The Truth Behind ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’

The Truth Behind ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’

Patrick Lynch - May 20, 2017

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’ Three Musketeers cycle of novels which covers the adventures of D’Artagnan, 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’s 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.

The Truth Behind ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’
Depiction of the Man in the Iron Mask. Wikimedia

The Real Man in the Iron Mask

Dumas based his novel on the real-life story of a man who was arrested in 1669 or 1670 and held in a variety of prisons including the Bastille until his death in 1703. In what was a bizarre situation, the prisoner had the same jailer throughout his sentence (Benigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars) and never removed his mask. While Dumas wrote that the prisoner wore a mask of iron, most historians now believe it was made from black velvet.

The plight of the prisoner came to light in 1698 after he was languishing in a prison in Savoy. The masked man quickly became the talk of Paris as various theorists tried to work out his identity. Dumas wrote that the man was King Louis XIV’s twin brother who was born seconds before the monarch. This meant the prisoner was the legitimate ruler of France. However, even Louis refused to break the convention that stated you could not kill a prince of royal blood. As a result, the unfortunate royal spent decades in prisons across France and Italy.

The legendary writer Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717 and claimed the prisoner wore a mask of iron since 1661. He suggested the man was the illegitimate brother of Louis XIV. However, the claims of Voltaire and Dumas don’t stand up to scrutiny. The earliest accounts of the man in the iron mask date from 1669 when Saint-Mars, then the governor of Pignerol Prison, received a letter from the Marquis de Louvois. In the letter, the Marquis wrote that a man named Eustache Dauger was getting transported to the prison and outlined a series of special requests.

First, Dauger was to be placed in a cell with several doors which closed upon one another to prevent anyone from hearing anything the prisoner had to say. Saint-Mars was told he could only see the prisoner once a day to provide his daily food, drink and anything else he wished. If Dauger spoke about anything other than his needs, Saint-Mars had to execute him. Finally, the Marquis suggested that because the man was ‘only a valet,’ he wouldn’t require much. It does appear as if Dauger is the most likely suspect, but not everyone is convinced.

The Truth Behind ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’
Iron Mask.

Other Theories

The theories behind the man in the iron mask’s identity range from slightly plausible to complete fantasy. Evidence suggests that only one other man, Ercole Mattioli, was in prison during the timeframe of the masked prisoner. Mattioli was an Italian count who was kidnapped and imprisoned after attempting to double-cross the king during political negotiations. His surname is similar to Maricholy, the pseudonym the masked man was buried under when he died in 1703. While he was certainly in prison for a long time, Mattioli was arrested in 1679, over a decade after the prisoner’s arrival at Pignerol. Also, he died in 1694 which was nine years before the recorded death of the masked man.

In 1893, Etienne Bazeries, a French military cryptanalyst, broke The Great Cipher which was a series of encrypted letters and documents. In one of the letters, Louis XIV wrote to his minister of war regarding a military commander named Vivien de Bulonde. He was guilty of desertion after an attack by the Austrians and left injured comrades behind. Bazeries broke most of the code which said the cowardly soldier was imprisoned at Savoy and permitted to walk the battlements during the day with a ‘330 309′.

Bazeries did not crack the last piece of code but assumed ‘330′ meant ‘masque’ and ‘309′ was a full stop. As there is no other mention of the word masque in the entire Cipher, it is impossible to verify this claim.

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’s valet. Mazarin was France’s 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’ 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’s servant became ill on a regular basis, Saint-Mars asked for permission to hire Dauger as Fouquet’s 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’s identity has probably been revealed.