Saturday, May 22, 2010

Reading about... Agnès Sorel, la Dame de Beauté

Some years ago, I had the chance to see “La Vierge et l'Enfant entourés d'anges”(The Virgin and the Child surrounded by angels), one of the most known works of Fouquet. I vividly remember being mesmerized by the lady in the portrait. She was like no other Virgin Mary depiction I ever saw before. The colors of the angels surrounding her, her expression and the face, that face I quite never forgot. Weeks later, I found in a bookstore Jeanne Bourdin's book about the lady of the painting: Agnès Sorel, also known as The Lady of Beauty (La Dame de Beauté). I bought it immediately.

Some months ago, I accidentally saw another book about her and I couldn't resist grabbing it right away. This brought back old memories and I couldn't stop thinking about her.

La Vierge et l'Enfant entourés d'anges by Jean Fouquet

Agnès Sorel was the first official royal mistress in France. She created a position that would be coveted by many other women through the centuries. When she meets Charles VII (Joanna d'Arc's king Charles), she's very young and a lady in waiting of Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine. Agnès was an educated, refined and fashionable woman who was very aware of her assets. Charles, in the other hand, was far from handsome and for many years was known for his indecision and lack of charisma. Certainly someone pleasant but far from being a strong leader and powerful king. When he reached his forties, Charles changed and became more sure of himself. Some historians claim it was Agnès doing but other are sure this transformation begin before they met.

Agnès Sorel by Jean Fouquet
A fair and lovely young woman and a newly self assured king. Before they knew it, they were living a passionate love story. But many resented Agnès and her influence over Charles. Her taste for fashion and finery made her the center of mockery and scorn of her peers and even the French people. Her habit of giving strategic positions to her family members and friends didn't help her reputation either. The Dauphin, Louis, hated her fiercely and didn't hide his feelings for her or even for his father's weakness, who he thought manipulated. He wanted to rule and impatiently waited for an opportunity to win the throne.

Charles VII by Jean Fouquet
Pregnant with her fourth child, Agnès decided to travel to be with her lover, away at war in Rouen. In her way home, while staying in a local manor at Jumièges (Normandy), she is seized by violent cramps in her middle section. A few hours later she dies in agonizing pain and her child follows some weeks after. She was twenty-eight years old.

A distressed Charles VII orders two magnificent tombs: one for her heart and the other for her body. And quickly, he replaced her by her cousin, Antoinette Maignelais, also a fair maiden who resembled Agnès...

La Dame de Beauté by Jeanne Bourin (slightly romanticized version of Agnès life)
Agnès tomb at Loches (click here to enlarge)

French books I read about Agnès Sorel:
Other French books I heard about:
English books I found after some research:
Agnès Sorel's death always seemed suspicious and if many looked at the Dauphin as the main suspect, nothing could be ever proved. And several other people had as many reasons to eliminate the royal mistress as the king's son...

In 2004 a team of French scientists decided to examine Agnès skeleton who survived all those centuries of church renovations and grave robbing. They could not prove if she was murdered or not, but one thing was sure, her body contained very high levels of mercury who was a perfect poison. The same product was also used for worms treatment those days. A dosage accident is considered but her doctor was one of the most renowned of the realm. Accident or murder? We'll never know...

Considered by many of her contemporaries as the most beautiful woman in the world, Agnès Sorel continues to fascinate. I for instance would love to see more of her in historical fiction.


  1. Alex, thank you for this interesting post on Agnes Sorel. I had heard about her but didn't know there were books about her. I'll add them to the WL. ;-)

  2. Could not see ....
    The Lady of Beauty, Agnes Sorel
    by Jehanne d'Orliac
    transl. by Maida C. Darnton
    info found in... Woman and Rococo in France by
    Karl Toth

    20 08 11

  3. Thank you for the bibliography!
    Have read the Maury and ordered the Raymond but now will look into the Boudin
    I think she is fascinating - and her link to Jeanne d'Arc and Jacques Coeur provide so many angles for fictionalised writing or better still film.