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The Man in the Iron Mask

The Story of the Man in the Iron Mask

L'Homme au Masque de Fer ( The Man in the Iron Mask ) is the name given to a prisoner arrested in c. 1669, and condemned to the cruel fate of having his head clamped within an iron mask, or so the story goes.  The legend of the Man in the Iron Mask, is based on the true life story of Eustache Dauger.  Over time, however, the story became legend, and the legend faded into myth, retold dozens of times in children’s books, novels, and movies throughout the world.

Much of what we know about Eustache Dauger comes from the correspondence between his jailer, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, and his superiors in Paris, so there is very little information about him prior to his prison time, such as the circumstances of his arrest, and how came to be wearing the mask. Incidentally, there is no historical evidence to suggest that the mask was made out of anything but black velvet. It is believed that it was only later that stories came to refer to an iron mask.

The earliest record of the masked prisoner dates to 1669 AD and was a a letter sent from the Marquis de Louvois, King Louis XIV's minister, to Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the Pignerol prison in Pinerolo, Piedmont, 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 (late august of that year). This missive revealed several interesting notes, including one concerning the "accommodation" of the prisoner. 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. Only one visit at day was authorized to the governor, in order to provide food and whatever else the prisoner needed. The prisoner was also to be told that if he spoke of anything other than his immediate needs he would be killed, but as stated by Louvois, the prisoner should not require much since he was "only a valet". According to many versions of this legend, the prisoner wore the mask at all times.

Man in the Iron Mask by Neuville

Man in the Iron Mask by Neuville, 1872 ( Wikimedia Commons )

According to records, Eustache Dauger really did serve as valet to another guest of the prison, Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis of Belle-Île, a former superintendent of finances who had been jailed by Louis XIV on the charge of embezzlement. We must consider that Pinerol wasn't exactly a common jail, but was reserved for a handful of men who were considered an embarrassment to the state. Dauger was allowed to attend the marquis when his main servant, La Rivière, was unwell.

The fact that Dauger served as a valet is a focal point, especially regarding some speculations that Dauger was actually a member of the French royal family. Many researchers and historians have argued that 17th-century protocol made it unthinkable that a man of royal blood would serve as a manservant, casting some doubt on those suggestions that Dauger was related to the king.

The Man in the Iron Mask, according to Regnault-Warin MJJ, 1804

The Man in the Iron Mask, according to Regnault-Warin MJJ, 1804 ( Wikimedia Commons )

The most popular of all the legends regarding this prisoner pertains to his lineage. It has been said that The Man in the Iron Mask, was the son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV, an idea transformed into a book by Alexandre Dumas called "The Vicomte de Bragelonne". However, the book introduced a substantial change: he made the prisoner an identical twin of Louis XIV. The story goes on to say that the man was kept hidden because of his rights to the throne. Twins were a threat to orderly succession, but no one could kill a prince of royal blood, so the second twin was masked and imprisoned. Other stories say that the prisoner was indeed the king’s brother, but not his twin.

Another interesting theory belongs to Louis Gendron, a french military historian who came across some coded letters, later passed to Etienne Bazeries in the French Army's cryptographic department during the 1890s. After three long years of decrypting, 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. De Bulonde was accused of cowardace during the siege of Cuneo in 1691. Worried about the incoming presence of enemy troops arriving from Austria, he ordered a hasty withdrawal, leaving behind his munitions and wounded men. This made the king furious, who 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". However, this theory has not been verified and the dates are also inconsistent with other records.

Another prisinor candidate, much favoured in the 1800s, was Nicolas Fouquet's fellow prisoner Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli. The count was a diplomat and minister of Ferdinand Charles, Duke of Mantua, who 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 écu. But, as soon as the agreement was signed, Mattioli 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 indeed Eustache Dauger.

Prison cell occupied by the Man in the Iron Mask in the fort-Royal of the Sainte-Marguerite island

Prison cell occupied by the Man in the Iron Mask in the fort-Royal of the Sainte-Marguerite island (Alpes-Maritimes, France). ( Wikimedia Commons )

The theory that the Man in the Iron Mask is Eustache Dauger is the most accepted among the others.  However, whether this was his real name or an alias is unclear.  It is well known that a man named Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, the son of a captain in Cardinal Richelieu’s guards, was born in 1637. Later, he joined the royal army but eventually was forced to resign in disgrace after killing a young boy in a drunken brawl, and was subsequently incarcerated. After complaining to his sister about his treatment in prison in 1678, and shortly thereafter complaining to the king, the king issued an edict that de Cavoye should no longer be allowed to communicate with anyone, unless a priest was present. The problem with the theory that de Cavoye is the same Eustache Dauger as the man said to be punished in the iron mask, is that he de Cavoye was being held in Saint-Lazare prison, while the Man in the Iron Mask was in Pignerol. Furthermore, there is significant evidence that de Cavoye died in the 1680s, well before the more famous Eustache Dauger.

