Was Agnès Sorel, the first official royal mistress of France, poisoned?

04/02/05

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Reconstitution of Agnès Sorel's face superimposed on the remains of her skull and her recumbent statue. Credits: artwork and photo by Philippe Charlier / CHRU de Lille - 2005.

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The ESRF has gone back in time to study the reason for the sudden death of a beautiful mistress of the French king Charles VII, in the XV century. Thanks to synchrotron light, pieces of hair and bits of skin of Agnès Sorel have been studied and suggest answers to her death. The way she died is not known yet, however, incredibly high rates of mercury have been found in her mortal remains. This finding opens the door to different hypotheses. The results of this study were presented today in Loches (France), where the corpse has been reburied after it was exhumed last September for this research.

The history of Agnès Sorel could be a good plot for a soap opera. She was the first mistress of a French king to be officially recognized as such. It is said that she was an extremely beautiful woman, as well as very intelligent. She wielded considerable influence over the king and his policies, which earned her a number of powerful enemies at court. She gave birth to three daughters and, while pregnant with her fourth child, she joined Charles VII on the campaign of 1450 in Jumièges, in Normandy. Shortly afterwards, she fell ill and died of a "belly flow" according to the official version. Nevertheless, a lot of people believed she had been poisoned because of her sudden death and because of all the enemies she had.

To clarify the death of Agnes Sorel, at around the age of 28, a team led by Doctor Charlier from the CHU hospital in Lille is studying her remains through different techniques. The hair and bits of skin have been examined close-up thanks to the X-rays of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and have unveiled some hints that would be able to lead researchers to the cause of Sorel's death. X-ray Micro Fluorescence experiments have been performed on beamline ID18F at the ESRF. Scientists have noticed that the remains of Sorel contain abnormal amounts of mercury.

These chemical elements appear in the body of people who have been poisoned; nevertheless, one should not come to conclusions prematurely. Mercury is also present in pharmaceutical treatments to purge. Scientists found eggs from worms in other parts of her body, as well as remains of a plant used at that period against these worms. This could indicate that she was trying to heal herself by taking medicines and that she ingested too high a dose of these, which produced her death. Other possibilities include the fact that mercury appeared as a result of mummification or contamination from the surrounding environment. It is also a hypothesis that she would have had an intake of these metals throughout her life, for instance, by using cosmetics, since they often contained metals. According to Dr. Charlier, "the results from the experiments at the ESRF, in contrast with other experiments carried out in other institutes, have proved that mercury did not come into hair after death but before, and is the cause of death".

In addition to the historic interest of this research, it also has consequences today: "Our research validates the medical and legal techniques which are used in criminal investigations", explains Dr. Charlier.

This research is founded by the Conseil General of the department Indre et Loire and it will be presented to the scientific community in a workshop from 22 to 24 April in Loches.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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