Of Six Mediaeval Women (1913)/Agnes Sorel


So much glamour has attached, and rightly so, to Joan of Arc, the soldier-saviour of Charles the Seventh of France, that another woman, Agnes Sorel—Charles's good angel of a less militant order—has been almost entirely overlooked, and where she has been remembered, has been treated by the few with the honour due to her, and by the many merely as Charles's mistress. But to her it was given to be a great inspirer of Charles, and much of the good that this weak king and ungrateful man did for his country may assuredly be in large measure attributed to her influence, just as the greatest merit that can be recorded of him personally was his devotion to her whilst she lived, though the memory of her availed naught after she had passed away. Agnes Sorel came as it were between the ebb and flow of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when chivalry, not as a passing emotion but as an education, still lingered in men's relation with women. Respect for womankind grew in the Middle Ages in France under the double influence of religion and chivalry, of which the cult of the Virgin and the cult of woman were the outcome. In honour of both, men strove in tournament and fought in battle. With the cry, "For our Lady," or "For God and my Lady," men hurled themselves into the thick of the strife as if the goddess, whether divine or human, in whose name they ventured, had made her champions invulnerable. And, in a manner as it would seem of action and re-action, the goddess became humanised and the woman deified. The former tendency may be traced in miracles attributed to the Virgin, and, later, in the "Mysteries," and the latter in tales of chivalry, where love is treated as a gift from Heaven, and the recipients of it are idealised. Stories which seem to contradict this, and to refute all accepted ideas of chivalry and honour, are frequently original only in details, the bases being borrowed from Oriental tales. Buddha's country, the land of the Zenana, supplied much material of an exaggerated nature which in the West became mere travesty.

It is always difficult to determine exactly the origin of anything so subtle as a sentiment, especially one which gradually pervades and influences a people. It is, in its way, at first like a soft breeze, of which we can only see the effect. But as we try to discover some definite, if only partial, reason for this interchange of simple human relations between the Virgin and her votaries, we remember that St. Francis, the embodiment of exalted human sentiment, had lived, and that scholasticism, in that phase of it which treated the dialectical subtleties of words as paramount, was on the wane. Hence spirit, which had so long been restrained, and which is ever in conflict with form, again prevailed, and mankind discovered that a loving Mother had taken the place of a stately Queen in the Heavens. This attitude towards the Virgin is revealed in the miracles attributed to her agency. It is also shown in one of the greatest works of piety of the thirteenth century, the Meditations on the Life of Jesus Christ,[1] which, through the medium of the "Mysteries," introduced into sacred pictorial art some of its most dramatic and appealing scenes. Where is there to be found anything more tenderly human than the incident of "Christ taking leave of His Mother" before His journey to Jerusalem to consummate His mission?

This note of the womanly element in its fairest form, gradually insinuating itself more and more, and permeating life, art, and literature, is the key to the right understanding of the position which woman had attained in the civilised world.

Before turning our special attention to Agnes Sorel, let us recall the condition of France at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

When the lunatic King Charles the Sixth died in 1422, and Charles, his son, at the age of nineteen, succeeded under the title of "King of Bourges," Paris was held by the Burgundians, who were in league with the English. The Dukes of Burgundy and of Brittany were alike vacillating in their policy, being at one time attached to the king's party, and at another allied to the English. With the exception of a few castles, the strongholds of lords loyal to the Crown, the English possessed the whole of France north of the Loire, from the Meuse to the Bay of Mont St. Michel. Hither the Duke of Bedford was sent as regent for the English king, Henry the Sixth, then ten months old, who, by the terms of the Treaty of Troyes (1420), was the lawful king, the right of succession having been conferred on his father, Henry the Fifth, when he married Catherine, the daughter of Charles the Sixth of France.

Charles the Seventh divided his time between Bourges and Poitiers, where the government was carried on, and Loches, Chinon, and Tours, the places he dearly loved, and in which he sought the solitude he craved for. But even in these seemingly peaceful retreats his lethargy and indolence were disturbed by perpetual intrigues, which it must be admitted were largely fostered by his own caprices and fickle affections. Meanwhile a cry of misery was arising from the war-devastated land. Churches and convents, castles and cottages, were all fallen into ruin, and brambles grew on the unfilled land where once golden corn had waved. Peasants hid their horses during the day and brought them out to graze at night. As Alain Chartier wrote at the time, "Les pays champestres sont tournez à l'estat de la mer, où chascun a tant de seigneurie comme il a de force." Men of all conditions, from the proudest lord to the poorest peasant, joined in spasmodic and detached efforts to drive out the English, but with the result that they did little else than harass them. Want of cohesion was the characteristic of the national resistance until, from a small village in the east of France, there appeared a deliverer in the person of Joan of Arc. Instantly, as if her sword were a magic wand, all the fighting men, impelled and inspired by the strength of her personality, rallied around her, and victory was assured.

