Agnès Sorel (1422 – 9 February 1450), known by the sobriquet Dame de beauté, was a favourite mistress of King Charles VII of France, by whom she bore three daughters. She is considered the first officially recognized royal mistress. She was the subject of several contemporary paintings and works of art, including Jean Fouquet’s Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels.
Life in the royal court
Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels
(depiction of Sorel by Jean Fouquet)
The daughter of soldier Jean Soreau and Catherine de Maignelais, Sorel was twenty years old when she was first introduced to King Charles. At that time, she was holding a position in the household of Rene I of Naples, as a maid of honour to his consort Isabella, Duchess of Lorraine. Sorel then went on to serve as the lady-in-waiting for Marie d’Anjou, Charles VII of France’s wife. She would soon become his mistress. The King gave her the Château de Loches (where he had been persuaded by Joan of Arc to be crowned King of France) as her private residence.
Soon, her presence was felt at the royal court in Chinon where her company was alleged to have brought the king out of a protracted depression. She had a very strong influence on the king, and that, in addition to her extravagant tastes, earned her powerful enemies at court. Sorel would become the first officially recognized royal mistress.
She is credited with starting a fashion when she wore low-cut gowns at court with one breast fully bared.
Children and death
Agnès gave birth to three daughters fathered by the King:
Marie possibly born the summer of 1444,
Charlotte, m. Jacques de Brézé (their son, Louis de Brézé, seigneur d’Anet, in turn married Diane de Poitiers, herself ultimately a famous royal mistress.)
While pregnant with their fourth child, she journeyed from Chinon in midwinter to join Charles on the campaign of 1450 in Jumièges, wanting to be with him as moral support. There, she suddenly became ill, and after giving birth, she and her child died on 9 February 1450. She was 28 years old. While the cause of death was originally thought to be dysentery, scientists have now concluded that Agnès died of mercury poisoning. She was interred in the Church of St. Ours, in Loches. Her heart was buried in the Benedictine Abbey of Jumièges.
Charles’ son, the future King Louis XI, had been in open revolt against his father for the previous four years. It has been speculated that he had Agnès poisoned in order to remove what he may have considered her undue influence over the king. It was also speculated that French financier, noble and minister Jacques Coeur poisoned her, though that theory is widely discredited as having been an attempt to remove Coeur from the French court.
In 2005 her remains were exhumed and examined by French forensic scientist Philippe Charlier, who determined that the cause of death was mercury poisoning, but offered no opinion about whether she was murdered. Mercury was sometimes used in cosmetic preparations or to treat worms and might have brought about her death.
Her cousin Antoinette de Maignelais took her place as mistress to the king after her death.
A 16th-century portrait after Jean Fouquet’s ‘Virgin and Child’
Sorel plays a main part in Voltaire’s La Pucelle. Two Russian operas from the late 19th century also portray her, along with Charles VII: Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s
The Maid of Orleans and César Cui’s The Saracen. She is also a featured figure on Judy Chicago’s installation piece The Dinner Party, being represented as one of the 999 names on the Heritage Floor. Two garments use Sorel’s name in their descriptors, Agnes Sorel bodice, Agnes Sorel corsage and a fashion style named after her as well, Agnes Sorel style, which is described as a “princess” style of dressing