Introduction. Why a New Study of Agnès Sorel?
Published online by Cambridge University Press: 24 November 2022
IN THE POPULAR imagination the French royal mistress has always been the glamourous face of court life, focus of the desire for luxury and power. But she has also always represented the court's high-stake political intriguing and its culture of dissimulation and debauchery.
Agnès Sorel (ca. 1422–1450), mistress of Charles VII (1403–1461) and the first famous female favourite of a king of France, is the exception that proves the rule. In contrast with later royal mistresses, she is supposed to have used her influence only for good, inspiring Charles VII to rout the English and restore the French monarchy. Although Chateaubriand deemed the “reign” of favourites a “calamity for the old monarchy,” he claimed that Agnès Sorel was different from her counterparts, “useful to the prince and the patrie.” François-Marie Cayot Délandre compares Diane de Poitiers unfavourably to Agnès, lamenting that Henri II had no Agnès Sorel. Even the most recent accounts of Agnès contrast her generosity with the self-dealing and greed of her successors. During the six years of her liaison with Charles VII, writes one historian, “she made use of her status as the first lady of France only with decency and sobriety.” “There would be in the future arrogant, insolent, hateful mistresses,” affirms another, but Agnès Sorel belongs to a different category, “that of the modest and respectful favourite, because she was of a sweet and good nature…” Except for the odd discordant note, the literature related to Agnès shows none of the ambivalence that marks discussion of her later counterparts.
And yet, nothing in her biography predicts this status. Her perduring popularity took hold only some seventy years after her death, when her memory, carefully tended by her family and friends, was welcomed at the court of King François I (r. 1515–1547), and her celebrity increased and flourished in the culture of gallantry that characterized court and salon life in France from the mid-seventeenth century on. Embellished by writers of this tradition, the story of Agnès today remains a fixture in popular histories, novels, and documentaries, and Agnès herself enjoys a widespread social media presence, her picture adorning Internet fan sites, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Facebook.
- Agnès Sorel and the French MonarchyHistory, Gallantry, and National Identity, pp. 1 - 6Publisher: Amsterdam University PressPrint publication year: 2022