The story of the siege and surrender of Orleans, of the crowning of Charles in Rheims Cathedral, of Joan subsequently falling into the hands of the Burgundians, who sold her to their allies, the English, of her shameful trial and cruel death, are facts so well known that they may well be passed over here as briefly as possible. Suffice it to say, that, except for a time, even the triumph of this maiden-patriot did little to rouse the indolent king, who speedily returned to his selfish life in Touraine. War, pillage, and anarchy again devastated France. But gradually a change came over Charles. He seemed to awake as from a stupor. Dissolute and self-seeking favourites were dismissed, and the king was surrounded by able and high-minded men. He bestirred himself to make a final peace with Burgundy and Brittany, and to take part in the war which was still smouldering, though there were signs of its approaching end.

What was the secret of such a change? That it was due, in the first instance, partly to the wise influence of his mother-in-law, Yolande of Aragon, and partly also to that of his wife, Marie of Anjou, sister of the good Duke René, seems almost certain, but that it was intensified when Agnes Sorel came into his life, there can be no doubt. When we consider the king's earlier life, and what it was whilst he was under the influence of Agnes, and his relapse into indolence and debauchery after her death, we can only attribute much of this change to her sympathetic and wise guidance. Joan of Arc had represented the popular element, Agnes Sorel represented the aristocratic. Joan of Arc aroused the people to united action by her enthusiasm and success, Agnes Sorel, in her time, helped to complete the consolidation of the kingdom, by inspiring and sustaining the king. Perhaps no one man could have accomplished such a revolution. It took two women to do this, and what they did was not of mere passing worth. Phoenix-like, France arose from the ashes of the Hundred Years' War, and it was Agnes Sorel, as priestess, who stirred the embers which hid the new life.

Voltaire, generally more ready to scoff than to approve, wrote thus of Agnes Sorel:

Le bon roi Charles, au printemps de ses jours, ****** Avait trouvé, pour le bien de la France,
Une beauté, nommée Agnes Sorel.

Was it for the good of France? Let us disregard prejudices, and examine facts. Even then, if all that is known of her were written, it could only bear to this rare personality the resemblance which a faint reflection does to reality.

Agnes Sorel was probably born about 1420 or 1422, in the Castle of Fromenteau in Touraine.[2] Her father, Jean Soreau, or Sorel, was Lord of Coudon, and belonged to the lesser nobility. It was in this beautiful country of forest and meadow-land, of silvery rivers and meandering streams, that Agnes spent her early years, her education being principally religious, for religion naturally held the first place in a society which still retained faith in the supernatural. It was customary at that time for girls of noble birth to complete their education either at Court or at the castle of some princely person, for such places were considered excellent schools of courtesy and other virtues for the daughters as well as for the sons of the nobility.

Though the date is uncertain, it was at the Court of Lorraine that Agnes became maid-of-honour to the Duchess Isabelle, wife of Rene, Duke of Anjou and Lorraine, and Count of Provence, a prince distinguished for chivalry and learning. This intellectual and chivalrous atmosphere must have been peculiarly congenial to the sympathetic and versatile nature of Agnes Sorel. We can picture her listening to the Duke René reading his latest poem to one or two of his brother-poets in the castle pleasaunce, or discoursing on philosophy or statecraft, or attending some brilliant pageant or sumptuous fête. Chivalry, though dead as an institution, still survived as a recreation, and as an appeal from the past to the cultured imagination, and René, mediæval knight that he was in sentiment, dearly loved the gorgeous spectacle of a tournament, with the knight jousting in honour of his chosen lady. At this Court Agnes also came under the influence of Yolande of Aragon, widow of Louis, King of Naples and Sicily, great-granddaughter of King John of France, mother of the Duke René, and mother-in-law of King Charles the Seventh, a woman renowned for her extraordinary political capacity. All these ties, and the remembrance of the French blood in her veins, emphasised Yolande's dominant passion—the love of France,—and it may well be that in this patriotic atmosphere Agnes Sorel became imbued with a like passion, which later she was to develop in all its perfection, rivalled only by her devotion to the well-being and glory of her royal lover.

