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Who was the Man in the Iron Mask?

Who was the Man in the Iron Mask?

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During the reign of King Louis XIV, an enigmatic man spent several decades confined to the Bastille and other French prisons. No one knew his identity or why he was in jail. Even stranger, no one knew what he looked like—the prisoner was never seen without a black velvet mask covering his face. The anonymous prisoner has since inspired countless stories and legends—writings by Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas helped popularized the myth that his mask was made of iron—yet most historians agree that he existed. So who was he?

Hundreds of different candidates have been proposed ranging from a member of the royal family to a disgraced French general and even the playwright Molière. Still, evidence indicates that only two prisoners were in custody during the same timeframe as the “Mask”: Ercole Matthiole and Eustache Dauger. Matthiole was an Italian count who was abducted and jailed after he tried to double-cross Louis XIV during political negotiations in the late-1670s. He was a longtime prisoner, and his name is similar to “Marchioly”—the alias under which the Mask was buried. Even more convincing is that Louis XV and Louis XVI both supposedly said the Mask was an Italian nobleman.

Unfortunately, Matthiole likely died in 1694—several years too early for him to be the Mask. With this in mind, many to point to the enigmatic Eustache Dauger as the more likely culprit. His 1669 arrest warrant included a letter from a royal minister instructing jailers to restrict his contact with others and to “threaten him with death if he speaks one word except about his actual needs.” Dauger was frequently shepherded between several prisons, and once was transported in a covered chair so that passersby would not see his face. While Dauger is a popular candidate for being the Mask, historians still don’t know who he was or if his name was a pseudonym. One theory holds that he was a lowly valet implicated in a political scandal, but he’s also been identified as a debauched nobleman, a failed assassin and even the twin brother of Louis XIV.

The Truth Behind ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’

The Man in the Iron Mask is a famous novel by Alexandre Dumas it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Leonardo di Caprio. The book is part of Dumas&rsquo Three Musketeers cycle of novels which covers the adventures of D&rsquoArtagnan, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis. In The Man in the Iron Mask, the relationship of the famous foursome is under strain as they fight on opposite sides of a power struggle.

The story begins with Aramis (now a priest) sitting with a prisoner in the Bastille prison. The man is King Louis XIV&rsquos twin brother Philippe and the legitimate heir to the throne. Aramis resolves to help him take the throne and so begins another swashbuckling adventure in typical Dumas style.

Ultimately, Louis forces Philippe to wear an iron visor if he removes it, he will be executed. While it is a fine tale, it is based on real events because there actually was a masked man concealed in various prisons for approximately 34 years. While his identity remains a secret, an increasing number of historians believe they know who he was.

Depiction of the Man in the Iron Mask. Wikimedia

The misnomer in the iron mask

The most disappointing part of the story of the Man in the Iron Mask is probably the big "iron mask" let down. As National Geographic points out, it's likely that calling the prisoner's facial accoutrement "iron" was more of a poetic interpretation than a physical description. Historians tend to favor the theory that he wore a velvet mask, only metaphorically iron in that it was meant to be a permanent addition to his wardrobe. Goldfinger's finger wasn't really gold, and the members of Iron Maiden were largely made out of squishy flesh bits. Truth in advertising has always been a tough nut to crack.

In any case, the man's identity was a closely kept secret, and curious minds have been launching theories like clay pigeons for hundreds of years, only to see them shot down by people who probably love starting their sentences with the word "actually." Some records point to a real Eustache Dauger — a valet who witnessed some embarrassing church-related skullduggery involving either misappropriation of funds or, and this is a stretch, a "black mass" ritual — as the genuine deal, but there's conflicting evidence there. Dauger may have died either in a separate prison from the Man in the Iron Mask or in a drunken stupor after losing his job.

Who was the Man in the Iron Mask? - HISTORY

On November 19, 1703, a tomb in the Bastille’s Saint Paul Cemetery welcomed the corpse of a man who had spent almost the last four decades of his life in various prisons of France. He is without a doubt the most famous prisoner in French history, even though nobody knows why he had to spend over thirty-five years in prison, reportedly in near perfect isolation and often with his face covered.

The first known record of the man dates back to July of 1669 when Marquis de Louvois in a letter to the governor of Pignerol prison, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, stated a prisoner by the name of Eustache Dauger would be arriving, who was “only a valet.” This man would go on to be the “man in the iron mask.”

But was this his real name? That is uncertain, and in the letter it is clear that the name was added by a different person than who wrote the rest of the letter. Why this is the case is one of the many mysteries surrounding this prisoner.

From here we have numerous references of the man, some more credible than others. For instance, Voltaire mentions him in his work, Le siècle de Louis XIV. Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for about a year in 1717 where he met many inmates who had supposedly come in contact with the mysterious prisoner while he was still alive. (Incidentally, another fun fact about the famed enlightenment thinker is that Voltaire made his fortune by helping to rig the lottery.)

The existence of the man in the iron mask is also noted by other historical references such as Le mémoire secret pour servir a l‘histoire de la Percy by an unknown author the writings of one of the most famous journalists of the French Revolution, Friedrich Melchior-Baron von Grimm and the personal diary of Etienne de Junca, deputy of the Bastille during the time of the famous prisoner’s death.

The source, however, that made this prisoner famous among the masses was the book by Alexandre Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask, which was the third and final book in the series that began with The Three Musketeers. Dumas’ book, although it is considered to be mainly fiction, seems to contain some useful historical data, with the author having conducted quite a detailed investigation into the case. The Frenchman’s novels were often inspired by real people’s stories which he then created fictional stories around. (This is also the case with The Count of Monte Cristo, which was loosely based on a *supposedly* real man, at least according to the author of the work Dumas read, police archivist Jacques Peuchet. More on this in the Bonus Facts below.)

