. Look at a map and you’ll even find the village of Cordey six kilometres south of Falaise.
The Ferme du Ronceray still exists, in the middle of fields dotted with fruit trees, and is privately owned, probably by Parisians who migrate to the countryside in summer like swallows. No one locally knows who they are, but the tourist guide tells me the lawn is always neatly mown and the cottage cared for. It is pretty and timber-framed, with a climbing rose at the front and a rust-tiled roof.
In the sunshine you can picture a little girl from two centuries and more ago
playing with her siblings and collecting the apples fallen from the trees or walking the long tracks through undulating fields and valleys to visit her more affluent relatives at Cauvigny and Le Renouard. Wherever Charlotte stayed, she had beautiful views.
It is easy to romanticise a simpler way of life, but Charlotte’s family was beset by financial pressures – they were penniless aristocrats – and ill health (two of her sisters had disabilities). With the slaughter of farm animals close by, the premature death of a sibling and mother, and later executions in Caen, a reminder of one’s own mortality must have been a daily occurrence.
The day after her birth, the Cordays took their daughter to be baptised in the Église Saint-saturnin des Ligneries. Built in the 12th century and restored in the 17th, it is constructed from the land it sits in: wood, stone, earth. Its roof rests on wooden posts.
“If you take the walls away, the roof will still stand,” my guide M Maguin explains. His affection for the church is deeply felt. He knew the curé who was buried beneath the nave in 1960, and has reserved his own plot in the graveyard outside. There are carved figurines of saints standing on beams beneath the rafters, and a classical pale blue altar. There is no dust and there is smallness. M Maguin lets me ring the bell. Its robust chime calls out across the centuries. He opens the porch door, then creaks it shut. “That is the creak of the 17th century,” he says.
A sombre stone font reminds me why I am here. “Was she an assassin or a saint?” asks M Maguin. “In these parts we consider her a saint. She killed a killer.”
There are many buildings in the region that have associations with the Corday family, but the two that stand out are lived-in homes. Grand, historic and rambling, they dwarf the Ferme du Ronceray and remind us of the comparative poverty of Charlotte’s family. Both belonged to relatives and she visited often.
The charmingly enthusiastic Patrick Laverny and his wife own the 16th-century Manoir de Cauvigny in Le Renouard, which in the 18th century was occupied by Charlotte’s grandparents and uncle. This was where she learnt to read and when she stayed, she had a tiny room on the first floor at the corner of the house.
“Hers is the only room that has two windows on different walls,” M Laverny tells me. “It’s the smallest room, but it’s the best lit.” One of her windows looks on to the valley and rows of elms and limes garlanded with mistletoe. From the north-facing window, you can see barns and a water pump.
Each year, the Laverny family celebrate 17 July, Saint Charlotte’s Day, by dressing up and acting out scenes from the life of their own ‘Charlotte’.
The second grand building is the Vieux Château du Renouard, which now operates as a luxurious chambre d’hôte and is a magnificent place to spend a day or so. In the early-morning mist, its turret of slate and the tiled roofs seem to float as the warm Caen stone and the mortar of its walls dissolve into the wooded glades. I walk round the boating lake and pond. Perhaps Charlotte’s relative, Pierre Jean-baptiste de Corday, a royalist who lived at Le Renouard until forced to flee in 1791, took a similar stroll. Inside the château, the ceilings are lofty and beamed; some are painted with fleur de lys; the bathrooms are the size of a London studio flat and the fireplaces are so wide they look like portals to other worlds.
How marked the contrasts must have been within this aristocratic family; differences in wealth and political ideals that were highlighted by the French Revolution, with Royalists and
Republicans being related. Charlotte’s father, Jacques-françois de Corday, had married his cousin, the extravagantly named Charlotte-marie-jacqueline de Gautier des Authieux de Mesnilval, with the promise that she would bring him a generous dowry. This was not paid and, increasingly embittered, he spent most of Charlotte’s childhood tied up in legal battles to secure the money.
These financial wranglings took the Corday family to Caen, where they settled in Rue Basse, in sight of the Abbaye aux Dames. Jacques-françois continued his claim in court proceedings against his in-laws that seem to have followed the same protracted pattern as the fictional case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.
In Caen in 1782, when Charlotte was 14 years old, the family’s stability was shattered by the death in childbirth of her mother. Jacques-françois was plunged into disarray, and Charlotte and her sister Eléonore were sent to the Abbaye aux Dames to continue their education. Henceforth, the closeness of family and friends and the rhythm of seasons that they had known were definitively replaced by the austerity of convent life.
