Charlotte Corday and the murder of Marat

17 March 2012

At 7am on the morning of Sunday, the 13th July 1793, a young woman, just twenty five years of age, with neatly arranged curling chestnut hair and clear blue eyes walked with a firm and steady tread through the already busy sunwarmed streets of Paris from her lodging, room 7 in the Hôtel de la Providence, 19 Rue Hérold, to the arcades of the Palais Royal. We don’t know what thoughts ran through her head as she strolled purposely along, perhaps stirring lines written by her great great great grandfather, the celebrated playwright Pierre Corneille, or perhaps she stopped every now and again to enjoy the bustle and excitement that attended the preparations for the next day’s celebration of the fourth anniversary of the fall of the Bastille.

The elegant arcades of the former Royal palace were decorated for the occasion with tricolor banners, while the trees planted in the famous gardens were bedecked with tricolor ribbons that floated slightly in the morning breeze, while everywhere the woman looked she saw young people like herself laughing and smiling as they sang patriotic songs and looked forward to the festivities.

Marie-Anne-Charlotte de Corday d’Armont was not a Parisienne, despite the undoubted elegance of her brown striped silk dress, but was one of the last scions of a somewhat diminished aristocratic family from Caen in Normandy. The street vendor who sold her a newspaper before she entered into the cooling shelter provided by the colonnades, which were frequented at night by whores, gamblers, thieves and revelers drawn from all classes, would have noted that her accent was not that of a native Parisian but there was nothing unusual about that – since the outbreak of Revolution in 1789, the city had become a magnet for ambitious young women who crowded around the deputies of the National Assembly like wasps around honey.

Clutching her newspaper tightly, she wandered from shop to shop, admiring a pair of lilac scented gloves here, an elegant pink shoe, the shade of sugared almonds there and a rose and feather festooned bonnet there. She had come to the arcade to buy a particular item, but showed no haste in seeking it out, preferring instead to loiter in a leisurely manner just like any other fashionable young lady. One particular hat, tall, black and trimmed with green silk ribbons caught her eye and she bought it, immediately swapping her more modest white linen bonnet for it in the street.

Finally, she turned towards the Café Février and stopped at Badin’s cutler’s shop nearby at 177 Rue de Valois, where she bought a kitchen knife with a six inch blade for two livres. After this she walked for a while around the Palais Royal gardens and sat on a bench to read her newspaper, enjoying the rich scent of the blooming roses that lined the gravel paths. Perhaps she then strolled down to the nearby Tuileries gardens, which lay in front of the old palace. The Royal family had not been in residence since August the previous year and in January, the king, Louis had met his end just a few yards away on the Place de la Révolution.

After this, there was nothing more to be done and she walked to the Place des Victoires, where she hailed a carriage and instructed the driver to take her south of the Seine to the home of Citizen Marat at 30 Rue des Cordeliers. While travelling down to Paris, Charlotte had planned to murder Marat in the Convention in full view of all the deputies  and as a public retribution for what she saw as his crimes against France. However, Marat was stricken with illness and had lately rarely left his home, preferring instead to soothe the hideous skin infection with which he was inflicted with cooling baths, scattered with healing herbs and powders procured for him by his devoted nurse and life partner, Simone.

Charlotte was disappointed that her grand plan had gone awry already but remained resolute and undaunted: Marat was going to die.

She arrived outside his building at half past eleven, climbed out of the carriage and went across a cobbled courtyard into the house. However, before she could ascend the shabby wooden staircase that led up to Marat’s apartment on the first floor, Simone’s sister, Catherine came down and informed her that Marat was far too ill to receive visitors and she could not be admitted for at least four or five days.

Charlotte hesitated then returned to her lodgings, where she sat at her small desk and wrote Marat a brief note: ‘Je viens de Caen, votre amour pour le patrie doit vous faire désirer connaître les complots qu’on y médite. J’attends votre réponse.’ (I have come from Caen, your love for the country must make you curious about the plots that are hatching there. I will wait for your reply.) She entrusted her note to a clerk and then requested that Citizeness Grollier, the owner of the hotel arrange for a hairdresser to come to her.

She spent the rest of the day at her lodgings, awaiting a reply from Marat which did not come. The hairdresser procured by Citizeness Grollier arrived and arranged her hair in a fashionable style with long ringlets that hung down to her slender waist before freshly powdering it. Charlotte then changed from her brown silk dress of earlier into a gown of fine spotted Indian muslin teamed with a clean fichu of pretty rose pink cotton. She tucked her birth certificate and a letter addressed to the French people into her chemise, where they would be discovered after her arrest.

After this, she sat again at her desk to write another, longer letter: ‘Je vous ai écrit ce matin, Marat, avez vous reçu ma lettre, puis-je espérer un moment d’audience ; si vous l’avez reçue j’espère que vous ne me refuserez pas, voyant combien la chose est intéressante. Suffit que je sois bien malheureuse pour avoir droit à votre protection.’ (I wrote to you this morning, Marat.  Have you received my letter? I am hoping for a short audience. If you have received it, I hope that you will not refuse me for I have many interesting things to tell you. Let it be known that I am so unhappy as to have the right to your protection.)