In any event, as mentioned, the order for Dauger’s imprisonment was given by the Marquis de Louvois, Louis XIV’s Secretary of State for War. Among other things, the order mentioned that Dauger had to be kept in high-security prisons, and he was not to come in contact with anyone but a very select few. And if he ever dared to speak of anything other than his immediate needs, he should be executed immediately.

Towards this end, he had the same keeper for the rest of his life, the aforementioned French prison warden Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars, who was extremely ambitious but purportedly not particularly bright or capable.

But as with most things concerning the real man, finding the truth among all the early reports is exceedingly difficult. For instance, while it is claimed he was ordered to never come in contact with other prisoners nor speak of anything but his immediate needs, at one point Saint-Mars is known to have received permission for Dauger to become a servant in prison to former superintendent of finances (and fellow prisoner) Nicolas Fouquet, when his normal servant was ill. The only stipulation was that he was not to meet with anyone else other than Fouquet. If others were around, Dauger was not to be there. Why was Fouquet granted such access? It has been speculated that it is because Fouquet was expected to spend the rest of his life in prison, though of course this wouldn’t preclude him writing letters or meeting with others, making the whole lifting of the supposed restrictions even more curious.

The fact that Dauger was initially named a valet and later served as one in prison is also significant, if true. Given the protocols of the age, had he been royalty, or even just someone who had royal blood, this would probably not have been allowed. Someone of the royal blood imprisoned for life on dubious charges? Perfectly fine (often given servants and many of the perks of nobility while there). Subjected to becoming a servant by fellow royalty? This would have been unthinkable.

Whatever the case, the main reason we all remember this particular prisoner instead of numerous others who bore similar fate is his mask. Why was his face covered and hidden from public view? Some historians claim that this was nothing but a trick the ambitious Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars came up with during the inmate’s transfer to Sainte-Marguerite in 1687, so he could impress the crowds with the importance of the prisoner the king himself had entrusted him to guard. It was after this journey that the idea that the prisoner was forced to wear an iron mask first started to circulate.

On September 18, 1698, Saint-Mars was again transferred, this time becoming the governor of the Bastille in Paris, at which point Dauger once again was moved with him. According to Voltaire and in turn the prisoners who supposedly saw the man in the iron mask at the Bastille, this prisoner had to wear the mask at all times. However, it should be noted that the aforementioned Lieutenant du Junca who worked at the Bastille noted that the mask was actually made from black velvet when he observed it.

Ultimately, Dauger died in prison on November 19, 1703. Saint-Mars described him as “disposed to the will of God and to the king,” unlike most of the prisoners

If it is true that he was forced to wear a mask at all times, the logical conclusion, in conjunction with the fact that he was allowed to be a servant of Fouquet, is that perhaps it wasn’t a big secret, but that the man behind the mask was recognizable or had an obvious resemblance to another person, most likely one in power (whether by relation or pure unlucky coincidence.)

But the question remains, if he was just a lowly servant who either had the ill fortune to witness something the king did not want widely known, or had a face that displeased the king or someone else in power for whatever reason: why didn’t the French authorities simply choose to kill him? Those of the peasant class could be easily killed by those in power with as little as an accusation as being in league with the devil, among numerous other excuses. Why take the risk of leaving him alive and take the effort and expense of so carefully guarding him? And if he was of royal blood, why was he allowed to function as a servant? For that matter, if he had a big secret, why was he allowed to come in contact regularly with Fouquet who he might have slipped the secret too and who, in turn, might have revealed it to others via letters?

Needless to say, the fact that little of it makes much sense has led to numerous theories and speculation with little in the way of hard evidence to back any of them. According to Voltaire, the man in the iron mask was the older, illegitimate brother of Louis XIV (via Cardinal Mazarin and Anne of Austria), while according to Dumas, the mysterious prisoner was none other than Louis XIV’s twin, who was minutes older and thus the legitimate king of France.

Another theory is that he was actually the real father of King Louis XIV. You see, Louis XIII was quite old at the time of the “miraculous” birth of Louis XIV. But an heir was needed, lest Louis XIII’s brother Gaston d’Orléans become king, something certain powerful entities, like Cardinal Richelieu and the queen herself would have likely been against for various political reasons. Thus, this particular theory states that the Cardinal and Anne arranged for another man to father the child. As with the other theories, there is little in the way of actual evidence to back it, but at the least it would explain why the prisoner would be so fond of the king despite that same king having had him imprisoned for life. Of course, would a king really allow his own father to function as a servant, assuming he knew? And if he didn’t know, why keep him alive or even imprison him at all?

One of the more compelling theories to date comes from a coded message King Louis XIV sent concerning General Vivien de Bulonde, who invoked the ire of the king when he fled from approaching troops from Austria, abandoning supplies and even wounded soldiers. Once the coded message was cracked, it was revealed that it stated:

His Majesty knows better than any other person the consequences of this act, and he is also aware of how deeply our failure to take the place will prejudice our cause, a failure which must be repaired during the winter. His Majesty desires that you immediately arrest General Bulonde and cause him to be conducted to the fortress of Pignerole, where he will be locked in a cell under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlement during the day with a 330 309.

So what’s a 330 and 309? Well, the theory goes that the 330 meant “masque” and the 309 meant “full stop,” but the evidence for this is mostly speculation.

Whether the mask part is correct or not (perhaps the king just had a penchant for ordering prisoners he really was angry with to wear masks as a form of punishment), the main problem with this theory is that records indicate that General Vivien de Bulonde didn’t die until 1709, whereas the man in the “iron” mask died in 1703.

