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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.  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. 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.
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.
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.
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