On my walk I sometimes tell the story of the golden crowns you can find above the chimneys of City Hall.
The way Charles VII is portrayed in this story is less than flattering. Having so many mistresses and giving them houses and castles? When looking deeper in this, I found two names of mistresses: Antoinette de Maignelais and Agnès Sorel. This last lady played, next to Joan of Arc, a very important role in the life of Charles and France!
Born in 1422, living in a family of lower nobility, Agnès soon stood out for her uncanny and enigmatic beauty. No need to tell you this lovely lady was soon noted by Charles VII. He had many vices, a weak for women and a nose for beauty.
François-Frédéric Steenackers, a politician and essayist, wrote in 1868, “Charles VII had a flock of anonymous mistresses or for lack of a better word, a harem, following him everywhere.”
Agnès Sorel was different: she wasn’t only a gorgeous girl, but also incredibly intelligent and kind.

Charles VII by Jean Fouquet (1445-1450)

Steenackers continued, “It was a rare privilege, to have both a superior beauty of body and soul, with a physical and moral vitality complying with all the requirements of love.” The king was addicted.
Agnès was seen at the king’s side at almost every occasion. He took her to numerous official parties. No gift was left out, jewelry, clothing, even an estate! It is believed Charles gave her what is thought to be the first cut diamond. He gave her Château de Beauté, a castle straight from a fairytale. Charles never gave her a wedding ring, but the next best thing: the official recognition as his mistress.
It was the first time in history such a recognition every happened. This led to astonished reactions.
Steenackers wrote, “A mistress officially recognized by the king was not only a novelty, it was a revolution that, like all revolutions, couldn’t take place without causing outrage and hate.”Agnès was named a devilish manipulator and licentious slut.
Georges Chastellain, ally of the biggest opponent of Agnès, Louis XI, the Dauphin of France, son and heir of France accused her of making and designing inappropriate styles of clothing.
This clothing was described by politician Jean Jouvenel des Ursins as “with openings at the front through one could see the breasts and nipples of women.
Reading this, it made me remember the fuss when ‘nipplegate’ happened in on 1 February 2004, when during the halftime show of Superbowl XXXVIII, Justin Timberlake pulled Janet Jackson’s blouse open and for about half a second Janet Jackson’s breast – adorned with a nipple shield – was exposed. What would Georges Chastellain or Jean Jouvenel des Ursins say about that?

Virgin and her Child by Jean Fouquet (1450)

Painter Jean Fouquet is responsible for the image people have today of Agnès Sorel. It is generally assumed the Holy Virgin in his Virgin and her Child is based on Sorel. This image caused medieval writers to describe Agnès Sorel as the ‘first bimbo of France’.
It is through Steenackers we get a more correct picture of who Agnès really was. He writes, “The last years of the Hundred Years’ War introduced the saddest period of French history. The king didn’t care anymore. Instead, he indulged in entertainment. Gambling, drinking, orgies and female beauty were the only things to his interest. However, when Sorel appeared he changed. He took up his duties, realizing he had been blind to the situation in his country. Honest and capable men, friends of Sorel, took up leading positions in parliament and within two years France was – except for a small part – united again. Sorel urged the king to act and not idly stand by. Charles became interested in his duties, used common sense and a practical mind to hear solid, founded advice, assigning the right people for the tasks within the government.”
Sadly, this couldn’t last and when Sorel died in 1450 at the age of 28, pregnant of their fourth child, Charles’ spirit dies with her.
The official cause of death was dysentery, but the rumors of poisoning were confirmed in 2005 by forensic researcher Philippe Charlier.
Who was responsible? The theory Louis XI had his finger in all of this is very plausible. In his hunger for power, he made it his mission to undermine the rule of his father and Agnès, practically sharing the crown, stood in his way.
But it was the young lady, forever depicted with her breast naked, that was indirectly responsible for the unification of France in its darkest moment.