Arts & Books

Agnès Sorel: A dazzling woman trapped in a maze

An image of Agnès Sorel, the 15th-century royal mistress and fashion trendsetter (CNS)

Agnès Sorel: Mistress of Beauty
by Princess Michael of Kent
Constable, £18.99

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It must have been frightening living in high aristocratic circles in the 15th century – or in any of the centuries surrounding it. Europe was a patchwork of courts, major and minor, each with its own fragile dynastic history and hereditary rivals and enemies. Dukes, kings, emperors, princes, counts, electors, archdukes – those titles were landed on people in often haphazard order and you could never be sure of holding on to them. Fatal illness was an everyday occurrence, and at the top of society violent and suspicious death came quite literally with the territory.

Princess Michael of Kent’s new novel, Agnès Sorel: Mistress of Beauty, brilliantly captures the sense of suppressed panic that lay behind the intricate court etiquette of the era. It begins with a family tree that speaks volumes. It is headed “The Royal Family of France at the time of this story” – but a quick glance at it disposes of the notion that France was a unified kingdom. Rulers of Burgundy, Brittany, Anjou and Orléans rub shoulders and intermarry with the nobility of England, Scotland, Bavaria and Bohemia.

The story opens with the funeral in 1442 of Yolande d’Aragon, who was the subject of HRH’s previous novel, The Queen of Four Kingdoms. Those four kingdoms were Sicily, Jerusalem, Cyprus and Aragon – though in reality Yolande’s family controlled only the powerful fiefdoms of Anjou and Provence. It helps, but is not necessary, to have read the first book in what will eventually be Princess Michael’s Anjou trilogy. The reason it is not necessary is that Agnès Sorel guides the reader by the hand through the dynastic maze; if at times we feel lost that is because the historical characters did, too.

Agnès, a distant ancestor of Princess Michael, feels most lost of all. And with good reason. She is the mistress of King Charles VII, son-in-law of Yolande. This was a very dangerous thing to be, for the tradition of French royal mistresses had yet to be established. Or, to put it another way, Agnès began the tradition. She is envied for her position but does not make things easier for herself. We learn that “she appears over-dressed and grand; her trains longer than any princess’s; her immodest décolletage worn deeper than at any other court”. Whatever clothes she bought would start a fashion. Plus ça change, eh? But she has little choice. She is caught in the familiar trap of the mistress – she needs to look alluring in order to retain the affections of the king.

A contemporary painting depicts Agnès as Madonna lactans, feeding her child with her bare breast; it is a backhanded compliment, for the effect is to make her look sexually provocative.

Her story does not end well, or in a straightforward manner. To this day, her death at the age of 28 puzzles historians and clearly fascinates Princess Michael, who displays expert knowledge of the hazards and conventions of life at court.

If you fail to bow or curtsey at the appropriate moment, then your card is marked. To say that it is easy to put a foot wrong is putting it mildly.

To what degree Her Royal Highness is drawing on her own experience one can only speculate. Let us just say that there is the occasional mischievous paragraph that one can relate to the royal house into which she married, which is not renowned for its warm feelings towards Catholics. At any rate, the author is to be congratulated for writing a novel that not only tells an engrossing story but also serves as a painless and page-turning introduction to one of the most romantic and sinister chapters in the history of Europe.