Patriotism was a virtue of recent growth in France, for, in order to thrive, it requires unity of idea, and during the Middle Ages the only idea common to all was Christianity, which, from the nature of its teaching of humility and fraternity, does not make for patriotism. It may cement the structure, but it does not form the basis. It was only after years of suffering and unrest that men learned to sink their individual and local interests in those of the nation as a whole. Then, and only then, could patriotism arise, and only under such conditions could it flourish.

How long Agnes lived at the Court of Lorraine (one of the most refined and cultured Courts of the time), and how her first meeting with the king came about, is uncertain. It has been considered likely that between 1431 and 1435 Isabelle of Lorraine went to Chinon to beseech the king to use his influence to obtain the release of her husband, imprisoned by his cousin, a rival claimant to the duchy of Lorraine. It is possible that Agnes, even if only born in 1422, may have accompanied her, but even if she did not, this visit of Isabelle's may, indirectly, have led to the meeting between the king and Agnes. Whilst still a prisoner, René succeeded to the crown of Naples on the death of his brother, Louis d'Anjou, and as the country was in a disturbed condition it was deemed prudent for Isabelle, his wife, to act as his substitute, and, as lieutenante générale, she set forth to establish his claim. History is silent on the point as to whether Agnes accompanied her or not. It may be, as some seem to think, that she remained in Anjou with Isabelle's eldest daughter, Marguerite, afterwards Queen of England. We should like to think that it was during this time that she attracted the notice of Charles, for this would lend additional interest to the exquisite miniature in the Musée du Louvre (at one time in the Book of Hours of Etienne Chevalier, now for the most part at Chantilly), which it seems probable represents Agnes Sorel as a youthful shepherdess, with the Castle of Loches in the background and Charles the Seventh riding towards her. As we have already suggested elsewhere,[3] this may have been a poetical rendering of their first meeting. However this may be, it seems probable that it was soon after the year 1435[4] that she first attracted the notice of Charles, and that, later, she took up her residence in Touraine, no doubt gaining her influence over the king at first by her beauty, which all her contemporaries proclaim, and afterwards by that mysterious combination of ability and grace, of intelligence and physical vitality, which held him captive for many years. During this time she, like a true woman, and no ordinary place-hunter, made his devotion to her react upon himself, for the good of his country and to his own honour. She not only counselled him wisely herself, but persuaded him to surround himself with wise counsellors.

Of these counsellors, and the able and devoted men who served the king in divers ways, some few stand out more prominently than the rest, because of their position of intimacy in the royal circle, and their special and enduring friendship with Agnes Sorel. Such were Etienne Chevalier, Treasurer of France; Pierre de Brézé, of a noble Angevin family, and Sénéchal of Normandy after the expulsion of the English; and Jacques Cœur, the king's superintendent of Finance, whose house at Bourges, with its angel-ceiled chapel, still delights the traveller.

Etienne Chevalier was for some time secretary to the king, and after filling one or two smaller posts connected with finance, was made Treasurer of France, and member of the Grand Council. In addition to administrative capacity, he possessed a brilliant intellect and a great love of art. It is to his initiative that we owe the only suggestions in portraiture of Agnes Sorel. It was to him also that the king confided the supervision of the erection of the monuments to her memory at Jumièges and Loches—Jumièges where she died in 1449, and where her heart was buried, and Loches her favourite place of sojourn, and to whose church and chapter she had made large gifts. To Loches her body was borne in royal splendour, and there laid to rest in the choir of the church in a simple tomb. We can imagine the loving care with which Etienne Chevalier watched the sculptor, and possibly even gave him suggestions, as he fashioned in alabaster her recumbent effigy representing her with hands clasped as if in prayer, her feet resting against two lambs, and her head guarded by two angels with out-stretched wings. Perhaps this stone effigy was the one true portrait of Agnes, but the head and face were partially destroyed during the Revolution, and restored in their present form in 1806, so that little of the original now remains.

