Alexandre Dumas recounted it in “The Vicomte of Bragelonne”, and Leonardo DiCaprio portrayed him – among others – in the movies. We’re talking about the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask, who was imprisoned in the Bastille and other French prisons for over three decades in the second half of the 17th century, and whose identity has never been clarified. This has spawned numerous theories, and the most attractive ones, as we see, are those that artists have seized upon for their works. But how much of this story is real and how much is fiction?

The oldest reference to this is a letter from François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis of Louvois, and at the time Secretary of State for War to Louis XIV, to Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars, who was then in charge of the donjon (main tower) of the fortress of Pinerolo, a town now renamed Pignerol and located in Piedmont, Italy (then French territory).

It was not a normal prison for common criminals but was intended for those convicted of special crimes that affected the security of the state, so it usually had few inmates, and they were quite selective.

The Fort of Exilles, one of the prisons where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned.
The Fort of Exilles, one of the prisons where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Antoine Nompar de Caumont, Duke of Lauzun, passed through there, having fallen out with the king after being forbidden to marry the Duchess of Montpensier. Also, Antonio Mattioli, an Italian politician whom Louis XIV had kidnapped, accusing him of treason, and in the 19th century, there was a widespread belief that he was the Man in the Iron Mask due to his time in Pinerolo and the misspelling of his name on his tombstone as Marchioliv (although he couldn’t have been him because he was never in the Bastille).

Another illustrious inmate of the fortress was Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis of Belle-Île and Viscount of Melun and Vaux, deposed from his position as superintendent of finances of France for embezzlement and lese majesty; during his imprisonment, he had Eustache Dauger as his valet.

Who was this valet? In the aforementioned letter, Louvois informed Saint-Mars of the impending arrival of an even more singular prisoner named Eustache Dauger, who was to be kept in relative isolation and ordered to maintain absolute silence about the reasons for his confinement. He was to be assigned a cell with several successive doors to prevent him from being heard from outside, and visits were to be limited to once a day, to provide him with food or whatever he needed (which wouldn’t be much because, as the minister said, he was just a servant).

Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle-Île and Viscount de Melun et Vaux, portrait by Èdouard Lacretelle
Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis de Belle-Île and Viscount de Melun et Vaux, portrait by Èdouard Lacretelle. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

The original document shows that the text was written in one hand, and the name in another, indicating that the letter was written by a secretary and then someone else, perhaps the minister himself, added the name to maintain secrecy until the last moment. Of course, this didn’t stop rumors from circulating, including that he was using a false identity and that the individual in question was the very Marshal of France; it so happens that there is no record in the archives of anyone holding that position in 1669. But Eustache Dauger (or D’Auger) de Cavoye, as his full name was, obviously existed.

Born in 1637, the son of a member of Cardinal Richelieu’s guard, he became the head of his family upon the death of his parents and several of his eleven siblings. His life, according to records, was quite turbulent, often involved in eccentric and thorny issues, from a bacchanal held during Easter of 1659 at the castle of Roissy-en-Brie (including an assault on Cardinal Mazarin’s lawyer) to a black mass in which a pig was baptized as a carp so that the participants could eat it, as it was Good Friday. He also killed a drunken young page who insulted him, which led to him losing his position at the palace. This, along with being disinherited, led him into even darker deeds.

Known as L’affaire des poisons (the Poison Affair), it was a scandal that shook the country between 1677 and 1682 when it was discovered that several prominent aristocrats were involved in a plot to murder their spouses to inherit their estates. This network included witchcraft, alchemy, black masses, and the trade of inheritance powders (a euphemistic name given to poison). Thirty-six people were executed, and many more were sentenced to the galleys or prison, but Dauger managed to disappear. Later, family documents showed that he had been serving a sentence in the prison of Saint-Lazare and died there, indicating that despite the name, he was not the same person.

Voltaire portrayed by Nicolas de Largillière
Voltaire portrayed by Nicolas de Largillière. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Returning to the main topic, all the peculiarities surrounding the sad situation of that mysterious prisoner were secondary to the one that truly gave him an enigmatic aura and made him a part of France’s anecdotal history: having to constantly wear a mask that hid his face. It was Voltaire who revealed that detail twice. The first time, in Le Siècle de Louis XIV, a chronicle of the Sun King’s period published in 1751 and treated from a broad perspective (historical, political, cultural, etc.). The second time, in Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, his longest work but probably the least known, a compendium of his personal opinions on a wide range of topics, from religion to history, art, and literature, written between 1770 and 1774.

In those books, Voltaire laid the groundwork for the imagery that would surround the character thereafter. He relied on testimonies from fellow prisoners, whom he interviewed during one of the imprisonments he suffered in the Bastille. Since more than half a century had passed since the prisoner’s death in 1703, it is highly likely that the data gathered by the famous philosopher had undergone the typical distortion of oral transmission.

That’s why he attributed to the prisoner an iron mask that was probably actually made of fabric or velvet – not uncommon in women’s fashion in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example – as well as daring to identify him; and he did so with someone fitting the secrecy that surrounded him: he would be the older brother of Louis XIV, hidden because he was an illegitimate son. His lineage would explain why, mask and condemnation aside, he received rather dignified treatment in prison.

Equestrian portrait of Louis XIV by Pierre Mignard
Equestrian portrait of Louis XIV by Pierre Mignard. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Regarding this attributed identity, Voltaire probably also ignored the existence of Louvois’s letter, as well as other data concerning the presumed Dauger written by the minister, such as being arrested in Calais by Captain Alexandre de Vauroy, garrison commander of Dunkirk, without informing the local governor.