Model reconstruction of the Man in the Iron Mask, Castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte

Model reconstruction of the Man in the Iron Mask, Castle of Vaux-le-Vicomte ( Wikimedia Commons )

On 18 September 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 Man in the Iron Mask died on 19 November 1703, and was buried the next day under the name of Marchioly. All his furniture and clothing were reportedly destroyed afterwards, the walls of his cell scraped and whitewashed and everything made of metal that the man had possessed was melted down. So in the end, who he really was, whether he was actually guilty of a legitimate crime, or even whether he truly was forced to wear an iron mask all the time, may never be known. It is possible that he was just an ordinary citizen named Eustache Dauger, who angered the king, but not enough to have him killed. This poor soul could never have imagined that his dismal life of captivity would one day become an epic of intrigue, and that his memory (though anonymous), would survive until today. 

Featured image: "L'Homme au Masque de Fer" ("The Man in the Iron Mask"). Anonymous print (etching and mezzotint, hand-colored) from 1789. ( Wikimedia Commons )

References:

The Man in the Iron Mask – Britannica. Available from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/294481/the-man-in-the-iron-mask

Man in the Iron Mask – Historic Mysteries. Available from: http://www.historicmysteries.com/man-in-the-iron-mask/

Real Man in the Iron Mask – Today I found Out. Available from: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2014/10/real-man-iron-mask/

Man in the Iron Mask – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_in_the_Iron_Mask

Iron Mask – The World of Royalty. Available from: http://www.royalty.nu/legends/IronMask.html

How A Cryptoanalyst Discovered The Identity Of The Man In The Iron Mask – io9. Available from: http://io9.com/how-a-cryptoanalyst-discovered-the-identity-of-the-man-1581576707

By Federico Cataldo

Comments

Interesting read. It brought back memories of my father. A great fan of Alexandre Dumas, het told us every night all he read the night before.

It made such an impression on me, I never forgot the man in the iron mask.

Later my father told us other captivating stories, like Papillon and Tarzan, but this poor man  I remember best.

I hope it is true that the mask was velvet instead of iron...imagine the horror.

Sunny Young

If they were afraid of anyone listening in, he cannot have been an ordinary prisoner.  It looks like they were afraid he would be recognized and of what he had to say.

It seems plausabel he was a man of importance and I can see why Dumas made him into the King´s twin. Why else he was forbidden to speak and forced to hide his face.

Sunny Young

its possible that the person was suffering from some kind of leprosy which made his face unbearable to look at and there fore he was asked to wear a mask (velvet or otherwise) before the jailer fed him everyday :-)

" All his furniture and clothing were reportedly destroyed afterwards, the walls of his cell scraped and whitewashed and everything made of metal that the man had possessed was melted down. "

In a time when people were jailed regularly for no reason, I doubt they would have gone to all that trouble for an ordinary citizen. I'd say that if the above is true there was obviously something that needed to be covered up. Something personal to the king.

I can remember my first encounter with the story of the man in the iron mask. I was 4 years old in 1977 and I watched the movie entitled "The Man in the Iron Mask" with my parents. This was the movie version with Richard Chamberlain. The scenes that showed him in the mask absolutely scared me silly because I was only 4 years old. I would actually see him with the mask on in my nightmares for several years following the time when I viewed the movie. The story definitely made an impression upon me!

I, like Sunny stated above, sincerely hope that the mask was really made of velvet instead of iron. If a man were forced to endure wearing an iron mask while imprisoned then I'm sure he would have suffered horribly. In my own opinion, I would personally have rather been executed than to have live a day with an iron mask on at all times living inside a prison. It seems that whoever the gentleman was that did live with the mask was someone who the king and nobles wanted all traces of wiped out. The lengths that they went to regarding the disposal of the man in the mask's personal items points to a purposeful cover-up so that no evidence could be found to refute their official records. It would be very interesting to learn the real identity and reasons the gentleman was imprisoned, along with learning the real reasons to have someone cover their face while imprisoned.

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