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This tomb, which to-day may be seen in a small vestibule of the Château Royale (now the Sous-Préfecture), has a strange and chequered history. Perhaps scarce another has suffered such singular vicissitudes, so many removals, or more ruthless violations. Soon after the death of Charles the Seventh (1461), the canons of Loches, whom Agnes had largely endowed and of whom she asked naught save to be remembered in their prayers, petitioned Louis the Eleventh for its transfer to a side chapel, since they considered it unfitting for the dust of such an one to repose in the choir. Louis, using his subtlety to better purpose than was his wont, replied that if they removed the tomb, they must return her gifts. Naturally these worthy ecclesiastics silenced their consciences and kept the tomb where it was. However, in the year 1777, in the reign of Louis the Sixteenth, the priestly conscience again awoke to the enormity of its presence within the choir, and, with the king's consent, it was removed to the nave. Before re-burial the coffin was opened in the presence of various church dignitaries and State officials. Among the latter was a doctor who left an authoritative account of the proceedings, from which we can approximately surmise the height of La Dame de Beauté, and verify the record of her abundant fair hair. The exterior coffin of oak was only 5 feet 6 inches long. Within this, and protected by another of lead, was a shell of cedar wood in which, after the lapse of more than three centuries, lay all that was mortal of Agnes Sorel. Her fair hair was plaited in a long tress, and two curls rested on her forehead. As one of those present, more curious than his fellows, stretched out his hand to touch, all fell to dust. Death and Time were her guardian angels. But even this desecration did not suffice to drain the cup of unmerited vengeance. In 1793 the tomb was rifled, the sculptured features, so lovingly wrought, defaced, and her dust cast to the winds. But what matter? Agnes had done her work—work which had to be done, and which she alone could do.

Another of the little band of chosen spirits of which Agnes was the soul and centre, was Pierre de Bréz, Lord of Varenne and Brissac, who early showed himself a man of affairs, and was admitted to the King's Council when he was but twenty-seven. In war, administration, and finance, he proved himself equally trust-worthy and skilful, and to these qualities he added others of a brilliant intellectual nature. He advanced from one post of trust to another, until the king himself presented him with the keys of the city and castle of Rouen. Thus he became Sénéchal of Normandy, an honour which remained in his family. One of his grandsons, Louis de Brézé, a son of Charlotte, daughter of Agnes Sorel and Charles the Seventh, was the husband of Diane de Poitiers.

Jacques Cœur, whose life was so intimately associated with the Court during Agnes's lifetime, and so sadly marred and ended after her death, was the son of a simple merchant of Bourges. Following in the wake of many adventurous and ambitious merchants of the time, he journeyed to the East and amassed a large fortune, which he placed at the disposal of the king. This enabled Charles to carry on the war in spite of his impoverished exchequer, and to make a final and successful effort against the English. But, like many another on whom Fortune has smiled, evil tongues and envious hearts began, ere long, their vampire work, and after the death of his friend and patroness, Agnes Sorel, Charles made no effort on his behalf, but left him at the mercy of his calumniators in the same base and heartless way in which he had abandoned Joan of Arc. Jacques, his goods confiscated, and his life in danger, was obliged to fly the country, and died fighting, in the Pope's service, against the Turk.

Of the beauty of Agnes Sorel there can be no doubt, for all contemporary chroniclers and poets tell of it. Even the Pope, Pius the Second, allowed himself to add his tribute of praise to the general homage. Considering that there are so many types of physical beauty, appealing to as many different temperaments, there must have been something rare and remarkable in Agnes to have attracted and held bound all who came in contact with her. We can but conclude that this unanimous judgment could only have been the result of that mysterious union, so illusive, so indefinable, of spiritual with physical beauty. The records of the time merely tell us that she had blue eyes, and fair hair in abundance. The only picture, and this not done from life, by which we can judge her—for the miniatures by Fouquet, at Chantilly, from Etienne Chevalier's Book of Hours, though exquisite in delicacy, are too minute for much characterisation—is, even if we accept it as the original from Fouquet's hand, an overcleaned work in the Museum at Antwerp.[5] This, or the original painting, formed a wing of the so-called diptych painted to adorn the tomb of Etienne Chevalier and his wife in the Cathedral of Melun, the other wing—now in the Royal Museum, Berlin —representing Etienne Chevalier himself, in the attitude of prayer, his patron saint, St. Stephen, beside him. There seems reason, however, to suppose that this offering of Etienne's was in fact a triptych, and that the missing wing pictured his young wife, then lately dead (1452). If this was so, Etienne and his wife would have appeared in adoration on either side of the Queen of Heaven, here personated by Agnes Sorel, thus bringing the panel with Etienne's portrait into harmony with the central panel, which otherwise it fails to be.

