He is one of those images that mark memories. That of Charlotte Corday stabbing Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub on July 13, 1793 remains one of the most powerful in our collective imagination. Alternately reviled or designated, the name of the murderess of the mountain deputy has passed to posterity. But what do we know about her? Was she an ultra-royalist? A fanatic? The answers are to be found in Normandy, between Orne and Calvados, in the Pays d’Auge.
Charlotte Corday’s family is ruined
It all starts in Champeaux, a small rural town of 110 souls. At the end of the village, the farm of Ronceray, a half-timbered farmhouse accompanied by pastures and apple trees, as we see so many in the region, marks the limit of the village. She was the birthplace of Charlotte Corday d’Armont on July 27, 1768. The residence was modest for a family descended from the Norman nobility, but the Corday d’Armonts were on the verge of ruin and, when the little girl reached the age of two years, their situation forced them to find refuge with relatives, in Renouard, near Mesnil-Imbert, about ten kilometers away. Charlotte therefore grew up in the Château de Corday which, contrary to what the name suggests, is an unpretentious building whose half-timbered buildings stand on two floors.
Charlotte Corday conforms to a religious education
We then follow her trail to the west, to Vicques, in Calvados, where she lived for a few years with her uncle, the parish priest, then to Caen where, after the death of her mother in 1782, her father settles on the Butte Saint-Gilles, in the suburbs of Caen. The young girl was sent to boarding school at the convent of the Trinity, at the Abbaye aux Dames and remained there until 1790, when the Constituent Assembly decreed the closure of the convents. The abbess describes her as a “perfectly accomplished young person, submissive, hard-working and of great firmness of character”. Charlotte therefore conforms to the religious and classical education favored by this institution to young aristocrats.
But every weekend, she returned to Le Renouard where, under the influence of her father, she emancipated herself by reading Rousseau, Voltaire and the Greek and Latin philosophers, which gave birth to a republican conscience in her. When the wind of the Revolution blows over France, it follows events with interest. After 1790, the young woman stayed at 148 rue Saint-Jean, in Caen, with an aunt. She then frequents social circles and is distinguished by her assertive positions. During a dinner, she thus scandalizes those around her by refusing to drink in honor of the king.
Charlotte Corday is on the side of the moderate Republicans
Even if politically she moved away from the Caen aristocracy, won over to the ideas of the counter-revolution, she kept friends there, most of whom did not escape the guillotine’s ax. The young Norman will experience anger and resentment towards the extremists who soil her republican ideal.
In Paris, the radical faction is embodied by the sans-culottes and the mountain party. Like many provincials, Corday feels closer to the Girondins group, the majority within the Convention. These moderate republicans wish to spare the king, and oppose a federalist vision of France in the face of mountain Parisianism.
In 1793, the struggle between moderates and radicals turned into a settling of accounts
On May 31, heated by the pen of Marat, thousands of Parisians besieged the Assembly to claim the head of the Girondins accused of wanting to distort the Revolution. On June 2, the Convention votes for the dismissal, arrest and execution of twenty-two deputies. Those who manage to escape the guillotine will find refuge in the provinces. Eighteen of them are hosted in Caen, at the Hôtel de l’intendance. This part of Normandy is indeed one of the rare regions to rush against the mountain coup de force.
In the aftermath of the clashes that shook the capital, the people of Caen took to the streets to proclaim a federalist insurrection and Charlotte naturally took part in the demonstrations. She then tries to get in touch with the exiled Girondins whom she considers to be the saviors of the country. She documents herself, obtains their brochures… In these writings, the designated enemy is not Robespierre, the great figure of the “Mountain”, but Marat, the vitriolic pen of The friend of the people, described as a bloodthirsty monster, manipulator of crowds, responsible for the May insurrection and the purges.
The Battle of Brécourt, a humiliation for the Norman Federalists
Then germinates in her the desire to avenge her political friends by attacking their executioner. New elements go through his determination. On June 13, when the Assembly of the departments of Calvados and Orne decided to raise an army to march on Paris and fight the “party of Marat”, only seventeen men volunteered. Even by joining the Breton battalions, their forces are defeated and the Federalist insurrection turns into a rout. The troops will not go further than Pacy-sur-Eure where they will flee at the first cannon shot. This “battle of Brécourt”, without fighting or casualties, is felt as a humiliation by the insurgents.
Charlotte is distressed by the attention and helplessness of her fellow citizens. Her decision is made, she will go to Paris, alone. She burns her brochures and all her correspondence, before bidding farewell to her loved ones. Jules Michelet in his son History of the French Revolution (1847-1853) reports his last words to his aunt: “I am crying over France, over my parents, and over you. As long as Marat lives, who is sure to live? »
Charlotte Corday, “the angel of assassination”
The sequel is known. On July 13, she went to 30 rue des Cordeliers, to the Hôtel de Cahors, where Marat was staying. Earlier in the day, she sent him a note in which she claims to have heard of a plot hatched against him from Caen. She needs to talk to him. But the man is not easy to approach. At the entrance to the apartment, his mistress stands in the way. Alerted by the loud voices, the journalist asks to be let in. From his bathtub, he asks her about the situation in Normandy. In response, her interlocutor pulls a dagger from her bodice and stabs her in the heart. She is arrested on the spot.
The murderess carries an “Address to French friends of law and peace” in which she explains her gesture. “O France, your rest depends on the execution of the law; I do not harm it by killing Marat, (…) Which tribunal will judge me? “. Under the Terror regime, the answer was clear: from July 16, “the angel of assassination”, as Lamartine called it in 1847, was compared before the revolutionary tribunal. Until the end she assumes her sacrifice: “I killed a man to save a hundred thousand” she declares to her judges. The next day, she is taken to the scaffold, wearing the red shirt reserved for assassins. Ironically, her desperate act caused the opposite of what she was looking for: the assassination of Marat will accentuate the paranoia of the Montagnards who will redouble their policy of terror.
➤ Article published in the August-September 2021 GEO Histoire magazine on Normandy (n° 58).
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