By Danièle Cybulskie
To say that sexuality in the Middle Ages was all about double-standards is a huge understatement. As with any culture in history, sex made things complex, and defied regulation with regularity. For most people, in the Middle Ages as now, being exposed as part of an extramarital affair would bring great embarrassment and shame – along with a certain celebrity or notoriety. But some people are born to break the rules, and one of those people was Agnès Sorel.
Agnès lived in France in the thick of the Hundred Years’ War, and her position was as one of the ladies in waiting in the household of King Charles VII’s brother-in-law. In 1444, Agnès met Charles, and their affair began. It was no secret: Charles doted on Agnès, giving her everything from money to land, and possibly “the first cut diamond”. (Legend has it that Agnès started the diamond trend by wearing a – presumably uncut – diamond necklace in order to catch Charles’ attention in the first place.) In return for Charles’ generosity, Agnès was happy to be a very noticeable part of Charles’ court, learning all she could about how it worked. When Charles needed funding for his war efforts, Agnès was there to help him sweet-talk his way into the wallets of the nobility. For her help and for love, Charles created the title of “Official Mistress” for her, a court position that came with all the niceties. From that point forward, “Official Mistress” was a job that had many applicants.
While many royal mistresses are forgotten, Agnès ensured that she would be remembered by starting fashion trends at court. Beyond just diamonds, she began to wear dresses that exposed one or both of her breasts in public. In one of my favourite moments of the Museum Secrets episode that features Agnès, a local politician describes her dresses matter-of-factly, saying, “She wore one of those famous lace dresses that allowed her to show off her magnificent bosom.” Her bosom was apparently just so magnificent that it had to be preserved for posterity. A portrait painted by Jean Fouquet features Agnès as the Virgin Mary, breast exposed in the classic pose of being about to nurse the baby Jesus. Just imagine the reaction of the clergy.
Whether it was for breast-baring, living in sin, or having great influence over the king, Agnès was (unsurprisingly) hated by many, so it raised some eyebrows when, just after the premature birth of her fourth child of Charles’ in 1450, Agnès died suddenly. The rumours were everything from illness to poison, but there was no conclusive cause of death until French historians, led by Phillipe Charlier (also featured on that same episode of Museum Secrets), exhumed Agnès’ body in 2004. Charlier tested Agnès’ remains for cause of death and noticed an abnormally high amount of mercury.
While mercury was used as a cure for parasites, which Agnès did indeed suffer from, Charlier found a suspiciously high amount of mercury in her hair, suggesting that she had ingested high quantities of mercury in the days before her death. Agnès was murdered, says Charlier. It seems very likely it was under the orders of the Dauphin (of Joan-of-Arc fame), Louis, who actively despised her, but we will never actually know for certain whodunit. (It could have been the butler.)
In the course of their investigation, Charlier’s team used Agnès’ skull to create a forensic reconstruction of her face, as they did recently with England’s Richard III. Now, we are able to gaze upon a possible replica of Agnès, and contemplate the beauty, and the fatal impact, of France’s first Official Mistress.
For more information on the forensic examination of Agnès’ remains, you can find the (French) article in which Charlier outlines his discoveries here.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist