Today, on St Valentine’s Day, it is high time to speak about one of the most famous royal love stories – the romance of King Charles VII of France and Agnès Sorel. When and how did the monarch meet the woman who seems to have been the love of his life? According to the chronicles of Enguerrand de Monstrelet and Jean Chartier, Charles first saw Agnès on the 19th of March, 1443 in Toulouse where he amicably received his cousin and friend, René d’Anjou, with his wife, Isabelle de Lorraine. According to another version, Charles first encountered Agnès in September 1443 at Château de Saumur in the Loire Valley, which was owned by René.
All accounts state that King Charles VII was smitten with the young woman’s loveliness. The twenty-one-year-old Agnès was a rare, exquisite flower of beauty. No wonder that the monarch, who was not always faithful to his docile, pious, unattractive cousin-wife, Marie d’Anjou, became strongly infatuated with Isabelle’s maid so quickly. Agnès was transferred from Isabelle’s service to his wife’s as a maid to Queen Marie. In some novels, we can see that Yolanda of Aragon, who wanted Agnès to support Charles in his struggle against the English, arranged that Agnès arrived at the Valois court, but I find this version rather odd because Yolanda died in 1442, while Agnès met Charles only in 1443 according to at least two contemporary chronicles.
Duchess Isabelle de Lorraine wrote in her accounts:
“January 1 to 31 July 1444 ten livres to Agnès Sorel.”
In spite of being Isabella’s confidante, Agnès was not a high-ranking maid of honor, which is reflected in her salary from the duchess. Only after the beginning of her romance with the king, Agnès became known as ‘la Dame de Beauté.’ The Treaty of Tours between Henry VI of England and Charles VII of France was signed in May 1444; afterwards, the trade in France began slowly reviving. In the autumn of 1544, Charles gifted to Agnès a gilded statue of St Marie Magdalene, who was considered Agnès’ patron saint. Nowadays this gift is kept in the inventory of the Collégiales at Loches. On this statue, there is an obvious connection with Agnès:
“In honor and reverence to St Marie Magdalene, the noble lady of Beauté has given this image to this church of Château de Loches.”
Before Agnès, Charles VII had mistresses, but his affairs had never had such importance to him. We do not know when Charles and Agnès surrendered to their passions, but it is clear that the 20-year-age gap between them did not make the king repulsive to Agnès. One might say that no woman could reject a king back then, but their story and chronicles suggest that Agnès and Charles developed strong mutual feelings for one another. Some claim that Agnès was expecting a child when she joined Queen Marie’s household; this can be true because Agnès accompanied Charles on his trips to Nancy and Châlons in the autumn and early winter of 1444.
The household of Marie d’Anjou was different from that of Isabelle de Lorraine. Everyone, including the king’s wife, lived in accordance with the strict rules of being pious, virtuous, and exemplary in everything. Marie d’Anjou was an exceptional woman in all senses, a model queen who always supported her husband, encouraging him not to give up in the most horrible days when Charles was disparagingly called King of Bourges and lived in Yolande of Aragon’s castles on her charity. Nonetheless, there was never any great love between Marie and Charles, at least not in a way it exists between a man and his lady obsessed with each other, although Charles regularly performed his conjugal duties. Moreover, many of their children died, which could have distanced Charles from his spouse. At times, tragedies might even kill affection, friendly or sexual.
Living in such a strict household and having an affair with her liege lord must not have been easy for Agnès. Her relationship with Charles had to be kept secret until her first pregnancy began to show. Perhaps Queen Marie unveiled her maid’s mystery soon after Agnès’ appearance at court, and Marie suffered knowing that her husband’s mistress was carrying his child. At the moment, Marie was in her early forties, but her husband continued bedding her. The queen birthed Princess Madeleine (an ancestress of all the Bourbon monarchs), and a son – Prince Charles, Duke de Berry born in 1446 (Charles is the second surviving son of the royal couple, but he would die childless at 25). Meanwhile, Agnès’ first baby was born in 1445: a stillborn daughter.
Agnès Sorel took the Valois court by storm, rising at first to the rank of unofficial first lady of France and then obtaining the status of the king’s official favorite. It was a novelty because the French monarchs had never recognized any of their paramours as their official mistress before. Before the mistresses had existed in the shadows, but Agnès was not someone who would agree to such a secondary role at court – Agnès wanted to climb as high as possible, feeling secure and basking in the immense affection of Charles VII. The queen must have despised her younger rival at this stage, but Marie tolerated her spouse’s escapades stoically and her head held high.
