She was the most beautiful woman in the country, and the king’s lover. He was the country’s richest man, and married. Her beauty and wit had the king wrapped around her finger. He had the king firmly in the wrestler’s lock of his financial might and diplomatic talent.
Together, they could rule the country.
No power in the world could stand in their way.
Except, perhaps, death and the death row.
Historians have always been puzzled by the amiable attitude of Charles’ wife, the queen, towards Agnes. The simple answer is that she was a wise daughter of a wise woman.
Charles’ wife thought a constant relationship with Agnes was better, both for the State and personal hygiene than occasional debauchery escapades with a variety of women of dubious morals. A single permanent lover meant stability and predictability that a new French Kingdom so much craved and lacked. The only drawback in the whole setup was that the permanent lover was meant to be loved. I guess Marie d’Anjou didn’t find it easy to maintain the front of the lawful wife of a husband who was passionately in love with someone else. Still, the queen thought it was a preferable alternative to the more standard ways of venting out royal promiscuity.
The whole affair was so…calculated that some contemporaries believed Charles’ mother-in-law herself, having inspected Agnes’s beauty and temperament a year before the two met each other, had arranged for Agnes to be presented to the king. Of course, this is the point where historical analysis gets replaced by historical bullshit, because no sane mother would be arranging a rival for her own daughter out of political expediency. It was Pierre de Breze, a rising star of the king’s council, who orchestrated the affair to insure his ascension. Many courtiers hated him, and started hating Agnes, whose favours were helping de Breze, but no one would risk poisoning the king’s love for a dubious effect of softening de Breze’s rise (his son would marry Agnes’s daughter long after Agnes died).
Regardless of how passionate was Charles’ “enamouring” with Agnes, no one believed she could hold a grip over Charles for more than a year or two. Kings have never been known for their loyalty, although quite famous for their appetite.
But the queen’s new lady-in-waiting was full of surprises. She was not just a beauty queen capable of supporting a witty conversation. She was a clever woman the Psychologies magazine would be proud to carry on its front page.
She was making sure she stayed attractive. She was at the forefront of fashion, so provocative that the Chancellor (who was second after king at the king’s council) became a strong proponent of anti-Sorel modesty. Again, Jean Fouquet helps us to put face to ideology:
His brother left letters which show just how strong they felt about Agnes Sorel style,
“…in his own household itself the king should prohibit openings in front through which you can see women’s nipples and breasts…he shouldn’t tolerate men or women tainted with whoredom and ribaldry and all sorts of sins…”
If only the good Chancellor could imagine what would become of the court after Agnes’ death, when Charles started fighting boredom with ever more whoredom.
Agnes’ 16th-century portrait by an anonymous artist who used Fouquet’s Madonna as his inspiration shows the ribaldry at all its glory:
Staying ‘abreast’ of fashion was but a part of Agnes’ strategy. She was managing Charles like a circus animal, offering him the treats of her grateful smiles only occasionally, for especially good tricks and gifts, and always making certain he knew of her sadness or unhappiness. A dog trainer knows all about how it works. As do most wives!
Some ill-wishing contemporaries accused her of greed. No. She was one of the most generous benefactors of the Church and the poor. Her first recorded donation to the Church was a reliquary with hair and a bone of St.Mary Magdalen, which many find rather symbolic. Agnes didn’t really care about riches: wealth was not an end in itself, but a means of securing Charles’ attention.
And it was in the process of receiving king’s gifts and fripperies that she got to know Jacques Coeur.
Six years before Charles met Agnes, Jacques Cœur was appointed the argentier, the keeper of the office, exclusively tasked with supplying everything the court needed, from silk ribbons to armour, and from spoons to liquid cash. He set off as a low-born petty merchant and built a “business” that amassed a capital of 3500 florins by 1450. If this figure doesn’t immediately impress you, compare it to the Medici empire that was estimated to be worth 5000 florins at the time.
The Medici are famous globally but Jacques Coeur’s fame is far from being proportionate to his assets. Most people have never heard his name. I guess this a living proof (albeit the partakers are very much dead) that arts can be good for you if you are super rich, provided you are endowed with good taste and vision.
The majority of courtiers owed money to Jacques Coeur, and the king was his biggest debtor. Jacques practically financed the retaking of Normandy out of his own pocket (with compound interest, of course).
When Charles was making a gift, he would first borrow the cost of the gift from Jacques Coeur, and then ask the latter to provide the gift itself. It must have been somewhat embarrassing for the king, I reckon.
Jacques Coeur was the king’s financier, the biggest ship owner in France, had built an exclusive silver mining operation, was licensed to trade with Muslims, and employed most of the king’s own bureaucrats part-time as his own “managers”. Yes, many king’s men were also employees of Jacques Coeur, and I bet they spent 90% of their time on his commercial projects, with the treasury backing the full cost. When France was fighting the English in Normandy, his trade branch in London kept the English court happy by supplying them with silks and other valuables.
And, certainly, he made sure he was friends with Agnes.
They had much in common.
They were both low-born (relatively), they both achieved the highest status possible, and they both were envied by virtually everyone around them.
Jacques was a handsome man, who didn’t have to pad shoulders of his coats to look strong.
He travelled a lot: to Levant, Italy, and all over France. He was sent on difficult diplomatic missions and during one of them remedied the papal schism, earning immeasurable gratitude of Nicolas V, who became uncontested pope thanks to Jacques’ efforts. I am sure he was an interesting guy to talk to.
In this portrait we see a strong man, looking into the future, a 15th century visionary, the forerunner of great trading empires and inspiration for generations of entrepreneurs. Bourges citizens erected his statue, which only fault is shameless beautification:
Agnes and Jacques were known to be very good friends, so special that she would even advocate his interests before the king.
