In early June, 1429, Joan of Arc came to the town of Loches to urge Charles VII to travel to the cathedral at Reims, in Champagne, to be crowned king. She was just 17 years old; Charles was 26. His legitimacy as heir to the throne of France had been called into question by the warring Burgundians and English.
This was the time of the 100 Years War in France. Joan had visited Charles a few months earlier in nearby Chinon to tell him she had seen the truth in a divinely inspired vision: he was destined to be king. After winning a battle at Patay, near Blois, against the English, he did go to Reims for his coronation, which took place on July 17, 1429.
Joan herself didn't do so well. She was captured by the Burgundian enemy and sold to the English, who in 1431 burned her at the stake as a heretic in the Norman city of Rouen. Charles had Joan rehabilitated in the 1450s. The pope overturned the heresy verdict and Joan was declare a heroine and a martyr.
During this same period, Loches was home to the woman who was to be called the most beautiful woman in France, Agnès Sorel. Agnès was born in the 1420s and was destined by her origins and education to become a demoiselle de compagnie to the queen in the French court. Charles VII, who was not handsome, not intelligent, and not rich, according to historians, took her as his mistress in the 1440s. She was blonde and fair-complexioned.
She was not the first mistress Charles and earlier kings had kept at the court, but she was the first one to come out of the shadows and perform the functions of a kind of first lady. She outshone the queen by her beauty, her extravagance, and her art de vivre. Charles gave her a cut diamond, the earliest one known to exist. Agnès invented or popularized the décolleté, baring her shoulders and even her breasts, scandalizing her contemporaries. She wore furs and favored elaborate hairstyles and coifs.
Agnès was not a frivolous woman, however. She schemed to find the money necessary to support her lifestyle, and she imposed her friends at the court. She convinced the king's advisers to trust her judgment and plans. Charles gave her the title to territories all over France, including Loches. She had three children by the king, who declared them legitimate.
In 1450, Agnès went to Rouen to join Charles, who was engaged in military actions against the English in Normandy. No one knows why she made the trip. Maybe she just missed him. Charles put her up in a manor house at Mesnil-sous-Jumièges, on the Seine river near Rouen. She was immediately taken ill and died in just a few hours' time, at the ripe old age of 28.
An autopsy performed in 2005 on Agnès Sorel's remains showed that her digestive tract was infested with parasites and that she had ingested a good quantity of mercury. Whether she was taking the mercury medicinally to fight the parasites — worms, in other words — or whether she had been intentionally poisoned, nobody knows. Whatever the case, she died from an overdose of mercury salts.
Isn't it interesting that both these young women, Joan and Agnès, ended up dying in Normandy, in or near Rouen? I suppose that's where the action was, what with the French fighting the English to push them back across the Channel one more time.
Joanna, Janice, and I spent the afternoon in Loches last Tuesday. We paid the price of admission and walked through the royal residence in the old medieval city there, including the room where Joan of Arc besought Charles to go to Reims for his coronation and then chase the English out of France.
We walked through the church where Agnès Sorel's tomb has been placed since it was confirmed by DNA testing that the remains are authentically hers. Before, Agnès's tomb was kept in the royal residence.
We also climbed around in the old fortified keep — le donjon — that dominates the town of Loches. It was built in the 11th century by the counts of Anjou as an outpost to protect their territories from the warlike counts of Blois. A little later, Henri Plantagenêt of Anjou, who became king Henry II of England, reinforced the site, but his rebellious son Richard the LionHeart took it from his troops in 1189.
Richard ended up in prison, and the French king Philippe Auguste took Loches over for a while. Richard subsequently reconquered it for the English. In 1205, after a year-long siege, Philippe Auguste of France won it back. It remained French from that time on. New, more imposing fortifications were built in the 1200s and 1300s, and Charles VII ended up holding court in Loches all through the 1400s.
The donjon at Loches
Views from the top of the fortifications are panoramic. But the fact is that Loches was used as a prison for centuries after its glory days as the site of king Charles VII's court. Prisoners were notoriously mistreated. Instruments of torture and little cells where prisoners were held for years in solitary confinement are now on view. The walls bear extensive graffiti left behind by those imprisoned in the dark, dank towers and cellars.
Loches (pronounced sort of like "lush" or "brush" in U.S. English) has about 8,000 inhabitants and is just 30 minutes southwest of Saint-Aignan and about the same distance southeast of the city of Tours.