Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Beauty and the Beast

Although the 15th and 16th century Kings of France didn't exactly have Casanova's good looks, they all definitely behaved like him. If you’ve ever seen a portrait of Charles VII (1403-1461) you will know that he was probably the ugliest of them all. Nevertheless, and although he was married to Marie of Aragon, he successively had three mistresses: Odette de Champdivers, Agnes Sorel and Antoinette de Maignelais. The latter was Agnes Sorel’s cousin and became the King’s mistress after Agnes’ untimely death at the young age of 29.

Agnes Sorel was the daughter of a soldier and of Catherine de Maignelais. She was twenty and working in the household of Rene of Naples, Charles’ brother-in-law, when the visiting Charles noticed her peerless beauty. Smitten by her looks and smart wit, he immediately made her his mistress and offered her the Château of Loches in southern Touraine. I wonder if Madame Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve had Charles and Agnes in mind when she wrote ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in 1740?

Our ‘meeting’ with Agnes Sorel goes back to 2007 when we visited the ‘Logis Royal’ and the ‘Donjon’ in the old town of Loches. The Logis hosts a permanent exhibition on the life of Agnes Sorel and the strange circumstances in which she died. Her story made great impression on us, especially as the exhibition was very well documented and presented. Officially she died in 1450 while giving birth to her forth child. But even at the time there was a rumour that she had been poisoned by Louis XI, Charles’ legitimate son and heir to the throne.

2007 - Donjon de Loches

During the short nine years that she lived as Charles’ mistress, Agnes had become very influential. Not only was she the first mistress of a French king to be recognized at such. Charles also often sought her advice before making personal and even political decisions. It goes without saying that his regular advisors and other courtiers were not happy about this. A conspiracy against Agnes, led by the Dauphin was and is therefore a plausible theory.

In the beginning of the 21st century curious scientists and historians decided to dig up her body from under her sepulchral monument in the church of Notre Dame in Loches. They wanted to examine it in order to try and establish the exact cause of her death. Samples of her hair, nails and bones were taken and scrutinized using the most modern techniques. The tests showed the presence of excessive amounts of mercury in the tissues. Although mercury was regularly used in the 15th and 16th century to cure different kinds of ailments, the quantities they found were far too important to have been administered for medicinal purposes. As a result the scientists concluded that Agnes was probably murdered. Who her assassins were, and how they administered the poison will however remain a mystery.

After the exams, her body was buried in her former home, the ‘Logis Royal’. On the wall over her new tomb hangs a copy of the famous portrait by Jean Fouquet which shows Agnes Sorel with a bared breast, a trend that she introduced on the French court.

The exhibition also shows a genealogical chart that links Agnes Sorel and her three daughters to all the existing royal families of Europe … She’s therefore lovingly called ‘the grandmother of Europe’, a title she shares with former Queen Victoria of England



Jean said...

A fascinating story. Not sure Queen Victoria would have approved of her fashion sense, though. !!

ladybird said...

Jean, LOL. Your comments are always so to the point! I really enjoy them!