Satisfied that her new letter was enough to pique Marat’s interest, she tucked her knife down the front of her dress, pulling her fine linen fichu closer to conceal it, picked up a green silk fan and once again ventured out into the sweltering Parisian streets, hailed another carriage and went back to the Rue des Cordeliers, arriving there at around seven in the evening. This time it was Simone who came down from the first floor apartment to apprehend the pretty visitor and demand to know why she was so keen to see Marat.

The two women had a bit of a row on the stairs, which would have ended in the formidable Simone ejecting Charlotte, until the latter decided to raise her voice and loudly protest that she only wanted to tell Marat about the plots and schemes being hatched by his Girondin enemies who had escaped Paris and taken refuge in Caen. As she had hoped, his interest was immediately stirred by what appeared to be a heaven sent opportunity to finally score some points against his enemies, the noted Girondins  Madame Roland, Barbaroux, Brissot and Vergniaud and he called weakly from his bath that she should be allowed to come up to his room.

Marat greeted the very pretty Charlotte in the most friendly way, saying that he had read her notes and was keen to learn more before invited her to take a seat beside his bath to tell him more about the parlous situation in Normandy. Simone, still suspicious of the other young woman’s motives, also entered the room and sat with them as they talked about the Girondins, with Charlotte boldly providing a list of names of Girondins currently at large in Normandy, all of which Marat gleefully wrote down on the desk which went across his bath, chuckling all the time.

At this point, Simone, with a backward look of annoyance at Charlotte, left the room to fetch some more kaolin solution for the bathtub. Marat grinned at his guest and gestured to the list of names with his pen, saying: ‘Their heads will roll within a fortnight.’

Charlotte did not return his grin, instead she rose to her feet, knocking her stool backwards as she stood up, pulled the knife out from the bosom of her dress and plunged it desperately into Marat’s exposed chest before pulling it out and dropping it on to the floor. She then took the list of names and hurled it into the water of his bath, hoping that this would be enough to destroy it and protect the identity of the people she had incriminated.

A moi, ma chère amie!’ the dying man howled, bringing Simone rushing back into the room, but it was too late as Marat died within seconds of being struck. She took one look at the wound which was pumping blood into the water and all over the makeshift desk and the papers on it and screeched: ‘My God, he has been murdered.’ Meanwhile, Charlotte made no real attempt to escape but instead backed away from the commotion that her actions had caused then walked calmly from the room. ‘Malheureuse, what have you done?’ Simone screamed at her as she went.

Alerted by Simone’s screams, Laurent Bas, one of Marat’s employees ran after Charlotte and immediately attempted to fell her by picking up a chair and hitting her with it. He then ignored her clear lack of resistance and insisted upon knocking her down then pinning her forcibly to the ground until the Commissaire de Police, Citizen Guellard arrived to arrest her.

During the interrogation that followed, Charlotte made no attempt to deny that she had murdered Marat with her own hand and also insisted that she had acted alone.Throughout the course of her imprisonment and trial, the prosecutors sought in vain to insist that such a well bred young woman must surely have been acting on the behalf of a group of hardened plotters but she was to confound them all with her clear eyed insistence that there was no plot, no cell of malcontents and that the idea of murdering Marat had been her’s alone.

The news of Marat’s murder swept through the streets of the Cordeliers district, where he was a much loved figure and it didn’t take long for a large mob to assemble outside number 30 both to loudly mourn his premature passing and scream threats of retribution towards his assassin which floated up to the windows of the first floor flat as Charlotte, her face bruised and bloodied was interrogated and had her possessions confiscated.

Thanks to Laurent’s rough treatment, the birth certificate and letter that she had hidden beneath her chemise were revealed and one of her interrogators pulled them forcibly from her dress, tearing it in the process and almost revealing her breasts. Ashamed and horrified, Charlotte shook her hair forward to conceal them as best she could.

Finally, in the middle of the night an armed guard bundled Charlotte past a screaming, furious mob down the stairs and into a carriage. She was lucky to escape with her life as many of the crowd were determined to render their own retribution for her terrible act – however, it was pointed out to them that she was clearly part of some terrible terrorist cell based in the provinces and so must be kept alive long enough to name her co-conspirators.

Charlotte, bruised, exhausted but triumphant was taken through the dark streets to the prison of Abbaye, where she was led past staring, whispered gaolers and their fearsome dogs to a small, mean cell that had only recently been vacated by Madame Roland. Meanwhile, the city was in uproar as news of Marat’s assassination spread and it became known that a beautiful young woman from the provinces had been the one to deliver the fatal blow…

Further reading:

Liberty: The Lives and Times of Six Women in Revolutionary France

Citizens: A Chronicle of The French Revolution

You Might Also Like...