Of the miniatures at Chantilly, the whole series of which forms a most tender and rare tribute to wife and friend, only brief mention can here be made of those concerning Agnes. The most simple and beautiful in sentiment and design is that of the Annunciation, in which the seated Virgin, in the likeness of Agnes Sorel, with bowed head receives the angel's message. The scene is laid in a Gothic chapel (perhaps the Sainte Chapelle with slight adaptations to suit the artist's fancy),[6] with statues of the Prophets all around, and Moses, holding the Books of the Law, as the central figure of the group. This assemblage of Old Testament seers certainly typified the Old dispensation, whilst the Annunciation prefigures the New, and to us the whole may not unfitly form an allegory of the new order which Agnes Sorel was to help to bring about. In another
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Musée de Chantilly.


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Musée de Chantilly.


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miniature—the Visit of the Magi—Charles the Seventh, accompanied by his Scottish guard, and with the Castle of Loches in the background, himself kneels as one of the kings before the Virgin, here also represented in the likeness of Agnes. And so on, throughout the series, in many of the scenes of the Virgin's life we find her bearing the features of Agnes until an older and sadder type becomes necessary in the Crucifixion, the Entombment, and the Announcement of the Death and the Death of the Virgin. When, however, death has transfigured age and sorrow, the likeness of Agnes reappears in the Assumption, and Coronation, and, the crowning glory, the Enthronement of the Virgin.

In a Book of Hours, at Munich, painted about 1500 a.d. for Jacques Cœur's grandson (in part perhaps by Jean Bourdichon, the artist of the superb Book of Hours of Anne de Bretagne now in the Bibliothèque Nationale, or at least by some pupil or follower of his), there are three miniatures that seem of special interest in connection with Agnes Sorel. One is a representation of the Virgin of the Annunciation, and another that of the Madonna with the Holy Child. In both these the features of the Virgin Mother appear to faintly echo those of Agnes as we know her, as the crowned and ermined queen in the picture at Antwerp. Still more interesting is the third miniature, giving a view—here used as a setting for the Procession to Calvary—of the front of Jacques Cœur's stately dwelling at Bourges. Here doubtless many a time Agnes and the king were entertained. Hither Jacques returned from sundry journeys to the East, laden with treasures to beautify his surroundings. Hence he fled, the victim of success. Over the principal entrance is a canopied recess, once sheltering an equestrian statue destroyed during the Revolution. This now empty space once held a statue of King Charles the Seventh, armed cap-à-pie on a galloping caparisoned charger, as he may be seen represented on medals of the period. It is not a little significant of this thankless monarch that he here seems to be turning his back on the house of his faithful servant and supporter, and to be riding away. Other details worthy of mention in this Book of Hours are the realistic background to the picture of the Visit of the Magi, with its snow-covered village church, houses, and fields; the Italian drug-pot in the Magdalen's hands in the scene of the Crucifixion, showing the intimate intercourse with Italy; and the Mater Dolorosa seated alone at the foot of the Cross,—a tragic note taken from the Mystery of the Passion.

There is only one unanimous opinion concerning Agnes Sorel, and that is as to her beauty. For the rest, it would seem as if prejudice and flattery held the scales. The mean is difficult to discover, and perhaps it is only possible to get somewhere near it by studying results the remarkable change, as already noticed, in Charles's life and conduct whilst under her influence.

