Men have had mistresses since the beginning of time. However, Agnes Sorel was the first one to parlay that into a position. She was the acknowledged mistress of the French king, the first woman to hold that semi-official position which was to be of so great importance in the subsequent history of the old regime. So how did the so called La Dame de Beauté capture the eye of the king?
Born in 1422, Agnes became a lady in waiting to Isabelle of Lorraine, queen of Sicily and wife of René of Anjou, who was the brother-in-law of Charles VII. Agnes met the king in 1444 and Charles was smitten. Legend has it she wore a creation of uncut diamonds by Jacques Coeur to draw attention to her decolletage inventing the diamond necklace. Charles showered her with money, land and jewels cut and set by the wealthy Jacques Coeur. He even gave her Château de Loches, where he was first convinced by Joan of Arc to be crowned king, to Agnes as her private residence. Agnes, in turn, helped Charles finance his endless wars against the English. One such financier was Jacques Coeur, whom she had thrown so much business to. It was a perfect partnership, and Charles created the title of maîtresse-en-titre for her. Together, the two had three daughters, Charlotte de Valois, Marie de Valois and Jeanne de Valois.
Along with diamonds, Agnes set other fashion trends at the French court. She was known for wearing very low cut gowns, so low in fact that one or both of her breasts were exposed. This was scandalous but set a trend. Her bosom was so magnificent she served as a model for Jean Fourquet in a portrait of the Virgin Mary. The Virgin and the Child surrounded by angels features the Virgin offering her breast to the Christ Child. Using the king’s mistress as a model for the Virgin Mary did not go over very well with the clergy.
The great influence Agnes had on the king as well as her outrageous tastes earned her many enemies at court. It is not surprising that her sudden death in 1450 was treated as suspicious. Agnes was pregnant with Charles’ fourth child, but did not let that stop her from journeying from Chinon to join Charles on campaign. It was important for her to lend moral support, so she did not let her pregnancy or the winter weather stop her from traveling to Jumièges in Northern France. While there, she became ill and gave birth to the child. Both Agnes and her newborn child died. Charles was devastated and had Agnes interred in the Church of St. Ours at Loches and her heart was buried in the Benedictine Abbey at Jumièges .
Her death was officially said to be from dysentery. However, rumors flew that it was murder. Charles’ son, the eventual Louis XI, was in rebellion from his father and was accused of murdering Agnes to remove her influence from his father. It was also said that her old friend Jacques Couer poisoned her, however, this was thought to be a rumor to discredit Couer as he had no motive. In 2005, French historians led by Phillipe Charlier exhumed Agnes’ body and did a forensic analysis on it. High levels of mercury were found in her body. Mercury was used in both cosmetics and as a cure for parasites. However, Charlier’s team found a high amount of mercury in Agnes’ hair, which indicated she ingested a large amount of mercury right before her death. Charlier believes she was murdered, and it is highly suspicious. However, we will never know for sure.
Charles got over his grief and replaced Agnes’ in his bed with her cousin, Antoinette Maignelais, who was said to resemble Agnes strongly. Charlier’s team did do a forensic reconstruction of Agnes’ face, so we can still gaze on the beauty that bewitched a king.
Sources available on request