Born in 1774 in Paris, Cécile-Aimée Renault arrived at the foot of the guillotine on 17 June 1794 in what is now the Place de la Nation. It all began one day when the 20-year-old seamstress presented herself at the home of the Duplay family, where Maximilien Robespierre was temporarily staying. She asked to speak to him, and as she was young and appeared harmless, she was ushered into his anti-chamber. She waited for a long time and was eventually told that he was unavailable and that she should leave. She replied:
“A public man … ought to receive at all times, those who have occasion to approach him.”
Because Renault would not leave and because she became insistent that she needed to see Robespierre, a guard was called. He conducted a search and supposedly discovered she was carrying two small knives. Although the knives were hardly large enough to kill anyone, it was decided she had intended to murder Robespierre and was taken before the Committee of Public Safety where she was asked to explain herself. Eventually, the committee learned her name and that she was the one of seven children and the daughter of a paper maker, who was a royalist supporter.
The committee quizzed Renault and asked her why she had gone to visit Robespierre. She replied, “To see .. how a tyrant looks.” The committee had earlier discovered that she had left a parcel with a lemonade seller and the parcel was produced. Inside the parcel was a dress, and when asked why she had placed a dress in the parcel, she responded that since she was sure she would be sent to prison and then to the guillotine, she wanted to a have proper dress on hand for the occasion. However, at the same time she also continued to deny that she had any evil intentions towards Robespierre.
Antoine Quentin Fouquier de Tinville, the French prosecutor and her chief accuser, grew tired of her uninformative and contradictory answers. To punish her, he ordered that her clothes be changed and that she be dressed in filthy rags. She later reappeared in the rags, but instead of being embarrassed about her attire, she “jested with the public accuser on the pettiness of his invention. It was then resolved to put her and her family to death, and she was conducted before the revolutionary tribunal.”
Having been condemned to death, along with her family, Renault’s eyes supposedly filled with tears when she discovered that she would be sharing her misfortune with her family. However, she soon regained her composure and a sense of serenity supposedly fell over her. She and her family were then conducted to the guillotine wearing red shifts because the shifts indicated “the bloody nature of their imputed crime.”
As Renault approached the guillotine, one person noted:
“[While] occupied in the march … to the scaffold, [Renault] … never betrayed one symptom of fear. She was even seen to smile more than once. On reaching the place of execution, she descended from the cart with firmness, and embracing her father and her aunt, exhorted them to die with constancy. When it was her turn to mount the scaffold, she ascended cheerfully, and even seemed eager to bow her head beneath the axe.”
An English newspaper later reported that the French were blaming one Englishman as the originator behind Renault’s assassination plot, and they reported:
“These events eventually naturally created great excitement, and Barrere presented a special report to the Convention, in which he charged the usual scape-goat of all offenses, Pitt, as the author of the attempted assassination. A ready credence was affected to be given to this stale absurdity, and the British Minister was once more loaded with the imprecations of the Jacobins, as designing to rob them of their hero and idol.”
Renault’s execution created controversy about her intentions. Some people blamed Robespierre for her death. They claim that Robespierre insisted on her being punished because he thought she was involved in some “vast conspiracy whose object was the overthrow of the Republic.” There were also those people who believed Renault never had any serious intention to harm Robespierre and that she shouldn’t have been executed, which is supported by the fact that the original stories about Renault do not mention a knife or knives. There were also some people who claimed Renault likely had a vague plan to imitate Charlotte Corday (the girl who assassinated Marat in his bath tub), but they claim the difference between Renault and Corday is that Renault was said “to have been a weak-minded ignorant girl, who had not thought very distinctly of her object, and not at all of its means.”
- Lamartine, Alphonse de, Heroic Women of the French Revolution, 1848
- The Fortnightly, Volume 26, 1876
- The Worship of the Supreme Being, in Cork Examiner, 1 November 1848
- Thiers, Marie Joseph L. Adolphe, The History of the French Revolution, 1838