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, 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 ( 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.