Aah.. the French really knew how to do royal mistresses didn’t they?
It was the French that first made having an official royal mistress ‘a thing’. The maitresse-en-titre was the recognised chief mistress of the monarch.
It had to start somewhere, with someone. And that someone is the subject of my latest post in my royal mistresses series – ladies and gentlemen, may I present Agnes Sorel?
Agnes was the mistress of Charles VII of France, aka Charles The Victorious (1403 – 1461). He was described as ‘tall, blond, chivalrous and attractive‘ – but I must admit his later portraits give a slightly different impression…
Agnes the First Official Mistresse-En-Titre
Agnès, born to 1422 to provincial French nobility, found herself romantically entangled the French monarch at the age of 22. Charles started off by making Agnes a lady in waiting to his queen Marie of Anjou, before making her his mistress just a year or two later. Her status further solidified when Charles VII granted her with the title maîtresse-en-titre. With the title, Agnès became the first officially recognised royal mistress with all the privileges of courtly life.
“The office of the maitresse-en-titre originated in the sixteenth century when Charles VII (r. 1322-1463) positioned his mistress Agnes Sorel at Court. Of course, Charles VII was far from the first king of France to have an extramarital lover, but he did formalize his mistress’ place at court in unprecedented ways that eclipsed the role of even the queen. Since then, the maitresse-en-titre had served as a cultural patron, appeared in public functions alongside the king, and was the subject of artwork that was openly displayed at court. Although not a relationship that had the traditional inviolability of a marriage, the ties between the king and the ‘official mistress’ nonetheless had its own legitimacy as as its own ‘rules’ to be observed by both partners.” (Decadence, Radicalism, and the Early Modern French Nobility: The Enlightened and Depraved)
Agnes the 14th Century Fashionista
If Agnes was a present-day celebrity, she would be Kim Kardashian. Both have got into trouble over their love of bling, and neither shied away from flashing a bit of flesh.
Agnes is probably best known as the inventor of the original ‘nip-slip’, as immortalised in the controversial painting of Agnes as Madonna with child by Jean Fouquet.
Agnes loved to wear dresses that were EXTREMELY low cut. She also sometimes left her dresses unlaced so her breasts were exposed. Well, I suppose you’ve got to keep a king’s attention somehow!
She courted further controversy by wearing (gasp of horror) diamonds. But what’s so bad about that I hear you say? Nothing really, except the fact that almost 200 hundred years earlier an act had been passed prohibiting the wearing of diamonds by anyone but the king.
It has even been suggested that Agnes was gifted the world’s first ever cut diamond. So next time you look at your engagement ring, don’t forget to thank Agnes.
Agnes The Mother
Agnes bore Charles three living daughters. All were recognised and legitimised by Charles.
- Marie – born c.1444
- Charlotte (1446 – 1477) – married Jacques de Breze, Comte de Maulevrier. Charlotte’s life turned out to be more eventful than her mothers. She indulged in several affairs and ‘sexual escapades’, creating considerable scandal. Eventually her husband caught her and a lover in the act and killed them both. He then had to go on the run to avoid punishment by Charlotte’s royal relatives.
- Jeanne (1448-1467) – married Antoine de Bueil, Comte de Sancerre
The Death of Agnes
In 1450, while pregnant with their fourth child, Agnes travelled to join Charles on campaign. After she arrived she suddenly became ill and, after giving birth, both her and her daughter died on the 9th of February. She was only 28 years old.
There were contemporary rumours that Agnes had been poisoned. A potential suspect was Charles’ son, the future Louis XI, whose motive was that he was fed up with Agnes’ influence over his father.
And then after all that – if things couldn’t get more tabloid worthy – Charles quickly decided to shack up with Agnes’ cousin Antoinette de Maignelais after her death. The scoundrel.
In 2005 French forensic scientist Philippe Charlier exhumed Agnes’ remains and, after extensive tests, revealed she had extremely high levels of mercury in her remains. This may point to murder, but mercury was also used in cosmetic preparations or to treat worms.
Her remains have also been used to create a facial reconstruction, using a combination of the latest scientific techniques and historical research and evidence. There’s something special but unnerving looking at the face of someone long dead.
Royal Mistress Rankings
History remember’s Agnes for two things – her beauty and her boobs. But she was also one clever lady.
Charles made her his chief counsellor at a time when women’s thoughts carried little weight. She encouraged him to sack ineffectual courtiers and engage new advisers who succeeded in rescuing the failing economy. Several historian’s credit Agnes with influencing Charles in becoming a more successful king.
Agnes’ nicknames were la Belle Agnes (the beautiful Agnes) and la Dame de Beaute (The Lady of Beauty). A biographer of Charles recorded the comments of one courtier who said ‘She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.‘ Antoine de Chabannes, a great friend of the dauphin, said Agnes was ‘The most beautiful woman there ever was or ever could be.‘
I debated long and hard whether or not to give Agnes a 3 or a 4. She most definitely caused a bit of controversy at court, but when you do more research you find out she wasn’t the only of contemporaries to show some cleavage.
Agnes was the mistress of Charles’ heart for 8 years – and she probably would have ruled over it a lot longer if it wasn’t for her premature death.
Overall Mistress Rating ****
A strong contender, but then again did we expect anything less from the first official mistress-en-titre?!