Soon Agnès was surrounded with nobles and formed friendships with them. For example, Pierre de Brézé was appointed chamberlain to King Charles VII, and soon he gained the chief power in the state. Influential courtiers, soldiers, and royal advisors such as Jean Bureau, Count Gaston IV de Foix, Guillaume Jouvenel des Ursins, Étienne Chevalier, and many others befriended Agnès. Let’s give them and Agnès a great credit for what they accomplished together with Charles VI: they helped their sovereign reform the financial, administrative, civil, military and other spheres of France, which positively influenced the economy, the French army, and other areas.
In 1445, there was a meeting between King Charles VI of France and his cousin, Philippe the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Their previous meeting during the Congress of Arras had ended the enmity between the Valois faction and the Burgundians. During the autumn festivities of 1445, Olivier de La Marche (a Burgundian chronicler, poet, and historian) wrote of Queen Marie:
“The queen [Marie d’Anjou] was suffering from the painful malady called jealousy, because the king had just raised the rank of a poor young lad to such triumph and such power that her estates are comparable to those of the grandest princesses of the realm.”
Olivier de La Marche also wrote of Agnès Sorel:
“She [Agnès] was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
Antoine de Chabannes, who was a close friend to Dauphin Louis (future King Louis XI of France, the Spider-King), was also smitten with Agnès and praised her appearance:
“The most beautiful woman there ever was or there could be.”
Despite being naturally handsome, Agnès seized the chance to live extravagantly and to make herself more beautiful in the eyes of her royal lover and the world. As if her embarrassment had never been part of her personality, Agnès became a trendsetter with décolleté: not liking high-necked gowns and a respectable neckline, the mistress introduced bare shoulders and a décolleté worthy of modern Madonna or Jennifer Lopez. In all centuries, you have supporters and opponents when it comes to bare flesh, as well as eccentric behavior and style. Agnès’ gowns and jewels were perceived as shameful ones, but Charles loved her appearance so much that when Jean Juvénal des Ursins, Archbishop of Reims, counseled the king to correct such indecent fashions, the king only laughed in response. Agnès’ new fashion was both scorned and emulated.
Some chroniclers described her clothing as that of a whore. A low décolleté was not the only novelty Agnès introduced. Very long trains of her gowns, which were trimmed with furs such as sable, stretched behind her as she walked. Diamond and pearl necklaces became fashionable. Agnès’ hairstyle was elaborate: her hair was plucked on the upper forehead, and this became an erotic sign at this time. Agnès treated her skin with special ointments; she used creams against wrinkles every morning and honey masks before nights. She put on her face a make-up made from flour and liked lipstick made from poppy petals. Agnès flaunted her splendid gowns and jewels at court; only in 1444 alone, the monarch offered her hundreds of jewelry items.
To obtain fineries and fabrics for her wardrobe, Agnès became the best client of Jacques Coeur, who was wealthy and powerful French merchant, as well as a councilor to Charles VII. Coeur imported luxury fabrics from the Levant, which was unheard of at the time, but he was able to satisfy Agnès’ tastes. Coeur also delivered to France goods and fineries from other European countries, having access to merchandise from every source. Agnès often visited his stores, located in Tours, stocked cloth, silks, jewels, armor, and spices of all sorts. The king’s mistress made purchases and returned to her royal lover, who seems to have approved of her profligacy.
With Agnès, King Charles felt himself young and enjoyed their romance immeasurably. Or he would not have raised her so highly and would not have permitted her to lead such a rich, liberal, and fabulous life. Charles had grown up without the love of his parents, at the court of the insane King Charles VI and his consort, Isabeau of Bavaria, who was a spendthrift and did not quite care about most of her offspring. Charles was Isabeau’s least favorite child; he had received motherly affection only from Yolande of Aragon, at whose estates in Angers and in the Loire Valley he had spent a lot of time in childhood and adolescence. The ruler had married Marie d’Anjou, Yolande’s daughter, out of duty, but his good wife was more like a sister to him. None of his mistresses had awakened in him a blend of tenderness, love, and lust, so Agnès became the star of his universe.
After the birth of Prince Charles in 1446, King Charles ceased performing his marital duties. Agnès, who constantly shared a bed with the ruler, birthed him 3 daughters – Marie, Charlotte, and Jeanne. Charles acknowledged his bastard daughters with the Valois surname, and in the future they would be given large dowries for their marriages. Her friends, including Pierre de Brézé, Étienne Chevalier, Guillaume d’Estouteville, Prigent VII de Coëtivy and Jacques Cœur, secured royal favor. They contributed a lot to the positive reforms that Charles implemented in his realm in the 1440s. The monarch was generous to his beloved: he granted her the fiefs of Beauté (hence, her nickname ‘Dame de Beauté,’ or ‘Lady of Beauty’), Vernon, Issoudun, Roquesezière, and even Château de Loches, where Jeanne d’Arc had years ago urged him to claim his throne. The king and Agnès often spent time together at Loches away from court.