In the face of conflicting records it is no easy matter to determine when Agnes Sorel first became the king's mistress. In 1435, when the Treaty of Arras was concluded between Charles and the Duke of Burgundy, Cardinal de Sainte-Croix (afterwards Pope Pius the Second) was Papal legate at the French Court, and aided in the negotiations. He tells in his memoirs that the relation between Charles and Agnes was known publicly at the time, and that the king could do nothing without her, even having her at his side at the royal councils. The trust-worthiness of this statement has, however, been so questioned, that it seems safer to endeavour to arrive at the truth from other sources, although, if the statement can be relied on, it seems to follow, almost as a matter of course, that Agnes must have been born earlier than 1422. It is an admitted fact that between 1433 and 1438 the manner of Charles's life entirely changed. In the year 1433 the infamous and once all-powerful favourite, La Tremoille, who had been the king's evil genius for six years, and was largely responsible for the king's treatment of his wife, Marie of Anjou, was dismissed at the instance of the politic Yolande. Yet even so, the king often relapsed into indolence and apparent indifference to his kingly duties, and it was not till after 1438, when he summoned a national Council at Bourges, that Charles showed himself to be a new man. It is also not long after this that we read of favours granted by the king to Agnes's relations. From that time, Charles ceased to spend his time in dreamland, as it were, in the sweet Touraine country, and engaged himself in affairs of State, listening to and accepting wise counsels, favouring the restoration of schools and universities—which, in the uncertain state of the country, had almost ceased to exist—and encouraging the final efforts to expel the national enemy, even at times personally joining in the fight. If we see in this, in a measure at all events, the guiding spirit of Agnes, the secret of her influence is not very difficult to discover. Apart from her beauty, which, with Charles, would be a potent factor, Agnes had a woman's insight and skill in her relation with him, ever holding up to him the glory and obligations of kingship, at the same time herself entering, with all the vitality of her extraordinary nature, into his favourite pastimes. We know that in one or other of her many residences near Chinon or Loches, she and the king often spent the evening playing piquet or chess (the latter being his favourite game), and then, on the morrow, rode forth together to the chase. So the days were passed in work and simple outdoor pleasures, Agnes taking no recognised public part in the king's life, but devoting herself heart and soul to the task she had in hand. But besides these relaxations of peace, there was also the reality of war; for the war still lingered on, though feebly. The English had lost their ally, the Duke of Burgundy, as well as Bedford, the able Regent, and there was no fit man to take the latter's place. Paris opened her gates to Charles in 1436, and in the following year Charles, after having reigned for fourteen years, made his first State entry into the capital of his kingdom, mounted on a white charger, the sign of sovereignty. In 1444 a treaty was concluded at Tours with the English, and, to make the compact doubly sure, Margaret of Anjou, a niece of the king, was married to Henry the Sixth of England. For about a month the Court and its princely visitors gave themselves up to fêtes and pageants, and it was during this time of rejoicing that the position of Agnes was officially recognised. She was made lady-in-waiting to the queen, and took a prominent part throughout the festival. Charles gave her the royal castle of Beauté, on the Marne, near the Bois de Vincennes, "le plus bel chastel et joly et le mieux assis qui fust en l'Isle de France," desiring, as was said, that she should be "Dame de Beauté de nom comme de fait." From the time of her public recognition she appeared with the king at all the brilliant festivities celebrated in honour of treaties and marriages. She also sat in the royal council, a position which, as a king's mistress, she was the first to occupy, though we know that Henri II. took no step without first conferring with Diane de Poitiers, and that Madame de Maintenon sat in Louis the Fourteenth's privy council.

The change which came over France after the Treaty of Tours was marvellous, alike in its extent and its rapidity. Commerce was again resumed between the two nations; men and women once again ventured without the city walls, to breathe, as it were, the fresh air of liberty; and those who had been called upon to fight, returned to their work in the fields or the towns. We cannot better voice the feeling of the people than by borrowing the song of a poet of the day:

Le temps a laissé son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluie,
Et s'est vêtu de broderie,
De soleil rayant, clair et beau;
Il n'y a beste ne oiseau
Qu'en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissé son manteau.

Now that Agnes had assumed a definite role at Court, she lived principally at Loches, where the king assigned to her "son quartier de maison" within the castle, and also gave her a residence without the walls. Here she shone like a radiant star; for although the king did not have much personal influence on the movement in art and letters, his Court was the meeting-place of many distinguished and intellectual men. Among them we find the name of Alain Chartier, the poet, and sometime secretary to the king, and one of the ambassadors who went to Edinburgh to ask the hand of the little Margaret of Scotland for the Dauphin. We remember him now chiefly in connection with the charming story told of this girl-wife of the Dauphin Louis. Betrothed to Louis when she was a child of three, and sent to France to be brought up at the Court, she was married at twelve to this boy of thirteen, who could not possibly appreciate her simple, sweet nature which endeared her to all others. One day as she was passing with her ladies through a room in the castle, she saw Alain Chartier lying on a bench asleep. She approached quietly, and kissed him, much to the surprise of her attendants that she should "kiss so ugly a man." And she made answer: "I did not kiss the man, but the precious mouth whence so many beautiful and fair words have issued." Poor little poetess! Fortunately her life was a short one. She died when she was just twenty-one, with these words on her lips: "Fi de la vie de ce monde, ne m'en parlez plus." The scientific historian of to-day is inclined to dismiss this story as a pleasing though rather foolish romance. But even so, Alain Chartier may be remembered as a poet and philosopher, as well as a brave and wise patriot during some of France's darkest hours—a worthy contemporary of Agnes Sorel and Joan of Arc. Fearing neither the nobles nor the people, he blames the former for their love of luxury and personal indulgence, and exhorts both to think of the public good, and to aid in their country's defence, instead of allowing themselves to be engrossed with their private affairs. Then, whilst acknowledging that as he has not the strength to bear arms, it is only with his pen and his speech that he can serve his country, he reminds them that it was the historian's pen and the orator's harangue, just as much as the warrior's lance, that made the glory of the Romans.