Apparently, this military officer was often absent on the mission to stop Spanish soldiers who mistakenly crossed the border between the Netherlands (then part of the Spanish crown) and France, which was very convenient. From there, he was transferred to Pinerolo, where he led a quiet existence, contrasting with that of other prisoners like the aforementioned Duke of Lauzun, who went mad and tried to escape several times.

Voltaire describes the Man in the Iron Mask as tall and handsome, peculiar considering that no one could see his face, and he was attended by a deaf-mute servant. It was also said of him that he was elegant in dress and even knew how to play the guitar. Since Saint-Mars wrote that he saw him constantly disposed to the will of God and the king, he requested permission from his superiors for the prisoner to serve as valet to Nicolas Fouquet, as mentioned earlier, since Fouquet was not troublesome either. However, two conditions were imposed: it would only be until Le Riviére recovered and only if there were no third parties present. This job seems to contradict the idea that he had royal blood.

Antoine Nompar de Caumont, Duke of Lauzun (by Alexis Simon Belle)
Antoine Nompar de Caumont, Duke of Lauzun (by Alexis Simon Belle). Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Fouquet had been sentenced to life imprisonment and died in prison in 1680. When his cell was searched to collect his belongings, a simulated hole was discovered that communicated with the next one, occupied by Lauzun, indicating that they had been in contact and that possibly the latter had seen the valet. Consequently, the duke was transferred to the other’s cell, being informed that it was due to his companion’s death and that both Le Riviére and his replacement had left Pinerolo because their services were no longer needed. Lauzun must have believed it, as he was released the following year and never said anything about it.

In reality, Saint-Mars would take them both with him in 1681 when he was transferred and appointed governor of the Forte di Exilles, a medieval castle located in what is now the commune of Exilles (Piedmont, near Turin), which had been part of the defensive network of the Savoy and was now in French hands. Le Riviére died six years later, and then Saint-Mars and his prisoner received orders for a new transfer, this time to Île Sainte-Marguerite, the largest of the Lérins (an archipelago in the Mediterranean, off Cannes), where there was another fortress called Fort Royal, used as a prison; for example, Claude-François-Dorothée, Marquis of Jouffroy d’Abbans and inventor of the steamboat before Robert Fulton, was imprisoned there.

The complex is now used as the Museum of the Sea (the ferry takes fifteen minutes), and the renovation includes the cell where the Man in the Iron Mask was interned. He would stay there for eleven years, and by then his existence was not only already of popular knowledge but also that journey from Italy was what originated the legend that Voltaire picked up, that the mask in question was iron, perhaps due to confusion if someone glimpsed it fleetingly or from afar. In any case, in 1698 Saint-Mars was put in charge of the Bastille, and again he went with his prisoner, whom he “accommodated” in a cell with a bed and furniture, but isolated, in the Bertaudière tower (there were eight towers, each with a name, and this one referred to the medieval mason who built it).

Fort Royal, on Île Sainte-Marguerite
Fort Royal, on Île Sainte-Marguerite. Credit: Bernard DUPONT / Wikimedia Commons

A guard named De Rosarges was in charge of bringing him food, although this exclusivity must have been relative considering that even Saint-Mars’s assistant, Etienne Du Junca, saw him and even left testimony that the prisoner wore a mask; of black velvet, to be exact.

Furthermore, in 1711, Princess Elisabeth Charlotte, sister-in-law of Louis XIV (she was married to his younger brother, Philippe), wrote to her aunt Sophia of Hanover about the character, assuring her that he was very pious and was given whatever he asked for, although he was also escorted by two musketeers who were to kill him if he removed the mask. Most likely, she was just echoing popular gossip.

Because, in fact, the captive had expired on November 19, 1703, and his body was buried in the cemetery of Saint-Paul – where those who died in the Bastille were buried – with the aforementioned error on the tombstone. His death only served to enlarge the legend. As we said before, it was rumored that he was a Marshal of France, but he was also identified with General Vivien de Bulonde (sentenced for abandoning Cuneo during the Austrian siege in 1691) and François de Vendôme, Duke of Beaufort, imprisoned in 1643 on the accusation of planning to assassinate Cardinal Mazarin. Going further, there was even talk of Henry, the son of Oliver Cromwell, who would have gone into exile from England after the monarchical restoration.

The Bastille in 1647, drawn by Jacques Callot
The Bastille in 1647, drawn by Jacques Callot. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

None of these theories have any basis, and in the end, the one that became popular was Voltaire’s: the Man in the Iron Mask would be the offspring that Queen Anne of Austria had with the aforementioned Mazarin.

There is nothing to prove it, of course, but the idea continued with multiple variations, such as that he was the natural father of the Sun King and was trying to extort the throne or, even more fancifully, an illegitimate son of the English monarch Charles II. Of all of them, the most successful was the one written by Alexandre Dumas in his novel: he was a twin brother of Louis XIV.

As this book (from which sometimes this episode is published independently) is the third part of the saga of The Three Musketeers, the hypothesis also circulated that the famous prisoner was D’Artagnan (the real one, that is, who spent nine years in the Bastille between 1702 and 1711). After all, if the Man in the Iron Mask continues to be talked about today, it is mainly thanks to the literary and cinematographic adaptations of Dumas.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on August 19, 2019: La enigmática identidad, nunca aclarada, del Hombre de la Máscara de Hierro

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