Agnès Sorel: The continued relevance of a pre-modern icon

Dr Tracy Adams

Few women of the middle ages can equal Agnès Sorel (ca. 1426-50), the beautiful mistress of King Charles VII of France (1403-61), when it comes to star power. She is a fixture in popular histories, novels, documentaries, and, most recently, internet fan sites, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook posts. But her celebrity has little to do with the facts that can be gleaned from contemporary primary sources. It results rather from her early death, memorialised in Jean Fouquet’s donor portrait, the Melun diptych. Although the painting cannot be considered a portrait of Agnès in the modern sense, the lovely face of the Virgin depicted on the right panel of the diptych is traditionally believed to bear Agnès’s features. Commissioned by royal secretary Étienne Chevalier shortly after Agnès’s untimely demise from a massive overdose of mercury, the diptych remained in the Collegiate Church of Notre Dame of Melun until the panels were separated in the early nineteenth century: the right panel went to Antwerp’s Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, while the left panel, which depicts Chevalier and his patron saint, went to Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie. Based on her association with the iconic Melun Virgin, bolstered by a tradition that proclaimed her as France’s saviour, Agnès became the founding mother of the genealogy of French royal mistresses and that tradition’s ideal.

Contemporary chroniclers complained about the king’s raising of a young woman of relatively modest birth to an incommensurately fabulous station and the insult to the queen that this represented. However, following Agnès’s premature death, her family took control of her image, promoting her as a beautiful and virtuous young woman who initially refused the ardent Charles VII’s advances. When the king finally won her over—he was the king, after all—she let him know that she could never love a coward. This inspired him to go out and chase the English from France. Her story was later taken up at the court of François I (r. 1515-1547). Whilst the French king was being held prisoner in Spain after his defeat by imperial troops at Pavia in 1525, his mother and regent Louise of Savoy commissioned what is known today as the Aix or Montmor album, containing 51 crayon portraits of François I’s courtiers. Included among the sketches of the courtiers was one of the long-dead Agnès, likely copied from a crayon drawing prepared by Fouquet as he planned the Melun diptych. The sketch bears a quatrain (probably falsely) attributed to King François that picks up on the legend of the “gentille Agnès” as the kingdom’s savior. Agnès receives a few more mentions before vanishing during the “tenures” of royal favourites Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly and Diane de Poitiers, mistresses of François I and Henri II respectively.

However, Agnès came back into vogue in the 1570s, lauded in poems and histories, including Brantôme’s story of her rousing Charles VII from his torpor. Henri IV (r. 1594-1610), notorious for his womanising, embraced the story of Agnès as inspiration for royal valour. In 1608 he sent his young heir, later Louis XIII, to visit the Melun diptych, “the portrait of the Belle Agnès and that of Étienne Chevalier.” It is not known whether the Melun Virgin had long been associated with Agnès at that point, or whether this was a relatively recent development: she may have been known only through the portrait sketches mentioned above. Whatever the case, Henri IV tried to buy Agnès’s portrait from the church for 10,000 livres, but did not succeed.

Agnès’s story became all the more popular in seventeenth-century France as discourses of gallantry began to flourish. In the romantic histories made popular by writers associated with salons, new elements were added to the narrative, some based loosely on primary sources, others pure invention. Agnès remains the ideal of the royal mistress throughout Old Regime France. With the French Revolution, which brought a temporary end to court culture, the tradition of the royal mistress that Agnès represented faded into the mists of time. When the monarchy was restored, nineteenth-century French kings and the emperor had mistresses, but the position never regained the level of power and prestige it had held before the Revolution.

With the rise of history as a scientific discipline over the course of the nineteenth-century, scholars trained to work with manuscripts began to disentangle the fictitious elements of Agnès’s cultural memory from what could be verified by contemporary and near-contemporary documents. Debate over the reality of Agnès’s life became popular among a general but well-educated reading public. At an annual meeting of the Académie des inscriptions et Belles-Lettres,” Gaston Paris, one of the founders of medieval studies in France, lauded the Marquis du Fresne de Beaucourt’s biography of Charles VII for presenting an Agnès devoid of the legends that had embellished her story, legends that Paris characterised as “propagated by French gallantry”. However, the boundary between Agnès as gallant heroine and historical figure remained porous. Even as professional historians scoured primary sources to better understand their nation’s glorious past, the tradition of the royal mistress was being integrated into conceptions of national identity, elaborated as additional evidence of a uniquely French tradition of gallantry based on harmonious, complementary interaction between the sexes. In this context, Agnès became the ideal of the royal mistress. Her association with the Melun diptych and her legendary arousal of the king to glory distinguished her from many of the other royal mistress with their obvious political activity and ability to profit financially from their position.   

Agnès’s afterlife is of interest for specialists of women of late medieval Europe, but it also remains relevant as part of the broader history that informs recent intense discussion in France over the veil and the #MeToo movement, discussion that reveals how profoundly the tradition of gallantry remains embedded in certain versions of French national identity. Guests debate the tradition’s value on television and in programs broadcast on the public radio station France Culture, with many claiming that criticism of gallantry amounts to an assault on French social life. Agnès’s story, intimately bound up with the tradition, is a topic frequently treated in popular historical documentaries. These documentaries present legends as facts, with guests touting Agnès’s affair with the king as both thrillingly erotic and beneficial to France. Agnès “still holds a unique place in the history of France,” one guest affirms; another dates the birth of modern France to “this time with women like Agnès Sorel who represent everything that we believe ourselves to be regarding not only a taste for refinement and luxury, but also courage.”

Struck down in the prime of her life, Agnès Sorel achieved over the centuries a degree of celebrity in death that she never could have imagined during her life. The notion that the Melun Virgin bears the features of the first celebrity mistress of a French king has delighted pleased spectators for hundreds of years. Erotic, maternal, and docile, the Virgin commemorates a woman about whose life we know almost nothing, but who became relevant and has remained so as a representative of a particularly French gender ideology. 

You can purchase Tracy’s book on Agnès Sorel and the French Monarchy. History, Gallantry, and National Identity here.

Figure 2. Book Cover of Tracy Adams’ latest publication on Agnès Sorel.

Tracy Adams is professor in the School of Culture, Languages and Linguistics at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She is the author of Violent Passions: Managing Love in the Old French Verse Romance (2005), The Life and Afterlife of Isabeau of Bavaria (2010), Christine de Pizan and the Fight for France (2014), and Agnès Sorel: History, Gallantry, and National Identity (2022). With Christine Adams, she co-authored The Creation of the French Royal Mistress from Agnès Sorel to Madame Du Barry (2020).

Cover Image: Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels by Jean Fouquet (1450). Image Credit: Public domain through Wiki Commons.

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