So what of the name given, Eustache Dauger. Does this provide any clues, or was it simply made up? It is known that a real Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, the son of a captain in Cardinal Richelieu’s guards, did exist, born in 1637. Further, he ultimately also joined the army but eventually was forced to resign in disgrace after killing a young boy in a drunken brawl. Later, he was incarcerated. After complaining to his sister about his treatment in prison in 1678 and shortly thereafter complaining to the king, the king did issue an edict that de Cavoye should no longer be allowed to communicate with anyone, unless a priest was present.

The problem with the de Cavoye theory is that he was being held in Saint-Lazare when the man in the iron mask was in Pignerol. Further, beyond the fact that de Cavoye does not fit the description of Saint-Mars “disposed to the will of God and to the king,” among other accounts, there is significant evidence that he died in the 1680s, well before the more famous Eustache Dauger.

So in the end, while we know quite a bit about the “man in the iron mask,” whether he was actually guilty of a legitimate crime, who he really was, or even whether he truly was forced to wear an iron mask all the time may never be known. It’s even possible he really was just some guy whose real name was Eustache Dauger, and he simply was a valet who angered the king, but not enough to have him killed. Though why such trouble should be had on an a valet’s account would be anybody’s guess. Perhaps an affair with the king’s favorite mistress? Who knows? But on the positive side, it sure makes for an intriguing story.

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:

The man in the iron mask : the true story of the most famous prisoner in history and the four Musketeers

Alexandre Dumas said that his famous Three Musketeers never existed--but Athos, Aramis and Porthos were flesh and blood. Their supposedly fictional duel with Cardinal Richelieu's guards actually took place in 1640, and Charles d'Artagnan, a teenager on his first day in Paris, fought alongside them. According to Oxford historian Roger Macdonald, several other elements of the tale are also true--the Cardinal's agent, Milady de Winter, really was an English aristocrat, and against all odds, country boy d'Artagnan succeeded in becoming Captain of the King's Musketeers, the only man whom Louis XIV could trust to arrest his over-mighty minister, Fouquet. It was d'Artagnan who escorted Fouquet to the feared Alpine fortress of Pignerol, wherein lived the most mysterious of prisoners, the Man in the Iron Mask. Macdonald has spent five years unraveling fact from fiction to reveal the true story of the Musketeers and their link with the Man in the Iron Mask, a reality more extraordinary than anything Dumas could devise.--From publisher description

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In 1662, the three musketeers have retired. Aramis is now a Jesuit priest, Porthos runs a brothel, and Athos lives at home with his son, Raoul. The fourth musketeer, D'Artagnan is now the captain of the guard. While fighting a war, Louis selfishly sends all the food to his army and while the citizens of Paris starve and eat rotten food. The Jesuits have taken action and have attempted to assassinate the king but with no luck. Louis appoints Aramis to find the general of the Order of Jesuits and to kill him, unbeknownst to him that Aramis is the general. During the party, Raoul brings his fiancee Christine, to whom the King falls in love with. While flirting with her, a Jesuit disguised as a musketeer attempts to kill Louis but is slain by D'Artagnan.

Days later, citizens riot together to the palace complaining they have been given rotten food. D'Artagnan understands their cause and promises them to change Louis' mind. D'Artagnan tells Louis who agrees but tells his advisors to shoot the rioters instead. Against D'Artagnan's wishes, Louis drafts Raoul to the front in order to have him killed so he could have a chance with Christine. Raoul is killed in battle and Athos arrives at the palace intended on killing Louis but is stopped by D'Artagnan. With Christine unaware of Louis sending Raoul to the front on purpose, she is invited to the palace where Louis seduces her and claims her as his mistress. Aramis calls a secret meeting of the 4 musketeers and devise a plan to replace the king to which D'Artagnan refuses, saying he will protect the king for unknown personal reasons. The three musketeers sneak into a prison and free a man in an iron mask who is revealed to be Phillippe, Louis' twin brother. Louis imprisoned him so no one could take his place. Aramis sends a replica of the mask to Louis, making him think his brother was now dead and Christine begins having second thoughts about her affair with Louis.

To lift his spirits, Louis throws a masquerade ball the next night to which the musketeers plan to make the switch under the guise of the masks. The musketeers attend the ball, wearing replicas of Phillippe's mask which make Louis delusional and has him retire to his chambers. The three grab Louis and make the switch. Phillippe does quite well but a distraught Christine, unaware of the switch causes a scene and condemns him for what Louis did with Raoul. Phillippe calms her down which makes D'Artagnan realize that Phillippe is not Louis. The musketeers try to sneak out through the river but are surrounded by D'Artagnan and his men. They are forced to make the switch again but the guards capture Phillippe while the others escape. D'Artagnan learns that Phillippe is Louis' brother and Louis learns that their mother agreed to the switch. D'Artagnan begs Louis to spare Phillippe's life but the king refuses and has Phillippe brought back to the bastille and remain in the mask forever. No longer trusting D'Artagnan, Louis has the second in command alert him when D'Artagnan goes somewhere.

Around midnight, the four musketeers break into the bastille and free Phillippe but become trapped by Louis and the guards. D'Artagnan reveals to the others that he is Phillippe and Louis' birthfather and they should charge one last stand and go out fighting. As they charge, Louis orders his men to shoot them down but they fail to aim and they miss. Louis, now frustrated, grabs a dagger, and attempts to stab Phillippe, but D'Artagnan sacrifices himself and is stabbed in the back. An enraged Phillippe jumps Louis and tries to kill him but D'Artagnan stops him and reminds him that they are brothers. D'Artagnan then dies and his second in command corners Louis, enraged that he killed his idol and helps the musketeers make the switch. When the rest of the guards barricade the back door, the switch is made and Louis, now in the mask, tries to explain but is silenced. Phillippe orders to have him be fed by a deaf-mute so no one can hear him scream and Louis is taken away while making muffled bellows. At the end of the film, Aramis, narrating the story, explains that it was whispered Louis was given a full pardon and lived in solitude in the countryside for the rest of his life but was still kept in the mask and was never found and never returned. Phillippe became a better Louis XIV and would be remembered as one of France's greatest kings.

