Agnes Sorel was born in France in 1422 from a high rank family which was working for the Angevin nobility. Her father was Jean Sorel lord of Coudun, and her mother a castellan of Verneuil-en-Bourbonnais. It is not clear the place of her birth but the historians opinion is divided between Fromenteau in Turenna and Coudun in Picardia; however it is known that in the latter she received a through education. She spent some of her time in the Castle of Maignelay-Montigny in Oise, where she prepared herself to take on the role of maid of honour to Isabelle, Duchess of Lorraine wife of René of Anjou, King of Naples.
Below: painting of Agnese Sorel, copy of the lost version by Jean Fouquet
Her singular charm was noticed by Charles VII, to whom she was introduced in 1442 by the Great Seneschal of Anjou, Poitou and Normandy Pierre de Brézé
She was 20 years old and she was extremely smart, cultured, charming and sweet
She became the favourite of the King, despite he had already “loads of anonymous lovers, or to better say some sort of harem, a “deer park” which was following him wherever..” like it’s described in a letter.
Below: Charles VII of France, painted by Jean Fouquet
Such an episode was a massive news at court because until then the King’s lovers were supposed to remain in the shadow. The art of living and the weirdnesses of Agnes outshone the Queen Marie. At court veils soon were abandoned and the gowns started assuming a low-cut: Agnes invented the decolletage with naked shoulders, defined as “licentious and dissolute” by some reporters of that era. Huge pyramids would dominate her hairstyles and 8 metres long bands (26 feet) were lengthening her elegant dresses decorated with precious trimmings of marten or sable leather.
In 1444 Charles VII gave her jewels to the tune of 20,600 ecus and the very first cut diamond we know of from that time. In order to get her luxury ornaments, Agnes became the best client of Jacques Cœur, great silversmith of the King and international merchant of precious stones.
Below: painting of Agnès Sorel inspired by the Melun Diptych by Jean Fouquet, Royal Castle of Loches. Picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
By the many written sources it seems she was blonde with blue eyes, high forehead, small nose, delicate mouth and oval face, and a body wrapped within close-fitting clothes, enlightened by malicious decolleté all the way down to display her breasts. In the painting of Jean Fouquet, surrounded by angels, she was represented as the Virgin Mother with the child on her lap and a refined crown on her head. The reporter Jean Charter said of her “..amongst the beautiful women she was the most beautiful and young one in the world”.
The painting, today destroyed, was part of the Melun Diptych, realised in 1450-1455. The right hand side panel was featuring sensuality mixed with a gelid formality of a Madonna with ivory skin. Here Agnes is represented elegant, with her forehead shaved, according to the trend of aristocracy back in the day, unfastened corset, low- cut with naked shoulders, a severe look, her breasts of an exaggerate geometry ready to be observed.
There is no apparent fondness linking her glance to her child’s one, no empathy to the ones who look at her. The composition in its overall aspect creates a dualism between a sacred image and a luxurious tempting one as well as an icon of modern provocation. Something extremely far off the iconography of the Virgin in the 14th and 15th centuries, where the “nursing Madonna” was used to being represented as extremely attached and intimate in the scene with her baby.
Below: picture shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The woman is surrounded by red cherubs and blue seraphs made of a chiaroscuro which turns them into waxworks; the Madonna forms up a marble pyramid-like shape whom instills awe and attraction both at once, creating an ambiguous malice in this certainly more profane than religious representation.
More than a Madonna, the figure looks like a Queen placed on top of a throne of gems and pearls, while a cold light illuminates the pure colours empty of shades. The interplay of light that the painter utilises on the gems of crown and throne brings the sacred picture back into the terrestrial dimension, which recalls the French court of that time.
It is said that the heir Louis XI would despise her so much to run after her with a sword, forcing her to find shelter into the royal rooms; the episode shocked his father so much that he kicked him out of the court, sent to rule the Dauphiné.
Almost at the end of her fourth pregnancy, Agnes wanted to relocate next to the King who was then fighting against the Brits in the Rouen area. She moved inside the nearby abbey of Jumieges, where she gave birth to a premature daughter. Although the labour went smooth, a few days afterwards she had dysentery and within a few hours she died. She pleaded with the Virgin Mary and wrote down her last will, leaving her jewels to Charles.
The speed with which the death occurred made people suspect of poisoning. For this they accused first the jeweller Chartier, executor of the last will then the hair Louis, but both of them were cleared from all charges for lack of evidence.
Desperate and with no consolation the King ordered two marvellous marble tombs to commemorate his beloved: one containing Agnes’ heart, in Jumiège, and the other holding her body, accompanied by a long sacred inscription, in Loches, In the church of Saint Ours.
Below: picture by Paul Paoliello shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
Did Agnes Sorel die out of labour of poisoning?
Only in 2004 the truth about this historical mystery has arisen; on the occasion of the transfer of the remains from Saint Ours in Loches, an autopsy has been carried out by the Hospital University of Lille: it resulted that the body of Agnes had been poisoned by salts of mercury.
The ingestion of this heavy metal provoked the death, but the quantity ingested, from 10 to 100 thousand times more the therapeutic dose, excludes the hypothesis of a mistake. For this reason the theory of a murder reappears, many centuries later.
Amongst the main suspects there are very close people who were revolving around her: her cousin Antoinette de Maignelais, who replaced her in the King’s bed 3 months after her death and Doctor Robert Poitevin, whose received part of her inheritance.
Below: the death mask of Agnes Sorel, picture by Michel Wal shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons
The doctor though is today considered as the most plausible author of the killing and that is for two main reasons. First of all the firmness he displayed with which he denied his involvement in the accident, although his experience would have certainly suggested him the undeniable signs of poison. Secondly because he was one of the few, if not the only one, who could have administered such a substance.