The making of a royal court lady
Education and culture of a potential favourite
Probably born around 1422, at the time of the accession of Charles VII, Agnès Sorel belonged to a family of the small nobility of Picardy whose fiefdom was located near Compiègne. She was the daughter of Jean Soreau, squire and lord of Coudun, vassal of the Count of Clermont-en-Beauvaisis, Charles I of Bourbon (1401-1456), and of Catherine de Maignelais, lord of Verneuil-en-Bourbonnais. In the chronicles, Agnès Sorel is referred to as the 'damoiselle de Froidmantel'.
We do not know who her tutor was, but we do know that she had a good education. She knew how to read, write and, later, play an instrument. She learned to read from a psalter or a book of Hours, which correlates education in literature with religious education, as well as treatises on the education of women.
Agnes' family was not very wealthy; it was the Count of Clermont-en-Beauvaisis, Charles I of Bourbon, who brought her into the circle of the Angevin party, support of the Dauphin Charles (future Charles VII), and into the Court of Anjou. Agnès Sorel thus entered the service of the House of the Duchess Isabella of Lorraine (1410-1453), first wife of René I of Anjou (1409-1480), as maid of honour.
A brilliant and refined Court of Anjou
The ducal court of Anjou was refined and literate. Consequently, it competed with and even outranked the Royal Court, affirming the equal dignity of the Dukes of Anjou - princes of royal blood - with the King of France. It was at this brilliant Court that Agnès Sorel completed her education. She was known for her "charming conversation" and her wit, which was enhanced by a few facetious traits. The duchess's attendants were expected to be irreproachably virtuous. The Miroir aux Dames by the Franciscan Durand de Champagne, a manual of Christian morality, was intended to teach good conduct to the ladies and damsels of the princely courts. Agnès adopted all these rules and prohibitions, and showed a sincere piety, sharpened by this training and a very marked religious sensitivity in the late Middle Ages. Thus, her fervent devotion to Marie-Madeleine is a legacy of the Court of Anjou, evangelizer of Provence, land of the Angevins.
Serving the Queen
The Anjou court was the antechamber to the French court. Marie d'Anjou (1404-1463), the youngest daughter of Louis II, Duke of Anjou (1377-1417), and Yolande d'Aragon (1384-1442) - a wise adviser to the Dauphin Charles, the future Charles VII - was engaged to the latter (1413), then Count of Ponthieu (1413), before marrying him in 1422. This alliance strengthened the support of the House of Anjou to that of the Valois in the fight against the Dukes of Burgundy allied with the English.
After being seen for the first time by Charles VII in Saumur, Agnès Sorel became maid-in-waiting of Queen Marie d'Anjou around 1444. Agnès was one of the queen's seventeen ladies and maids of honour.
Agnès Sorel and the royal favour
For the king, it was love at first sight. The Burgundian chronicler Georges Chastellain (c. 1405-1475), who was hostile to him, wrote that the king was ‘made to look like a fool'. Apart from the fact that the king is captivated by the obvious beauty of the young maid, there is an affinity between them: Both have 'beautiful and very pleasant and subtle speech', notes Chastellain. The other Burgundian chronicler, Olivier de La Marche (1425-1502), more favourable to the favourite, mentions her presence with the king during the meeting of Charles VII and the Duchess of Burgundy Isabella of Portugal (1397-1471) in Chalon-sur-Saône in 1445.
In fact, as early as 1444, Agnès Sorel was given the castle of Beauté-sur-Marne, near Vincennes, by the king, so that she could be given a title. This donation by the king was followed by those, in land and revenue, of the seigneury of Roquecezière, a stronghold in Rouerge (1446), Issoudun, in Berry, and Vernon-sur-Seine (1449). In addition, she received an annual pension of 3,000 livres from the sovereign.
A singularity that underlines its unique character, the king did not take the trouble to marry Agnès to a member of his court, as was the case for the other favourites who succeeded her. Agnès Sorel's unique status, officially in the Queen's service, soon became apparent. She publicly became the king's mistress and was recognised as such.
- Christine de Pisan, The Book of the City of Ladies, ms 609, 14th century, fol16. BnF
- Louis Boudan, Stained glass of René 1er d’Anjou at the Cordeliers d’Angers, Recueil de Gaignières. RESERVE OB-10-FOL, fol.13, BnF
- Louis Boudan, Tomb of Isabelle de Lorraine, Recueil de Gaignières. Réserve OB-10-FOL, fol.15, Gaignières 1303, BnF
- « Le Livre qui est appellé le Miroer des dames, que fist ung Frere de l'ordre Saint François », français 610, 15th century, fol.25r.
- Marie of Anjou, Queen of France, Collection Gaignières 524, folio 15, RESERVE OA-14-FOL, BnF
- Charles VII, King of France, Queen of France, Collection Gaignières 526, folio 3, RESERVE OA-14-FOL, BnF
- Statue of Sainte Madeleine, limestone and marble, 16th century (Church Saint-Saturnin de Limeray)