Conspiracy Theories

The mysterious prisoner lived during the reign of Louis XIV. To his supporters, Louis was le Roi Soleil—the Sun King—in whose reign France expanded and strengthened her borders. To his detractors, he was a near tyrant, whose belief in absolutism—the idea that he ruled as God’s representative on Earth—had turned France into a police state.

After his death, the unknown prisoner’s story began to take on a life of its own as gossips said that his punishment stemmed directly from the French throne. From the very outset, the “masked man” stories were more than just lurid tales: They played directly into anti-Louis propaganda. During the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) the Dutch, fighting to protect their republic from French expansion, exploited the rumor to undermine the legitimacy of Louis XIV. Agents of the Dutch spread claims that the masked prisoner was a former lover of the queen mother, and was the king’s real father—which would make Louis illegitimate.

In France itself, suspicions about the man’s identity fell on several members of the extensive royal family. There was speculation that he was Louis de Bourbon, Count of Vermandois, son of the Sun King himself and his mistress Louise de La Vallière. Louis de Bourbon had been banished from court after being outed as a homosexual. De Bourbon then tried to regain his father’s favor in campaigns in Flanders, where he fell ill and almost certainly died. Conspiracy theorists speculated that he had, in fact, survived and was secretly imprisoned by his father.

Was Eustache Dauger the Man in the Iron Mask?

To this day, Dauger remains the most likely candidate. He was a real historical person imprisoned for a long time, and most modern historians believe he occasionally wore a velvet mask. Apparently, Dauger was Cardinal Mazarin&rsquos valet. Mazarin was France&rsquos main minister during the reign of Louis XIV and accumulated a vast fortune. It seems likely that Mazarin stole from various European monarchs Dauger found out about it and was threatened into silence.

Pignerol prison was used to house men deemed ‘an embarrassment to the state&rsquo so it only held a handful of inmates at any one time. Dauger was not always kept away from the other prisoners during his time there and even worked as a servant for another prisoner, the Marquis of Belle-Ile, Nicholas Fouquet. Generally, wealthy prisoners in Pignerol had manservants but since these men almost became inmates themselves such was their role, it was hard to find anyone willing to take on the job.

When Fouquet&rsquos servant became ill on a regular basis, Saint-Mars asked for permission to hire Dauger as Fouquet&rsquos new servant. When Saint-Mars found a role at a new prison, he took Dauger with him. The unfortunate man ended up in several prisons before dying on November 19, 1703, in the Bastille. Even if Dauger was the man in the iron mask, the reason for his imprisonment is harder to ascertain. There are rumors that he murdered a page boy in 1665 for example. If nothing else, it makes for a fantastic historical tale even if the man&rsquos identity has probably been revealed.

The man in the iron mask

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The man in the iron mask, French l’homme au masque de fer, (born c. 1658?—died November 19, 1703, Paris, France), political prisoner, famous in French history and legend, who died in the Bastille in 1703, during the reign of Louis XIV. There is no historical evidence that the mask was made of anything but black velvet (velours), and only afterward did legend convert its material into iron.

He was first imprisoned at Pignerol (Pinerolo, in Piedmont) sometime before 1681, then at other prisons before finally being transferred to the Bastille in Paris on September 18, 1698. He died there on November 19, 1703. Buried the next day in the parish cemetery of Saint-Paul, he was registered there under the name of “Marchioly,” and his age was given as “about 45.” His several moves during his lifetime corresponded with the successive postings of the prison governor Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars, in whose charge he was evidently especially committed.

The identity of the man in the mask was already a mystery before his death, and, from the 18th century on, various suggestions as to his identity were made: in 1711, an English nobleman in 1745, Louis de Bourbon, comte de Vermandois, a son of Louis XIV and Louise de La Vallière between 1738 and 1771, an elder brother of Louis XIV (Voltaire popularized this unlikely solution, which was later taken up by Alexandre Dumas in Dix Ans plus tard ou le Vicomte de Bragelonne [1848–50], translated into English as The Man in the Iron Mask) in 1883 Molière, imprisoned by the Jesuits in revenge for Tartuffe. Of the dozen or more hypotheses, only two have proven tenable: those for Ercole Matthioli and for Eustache Dauger.

Matthioli, a minister of Ferdinand Charles, duke of Mantua, had been entrusted with the secret negotiation of the treaty of 1678 whereby the impoverished duke was to deliver the stronghold of Casale over to France in return for 100,000 écus, but, as soon as the agreement was signed, Matthioli nullified its effect by betraying the secret to several foreign courts. Furious at having been tricked, Louis XIV had him quietly abducted and imprisoned at Pinerolo (1679). It is generally agreed, however, that Matthioli died in the Îles Sainte-Marguerite in April 1694 and that the prisoner in the mask was Eustache Dauger.

The correspondence of Louis XIV’s minister Louvois indicates that Dauger, a valet, was arrested on his orders for an unknown reason near Dunkirk in July 1669. At Pinerolo Dauger served as the valet of another prisoner, Nicolas Fouquet, and after Fouquet’s death in 1680 he was kept in close confinement with another man who had also served Fouquet. From Pinerolo, Saint-Mars took him in 1681 to Exilles (whereas Matthioli then stayed behind), before moving to the Îles in 1687. It is possible that Louvois, an enemy of Fouquet, wanted these prisoners kept in custody, lest they should divulge secrets that Fouquet could have told them. Perhaps this consideration, rather more than his original crime, explains the absolute secrecy to which Dauger was condemned and the precaution of the mask.

