Queenship Love and Separation in the Age of Mistresses

Queenship Love and Separation in the Age of Mistresses
© Photograph by Cathy Blampey

All — or nearly all — of the sovereigns had mistresses. On the one hand, amorous relationships and conjugal relationships were considered two separate entities; on the other, affairs seemed to be part of the king’s profession, attesting to his strength and virility as a monarch. Of course, Louis IX did not have any, which chroniclers and hagiographers stress was a remarkable exception and in keeping with the Holy King’s admirable virtue.

The other kings had multiple affairs, without necessarily granting their many mistresses official positions. As a young man, Charles VI was known for his love of hunting, games, good food and especially women, for which his former tutor reproached him.

In ‘Le Songe du Vieil Pèlerin’, written in 1389, Philippe de Mézières begged him to limit his adventures in order to devote himself to his wife.

These affairs led to a number of illegitimate children. In the early fourteenth century, Louis X had a natural daughter, Eudeline, who subsequently joined the Order of Saint Claire.

On August 10th, 1330, a breve from Pope John XXII congratulated the young woman for having, by her virtue, erased the “stain of her birth”: being born not out of a legitimate union, but out of a ‘criminal exchange’ between the late king and a married woman.

During the fifteenth-century, two favourite mistresses emerged from the shadows and were granted official positions at court. One, Odette de Champdivers, only owed her position to Charles VI’s bouts of madness, while the other, Agnès Sorel, was the first official royal mistress.

In 1405, in order to shield Isabeau from her husband’s episodes of violence, it was decided that he should have a mistress, Odette de Champdivers, a young noblewoman from Burgundy: “He had been given as a concubine a beautiful, gracious and charming young person, who was the daughter of a horse dealer. This was done with the queen’s consent, which seemed rather strange. But when she pondered the troubles that threatened her and the violence and ill-treatment she had endured with the king, the thought that it was better to choose the lesser of two inconveniences made her resign herself to this sacrifice.”

Known as the “Little Queen” (“la petite reine”), de Champdivers carried out her delicate task with devotion and loyalty and was richly rewarded for it. She was given two beautiful manors along with all their dependencies, respectively situated in Créteil and Bagnolet.

However, the first truly official mistress of the King of France was Agnès Sorel. From 1444 to 1450, she occupied a dominant place at court, eclipsing Queen Marie of Anjou — to whom she was one of the ladiesin-waiting.

She also had considerable influence over Charles VII. All the accounts at the time agree that she was exceptionally beautiful and charming. Her portrait has been passed on in the famous diptych of Melun, which was long kept at the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame.

In it, Jean Fouquet depicts Sorel as the Virgin Mary offering her exposed breast to the Infant Jesus (c. 1452-1455). Étienne Chevalier, the Treasurer of France who ordered the commission, probably had to have Charles VII’s approval in order to be shown in a holy setting praying before the effigy of the beautiful Agnès as the Virgin Mary.

Born in 1422, the “Lady of Beauty” ( Dame de Beauté ), who was from a Picard family of lesser nobility, first entered into the service of the House of Anjou as a lady-in-waiting to Isabella of Lorraine, King René of Anjou’s wife, before being noticed by Charles VII and becoming his favorite mistress.

She eventually bore him four daughters. She knew how to use her influence over the sovereign, imposing her close relatives in positions at court or obtaining the royal advisors’ favour. The king granted her numerous domains, such as those at Beauté-sur-Marne and Loches, where she had a castle built overlooking the town.

She died in February 1450 at the age of 28, following her fourth childbirth and an excessive dose of mercury. Attesting to his admiration for and loyalty to this exceptional woman, Charles VII had two magnificent tombs erected, one at Notre-Dame de Loches for her body and the other at the Abbey of Jumièges for her heart.

Her official role, which was unique in the fifteenth-century, provoked much criticism, as the Journal d’un Bourgeois de Paris attests: in 1448, “came to Paris a damoiselle, who was said to publicly be a friend of the King of France, without faith and without law and without truth to the good queen he had married, and it appears that she led a life as great as that of a countess or duchess. […] Alas! What a pity, when the head of the kingdom gives his people such a poor example”.

Beginning with the reign of Francis I, the positions of the favorite mistresses at court continued to be reinforced, their names sometimes eclipsing those of the queens (Diane de Poitiers, Gabrielle d’Estrées, Madame de Pompadour and so on). The royal mistress thus became a dignitary, with her own rites and protocol.

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