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

Agnès Sorel (ca. 1426-50), the beautiful mistress of King Charles VII of France (1403-61), is a star. She appears regularly in popular histories, novels, documentaries, and, most recently, internet fan sites, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook posts. And yet, her celebrity has less to do with the facts about her life that can be gleaned from contemporary primary sources than with her early death, memorialised in Jean Fouquet’s donor portrait, the Melun diptych. True, the painting is not a portrait of Agnès in the modern sense, but tradition has it that Fouquet gave the lovely face of the Virgin depicted on the right panel of the diptych Agnès’s features. Based on her association with the iconic Melun Virgin and other myths invented long after her death, nineteenth-century historians made Agnès into the founding mother of the long line of French royal mistresses and the very ideal of that tradition. 

Despite Agnès’s celebrity, no previous study in English revisits the primary sources associated with her or re-examines her career making use of recent historical approaches to women of the past. And if Agnès’s afterlife has been traced, at least in French, no previous study examines her status as celebrity royal mistress as it has developed from the sixteenth century onward. This study does both, proceeding along two axes of inquiry. In the first part of the study, I examine the primary sources associated with Agnès to see what her contemporaries really said about her and decipher her political activity. I also show readers how to locate these sources if they wish to explore them on their own. In the second part, I historicize Agnès’s posthumous rise to celebrity. First I explore the question of whether painter Jean Fouquet actually modelled the Melun diptych Virgin’s feature on those of Agnès. I then examine the memory the Agnès’s family and friends nurtured after her death. Although probably apocryphal, the story that she inspired the king to drive the English from France is one example of a story that her family passed down to future generation.  

Contemporary chroniclers complained about the king’s raising of a young woman of relatively modest birth far above her station. When her story was taken up at the court of François I (r. 1515-1547), however, it was given new life. During François I’s imprisonment in Spain following 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. Included among the 51 crayon portraits of the king’s courtiers was one of the long-dead Agnès. In another charming but apocryphal story, the king is said to have written the poem that accompanies the sketch, which picks up on the legend of the “gentille Agnès” as the kingdom’s savior. Agnès receives a few more mentions, but she then disappears during the  “tenures” of royal favourites Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, mistress of François I, and Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. 

By the late 1570s Agnès was back in style, praised in poems and histories and appreciated in particular by Henri IV 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. 

What is certain is that 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. But 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. 

With the rise of history as a scientific discipline over the course of the nineteenth-century, scholars trained to work with manuscripts began to cull the fictitious elements of Agnès’s cultural memory from those finding verification in contemporary and near-contemporary documents. Debate over the reality of Agnès’s life became popular among a general but well-educated reading public. Still, the boundary between Agnès as gallant heroine and historical figure was easily transgressed. 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. The tradition continues, recent historians writing that “she made use of her status as the first lady of France only with decency and sobriety”  and that she belongs to a different category, “that of the modest and respectful favorite, because she was of a sweet and good nature….”

Agnès’s afterlife is significant for specialists of the women of late medieval Europe. It also represents an interesting strand of the broader history of gallantry that informs recent discussions in France about the veil and the #MeToo movement. Agnès’s story, intimately bound up with the gallant tradition, is a topic frequently treated in popular historical documentaries, which present the legends about her as facts. Her affair with the king is represented as both thrillingly erotic and beneficial to France, and the unique place that Agnès continues to hold in the history of France is frequently invoked. 

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.  

by Tracy Adams

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