AGNES SOREL, MISTRESS of KING
CHARLES VII of FRANCE, 1422–1450
On a cold winter’s day, twenty-eight-year-old Agnes Sorel, the most beautiful woman in France, lay dying in the tidy stone manor house of the Abbey of Jumièges, some eighty miles northwest of Paris. She often traveled there to give moral support to her lover of many years, King Charles VII of France, in his ongoing campaign against English invaders. But this journey had an added impetus. Though the details are unclear, Agnes urgently wanted to warn the king of a plot against him. Whatever she told him, however, her royal lover didn’t take it seriously.
Shortly afterward, she went into premature labor and gave birth to her fourth child with the king. While her other three pregnancies had produced full-term, healthy offspring, this child died soon after. Now, on February 9, 1450, Agnes was tortured by a “flux of the belly”—nonstop diarrhea. After two or three days of agony, she whispered of her ravaged body, “It is a little thing and soiled, and smelling of our frailty,” and closed her eyes forever.
Rumors flew immediately that the Lady of Beauty, as Agnes was known, had been poisoned. If she had died of a “bloody flux”—hemorrhaging of the uterus, which killed many women after childbirth—suspicions of foul play would have been dampened somewhat. But fatal dysentery in childbirth was strange.
Everyone knew the king’s temperamental son and heir, the future Louis XI, despised his father’s mistress, blaming her for his falling-out with the king and all the ills of the nation. The prince had been in open revolt against his father for four years. But had he, from his exile hundreds of miles away, found a way to poison her? Perhaps. A 2005 exhumation of Agnes’s mortal remains has revealed off-the-charts levels of mercury poisoning—between ten thousand and a hundred thousand times higher than normal.
Born into the lesser nobility, as a teen Agnes served as lady-in-waiting to Isabelle of Lorraine at her court in northeastern France. During a visit, King Charles, who had been deeply depressed, was, according to contemporary reports, struck dumb at the sight of Agnes’s stunning beauty. She had golden hair, large, wide blue eyes, and a luscious figure. It was love at first sight—at least, on his part.King Charles was not a man to inspire the tender fancies of lovely girls, and indeed, his only attractive feature was his crown.
King Charles was not a man to inspire the tender fancies of lovely girls, and indeed, his only attractive feature was his crown. Small and slight, he wore heavily padded tunics to hide his sunken chest and narrow shoulders, and in an age where crotch-high tunics were the height of fashion, he wisely wore long robes to conceal his knock-knees. His portrait by Jean Fouquet portrays him as a sad circus clown whose pin head rises above a flood of grotesquely padded red velvet. Considering that royal portraits are almost universally flattering, we can only imagine what the poor man really looked like.
Nor did he offer charisma, charm, or intellect, those qualities that can render appealing the plainest face and most ungainly figure. His father, King Charles VI, had been a madman who stabbed his friends in fits of paranoid rage, and his mother, Isabeau of Bavaria, was an adulteress who sold out France—and her son—to the English. Sometimes Charles sank under the weight of his heredity, mutating into a morbid sloth unwilling to lift a finger against English invaders. At times his nerves were so frayed he couldn’t bear anyone to look at him. Mistrustful and terrified, he lived in constant fear of assassination.
It was the women in his life who roused him from his paralyzing torpor, earning him the nickname “Charles the Well-Served.” Joan of Arc turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War for him, vanquishing the English. His mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, who had raised him since the age of ten, gave him wise counsel. And shrewd Yolande, recognizing the king’s obvious infatuation for Agnes, brought the girl into the royal court to be his mistress, even though he was married to Yolande’s daughter, Marie of Anjou.
Agnes—probably coached by Yolande—shook Charles from his bouts of debilitating apathy, giving him strength, decisiveness, and confidence. She persuaded him to appoint sage advisers to deal with the war and the pitiful state of the pillaged French economy. Part of Agnes’s efforts involved promoting French fashion, selling not only the concept of France as a cultured nation, but also marketing its stylish luxury products abroad. Her gowns were daringly low cut, her perfumed trains up to twenty-five feet long. Her clothing was edged with fur, usually ermine, and her hennins—the tall pointy caps of fairy tales—were several feet high. She glittered with diamonds and emeralds.Oddly enough, Agnes was painted as the Virgin Mary, one admirably firm, dazzlingly white breast exposed.