Man in the Iron Mask

The Man in the Iron Mask (French: L'Homme au Masque de Fer) is a name given to a prisoner arrested as Eustache Dauger in 1669, held in a number of jails, including the Bastille and the Fortress of Pignerol (today Pinerolo), since he was always held in the custody of Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, for a period of 34 years and who died on 19 November, 1703 under the name of Marchioly, during the reign of Louis XIV of France 1643-1715. The possible identity of this man has been thoroughly discussed and been the subject of many books, mainly because no one ever saw his face, that was hidden by a mask of black velvet cloth.

In the second edition of his Questions sur l'Encyclopédie (French for "Questions on the Encyclopaedia"), published in 1771, the writer and philosopher Voltaire claimed that the prisoner wore an iron mask and was the older, illegitimate brother of Louis XIV. In the late 1840s, the writer Alexandre Dumas elaborated on the theme in the final installment of his Three Musketeers saga: here the prisoner is forced to wear an iron mask and is Louis XIV's twin brother.

What actual facts are known about this prisoner are based mainly on correspondence between his jailer and his superiors in Paris.

The first surviving records of the masked prisoner are from late July 1669, when Louis XIV's minister the Marquis de Louvois sent a letter to Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the prison of Pignerol, then part of France. In his letter, Louvois informed Saint-Mars that a prisoner named Eustache Dauger was due to arrive in the next month or so.

Louvois instructed Saint-Mars to prepare a cell with multiple doors, one closing upon the other, which were to prevent anyone from the outside listening in. Saint-Mars himself was to see Dauger only once a day in order to provide food and whatever else he needed. Dauger was also to be told that if he spoke of anything other than his immediate needs he would be killed, but, according to Louvois, the prisoner should not require much since he was "only a valet".

Historians have noted that the name Eustache Dauger was written in a different handwriting to the rest of the text, suggesting that while a clerk wrote the letter under Louvois's dictation, a third party, very likely the minister himself, added the name afterwards.

The man himself was arrested by Captain Alexandre de Vauroy, garrison commander of Dunkirk, and taken to Pignerol where he arrived in late August. Evidence has been produced to suggest that the arrest was actually made in Calais and that not even the local governor was informed of the event — Vauroy's absence being explained away by him hunting for Spanish soldiers who had strayed into France via the Spanish Netherlands.

The first rumours of the prisoner's identity (as a Marshal of France) began to circulate at this point. According to many versions of this legend, the prisoner wore the mask at all times. It is more probable that he was masked only during transport, such as when he was taken from prison to prison, and when there were outside visitors to the jail.

The prison at Pignerol, like the others at which Dauger was later held, was used for men who were considered an embarrassment to the state and usually only had a handful of prisoners at a time.

Saint-Mars's other prisoners at Pignerol included Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli (or Matthioli), an Italian diplomat who had been kidnapped and jailed for double-crossing the French over the purchase of the important fortress town of Casale on the Italian border. There was also Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis of Belle-Île, a former government minister, surintendant des finances, who had been jailed by Louis XIV on the charge of embezzlement and the Marquis de Lauzun, who had become engaged to the Duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the King, without the King's consent. Fouquet's cell was above that of Lauzun.

In his letters to Louvois, Saint-Mars describes Dauger as a quiet man, giving no trouble, "disposed to the will of God and to the king", compared to his other prisoners who were either always complaining, constantly trying to escape, or simply mad.

Dauger was not always isolated from the other prisoners. Wealthy and important ones usually had manservants Fouquet for instance was served by a man called La Rivière. These servants, however, would become as much prisoners as their masters and it was thus difficult to find people willing to volunteer for such an occupation. Since La Rivière was often ill, Saint-Mars applied for permission for Dauger to act as servant for Fouquet. In 1675 Louvois gave permission for such an arrangement on condition that he was only to serve Fouquet while La Rivière was unavailable and that he was not to meet anyone else for instance, if Fouquet and Lauzun were to meet, Dauger was not to be present.

The fact that the man in the mask served as a valet is an important one. Fouquet was never expected to be released, thus meeting Dauger was no great matter, but Lauzun was expected to be set free eventually and it would have been important not to have him spread rumours of Dauger's existence. Historians have also argued that 17th-century protocol made it unthinkable that a man of royal blood would serve as a manservant — thus very much discrediting those suggestions that Dauger was in any way related to the king.

After Fouquet's death in 1680, Saint-Mars discovered a secret hole between Fouquet and Lauzun's cells. He was sure that they had communicated through this hole without supervision by him or his guards and thus that Lauzun must have been made aware of Dauger's existence. Louvois instructed Saint-Mars to move Lauzun to Fouquet's cell and to tell him that Dauger and La Rivière had been released. In fact they were held in another cell in another part of the prison, their presence there being highly secret.

Lauzun was freed in 1681. Later that same year Saint-Mars was appointed governor of the prison fortress of Exiles (now Exilles in Italy). He went there, taking Dauger and La Riviere with him. La Riviere's death was reported in January 1687 and in May Saint-Mars and Dauger moved to Sainte-Marguerite, one of the Lérins Islands.

It was during the journey to Sainte-Marguerite that rumours spread that the prisoner was wearing an iron mask. Again, he was placed in a cell with multiple doors.

On September 18, 1698, Saint-Mars took up his new post as governor of the Bastille prison in Paris, bringing the masked prisoner with him. He was placed in a solitary cell in the pre-furnished third chamber of the Bertaudière tower. The prison's second-in-command, de Rosarges, was to feed him. Lieutenant du Junca, another officer of the Bastille, noted that the prisoner wore "a mask of black velvet".

