1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Corday d'Armont, Marie Anne Charlotte

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 7
Corday d'Armont, Marie Anne Charlotte

CORDAY D’ARMONT, MARIE ANNE CHARLOTTE (1768–1793), French revolutionary heroine, the murderess of Marat, born at St Saturnin des Lignerets, near Séez in Normandy, was descended from a noble but poor family, and numbered among her ancestors the dramatist Corneille. Charlotte Corday was educated in the convent of the Holy Trinity at Caen, and then sent to live with an aunt. Here she saw hardly any one but her relative, and passed her lonely hours in reading the works of the philosophes, especially Voltaire and the Abbé Raynal. Another of her favourite authors was Plutarch, from whose pages she doubtless imbibed the idea of classic heroism and civic virtue which prompted the act that has made her name famous. On the outbreak of the Revolution she began to study current politics, chiefly in the papers issued by the party afterwards known as the Girondins. On the downfall of this party, on May 31, 1793, many of the leaders took refuge in Normandy, and proposed to make Caen the headquarters of an army of volunteers, at the head of whom Félix de Wimpffen, who commanded the army assembled for the defence of the coasts at Cherbourg, was to have marched upon Paris. Charlotte attended their meetings, and heard them speak; but we have no reason to believe that she saw any of them privately, till the day when she went to ask for introductions to friends of theirs in Paris. She saw that their efforts in Normandy were doomed to fail. She had heard of Marat as a tyrant and the chief agent in their overthrow, and she had conceived the idea of going alone to Paris and assassinating him,—doubtless thinking that this would break up the party of the Terrorists and be the signal of a counter-revolution, and ignorant of the fact that Marat was ill almost to the point of death, and that others were more influential than he.

Apparently she had thought of going to Paris in April, before the fall of the Girondins, for she had then procured a passport which she used in July. It contained the usual description of the bearer, and ran thus: Laissez passer la citoyenne Marie, &c., Corday, âgée de 24 ans, taille de 5 pieds 1 pouce, cheveux et sourcils châtains, yeux gris, front élevé, nez long, bouche moyenne, menton rond fourchu, visage ovale. Arrived in Paris she first attended to some business for a friend at Caen, and then she wrote to Marat: “Citizen, I have just arrived from Caen. Your love for your native place doubtless makes you desirous of learning the events which have occurred in that part of the republic. I shall call at your residence in about an hour; have the goodness to receive me and to give me a brief interview. I will put you in a condition to render great service to France.” On calling she was refused admittance, and wrote again, promising to reveal important secrets, and appealing to Marat’s sympathy on the ground that she herself was persecuted by the enemies of the republic. She was again refused an audience, and it was only when she called a third time (July 13) that Marat, hearing her voice in the antechamber, consented to see her. He lay in a bathing tub, wrapped in towels, for he was suffering from a horrible disease which had almost reduced him to a state of putrefaction. Our only source of information as to what followed is Charlotte’s own confession. She spoke to Marat of what was passing at Caen, and his only comment on her narrative was that all the men she had mentioned should be guillotined in a few days. As he spoke she drew from her bosom a dinner-knife (which she had bought the day before for two francs) and plunged it into his left side. It pierced the lung and the aorta. He cried out, “À moi, ma chère amie!” and expired. Two women rushed in, and prevented Charlotte from escaping. A crowd collected round the house, and it was with difficulty that she was escorted to the prison of the Abbaye. On being brought before the Revolutionary Tribunal she gloried in her act, and when the indictment against her was read, and the president asked her what she had to say in reply, her answer was, “Nothing, except that I have succeeded.” Her advocate, Claude François Chauveau Lagarde, put forward in vain the plea of insanity. She was sentenced to death, and calmly thanked her counsel for his efforts on her behalf, adding that the only defence worthy of her was an avowal of the act. She was then conducted to the Conciergerie, where at her own desire her portrait (now in the museum of Versailles) was painted by the artist Jean Jacques Hauer. She preserved her perfect calmness to the last. When she saw the guillotine, she placed herself in position under the fatal blade without assistance from any one. The knife fell, and one of the executioners held up her head by the hair, and had the brutality to strike it with his fist. Many believed they saw the dead face blush,—probably an effect of the red stormy sunset. It was the 17th of July 1793. It is difficult to analyse the character of Charlotte Corday; but there was in it much that was noble and exalted. Her mind had been formed by her studies on a pagan type. To C. J. M. Barbaroux and the Girondins of Caen she wrote from her prison, anticipating happiness “with Brutus in the Elysian Fields” after her death, and with this letter she sent a simple loving farewell to her father, revealing a tender side to her character that otherwise we would hardly have looked for in such a woman. Lamartine called her l’ange de l’assassinat, and Vergniaud said, “Elle nous perd, mais elle nous apprend à mourir.

See Œuvres politiques de Charlotte Corday (Caen, 1863; some letters and an Adresse aux Français amis des lois el de la paix), with a supplement printed in the same year; Louvet de Couvrai, Mémoires (ed. Aulard, Paris, 1889); Alphonse Esquiros, Charlotte Corday (2nd ed., 2 vols., Paris, 1841); Cheron de Villiers, Marie Anne Charlotte Corday (Paris, 1865); Casimir Périer, “La Jeunesse de Charlotte Corday” (Revue des deux mondes, 1862); C. Vatel, Dossiers du procès criminel de Charlotte de Corday ... extraits des archives impériales (Paris, 1861), and Dossier historique de Charlotte Corday (Paris, 1872); Austin Dobson, Four Frenchwomen (London, 1890); A. Ducos, Les Trois Girondines, Mme Roland, Charlotte Corday ... (Paris, 1896); Dr Cabanès, “La vraie Charlotte Corday,” in Le Cabinet secret de l’histoire (4 vols., 1897–1900). Her tragic history was the subject of two anonymous tragedies, Charlotte Corday (1795), said to be by the Conventional F. J. Gamon, and Charlotte Corday (Caen, 1797), neither of which have any merit; another by J. B. Salles is published by C. Vatel in Charlotte de Corday et les Girondins (1864–1872). See further bibliographical articles in M. Tourneux, Bibl. de l’hist. de Paris ... (vol. iv., 1906), and in the Bibliographie des femmes célèbres (3 vols., Turin and Rome, 1892–1905); and also E. Defrance, Charlotte Corday et la mort de Marat (1909).