Did their relationship stretch beyond an engaging conversation by the fireplace?
Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that a man who owned France financially would not be tempted to take possession of one of its most prized assets, La Belle Agnes.
It is also easy to assume that Agnes could get attracted to a man like Jacques Coeur, but difficult to accept that she, being the wise woman that she was, could risk her position by walking out on the king. She knew it full well that the moment she dropped out of king’s favour, she was to lose everything.
And still, being attached to a man who was far from the Apollonian ideal and could only stop being weak when pushed by a strong woman must have been… tiring.
Could those rumours about her girls being not entirely Charles’ issue be true?
We will never know, for if there was something, it was kept secret, and kept well. Or paid well to be kept well.
Eighteen months after Agnes’ death, Jacques Coeur was arrested and accused of poisoning her.
It was easy to find witnesses, given that all of them owed him money and none of them was present at the châteaux where Agnes died.
Two years later, these accusations were dropped (and the accusers were arrested themselves). Instead, Jacques Coeur was charged with a whole lot of unrelated heinous crimes ranging from siphoning income from royal estates to selling a Christian slave to the Saracens. He was found guilty of these crimes on the very day of the fall of Constantinople. Charles sentenced his former friend to death, but on Pope’s intercession the execution was replaced by heavy fines and imprisonment.
There was a man who profited immensely from the death of Agnes and disappearance of Jacques Coeur.
King Charles the Victorious.
His major gain was financial. By 1450, Charles was desperate. He was spending more money than he could possibly get as taxes or revenues. He was paying out huge bribes and rewards to…enemy soldiers and captains who would surrender English-held towns and castles or help with intelligence during his military campaigns. However, the more territory he won in this manner, the more he had to spend on his regular army to guard it against the threat of an English invasion. Charles’ coffers had run so dry that even the budget for the kingdom didn’t exist at the time. Having appropriated most of Coeur’s assets, he finally got liquid cash to complete his reconquest.
Jacques Coeur broke a fundamental unwritten rule of medieval banking: don’t lend money to a king who might feel obligated to pay it back.
His other gain was Agnes’ cousin, 16 years of age. Charles first met her two years before the tragic event. Six months after Agnes’ death, Charles married off this young cousin to his Master of Bedchamber, and she became a new king’s lover. There is certain irony here, with the Master of Bedchamber providing alibi for the king to sleep with his wife. Times a-changing, and the current French leader has sunk to using a plastic helmet to cover up his amorous adventures.
So, no, Jacques Coeur didn’t poison Agnes. He most likely loved her (if you believe in true friendship between the most beautiful woman and the richest man, lucky you).
But does it all mean that Charles poisoned Agnes to blame Jacques Coeur, seize his fortune, and start bedding a younger version of Agnes?
Charles was not a leader who created opportunities, but he never missed opportunities created for him by others. It is unlikely that he poisoned Agnes, the mother of his three living daughters, setting up Jacques Coeur along the way. It is more probable that Charles simply snatched the chance the poisoning presented, or he wouldn’t wait for 18 months to press the charges.
Or he learned of Agnes’ treason and – blinded by jealousy – decided to revenge himself? Was it a crime of passion?
One of contemporary accounts mentions the last meeting of Agnes and Charles. The chronicler says Agnes came to Charles, who was traveling towards his army in Guienne, She burst into his chamber with the news of an English conspiracy to have Charles captured. Charles laughed and sent her away.
This story, however simple, has two important implications.
A pregnant woman undertakes a perilous journey on worn down winter roads to warn her lover of a non-existing conspiracy. If that’s not a woman desperately seeking attention, I don’t know what is. Agnes felt that the king’s loyalty was failing.
The king laughs away the warning and sends her away. The same king who would go to great lengths to enjoy a moment of privacy with Agnes before their relationship went “official”. Yes, it does seem his affection had…weakened, but it also shows that Agnes had lost any sway she might have had over the king in political affairs.
It means we can exclude political reasons for killing her, for there were none, and finally clear Louis XI of suspicion. Yes, the primary reason to suspect Louis was that he detested Agnes’ undue influence on his father in political matters. Why would he reopen investigation into her death then, when he ascended to the throne? To clear his name? He didn’t need it. He was accused of too many plots and murders to care about something as insignificant as poisoning a king’s lover.
We end up empty-handed again. Perhaps, we got it all wrong from the beginning? What if it was not a man of power? What if it was not a man at all?
That cousin, who had suddenly risen so high – perhaps, it’s time we stretch her on the rack?
Or maybe we need to start pulling the string from the other end and look at the potential executor?
We’ll get to them in Episode 3.
oh my! This is so fantastic! I can’t wait to read the rest. This Madonna is my favorite “madonna” -the only one I cared for in Art History. I can’t believe there is so much more to the story than I could have ever imagined. I’m totally enthralled. Keep going, this is going to get real juicy.
Thank you for your encouraging comment! I am glad this twisted mixture of art history and history made you excited – and Episode 3 will be on air in a couple of hours!
You may like these posts about other madonnas though:
Excellent overview and a very good Historical lesson , you filled in some aspects of the Painting I was not awre of especially your comments on Jaques and Agnes , Excellent piece
Thank you! More to come! )
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Forget the art history and write the mystery story. Fascinating and well presented. Eager to read more.
Seriously, I need a French-speaking co-author to do it properly, for there’s a lot of medieval stuff that’s not translated. But then, ultimately, I am just trying to make art history a bit of fun )
Yes one of the greatest mystery of La dame de Beaute
Mystery wrapped in an enigma shrouded in Old French )
It was only few years back they could prove she was poisoned in analysing her remains or what was left of her bone after the French Revolution pillage of graves
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