Portraits show Agnes following the fashion of plucking the hair around her face to create a larger forehead, and plucking her eyebrows almost entirely off. The earliest surviving portrait of a royal mistress is of Agnes, painted in 1449, a time when secular portraits were not yet common, and many of the rich and famous still bribed church artists to paint their heads on saints. Oddly enough, Agnes was painted as the Virgin Mary, one admirably firm, dazzlingly white breast exposed. Naturally, the pious at court fulminated over the excesses of this fallen woman, as did some nobles. One contemporary wrote, “She displayed in her costumes everything that could lead to ribaldry and dissolute thoughts. She was always desirous of this and stopped at nothing, for she uncovered her shoulders and bosom as far down as the middle of the breast.”
Though Agnes clearly reveled in the luxuries of her position, she was known for her kindness. Her five extant letters deal with helping the unfortunate as well as injured animals. Her contemporary, Monstrelet the Chronicler, wrote of her, “So this Agnes was of a very charitable way of life and liberal in alms-giving, and of her possessions she distributed widely to the poor, to the churches and to beggars.”
But the king’s son, Louis, cared nothing for her kindness and hated her with all the force of his tempestuous soul. His mother, Queen Marie, didn’t seem to mind Agnes’s hold over the king. Ferret-faced, pious, and the mother of fourteen children, she even stood as godmother to Agnes’s three royal bastards, while Louis bristled with rage at the dishonor. Highly intelligent and a born warrior, at seventeen he took charge of the defense of the Languedoc region in southern France against the English. Impatient to succeed his father, whom he saw as weak and wasteful, he criticized Charles’s policy and excoriated the royal mistress who had far more influence over the king than he did.
Louis blamed Agnes for his estrangement with his father. One day in 1444, the prince ran into Agnes in the palace, cried, “By our Lord’s passion, this woman is the cause of all our misfortunes,” and punched her in the face.
When the king banished Louis from his presence, the dauphin tried to lead a rebellion that was quickly put down. Charles exiled his son to southeastern France, where he ruled as a sovereign, and ruled well. But he never stopped plotting against his father and set servants to spy on Agnes. When the king sent men to arrest him, Louis jumped out a window and made his way to the court of Burgundy. There he wrote Charles that he would return, but only on the condition that Charles exile Agnes, not a request likely to find favor with the sovereign.
The dauphin said to his companions, “The king manages his affairs as badly as possible. I intend to put things in order. When I return, I shall drive away Agnes and shall put an end to all his follies and things will go much better than they are now.” Perhaps it was a new plot of the dauphin’s that Agnes warned King Charles about. And maybe that is why Louis, who had numerous servants of Agnes’s in his pay—and possibly her physician—struck when he did.
MODERN POSTMORTEM AND DIAGNOSIS
In 2005, a team of twenty-two researchers from eighteen laboratories exhumed the remains of the lovely royal mistress in the church of Saint-Ours, in Loches. Agnes had been first exhumed back in 1777, when the canons of the church decided it was scandalous for a fallen woman to rest in the choir of their church. Though her wooden coffin had rotted and her lead coffin disintegrated, they found her skull in decent condition, with golden hair drawn into a heavy braid in the back with a long lock on either side. She had plenty of teeth, which those present shamelessly yanked from the jaws and pocketed as souvenirs. The bones were swept into a sandstone urn, which was placed under her black marble effigy in the nave of the church. Her remains were rifled once more during the French Revolution when, most likely, any items of jewelry were plundered, as well as several more teeth. The black marble funerary slab over her heart—which had been buried separately from her body—was taken by a butcher who proceeded to use it as a meat-cutting table in his shop.Agnes had been first exhumed back in 1777, when the canons of the church decided it was scandalous for a fallen woman to rest in the choir of their church.
