Grenoble (France), 2 April 2005 - The ESRF has gone back in time to study the reason behind the sudden death of the beautiful mistress of French king Charles VII, in the XV century. Thanks to synchrotron light, pieces of Agnès Sorel's hair and skin have been studied. The evidence obtained makes it possible to suggest plausible causes of death. The way she died is not known yet, however, incredibly high levels of mercury have been found in her remains. This finding opens the door to numerous hypotheses. The results of this study were presented today in Loches (France), where the corpse has been buried again following its exhumation last September for this research.
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.
The history of Agnès Sorel would make 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 a campaign against the English in 1450 in Jumièges, Normandy. Shortly afterwards, she fell ill and died of "flux of the stomach" according to the official account of events. Nevertheless, a lot of people believed she had been poisoned because of her sudden death and because of her numerous enemies.
Agnes Sorel's death was premature: she was only about 28 years old. To clarify the cause, a team led by Dr. Charlier from the CHU hospital in Lille is studying her remains through a variety of techniques. Hair and bits of skin have been examined in minute detail using the X-rays of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. They have unveiled some indications that could lead researchers to discover the cause of Sorel's death. X-ray micro fluorescence experiments were performed on beamline ID18F at the ESRF. Scientists found that Sorel's remains contained abnormal levels of mercury.
This chemical element appears in the body of people who have been poisoned; nevertheless, one should not come to premature conclusions. Mercury is also present in pharmaceutical purgative treatments. Scientists found eggs from worms in other parts of her body, as well as remains of a plant used during that period to treat these worms. This could indicate that she was trying to heal herself by taking medicines and that she ingested too high a dose, which caused her death. Other possible sources of mercury contamination could have been the result of mummification or contamination from the mummies' environment. There is also a hypothesis that she could have accumulated 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 experiments carried out in other institutes, have proven that mercury did not enter her hair after death but before, and that it was the cause of death".
Marine Cotte, the researcher from the ESRF who carried out the experiments with Sorels' hair and skin.
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 funded by "Le Conseil Général d'Indre et Loire" and it will be presented to the scientific community in a workshop from 22 to 24 April 2005 in Loches.