Louis the Dauphin, come to man's estate, and self-seeking and treacherous, was no friend to Agnes, who had incurred his hatred by her fearless disclosure to the king from time to time of conspiracies against his person, in which Louis was the prime mover. After repeated reconciliations, the king in despair finally banished him to his domain of Dauphiné. The traitor, quitting the royal presence for what he deemed exile, swore to be avenged on those who had driven him forth, and if some of the records of the time speak truly, four years later his opportunity came, and he kept his oath.

The last scene of Agnes's life was pathetically interesting. Her end came almost suddenly. The king, listening to advice, had resolved to continue the war in Normandy,[7] and, at the instigation of Agnes, if we may believe the words of a courtly writer of the time, had himself gone to the front. Rouen was taken, and Charles entered in triumph. The streets were decked with flowers and branches, and the houses hung with rich draperies, and everywhere the leopards and quarterings of England had been replaced by the fleur-de-lis. Charles, preceded by a gorgeous procession of archers, each company arrayed in the livery of its lord, and carrying his special banner, followed, under a canopy, on a horse caparisoned to the ground with blue cloth sprinkled with fleurs-de-lis of gold, surrounded by princes and the principal captains and officers of the Crown. With his wonted observance of religious duty, slowly he made his way to the cathedral through the shouting multitude, and to the sound of many fiddles and the fanfare of trumpets. There he descended, kissed the relics as he knelt beneath the great portal, and then entered its hushed and solemn dimness to return thanks. But scarce had the air ceased to ring with the plaudits of the people, when the report of a plot against the king, devised by the Dauphin, is said to have come to the ears of Agnes, and she hastened to the king at Jumièges, whither he had retired for a short rest during the unusual and inclement winter. Here, stricken by a mysterious sickness, by some thought to be typhoid fever, by others attributed to poison administered at the instigation of Louis, she died in February 1450, in her manor of Mesnil, near the Abbey of Jumièges. The king was with her to the end, and could only be induced to withdraw when her lifeless form sank back in his arms. So died this wonderful and fascinating woman who had lived and laboured for her country through perhaps the most critical period of its history.

It is impossible to entirely ignore what has been written to Agnes's personal discredit, though much of it may well be looked upon as exaggeration, and open to suspicion. That the king was not her only lover may be true, but in the absence of satisfactory documentary evidence of this, perhaps the various intrigues attributed to her may, for the most part at least, be regarded as the creations of scandal. Still, bearing in mind the condition of France at the time of her accession to power, the extent of the influence she admittedly exercised in the councils of the king, and the great change which came over the royal fortunes and the fortunes of the country during the years of her ascendancy, it is scarcely possible to refuse to her some right to share in the recognition so lavishly bestowed upon the other great woman of that time—Joan of Arc. The one may be said to have been the complement of the other. Both were necessary to the needs of the day, and the glory of successful accomplishment should be shared between them.

  1. These meditations, attributed in the past, and by some even now, to St. Bonaventura, are considered by other scholars to be of Cistercian inspiration. P. Perdrizet, La Vierge de Miséricorde, 1908, p. 15.
  2. Both the date and the place of her birth seem uncertain. Some writers suggest 1415, and some 1420 or 1422, as the date; whilst Froidmantel, in Picardy, is conjectured by some, and Fromenteau, in Touraine, by others, as the place. (Du Fresne de Beaucourt, Hist. de Charles VII, t. iv. p. 171, note 4.)
  3. Athenæum, June 25, 1904.
  4. Du Fresne de Beaucourt, Hist. de Charles VII, t. iii. p. 286.
  5. Du Fresne de Beaucourt, Hist. de Charles VII, t. iv. p. 171, note 2.
  6. Cf. Grandes Chroniques de France, fol. 292, Bib. Nat.
  7. Lavisse, Hist. de France, vol. iv. part 2, p. 229, footnote.