She was 21 when they met. He was 40, and married with 6 children. He fell for her at first sight. In the six years they would spend together she would produce for him four children and become one of the wealthiest and most influential women in the country. She would die at the age of 28. Yet, even though the doctor assigned to her would diagnose dysentery, rumours would start, rumours that persist to this day, that she was poisoned.
So if you are all sitting comfortably, we shall begin by playing a game, the game of detective, homicide detective. In the following narrative names have not been altered to protect the innocent as in truth, and as you are about to discover, no one is entirely innocent when we start to consider the events and the clues that inevitably lead us to the unshakable conclusion of, murder.
Our story begins innocently enough, This is one of the most famous Madonnas of the French Renaissance, painted by Jean Fouquet in 1452. This artist apart from his unfortunate surname, is famous for blending a healthy dose of the Van Eycks with a good measure of the Tuscany school, and brewing the concoction on the low fire of French charm, at a time when Frenchness didn’t quite exist yet. France was slowly emerging from the Hundred Years’ War, when a half of it was occupied by the English, and its people were just beginning to discover what it meant to be French.
It is well known that the model for this painting was Agnes Sorel, the official mistress of Charles VII.
I suspect the very first questions that involuntarily pop up in the mind of a modern observer are related to the breast augmentation techniques existing in the mid-15th century, and the tombstonish colour of her skin.
But these are not the questions we’ll be addressing right now. It’s a criminal investigation, remember?
She died suddenly, aged 26, after giving birth to her fourth child, two years before the panel was painted. In 2005, her remains were exhumed for analysis that confirmed she had died because of mercury poisoning.
The scientists also reconstructed her face, so we can see her “photograph” now, and wonder at the beauty standards of the 15th century:
The scientists didn’t say that mercury poisoning was by itself evidence of murder. They also found out that Agnes had ascarides: at the time the illness was cured by mercury-containing medicines, so theoretically she could have simply taken an overdose, whether voluntarily or not can never be proved.
The artist who made the painting above left us a series of portraits of almost all the people who surrounded Agnes during the six years that she was Charles’ mistress.
It is very unlikely that any of the portraits can point at the perpetrator of the murder (if it was a murder, of course), but perhaps they can help us develop hypotheses about who the poisoner might be?
Let’s check out the painting’s historical context and meet a cheerful crowd of 15th-century French aristocracy, who were still a hundred years away from discovering the table fork, not to mention table manners.
France was changing at the time faster than most countries can manage today. The old order proved to be unviable and helpless. To win his country back, Charles VII had to change the playground rules. He created a regular army, revamped the financial system and abandoned the long-standing policy of retribution towards people and towns that collaborated with the enemy. National unity was his noble objective, even though some of his policies aimed at establishing it were far from gentle. For instance, he introduced legislation that anyone heard uttering the words ‘Armagnac’ or ‘Burgundian’ was to have a hole bored through his tongue with a red-hot iron.
Mentality was changing along with the economy and administration, even when unassisted by red-hot irons. The celebrated French chivalry was one of the first obsolete concepts that had to go. The battle of Agincourt made it obvious that chivalry was a useless (and deadly) mixture of reckless bravery, utmost greed, and imbecile stupidity.
Moderate (or moderated) greed, cunning, treachery, backstabbing, and bribery were becoming the norm already under Charles VII, and would get cemented into the rules of the game under Charles’ son, Louis XI, tagged “the Universal Spider” by his enemies, and “le ruse” by his friends (behind his back, of course).
Charles VII himself had to turn a blind eye on Joan of Arc when she got captured, even though he wouldn’t be a king without her. Realpolitik, greater good, and bless you, dearie, we’d make you a saint for it. In a few years he made amends of course, by insuring that her condemnation as a witch was reversed. It was not a remnant chivalry gland still functioning: Charles needed to demonstrate his coronation had not been staged by a witch.
The changing mentality made it possible to openly accept issues that had been viewed with disdain or disapproval before. Charles VII made his mistress, Agnes Sorel, official. That decision created a tradition that would culminate in over a dozen official royal mistresses his descendants would collect over their successive reigns, and one or two nearly-official lovers for most French prime ministers hundreds of years later. This is something Protestants, especially their US branch, can’t understand, but this lack of understanding happens to most good ol’ Catholic traditions established before the new continent was officially discovered.
Now, how did Charles meet Agnes?
Agnes was a maid-of-honour to the wife of the King of Naples. When Charles met the Neapolitan royal couple in Nancy, he fell in love with the 20 yo beauty at first sight, and had Agnes “promoted” to the lady-in-waiting position to Charles’ own wife. As simple as that. One big happy family.
Jean Fouquet portrayed both women, so we can put ourselves in Charles’ shoes and see for ourselves the contrast between the women who bore him 4 (Agnes) and 14 children (wife).
Charles’s “enamouring” with Agnes can be understood if not condoned when we consider that he and his official wife got married when they were teenagers (they were so young they couldn’t consummate their marriage for a few years) and became grown-up friends rather than adult spouses. Marie still had to keep producing heirs, of course. As a friend, Marie had no objections to the new amorous relationship of her husband, and maintained a rather amiable relationship with Agnes. Perhaps, the wise woman preceded Benjamin Franklin by 300 years by deducing that “marriage without love means love without marriage”.
Agnes was nicknamed “La Belle” and contemporaries thought her to be the most beautiful woman in France.
She was credited with transforming a tired and indecisive king into someone who was picking flowers, learning dancing, and accepting the need to make decisions. Indeed, she could inspire the king and cure his depressions with her love (if not his agoraphobia and fear of bridges). In return, she was showered with gifts, one of which included the same Chateau in which Joan of Arc persuaded Charles to get crowned king of France.
Most contemporaries felt her influence on the king was positive, but there were a few who were not so enthusiastic. The future Pope Pius II wrote that Agnes was plainly a whore (that’s the Pope who was famous for his erotic writings before he became pope, his friendship with Vlad Dracula later in life, and the Piccolomini library at Siena Cathedral). Another chronicler wrote that Agnes had other lovers, besides the king, who also shared his bed with a few other women. As the modern philosopher Mel Brooks would say, “It’s good to be king”.
There were speculations at the time if all the three surviving daughters of Agnes were Charles’ children. The king didn’t seem to have these doubts. All the three girls got “acknowledged” as Valois, and Charles’ heir, Louis XI would call them “sisters”, even though he was a suspect in Agnes’ poisoning.
Could he do it?
Well, he couldn’t do it personally, for he was hundreds of miles away from Agnes at the time of her death, but, perhaps, he could have motivation to hire someone?
It is known that Louis had an unusual relationship with Agnes. She was his age, the French beauty standard, great to chat with, and always around when Louis attended the royal court. And Louis used to be a younger and better (no padded shoulders) copy of his father, as this portrait is ready to testify:
First, he was sending her expensive gifts and courtesies. Then, his father caught him having it out with Agnes, on the pretext of her being a bad influence on the king and an embarrassment to his mother. So, Charles, with much shouting and indignant posturing, sent him away to rule Dauphine, a province traditionally given to the Royal Dauphine to rule, to be as far from Agnes as possible.
Frankly, it all seems pretty much made-up. If we look at it not from the chroniclers’ biased point of view, but as sensible human beings, we can see the truth. Louis, having fallen in love and been wisely rejected by Agnes, slapped her across the face, for which his father sent him away camouflaging the whole affair as an offensive outburst of an unbalanced young man at the assumed humiliation of his beloved mother.
You don’t poison someone you love, unless you’re a Romeo.
It must be someone else, and we’ll go through other likely and unlikely culprits in Part II, or shall I say, Episode 2?