Agnès Sorel encouraged the monarch to find his backbone. Charles could be energetic in his endeavors to achieve something, but sometimes, he lacked decisiveness and hesitated. These qualities of his character must be attributable to his many misfortunes in adolescence, his family issues, as well as the war against the English. No truce with England guaranteed that there would be no new invasions, and a large part of France was still occupied by the enemy. With the order in his kingdom restored, Agnès persuaded him to take back Normandy and other lands. Jacques Coeur provided his liege lord with funds for the reconquest of Normandy in 1450.
As time went by, Agnès was getting bolder and bolder. Queen Marie had to treat Agnès with respect and greet her in the same way she welcomed princesses. This must have been humiliating, but the queen swallowed her offences and obeyed her husband’s wishes. The chronicles wrote that Agnès was seen sitting alongside the king in the throne room. Agnès concentrated in her hands a lot of financial and political power, but her main assets were the monarch’s love and her influence on Charles. From that time on, the mistresses of French rulers were frequently more wealthy and influential than their wives. Indeed, Agnès was a trendsetter and a fashion icon.
During her happy years with Charles, Agnès lived as a queen in everything but name. Her brothers joined the court shortly after her arrival there. Charles and Jean Sorel were attached to the administration of the monarch starting from 1446. Agnès’ two other brothers, who arrived later, became simple members of the king’s private guard, or the Scots Guard. While taking care of her relatives, Agnès was also taking care of Charles and his mental state, and by doing so, of France. Both her affection for the king and her intelligence helped her guide his policies. By 1447-8, the Valois family lived in luxury for the first time in years, thanks to the king’s mistress.
Agnès failed to realize that her extravagance had quite a negative effect on the opinions of both nobles and commoners. France did not recover yet from the miseries of the Hundred Years’ War, and new campaigns lay ahead – she herself convinced her lover to start them. Many courtiers despised and envied her, including Dauphin Louis who loathed Agnès utterly. Those women who had once admired her style began to modestly cover themselves from throat to ankle, while Agnès continued wearing sumptuous attire with bare shoulders adorned with jewels. Her behavior caused a lot of criticism towards her: people gossiped that their sovereign indulged her too much.
Jean Juvénal des Ursins, Archbishop of Reims, advised to King Charles:
“All this pomp with trains, elaborate hairstyles, chains, gems, and other fineries displeased God and the people. You will only gain the hatred of your people… A woman is only beautiful in as much as she remains simple. Showing one’s breast is only to excite one’s companions, and God will punish her for this, and you, and your people!”
Olivier de La Marche nevertheless spoke highly of Agnès when she was criticized:
“In fact her [Agnès’] position does much good for the kingdom of France. She has brought into the king’s circle young men of arms, and good company, and ever since the king has been well served by them.”
After this conversation, Charles’ relationship with Agnès nonetheless continued, and her behavior did not change. This again proves that the king was besotted with his mistress. Yet, more and more aristocrats castigated Agnès. Perhaps she had once believed that her generosity and her help to advance nobles in the king’s favor would make others overlook her excesses, but she was wrong. Agnès left the court despite Charles’ pleas to stay, and she went to Loches, where he came very often during the last year of her life. In 1450, while pregnant with their 4th child, she traveled in midwinter to join Charles on the campaign of 1450 in Jumièges against the English with the goal to give him moral support. Unfortunately, Agnès became ill and gave birth prematurely to a short-lived baby girl – they both breathed their last on the 9th of February 1450.
At the time of her demise, Agnès Sorel was only 28 years old. King Charles rushed to her and was grief-stricken at the news of their deaths. Agnès was buried in Collégiale Saint Ours at Loches. She could have died of dysentery. Yet, many believed at the time that she was poisoned by the crafty Dauphin Louis, who had been banished to the Dauphiny because of his conflict with his father and his openly demonstrated loathing for Agnès. It is interesting that in 1451, Agnès’ friend Jacques Coeur was falsely accused of having poisoned her, then arrested, and condemned to remain incarcerated. In the end, Coeur fled and found refuge in Italy, while King Charles VII eventually replaced Agnès in his bed with her younger cousin, Antoinette de Maignelais.
All images are in the public domain.
Text © 2021 Olivia Longueville