Review: Agnes Sorel Mistress of Beauty by Noreen Nash


The King’s eyes went to a young woman across the room. The
extraordinary face startled him. He had never seen such perfection. He could
not believe that she was real, she must be an apparition, a figment of his
imagination, born out of his starved existence, but she was real and he knew in that moment that she must be his.
So intense would be his love for her that he showered her with jewels,
gave her castles and chateaux, and then he made her official mistress, the first official Mistress of France, equal to his wife the Queen. But with it came a price, jealousy — “Jealousy which is as cruel as the grave.”
This is a story of love, desire, envy, and jealousy, those qualities of the
human heart which are timeless and universal.

My Review

Agnes Sorel is known as the woman who gave the French king Charles VII reason to live, and is responsible for turning him from the cowardly, unpleasant worm who murdered the Duke of Burgundy, into a victorious leader the country could be proud of. That’s a tall order! So of course I wanted to know who the woman was behind the legend, and Noreen Nash did a fine job of piecing this contradictory story together. I expected to meet a selfish, power-hungry viper, like most kings’ mistresses, but Agnes is depicted as something quite different. In fact, we find a modest, sweet, unpretentious beauty who is easily intimidated and who cares very deeply what other people think of her. She wasn’t really interested in becoming the king’s mistress; her heart had already been given to another who betrayed her affection and married elsewhere. When King Charles quietly but insistently laid claim to her favors, she acquiesced out of deference rather than love, recognizing how much he needed her. It wasn’t until later that she found herself returning his affections:

So often she had wondered why her first childish impression had been of a cruel, ungrateful King, neither attractive nor impressive. She saw a different man now. A kind, beneficent one. It had been said he showed no gratitude to those who had served him well, yet he had never stopped repaying her for the happiness she had given him.

Apparently Agnes’s beauty was unparalleled, and the courtiers were torn between admiration and scorn. For the most part, Agnes kept to herself unless the king insisted on parading her out on special occasions. These conspicuous demonstrations always backlashed onto poor Agnes, who was perfectly cognizant of the insult to the long-suffering queen. Unfortunately, the Dauphin Louis (later known as the Spider King) took an especial dislike to her after she rejected his advances. Once he abused her in public, Louis was expelled from court which made him an even more bitter enemy. Agnes’s only consolation, aside from the king, was her cousin Antoinette, who harbored a secret jealousy that threatened to tear both of their lives apart. Was Agnes so naïve—or trusting—that she never suspected Antoinette’s dark side? Apparently so. In the Prologue, we are introduced to her death scene, complete with the suggestion she was poisoned. We are left to decide who was responsible for this dreadful act of malice. Due to her status as the king’s mistress, Agnes found herself with plenty of enemies. No one seemed to care how deeply the king would be affected by her death. Very nicely done.

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