The prisoner died on November 19, 1703, and was buried the next day under the name of Marchioly. All his furniture and clothing were reportedly destroyed afterwards.

In 1711, King Louis's sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine, sent a letter to her aunt, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, stating that the prisoner had "two musketeers at his side to kill him if he removed his mask". She described him as very devout, and that he was well treated and received everything he desired. It might be noted though that the prisoner had already been dead for eight years and that the Princess had not necessarily seen him for herself. She was quite likely reporting on rumors she had heard at court.

The fate of the mysterious prisoner — and the extent of apparent precautions his jailers took — created much interest and many legends. There are almost a hundred theories in existence and many books have been written about the case. Some were presented after the existence of the letters was widely known. Later commentators have still presented their own theories, possibly based on embellished versions of the original tale.

Theories about his identity made at the time included that he was a Marshal of France or the English Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver Cromwell or François, Duke of Beaufort. Later, many people such as Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas put forward other theories about the man in the mask.

It has even been suggested that he was one of the other famous contemporary prisoners being held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger.

The King's relative Voltaire claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. How serious he was is hard to say. Alexandre Dumas used this theory in his book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, but made the prisoner a twin brother. It is this book that has been adapted for the many film versions of the story.

Hugh Ross Williamson argues that the man in the iron mask was actually the father of Louis XIV. According to this theory, the 'miraculous' birth of Louis XIV in 1638, after Louis XIII had been estranged from his wife for over twenty years, implies that Louis XIII was not the father.

The suggestion is that the King's minister, Cardinal Richelieu, had arranged for a substitute, probably an illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV, to become intimate with the Queen, and father an heir. At the time, the heir presumptive was Louis XIII's brother Gaston d'Orléans, who was also Richelieu's enemy. If Gaston became King, Richelieu would quite likely have lost both his job as minister and his life, so it was in his interests to thwart Gaston's ambitions. Louis XIII also hated Gaston and might thus have agreed to the scheme.

Supposedly the father then left for the Americas, but in the 1660s returned to France with the aim of extorting money for keeping his secret, and was promptly imprisoned. This theory would explain both the secrecy surrounding the prisoner, whose true identity would have destroyed the legitimacy of Louis XIV had it been revealed, and (because of the King's respect for his own father) the comfort of the terms of his imprisonment.

Lending credence to the theory that the man in the mask was the father of Louis XIV are the facts recorded by Will and Ariel Durant. Louis XIII was known to be a flamboyant homosexual who could not tolerate the presence of women. He scandalized visiting dignitaries by receiving them while viewing pornographic homosexual theatrical productions created for his entertainment, avoiding attempts by Richelieu to try to get the Queen under the same roof as the King for at least one night. Finally the Queen and her retinue arrived at the same location as the King and it was on that occasion (and perhaps for several days after) that Louis, willing to sacrifice all for the royal succession, bedded the Queen. Within a normal interim the Queen gave birth to the child who became Louis XIV. When the marked resemblance to the actual father became evident it was deemed necessary to keep his identity a state secret.

Later, when the King's flagrant indiscretions became so widely known that the stability of the throne was threatened, it was decided to acknowledge many of the so-called illegitimate heirs of Louis XIII. Such claims were commonly made by women who had been alone with a king for any reason. By that means the public could dismiss the unacceptable moral situation described in the darker rumors about him. As a result even many otherwise responsible genealogists today accept these illegitimate "heirs" of Louis XIII.

In 1890 Louis Gendron, a French military historian, came across some coded letters and passed them on to Etienne Bazeries in the French Army's cryptographic department. After three years Bazeries managed to read some messages in the Great Cipher of Louis XIV. One of them referred to a prisoner and identified him as General Vivien de Bulonde. One of the letters written by Louvois made specific reference to de Bulonde's crime.

At the Siege of Cuneo in 1691, Bulonde was concerned about enemy troops arriving from Austria and ordered a hasty withdrawal, leaving behind his munitions and wounded men. Louis XIV was furious and in another of the letters specifically ordered him "to be conducted to the fortress at Pignerol where he will be locked in a cell and under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlements during the day with a 330 309". It has been suggested that the "330" stood for masque and the 309 for "full stop". The dates of the letters fit the dates of the original records about the man in the mask. However, in 17th-century French avec un masque would mean "with a person in a mask".

Some believe that the evidence of the letters means that there is now little need of an alternative explanation for the man in the mask. Other sources, however, claim that Bulonde's arrest was no secret, was actually published in a newspaper at the time and that he was released after just a few months. His death is also recorded as happening in 1709, six years after that of the man in the mask.

In 1801 revolutionary legislator Roux Fazaillac stated that the tale of the masked prisoner was an amalgamation of the fates of two separate prisoners, Ercole Antonio Mattioli (see below) and an imprisoned valet named "Eustache D'auger".

Andrew Lang, in his The Valet's Tragedy and Other Stories (1903), presented a theory that "Eustache Dauger" was a prison pseudonym of a man called "Martin", valet of the Huguenot Roux de Marsilly. After his master's execution in 1669 the valet was taken to France, possibly by capture or subterfuge, and imprisoned because he might have known too much about his master's affairs.

In The Man of the Mask (1908), Arthur Barnes presents James de la Cloche, the alleged illegitimate son of the reluctant Protestant Charles II of England, who would have been his father's secret intermediary with the Catholic court of France. Louis XIV could have imprisoned him because he knew too much about French affairs with England.