Charlotte spent five years at the Abbaye aux Dames as a pupil, then another two running errands. By all accounts she was a serious child. She read deeply and perhaps tried to align the philosophies of the Enlightenment with her own life. Most historians point to the significance of Charlotte’s ancestry. She was the descendant of the illustrious 17th-century playwright Pierre Corneille. Her readings shaped her Republican sympathies while her heritage embedded a heroic concept of ‘ la belle mort’ and a noble life led by codes of honour.
Inside the convent buildings attached to the abbey hangs a painting of Madame de Pontécoulant, the Mother Superior in charge in Charlotte’s time. She holds her instruments of office that must have appeared ineffectual against the Revolution’s barbarity.
From 1788 onwards, the violence in Caen mounted until the ‘City of Spires’ resounded to the screams of the raped, the tortured and the dying. When a young general, who was related to Madame de Pontécoulant’s predecessor, was beaten to death during riots, his body parts were paraded outside the abbey on a pitch fork and his heart grilled and eaten.
Charlotte’s world began to crumble. The gap between the ideas of the Enlightenment and the unrestrained cruelty of the Revolution was glaring. Then an event took place that propelled the young convent girl, not yet 25, to commit an assassination that would lead to her annihilation but assure her immortality.
On the wall of the Abbaye aux Dames, a plaque commemorates Père Gombault, Charlotte’s confessor and family friend. In 1793 he was imprisoned in a cell at the top of the town’s Abbaye aux Hommes (into the wall he scratched a quotation from Corneille), then dragged up Rue Monte à Regret (now called Rue aux Fromages) and executed on Place du Pilori (the present-day Place Saint-sauveur).
Witness to execution
By this time, the abbeys had been shut down and Charlotte was living in Caen with an elderly relative on Rue SaintJean. She almost certainly witnessed the execution. Her cousin’s apartment no longer exists; a chocolate shop has taken its place and Charlotte’s name. While staying with Madame de BrettevilleGouville, Charlotte got to know the Girondins, the Republican moderates exiled from Paris. She read and listened to their discourse and the name of Jean-paul Marat was never far away.
Marat, a radical journalist, used his newspapers to incite the Revolutionaries to massacre the nobles and the priests. It is an irony that a man killed by a knife should extol its use as a weapon: “The dagger is the only weapon appropriate for men of liberty. With a well-sharpened knife you can strike your enemy in battle or on a street corner!”
Marat had considerable influence. He was elected to the National Convention, where few would sit next to him, not solely out of terror but because the weeping blisters caused by his skin condition made a stinking abomination of his body.
Historians agree that Marat’s illness meant he had not long to live when Charlotte took the decision to kill him. In her letters, she repeated her motivation to return France to peace, that she had committed her crime for the French people. “I killed one man to save one hundred thousand,” she said.
Three months after Père Gombault’s execution, Charlotte was in a stagecoach destined for the capital. “Her journey
lasted 45 hours. She had never travelled so far, in order to kill a man she had never met,” says Hélène MauriceKerymer, author of a fictionalised first-person account of Charlotte’s life.
In Paris, Charlotte stayed at a hotel in Rue Hérold. On the morning of 13 July, she bought an ordinary kitchen knife from a shop in what is now the Galerie de Valois. She hid the knife and a letter – Adresse aux Français – in her corsage, before making her way to Marat’s apartment in Rue des Cordeliers.
She was refused entry several times and only at the end of the day did she succeed in meeting the deputy, who was at work in a bath filled with sulphurous water to soothe the welts on his body. She had used the pretext of handing over the names of prominent Girondins hiding in Caen to gain access. When Marat affirmed they would be rounded up and guillotined, the young woman plunged her knife into his heart.
At her trial, the court found it hard to believe that she had acted alone and assumed she had a lover among the Girondins. When a post-mortem examination proved conclusively that this was not the case, she was regarded as a crazed fanatic. Marat, meanwhile, became a martyr to the cause, his body initially buried in the Panthéon.
With time, reputations were reassessed; Marat’s became tarnished and the streets named after him changed, while Charlotte’s act was reappraised. Was she a ‘Madame Bovary’? (a romantic fantasist) asks Maurice-kerymer. Was there a suicidal dimension to her decision? Was she a heroine or a religious mystic? What is certain is that over lunch and dinner in Normandy and Paris, her name repeatedly came up in conversation.
More than 200 years later, people remain fascinated by the short life of this singular woman.
ABOVE: A portrait of Charlotte Corday in prison, on display in the Abbaye aux Hommes in Caen; RIGHT: Jacques-louis David’s 1793 painting Le Mort de Marat
ABOVE: The Ferme du Ronceray in the present-day commune of Les Champeaux, where Charlotte Corday was born; INSET: The altar in the Église Saint-saturnin des Ligneries: TOP RIGHT: The Abbaye aux Dames in Caen; RIGHT: The Chocolatier Charlotte Corday in Cae
ABOVE: Charlotte Corday being taken in a tumbrel to her execution in Place de la Révolution