The research team found her cranial vault in fair condition with preserved sections of the face, temples, sinuses, and upper jaw. The back of the skull was missing, probably slipped into someone’s pocket. X-rays showed Agnes had a deviated septum and most likely snored. All the teeth in the upper and lower jaw still in place at death had been removed, though seven teeth were mixed in with other remains lower in the urn. They showed little signs of wear, a young age at death, no cavities, low tartar, and a good state of enamel. The team found a jumble of long bones along with bits of mummified muscles, chunks of mummified flesh with hair and eyebrows still attached, and, as the French scientists so poetically put it, “putrefaction juice.” A strange, sweet odor rose from the remains, spooking the researchers. To authenticate the identity of the remains, the team carbon-dated them to the year of her death exactly, 1450. Then, using a computer, a paleopathologist superimposed the skull fragments on the face of Agnes’s effigy, which had been sculpted from life. The researchers found a perfect alignment of the bones with the sculpture: the shape of the chin, the placement of the teeth, the position of her ear canals, the opening of the nostrils, the size of the nasal cavity, and the distance and shape of her eyes all matched. What they didn’t find was the plucking of eyebrows and hairline to the extent shown in her portraits. Artists had exaggerated that fashion.
Additional tests confirmed that Agnes had extremely white skin and ate a mixed diet of meat and vegetables. Her hair had been stained black by lead from the deteriorating coffin but cleaned up as blond. And there was no evidence of malaria or any other disease. But scientists did find numerous intestinal roundworm eggs, common enough in that time. Roundworms are intestinal parasites that grow up to ten inches long and live in colonies throughout the digestive tract. Agnes must have suffered from abdominal pain, bloody stool, weight loss, and diarrhea. In the urn, researchers also found remains of a male fern, a plant often combined with small amounts of quicksilver to combat roundworms in the Middle Ages. Clearly, Agnes was receiving treatment for her condition.
But when scientists studied Agnes’s hair—from her head, her armpits, and her pubic region—they found mind-boggling concentrations of mercury: ten thousand to one hundred thousand times the normal amount, many thousands of times more than she would have ingested as worm medication. Nor had the mercury been slathered on Agnes as part of the embalming process. The poison was inside her perfectly preserved root sheaths, with no mercury at all on the outside. Researchers determined that Agnes ingested the mercury between forty-eight and seventy-two hours before her death, right around the time she first became ill. Mercury poisoning was most certainly what killed her.Mercury poisoning was most certainly what killed her.
Scientists examining the mush in the bottom of the urn discovered that during embalming, Agnes’s abdominal cavity had been filled with grains, berries, aromatic spices, black pepper, fragrant leaves, and mulberry twigs. This was the source of the strange aroma sweetening the air as soon as they opened the urn. They also found the tiny bones of an infant of seven months’ gestation. They could not determine if mercury poisoning caused the premature birth of the baby, or if Agnes was poisoned during or after labor. What must be certain is that Agnes’s doctor, Robert Poitevin, personal physician to the king and the top medical professional in all France, would never have accidentally given her such a massive and fatal dose of mercury. And physicians, as we know from Cangrande della Scala, are in a unique position to intentionally poison their victims. Their patients trusted them. Kings and queens refrained from using tasters and meekly drank whatever concoctions their physicians handed them or freely offered up their royal rear ends for what they assumed would be a salubrious enema.
Naturally, Agnes’s death sparked rumors of poisoning. As the contemporary chronicler Jacques Leclerc wrote in his memoirs, “And they said too that the said dauphin had caused the death of a lady named Agnes who was the fairest woman in the kingdom and greatly in lovewith the king, his father.” But Charles could hardly charge his dashing, popular son and heir with her murder.
Without Agnes by his side, the king slipped back into slothful melancholy, rousing himself long enough to arrange brilliant marriages to French aristocrats for his three daughters with Agnes. For a decade after her death, he engaged in wine-soaked orgies in between debilitating bouts of illness. Finally, an infection in his jaw—perhaps from a rotten tooth—caused an abscess to develop in his mouth. The growth swelled to such proportions that the king could no longer eat or drink. Charles VII starved to death in 1461.
Adapted from The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine and Murder Most Foul, by Eleanor Herman, Copyright © 2018. Reprinted with permission of St. Martin’s Press.