One of Charles's confirmed illegitimate sons has also been proposed as the man in the mask. This was the Duke of Monmouth. A Protestant, he led a rebellion against his uncle, the Catholic King James II. The rebellion failed and Monmouth was executed in 1685. But in 1768 a writer named Saint-Foix claimed that another man was executed in his place and that Monmouth became the masked prisoner, it being in Louis XIV's interests to assist a fellow Catholic like James who would not necessarily want to kill his own nephew. (Saint-Foix's case was based on unsubstantiated rumours, and allegations that Monmouth's execution was faked.)

The government minister Other popular suspects have included men known to have been held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger. Fouquet himself has been considered, but the fact that Dauger is known to have served as his valet makes this unlikely. During the taking of the Bastille during the French Revolution of 1789, it was reported that a skeleton was found, still chained to the wall, and with an iron mask next to him. An inscription claimed that his name was "Fouquet".

This discovery has since been discredited, however, and it is supposed that it was an attempt by the leaders of the Revolution to make up for the fact that there were no actual political prisoners in the Bastille at the time of its taking. In fact there were only a handful of people serving time for forgery and a couple of lunatics.

Another candidate, much favoured in the 19th-century, was Fouquet's fellow prisoner Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli (or Matthioli). He was an Italian diplomat who, in 1678, acted on behalf of the debt-ridden Charles IV, Duke of Mantua, in the selling of Casale, a strategic fortified town near the border with France. Because a French occupation would be unpopular, discretion was essential, but, after pocketing his commission once the sale had been concluded, Mattioli leaked the details to France's Spanish enemies who made a bid of their own before the French forces could occupy the town. Mattioli was kidnapped by the French and thrown into nearby Pignerol in April 1679. The French took possession of Casale two years later.

Since the prisoner is known to have been buried under the name "Marchioly", many believe that this is proof enough that he was the man in the mask. The Hon George Agar Ellis reached the conclusion that Mattioli was the state prisoner commonly called The Iron Mask when he reviewed documents extracted from French archives in the 1820s. His book, published in English in 1826, was also translated into French and published in 1830. The German historian, Wilhelm Broecking came to the same conclusion independently seventy years later.

Since that time, letters purportedly sent by Saint-Mars, which earlier historians evidently missed, indicate that Mattioli was only held at Pignerol and Sainte-Marguerite. He was never at Exiles or the Bastille and therefore it is argued that he can be discounted.

Was the story of the Man in the Iron Mask based on a real person?

The Man in the Iron Mask is a name given to a mysterious prisoner in seventeenth-century France. His identity has never been established, and this mysterious individual has intrigued writers and others since the early 1700s. Once it was believed that the story was only a myth, a literary fiction but it is now accepted that the unknown prisoner was a historical figure. The name of the inmate was kept an official secret, and this has spawned a debate as to his real identity.

The riddle of the identity of the Man in the Iron Mask is something that has fascinated writers of the stature of Voltaire. In the 19th century, Alexander Dumas wrote about him in one of his novels, which has been adapted into several movies. This article will examine the background to the story and narrate what is known for a fact about this mysterious prisoner. Then it will offer an overview of some of the main theories on the identity of the convict and the reasons as to why he was incarcerated.

The historical background

The Man in the Iron Mask was confined in the French penal system between 1669 and 1703, the year in which he died. At this time, France was ruled by Louis XIV (1638-1715), who is often known as the ‘Sun King’. He was monarch of France from a very young age. In his childhood, his realm was engulfed by civil wars, known as the Frondes, and they shaped the philosophy of Louis XIV.

When he became king, Louis set out to become the absolute ruler of the state and he brooked no opposition. He curtailed the power of the nobility and the cities. Louis even quarreled with the Pope and limited the influence of the Church in France. The king made his kingdom the greatest nation in Europe and initiated a golden age in the arts and culture. He was the monarch who built the great palace at Versailles, near Paris.

However. Louis was an autocrat and he dominated the state and his word was the law. Anyone who offended his Royal Majesty or disobeyed his wishes could face banishment or imprisonment. There is evidence that suggests that Louis XIV was responsible for the imprisonment of the Man in the Iron Mask. The detention of a man without trial or any public record is typical of the authoritarianism of the Sun King.

The Man in the Iron Mask

The latest research based on material released by the National Archives in Paris in 2015, has added much to our knowledge of the mysterious individual. All we know about the enigmatic prisoner is from the correspondence of the jail governor Bénigne d'Auvergne de Saint-Mars and an inventory of the goods of the inmate. In 1669 he was governor of the prison of Pignerol which is today near Turin, Italy but in the seventeenth century was part of the Kingdom of France. A Royal minister gave the governor a set of strict instructions with regard as to how the prisoner be treated. [1]

The jailer was informed that his new prisoner was not a person of high rank and was to be kept in solitary confinement and forbidden to converse with any other person, no exceptions. He was to be kept locked behind several doors so that he could not communicate with anyone else in prison. The jailer himself was under strict instruction not to speak with him. It was made clear that he was a prisoner of state and this meant that he had no legal rights and was completely under the jurisdiction of the monarch. [2]

The name of the prisoner on the document was Eustache Dauger, and it appears that he was arrested in Calais or Dunkirk, both ports in the North of France, and this may indicate that the prisoner had been trying to flee to England. In August 1669, the individual was sent across France to the prison-fortress at Pignerol. This prison was one of the most notorious in France because it held so many inmates that were considered to be politically sensitive. Pignerol held only a few dozen inmates including a former Finance Minister and a noble who became engaged to the King’s cousin without his consent. The prisoner known as Dauger was despite the orders of the Minister in Paris, able to mingle with other prisoners.

