Agnes Sorel has the dubious distinction of being the first officially recognized French royal mistress. Agnes would exert a great deal of influence over King Charles VII and his government at the expense of his Queen, Marie of Anjou, cultivating many allies and making a great deal of enemies along the way before dying a mysterious death. There is little factual information about Agnes but we can gain some intriguing insight into her life from what we do know.
Based on recent evidence, the best guess for the year of Agnes’ birth is 1422. Her father was Jean Soreau or Sorel and her mother was Catherine de Maignelais, both of whom were part of the provincial nobility. Jean was a squire of Charles of Bourgon, an ally of the Duke of Anjou. Little is known of Agnes’ upbringing. It was probably the connection with the Duke of Anjou that led to Agnes’ first recorded position as a lady-in-waiting to Isabelle of Lorraine, the wife of René of Anjou.
While it is possible the relationship between Agnes and Charles began in 1435 when she was a teenager, the most likely date of the first meeting was 1443. The King had captured Toulouse and René of Anjou and his wife set out to greet the king. It was the first meeting for King Charles and Isabelle and Agnes was probably part of her entourage. Records show Agnes was paid wages of ten livres, indicating she was of lower rank than some of the other ladies. The king was probably dazzled by Agnes’ beauty.
She must have had a magnificent presence as many commented on her exceptional beauty, cementing her reputation as the most beautiful woman of the fifteenth century. She had blond hair, blue eyes, was pale and thin, and had a narrow waist and high round breasts. She was the epitome of the contemporary ideal of beauty.
It is hard to determine when Agnes’ relationship with King Charles started as they were initially very discreet. One chronicler mentions that Charles never touched her below the chin in public. We know for certain Agnes was with the King on April 8, 1443. On that date, Charles made it public knowledge he had abandoned his wife Queen Marie who was pregnant with her twelfth child to follow Agnes. Charles gave her the chateau of Beauté, a place once inhabited by Charles’ Valois ancestors. The chateau was the most beautiful in the Ile de France. Agnes was officially appointed to the position of lady-in-waiting to the Queen, thus making her part of the court and giving Charles easy access to her.
Prior to Agnes, the position of king’s mistress yielded a small pension but did not include a role at court or allow for any great impact on French history. In the case of Agnes, her elevation made her more important and more secure but didn’t necessarily include any enduring financial benefits. After the birth of her first child, Charles would create the position of official mistress or maîtresse en titre for her at the court of Nancy in 1444. Official favorite was a new role for women and a new practice for French kings. This gave Agnes more prominence than previous mistresses and a quasi-official status. This position was uniquely French.
Agnes reveled in cultivating luxury and engaging in conspicuous consumption, appearing in sumptuous clothing and exquisite golden necklaces. She enjoyed wearing dresses that exposed her perfectly rounded breasts. She favored wearing long veils hanging down to the ground. She purchased large quantities of silk and cloth woven with gold. The trains on her dresses were so long they were remarked upon. She had the best bedcovers, tapestries, jewels and dishes. She lived in the Queen’s apartments where her accommodations were better appointed. The estimated worth of her jewels was 20,650 ecus, an extraordinary sum.
Queen Marie managed to remain on good terms with Agnes, despite the fact that she had to endure Agnes’ every day presence in her household. Marie had to manage Agnes’ household in addition to her own. Agnes appeared at court with the lords and nobility, dressed more magnificently than the queen and with better jewelry. Agnes always dined at a better table than the Queen too.
Agnes was pious and engaged in charitable activities, giving many gifts to the poor. Pope Nicholas V granted her the special privilege of having her own portable altar so she could hear mass anywhere she pleased. The Pope also gave her papal absolution to be used at the hour of her death. She donated a statue of Mary Magdalene to an abbey.
With the birth of each child, Charles would give Agnes more properties. Agnes was bold, young, sparkling and cheerful. She surrounded Charles with high spirited young people and fostered the careers of young men at court. Charles in turn showered them with gifts and honors and always sought their company. Her place was always at the king’s side. She resided in the royal chateau of Loches and appeared at court frequently and traveled with the king. Charles’ love certainly granted her unusual access and unprecedented power.
Agnes created an entirely new role on a different model. She wasn’t just a fleeting sexual fling but became a central player at court from the time of her elevation as chief mistress until her death. She didn’t just challenge the king’s marriage, she outright replaced Queen Marie in her principal duties, leaving the queen to a mostly maternal role. Her approach was innovative, defining for the French monarchy a new status of official mistress. From this point on, other women would exploit this new function with the mistresses of King Henri IV, King Louis XIV and Louis XV taking it to new heights.
Charles was not an appealing or handsome man and appears to have been ruled by one powerful woman after another. Important women in his life included his mother Isabeau of Bavaria, his mother-in-law Yolande of Aragon, Joan of Arc and later Agnes. After Agnes’ elevation, Charles became a most proficient and capable king. The powerful barons acknowledged his authority. Peace with England was finally signed, ending the Hundred Years War and the French crown regained lost territory.
