France has a generous share of remarkable women who grace the pages of its history. Blanche de Castille, Eleanor d’Acquitaine, Jeanne d’Arc, Diane de Poitiers, Gabrielle d’Estrée and Marie Antoinette are some of the most illustrious (even if some were imports). During the Middle Ages many of them ruled in their own right and others exercised enormous influence through their men.
One such person was Agnès Sorel, who for a brief period of six years, was one of the most influential and powerful women in France, at a time when France shook off the yoke of English occupation. She was described by Chateaubriand, “Of all the royal mistresses, only Agnès Sorel was useful to her prince and to her country.”
She probably was born in Picardy, where we know her parents were born, but that is about all that we know of her ancestry. This is balanced somewhat by how much we know of her descendants, which include an astonishing array of leaders of the royal families of France, Spain, Belgium, Romania, Bulgaria, Italy, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Bourbon-Parma, Bourbon-Two Sicilies, Savoy-Aösta, Würtembourg, the imperial families of France, Austria, and even Brazil, and, more recently, the Giscard d’Estaing and Chirac presidential families.
Probably in 1443 in Saumur, she met King Charles VII, the French king served so admirably by Jeanne d’Arc. It was love at first sight for the already married king, and for the next six years he bestowed on Agnès everything a man can bestow on a woman: love, wealth, power, jewels, properties and fiefdoms. She in turn bore him four daughters, three of whom survived. Each one was subsequently legitimized by the king.
Agnès was exceptionally beautiful and became one of the most attractively attired women of her age, renowned for her low-cut gowns, which she eventually modified to even provocatively expose one of her beautifully proportioned breasts, in a style that came to be known as “a la Gourgandine.” She was also one of the first women to wear jewelry, which until that time had been the exclusive conceit of men.
For six years Agnès Sorel and Charles VII led open lives as lovers and she took her place officially at the court, where even the queen accepted her presence and maintained civil relations. Indeed Agnès was the first ‘official’ mistress at the court of France. With her wealth and influence, she bestowed gifts on worthy causes and institutions that she favored, among them the Collegiate Church Notre Dame in Loches. She took up causes to help the unfortunate and destitute and often was successful. Her will bequeathed fortunes to religious foundations, and it was carried out.
She also cultivated friendships with some of the most remarkable personalities of her era, including the tycoon, banker, shipping magnate and statesman, Jacques Coeur, theRenaissance man of their times, and Etienne Chevalier, the Treasurer of France, who commissioned Jehan Fouquet to paint the Melun altarpiece, which boldly features Agnès modelled as the Virgin with an exposed breast, an astoundingly daring work for that era.
The six years of bliss that Agnès enjoyed with Charles VII came to an abrupt end in February 1449. As might be imagined, her great wealth and influence provoked intense jealousy on the part of many, not least of which was the king’s son, the crown prince who later became Louis XI. He was one of the few who openly opposed her in court and matters came to a head in a heated dispute between them one day in December 1446, when he slapped her, which led his father banishing him from the court.
In November 1448 Charles VII led a campaign against English forces in Rouen and prevailed. Agnès was pregnant with her fourth daughter and remained alone in the royal palace in Loches. After months of solitude, she became impatient to see him and in January of 1449 she undertook an arduous winter trip to the great Jumièges Abbey west of Rouen, which the king used as a base during his Norman campaigns. There the king joined her and they spent their last days together in the Manoir de Mesnil, just behind the abbey. There she delivered her fourth daughter, but it did not survive, and she was buried un-named.
Shortly thereafter Agnès, enfeebled by the difficult delivery, ran a high fever and experienced repeated bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Her body racked with pain, she was given the last rites and died on the 9th of February, 1449. The cause of death at the time was not known and believed by many to have been puerperal fever.
The remains of Agnès were buried in two places: her heart in an urn that was buried in the Lady Chapel in the Jumièges Abbey, and her body in an urn that was placed in a tomb covered with a beautifully sculpted alabaster effigy of her inside the Collegiate Church Notre Dame, now called St. Ours, in Loches. Both tombs were desecrated, destroyed and their contents dispersed during the French revolution. Nobody knows what became of the heart. Years after the revolution, the remains of her body were gathered and re-buried in her tomb, which was also repaired, at the same Notre Dame Collegiate Church in Loches.
In 2004 a medical examination of the remains of her body determined that the cause of her death had definitely been mercury poisoning, prodigious quantities of which were found in the roots of her hair. We have no evidence as to who may have poisoned her, but it is hard to not suspect the crown prince who became Louis XI, the same who had been banished from the court, and her bitter and overt adversary.
Today Loches is still one of the most alluring sights in the Loire Valley, retaining the authentic charm of a medieval town, at least in that part of it up on the hill where many medieval structures still stand. Apart from her tomb at the Notre Dame Collegiate Church, you can also visit the royal palace where her lover resided, and the dungeon of the royal chateau of Loches, where Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, was imprisoned and died. The narrow winding streets that lead to those structures ooze charm.
You can also still visit the ruins of the Jumièges Abbey in Normandy, which suffered the fate of most abbeys in France during the French revolution. Although ruins, they are impressive, unwilling monuments to the ephemerality of human institutions. They are maintained by Seine-Maritime Department as a museum. On the same grounds, the 600 year old Manoir de Mesnil was recently acquired by a local inhabitant, who is engaged in a restoration faithful to the era when Charles and Agnès occupied it. You can see a You Tube clip of it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e5juZeJSEzM. If you would like to visit it, you can do so during the months of July and August.
In Jumieges, there is a simple but comfortable hotel, the Hôtel Les Clos des Fontaines. For places to dine, consider the Auberge des Ruines (Inn of the Ruins), which is very pleasant, or the more modest establishment, also quite agreeable, one kilometre away on the bank of the Seine River, the Auberge du Bac (Ferry Inn).
To complete your experience, consider doing the thatched roof circuit the next morning. You can start with the free ferry crossing, then drive to Notre Dame de Bliquetuit and further on to Aizier and Vieux Port, 30 kilometers altogether. You will see some of the most charming half-timbered cottages with thatched roofs in all of France.