However, it appears that he was kept under strict surveillance at all times. He was the valet to an imprisoned Minister for a time and was a model prisoner, and it appears that he was a very religious man. Saint-Mars was later appointed the governor of Sainte-Marguerite prison on one of the Lérins Islands, off the Rivera coast. He took the prisoner known as Dauger with him and one inmate who had communicated with him. During the journey from Pingerol to the island prison stores circulated about an inmate who was masked. [3]

It appears that Dauger was masked at all times and that he wore a velvet mask. It should be noted that Voltaire claimed that the inmate did not wear a velvet mask, but Alexander Dumas later popularized one that was made of iron and which prevented him from speaking and this claim. The convict was detained on the island until 1689 when his jailer was transferred to the notorious Bastille in Paris. He was kept in a tower and solitary confinement, and his food was delivered to him by the Deputy Governor of the prison. [4] His cell was spartan, and he had little food, and he must have endured a wretched existence.

The inmate known as Dauger died alone in November 1703. He had spent 34 years in prison. Interestingly he was buried under the name of Marchioly, and not Dauger. His former cell was stripped, and its walls whitewashed the warders burned all his belongings. By the time of his death, it seems that many people had become aware of the Man in the Iron Mask and his life and alleged crimes, became a subject of gossip and inspired many conspiracy theories. [5]

The Royal Theory

In the years after the death of the prisoner in a bare cell, there emerge several theories as to the identity of the prisoner. Many assumed that there was some sort of a relationship between the king and the prisoner. One that was proposed in the 18th century was that the prisoner was the elder twin of Louis XIV and therefore the legitimate monarch. This was popularized by Dumas in his novel. [6] He was kept in an iron mask so that no-one would recognize him. According to this theory, Louis XIV was not able to bring himself to kill his twin and devised the idea of imprisoning him and disguising his identity. Several writers believe that the disguised inmate who died alone in the Bastille was, in reality, the real father of Louis XIV. The ‘Sun King’ was born to Louis XIII (1601-1643) and his wife of Anne of Austria (1615-1666).

There are those who have speculated that Louis XIII could not have children and that Anne had taken a lover, who was the real father of the future ‘Sun King’. This individual was imprisoned and kept in isolation so that he would not tell anyone that he was the former lover of the Queen and the birth father of Louis XIV. Voltaire argued that the mysterious prisoner was the illegitimate half-brother of the king who ruled France for so many decades. [7] The great philosopher stated that the masked inmate was born from an affair between the powerful Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661) and Queen Anne of Austria.

There is no real evidence that the Man in the Mask was related to the French Royal Family. [8] It is highly unlikely that he was the twin of Louis XIV or his natural father. The main argument against this is the fact that the prisoner known as Dauger or Marchioly served as a valet during his time in prison, based on official records. Seventeenth-century France was obsessed with status, and it would have been unthinkable for a member of the Royal family to work as a servant. It would not only have dishonored him but every Royal. Despite the popularity of the theory, it seems highly unlikely that the prisoner was related to the French monarch.

An Italian diplomat

In the 19th century, many writers argued that an Italian aristocrat was the Man in the Iron Mask. This was Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli, a leading diplomat. He was paid, a small fortune by the French to help them to secure a key fortress in Italy by diplomatic means. Mattioli was able to persuade the Duke of Mantua to give up the fortress to the French in return for a generous payment.

The Italian Count was duplicitous, and he informed the arch-enemies of Louis XIV, the Spanish of the deal and they tried to stop the French from occupying the key stronghold. [9] When the French king heard of this he grew outraged and he is alleged to have had the Count imprisoned and placed in a mask. Yet the evidence for this is scant and thought to be unreliable.

The real Eustache Dauger

Seventeenth century France was a pleasure-loving and decadent society. The elite in Paris was notorious for their scandalous lifestyles and their extravagance, something that not even Louis XIV could halt. One notorious figure at this time was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye. This is by coincidence almost the same name as the Man in the Iron Mask, according to official documents. The infamous de Cavoye was involved in several sex scandals and even a murder. [10] However, it may have been his role in the Affair of the Poisons that may have landed him in jail. This was a scandal that involved aristocrats murdering rivals with poison. These individuals were also accused of witchcraft, holding black masses and even allegations of Satanism.

Recent research has shown that Dauger de Cavoye died of alcoholism sometime in the 1680s. Some researchers have claimed that the Eustache Dauger, named in official documents as the prisoner, was, in reality, a valet to the great Cardinal Mazarin. When Louis XIV was a child, and too young to rule, Mazarin was the de-facto ruler of the kingdom. He was allegedly very corrupt and reputed to be the lover of Anne of Austria. There are some who believe that the Man in the Iron Mask was the Dauger who was the valet to the powerful Cardinal. It is speculated that the valet found out some secret about Mazarin’s financial dealings or about his alleged affair with the mother of Louis XIV. The fact that he worked as a servant during his captivity makes this theory one of the most plausible. [11]


The answer to the question as to who ‘Was the Man in the Iron Mask’, is simple. We do not know, and it is unlikely that we will ever find out. Despite the discovery of new documents in recent years throwing more light on the case, the mystery has not been satisfactorily solved. All that we can say for certain is that there was a figure who was masked and who was detained in mysterious circumstances until his death. Other than that, we simply do not know for certain. It seems likely that the man had some secrets that would have damaged the French king or had offended him in some way. Unless there is the discovery of some document we may never solve this historical mystery.

Further Reading

Dumas, Alexander, The Vicomte de Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (Paris,1850).

Dumas, Alexander, The Man in the Iron Mask (London, Penguin, 2001).

Rowen, Herbert H. "L'Etat c'est a moi": Louis XIV and the State." French Historical Studies 2, no. 1 (1961): 83.

Watch the video: The Man in the Iron Lung (June 2022).


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