Charles became effective in carrying out significant administrative accomplishments. He reinvigorated the court justice system, reformed the state’s finances and reorganized the entire administration of his government. Because of this, by the end of his reign, he left a larger and more powerful France to his heir. All of this indicates Agnes had considerable influence in transforming Charles’ character and politics and in initiating and advancing this new tradition of politically significant French royal mistresses.
Agnes aligned herself with the Norman lord Pierre de Brezé who was now the king’s first minister and may have originally introduced Agnes to Charles. Brezé made an attempt to take over the King’s government. In an effort to get the king’s eldest son the Dauphin Louis’ endorsement for the change in authority, the king promised Louis a campaign in Italy. The Dauphin sought Agnes’ help in this and gave her a magnificent set of tapestries which he had appropriated from the castle of the Count of Armagnac. Despite this generous overture, Agnes always viewed Louis as an enemy. Louis never did get his command or campaign.
When de Brezé went on trial for treason and financial malfeasance, Agnes appeared at the trial signaling her explicit endorsement and the king’s expectation for a favorable outcome. Brezé avoided being found guilty of treason, perhaps due to her support.
Agnes was highly criticized by her contemporaries. She was blamed for societal and economic disruption and for appropriating positions traditionally occupied by men. Increases in her influence provoked hostility and intrigue. All this eventually led to a confrontation between King Charles and Louis. Louis was highly resentful of Agnes’ displacement of his long-suffering mother in her role at court. One chronicler reported that Louis confronted Agnes and berated her. He then drew his sword and chased her into his father’s bed. Another chronicler reports that one day in 1444, Louis ran into Agnes and exclaimed “By our Lord’s passion, this woman is the cause of all our misfortunes”. He then reportedly punched her in the face.
Eventually, Charles drove Louis into exile. Although this banishment may have been caused in part by his resentment of Agnes in the short term, Louis did feud with his father long after Agnes’ death. By 1449, Agnes was at the height of her powers. She had been official mistress for five years, given birth to three daughters, she was at the top of the social hierarchy and her influence was overtly unmistakable.
Also in 1449, the peace between England and France had been broken when England allied with Brittany against France. Charles prepared to besiege the English possession of the city of Rouen in Normandy. Agnes went to visit Charles there in an advanced stage of pregnancy with her fourth daughter. There are conflicting reasons for this visit but whatever the motive, Charles was not happy to see her. He installed her at the abbey of Jumièges which was close to his military headquarters. Agnes was weary from her trip and went into labor at the abbey. A few days later, she began to complain of stomach pains which became increasingly severe. She died on February 9, 1450.
She bequeathed all her worldly goods to the Collégialle Saint-Ours of Loches in return for masses for her soul. After her death, Charles elevated her to the title of Duchess so she could have a splendid ducal funeral. Charles ordered a monument be built at Jumièges. Her heart was stored at the abbey and her body was buried in the abbey church along with her newborn daughter.
In 1777, the canons of Loches moved her tomb to a side chapel, perhaps out of embarrassment. In 1793, French revolutionary troops destroyed her tomb. Each time her tomb was disturbed, some of her remains were removed. Pieces of her bones and hair are currently on display in a reliquary in the Museum of Chinon. In 1809, her mausoleum was restored and then transferred to the turret of the king’s lodgings at Loches.
It was assumed she died from complications of childbirth and rumors of poisoning, as was the case with any early, unexpected death, have circulated down through the centuries. Her skeletal remains were unearthed in 2005 and examined. Forensic tests confirmed enormous amounts of mercury were in her body at the time of her death. Evidence also suggested Agnes suffered from roundworms and mercury was a common treatment for this problem. Additionally, mercury was used to treat women in labor in the case of a difficult delivery. But the evidence of a massive dose hints at foul play. She could also have contracted dysentery. Was her death deliberate or accidental? If it was deliberate, who poisoned her remains a question which cannot be answered six hundred years later.
After her death, the Queen once again reigned over a lively court at Chinon and cultivated a major role in supporting the arts. Charles replaced Agnes with her cousin Antoinette de Maignelais as his mistress. Antoinette also served as procuress of beautiful young women for the king. She was eventually married off to a compliant and handsomely rewarded husband.
There is an interesting postscript to Agnes’ story. One of Charles’ chief ministers was a man named Jacques Coeur. He was a member of the king’s council, a diplomat, Keeper of the Royal Purse as well as a highly successful merchant. He was rich beyond belief and many at court borrowed money from him with his primary debtor being the king. Coeur was also one of the Dauphin’s foremost supporters. Five months after the death of Agnes, the king had Jacques thrown in prison for poisoning Agnes. In May of 1453, Coeur was found guilty of lèse-majesté, fined 400,000 crowns, deprived of all his possessions and remitted indefinitely to prison. A year later he escaped and made his way to Rome where he was welcomed by the Pope. He would die fighting the Turks on November 25, 1456.
Further reading: “Louis XI: The Universal Spider” by Paul Murray Kendall, “Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge” by Eleanor Herman, “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman