I've never seen the film on the subject, and being quite certain I never want to
see another film starring Leonardo DiCaprio I probably never will see it. So I ask
you, who was the Man in the Iron Mask?
I've asked many people about this guy who apparently spent 34 years in the Bastille
wearing a metal contraption on his face, and one passing know-it-all told me that
apparently the masked man scratched some words on a plate and dropped it out the
window into the river, where it was fished out by a fisherman. The fisherman handed
it in to the authorities, who would have killed him, had they not discovered he couldn't
read. I don't think I believe the above story, but I ask you, what should I believe?—Raven,
SDSTAFF Dex replies:
It's hard to know what to believe. There has been speculation, romantic literature,
and analysis of all sorts for 300 years, with countless novels and theories by the
likes of Voltaire, Pagnol and Jung. Most of the details that have come down to us
are strictly flights of fancy. But the story wasn't manufactured from whole cloth.
There really was a man in a mask.
First, let's set the scene. We're in the reign of Louis XIV of France, the Sun King,
who ruled from 1643 to 1715. It's the era of the "divine right of kings"—the king's
power was absolute and unquestioned. To Louis XIV is attributed the quote: "L'état,
c'est moi!" (I am the state.) At the other end of society were prisoners, many jailed
by the king, who could imprison someone for any reason that struck his fancy. Political
intrigue? Prison. Inappropriate remarks? Prison. Fashion faux pas? Maybe not prison,
but who knows? Louis XIV condemned folks for good reasons and bad, with a “carefree
flourish of the royal quill.”
Our first record of a masked prisoner is from a notebook kept by Lieutenant Etienne
du Junca, an official of the Bastille from October 1690 until his death in September
1706. His notebooks are "the most important and reliable source of information we
have about the management and conduct of the Bastille under Louis XIV," according
to Theodore M.R. von Keler.
The entry for Thursday, September 18, 1698, records the 3 p.m. arrival of a new governor
of the Bastille, Bénigne d'Auvergne de Saint-Mars. Du Junca writes that Saint-Mars
"brought with him, in a litter, a longtime prisoner, whom he had in custody in Pignerol,
and whom he kept always masked, and whose name has not been given to me, nor recorded."
Saint-Mars had been at Pignerol from 1665 to 1681, so the Man in the Mask had been
imprisoned for at least 18 years prior to his arrival at Bastille, and perhaps as
long as 33 years.
Du Junca's later comments indicate that the prisoner was well treated, and had no
complaints. He was permitted to attend Mass on Sundays and holidays, but had to keep
his face covered by a "black velvet mask." Du Junca's report is the only mention
of a mask, and note that it is black velvet, not iron.
Five years later, on November 19, 1703, Du Junca records the death and burial of
the "unknown prisoner, who has worn a black velvet mask since his arrival here in
1698." Saint-Mars had the name "Marchialy" inscribed in the parish register, but
spelling in those days were subject to what John Noone calls "orthographical disorder."
Those are the bare facts, but the legend started almost immediately. The prisoner
aroused some curiosity at the time. Within a few months of the arrival of the masked
prisoner at the Bastille, stories were already circulating, each one wilder and more
improbable than the last.
The stories reached new heights after the prisoner's death. By 1711, we have letters
from Princess Palatine, the second wife of Louis XIV's brother, speculating about
the "man who lived masked for long years in the Bastille and masked he died there."
Other prisoners later claimed they had known the Man in the Mask, and told their
invented stories to different writers, such as Voltaire, who exaggerated them even
more. Speculation ran wild over the next two centuries.
I'll give you a handful of legends, to give you the flavor.
That the mask was made of iron. Voltaire, writing in 1751, said it was riveted on,
and described in detail a "movable, hinged lower jaw held in place by springs that
made it possible to eat wearing it." The only reliable contemporary reference we
have to the mask clearly calls it black velvet, not iron, but the "iron mask" caught
the public's imagination.
That there were two soldiers always at his side ready to shoot him if he ever unmasked.
That he was treated with extreme courtesy by his jailors. The governor of the prison
personally took care of his linens and meals. The governor and jailors removed their
hats in his presence, remained standing until he invited them to sit, served his
meals on silver plate, and so forth—in short, etiquette accorded royalty. This legend
was widespread, and makes a great story, but prison records show exactly what supplies
were furnished—and they were pretty humble. Rooms in the Bastille before 1745 were
unfurnished, as the majority of political prisoners preferred to provide their own
furnishings. Du Junca's notebooks record that the masked prisoner had no furniture
of his own, instead using the standard furniture provided by the governor. This implies
that the Man in the Mask was not wealthy, and certainly wasn't treated "like royalty."
That each governor of the Bastille had to swear to the king not to reveal the identity
of the masked prisoner to anyone, except to the successor governor. This legend is
silly—there was only one governor of the Bastille during the imprisonment of the
masked prisoner, namely, Saint-Mars.
The story you recounted: that the prisoner wrote a message with the point of a knife
on a silver plate, and tossed the plate out the window into the river. It was found
by a fisherman who brought it back to the prison, and was immediately questioned
by the governor whether he had read what was on the plate. He said that he did not
know how to read. He was imprisoned and interrogated and investigated, and it was
proved that he had no schooling and could not read or write his own name. The governor
then freed him, saying, "It is your great luck that you can't read!" This story was
recounted by Voltaire in the 1750s. A similar story is told about a shirt of fine
quality, covered with writing, found by a barber and returned to Saint-Mars; two
days later, the barber was dead.
The reality is that prisoners did try to communicate with the outside world, and
that Saint-Mars was concerned about such attempts. One prisoner (Pierre Slaves) may
have used a pewter plate (not silver) and a shirt. The plate wasn't thrown out the
window; the prisoner was trying to reach other prisoners (and perhaps a laundress).
Guards foiled the attempts; no outsiders were involved.
That after the death of the prisoner, all his furnishings were cleared away. This
is true, but not special; it was standard procedure when a prisoner died in his room.
A more elaborate version has it that the prisoner's belongings (clothes, sheets,
paper) were burned and the room scrubbed and repainted.
In short, romantic fancy ran wild. But some of the legends had a grain of truth.
Louis XV is said to have told Madame du Pompadour that the masked prisoner was a
"minister of an Italian prince." Louis XVI told Marie Antoinette that he was a political
intriguer from Mantua in Italy. These comments are worth remembering, for they point
to one of two likely suspects.
The myth of the iron mask took hold in the popular imagination. In the late 1700s,
with revolution in the air, the growing discontent with royalty and tyranny found
symbolic expression in the masked prisoner, confined for unknown reasons for 30 years,
and dying masked. His prison, the Bastille, was the ultimate symbol of tyranny and
When the Bastille was stormed in 1789, reports were circulated that the invaders
had found the skeleton of a man, with an iron mask riveted around his head, chained
to walls in one of the dank, hidden lower prisons. The discovery of an iron mask
was a great coup in public relations, symbolizing the dreadful excesses of the monarchy.
It was especially poignant if the poor prisoner were a "skeleton in the cupboard
of the French Royal House" (as John Noone puts it). As such, the myth (then and now)
far outweighed the reality.
In 1855, an iron mask, with a Latin inscription, was put on public display as the
"identical mask which the famous prisoner in the Bastille had worn during his incarceration."
People paid admission to see this wonderful (but wholly fabricated) relic, which
may still be seen in the museum at Langres.
So, who was the Man in the Mask? Two approaches have been used to solve the mystery,
the speculative and the historical.
The Speculative Approach
As early as 1715, authors and political pundits approached the mystery of the masked
prisoner by trying to answer the main questions: Why was the prisoner masked? Most
people, including Voltaire, reasoned (then and now) that the mask must have been
used to conceal his identity, or at least, to hide his face. In those days, there
were not many faces that might have been recognized by the average prison guard or
person in the street. Hence, the reasoning goes, the prisoner must have been famous
himself or strongly resembled someone famous like royalty.
Other questions included: Why not just kill him? And why such enormous secrecy that
not even du Junca knew who he was?
The facts were mixed with the legends, and there have been dozens of suggestions,
many involving some sort of royal connection. A few of the major theories:
The most famous story with a royal connection holds that the masked prisoner was
Louis XIV's identical twin brother, hidden at birth to avoid complications in the
succession, raised secretly far away from court, and imprisoned when he discovered
his true identity. The mask, obviously, was to hide the resemblance to the King.
The ultimate version is "The Man in the Iron Mask" by Alexandre Dumas, published
in 1850 as part of his trilogy on the Three Musketeers. All the movies (there have
been at least a dozen in Europe and the U.S. since 1910) are based on this popular
book. The story is tempting and romantic, but highly implausible and without any
supporting evidence whatsoever.
In the 1770s, Voltaire hinted that the prisoner was an older half-brother of Louis
XIV with a family resemblance, but not necessarily a twin, such as the Duke of Beaufort.
Such a person might have raised complications about the royal succession, hence the
need for absolute secrecy.
Other suggested that the older half-brother was the illegitimate son of the Queen
Mother, imprisoned to prevent a scandal, and having nothing to do with the succession.
Another version of this holds that the man in the mask was a woman, an illegitimate
daughter of the Queen Mother!
A very amusing version of the "older royal brother" was circulated in 1801, under
the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte. While in jail, the man in the mask was married, and
fathered a son; the infant was taken by his mother to Corsica and given his mother's
name of ... ready? ... Bonaparte. Thus Napoleon Bonaparte was the direct descendent
of the rightful king of France!
Or, he was a black politician whose dalliance with the Queen resulted in an illegitimate
daughter. He was masked because he would be identifiable, being black.
If not an older brother or a twin of Louis XIV, perhaps his illegitimate son, such
as the Count of Vermandois? Such stories often included wonderful embellishments
such as being imprisoned because he struck his older brother, the Dauphin, heir to
the throne. Alas, Vermandois died in 1682, too early to be the masked prisoner.
But there's no reason to allow death to discourage us from a candidate. After all,
this is the highest level political intrigue, and death can be faked. Conspiracy
theorists, go wild!
Some have suggested Molière, the famous playwright, as a candidate. Molière's death
in 1673 was faked, and he was concealed behind the mask until his true death 40 years
later at age 83.
Then there are those who argue the Man in the Mask was English, such as the Duke
of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles II involved in religious and political
rebellion against his father. Or perhaps the Man in the Mask was an illegitimate
son of Oliver Cromwell.
There are dozens of such candidates, especially when we disregard minor inconveniences
like well-documented deaths. Those who argue any particular theory usually have some
plausible set of coincidences to bolster their case. But, ultimately, their arguments
tend to require that we overlook some historical contradiction or inconsistency.
In the last century or so some have taken a more analytical approach, sifting through
the documentation and historical evidence. While there are few reliable documents
about the Man in the Mask himself, there are prison records, letters to and from
the governor Saint-Mars, and so forth. Deductions and assumptions can be based on
The starting point for this type of analysis is that the Du Junca reports the masked
prisoner was brought to the Bastille in 1698 by Saint-Mars, as his "longtime prisoner"
from Pignerol. Pignerol was a fortress-prison that belonged to France near Turin
in Italy. Saint-Mars was governor there from 1665 until 1681.
From Pignerol, Saint-Mars was transferred to the prison Exiles from 1681 to 1687,
and then to Sainte Marguerite in the Gulf of Cannes until 1698, when he became governor
of the Bastille in Paris and brought his masked "longtime prisoner" with him. Saint-Mars
then served as governor of the Bastille until his death in September 1708.
So the game is to find a prisoner in Pignerol in 1681 (or earlier) who was later
in Sainte Marguerite and could have been brought masked to the Bastille with Saint-Mars
I'll spare you the vast amount of detail, deductions, and reconstruction of records,
letters, arrest warrants, etc. There were only five prisoners in Pignerol when Saint-Mars
left in 1681, and three are easily eliminated—for instance, by dying prior to 1698.
There are thus only two candidates.
(1) Antonio Ercole Matthioli
Matthioli was an unscrupulous politician from Mantua, in Italy, who was involved
in negotiations between the Duke of Mantua and the Republic of Venice, using France
as an intermediary. (At the time, remember, Italy was not unified but comprised a
large number of small but powerful states.) Matthioli double-crossed everyone in
sight, and "caused disturbances in at least five countries, which came near leading
to general war," according to van Keler. This put the King of France in a very awkward
Matthioli was kidnapped by the French in May 1679 in Italy and hustled off to the
mountain fortress of Pignerol. The arrest warrant contained a postscript: "No person
shall know what has become of this man" by special order of the King. The French
secretary of state, Louvois, instructed the governor to give him only absolute necessities,
and nothing of comfort, saying this was at the special request of the King. Matthioli
almost became deranged from this treatment.
He did not accompany Saint-Mars when he was transferred to the prison at Exiles in
1681, but was transferred to the prison at Sainte Marguerite in March 1694, so meets
our criteria. After 1694, Mattioli disappears from official correspondence.
Arguments in favor of Matthioli as the masked prisoner include:
When the Masked Prisoner was buried in 1703, Saint-Mars gave the parish register
of the church the name "Marchioly." This is an easily explained corruption of Matthioli—spelling
wasn't standardized in those days. In his correspondence, Saint-Mars occasionally
wrote "Marthioly" for "Matthioli." Of course, "Marchioly" could have been a false
name, if Saint-Mars were still concerned about secrecy.
As previously noted, Louis XV and Louis XVI mentioned an Italian intriguer from Mantua.
This is consistent with Matthioli, but with no other prisoner at Pignerol during
the period in question.
Arguments against Matthioli:
Matthioli may have died in 1694. Reference is made to a prisoner who died at Sainte-Marguerite.
Circumstantial evidence is pretty convincing that Matthioli is the only prisoner
who fits the description. Obviously, if Matthioli died in 1694, he could not have
been the masked prisoner of 1698.
There is a letter to Saint-Mars from the secretary of state in 1697, cautioning that
he not ever "explain to anyone what it is your longtime prisoner did." But everyone
knew what Matthioli did; there was no secret or mystery about it. His crime and punishment
were reasonably well known. The cause and place of his imprisonment were published
in newspapers as early as 1682. There was no need to keep his face masked and his
It's possible Matthioli wore a mask from choice. It was an Italian custom among the
upper classes to mask one's face when going out in the sun, and Matthioli may have
taken this custom to extremes and masked himself.
(2) Eustace Dauger
The more likely candidate is a prisoner named Eustace Dauger (or some similar spelling),
who was a valet. The name Dauger is likely false, and there is considerable speculation
about who Dauger might have been. The King's arrest warrant restricts Dauger from
having any contact with anyone. Saint-Mars himself must feed Dauger, and the secretary
of state writes to Saint-Mars, "You must never, under any pretenses, listen to what
he may wish to tell you. You must threaten him with death if he speaks one word except
about his actual needs. He is only a valet, and does not need much furniture."
Dauger was transferred from Pignerol with Saint-Mars to Exiles in 1681 and to Sainte
Marguerite in 1687, so meets our criteria.
The arguments in favor of Dauger:
In 1687, when Saint-Mars went to the fortress-prison of Sainte Marguerite, he brought
Dauger with him in a sedan chair covered over with oilcloth. Saint-Mars did not use
a litter because he feared it might break down and Dauger could be seen. Thus, Saint-Mars
wanted to keep Dauger's face hidden. The twelve-day journey in a closed chair nearly
killed Dauger, and his arrival at Sainte Marguerite in this way aroused a great deal
of excitement, curiosity, and speculation.
Dauger accompanied Saint-Mars through all his prison postings, unlike Matthioli.
If the prisoner was to be handled so confidentially by Saint-Mars, it makes sense
that he would stay with Saint-Mars all that time. This is consistent with the Man
in the Mask being called Saint-Mars' "longtime" prisoner.
We already noted the letter to Saint-Mars from the secretary of state, cautioning
that he not ever "explain to anyone what it is your longtime prisoner did." While
everyone knew what Matthioli did, no one knew what Dauger had done—in fact, no one
knows to this day.
The main objection to the Dauger theory is: why the mask? Why the fuss? Why all the
secrecy? He was only a valet, why not just kill him? And the related question: who
was this Dauger, anyway?
The two most common theories:
(a) Dauger was a valet named Martin, whose master was Roux de Marsilly, a French
Huguenot who tried to stir up a Protestant alliance against France. Marsilly was
publicly tortured to death in Paris in 1669, and his ex-valet Martin was imprisoned
under the name Eustace Dauger. The authorities must have assumed that Dauger knew
details of Marsilly's plots and secrets, and he was imprisoned to divulge them. Dauger
said that he knew nothing. Thus, Dauger was probably imprisoned for something the
authorities THOUGHT he had seen or heard or knew. (The name "Marchialy" under which
the masked prison was buried could have been a misspelling of "Marsilly.")
He was a valet named "Danger" or "D'angers" who was hired by the secretary of state
to commit a political assassination by poisoning, which he botched. He was imprisoned
and kept silent so as not to incriminate the secretary of state.
Of course, speculation doesn't stop there. Other theories about Dauger include:
He was Eustache Dauger de Cavoya, a black sheep from an important family. He was
mixed up with Satanism, homosexuality, and depraved criminals. He was involved in
potential scandals with women close to the king, hence forbidden to speak and locked
up for life. A problem: de Cavoye was imprisoned at Saint-Lazare, and so is unlikely
to be our Dauger.
Marcel Pagnol speculated in The Secret of the Iron Mask (1965) that Dauger was, in
fact, the identical twin brother of Louis XIV. John Noone comments: "That brings
us back, with a cavalier flourish, to square one!"
But, in any case, why the mask?
If Dauger was Martin, then he was initially imprisoned for interrogation, to find
out what he knew. He probably knew nothing, and so repeated questioning got nowhere.
However, never underestimate the power of "red tape," even three hundred years ago.
Once he was "caught in the toils of the system," says Andrew Lang, sheer inertia
and force of habit kept him there.
An intriguing argument is made by John Noone, in his comprehensive book The Man Behind
the Iron Mask. He contends that Dauger wore the mask only occasionally, and that
the secrecy and mystery seemed to increase in the later years of imprisonment. Noone
suggests that was a strategy of Saint-Mars, the governor of all the prisons where
Dauger was incarcerated, to gain attention. We know that Saint-Mars had some important
prisoners at Pignerol, such as Nicolas Fouquet and Comte de Lauzun—high level politicians.
Being in charge of such people brought Saint-Mars to the attention of the highest
and mightiest in the land. Saint-Mars had an inflated sense of his own importance.
When Fouquet died and Lauzun was released, Saint-Mars was no longer in the spotlight.
However, he still had a political prisoner in his care, namely Dauger. Yeah, he's
only a valet, but what better way to remind the powers-that-be of Saint-Mars' importance
than to play up the importance of his prisoner? Noone posits that Saint-Mars himself
helped spread rumors about the identity of his "longtime" prisoner, made him wear
a mask in public, and tried to stoke gossip. In short, the mask may have been a publicity
ploy by Saint-Mars.
One possible explanation of the Man in the Mask is that two men's histories (Matthioli
and Dauger) have been conflated with stories about other prisoners to create one
myth. Dauger is at the center of a number of legends about the Man in the Mask. For
instance, Dauger was the prisoner carried from Exiles to Sainte Marguerite in a covered
sedan chair so that no one would see his face. The story about the prisoner who wrote
a message on his shirt and on a pewter plate, to bring attention of his plight to
the outside world, is also part of the myth, as is the Iron Mask itself. These dramatic
stories were romanticized and became associated with the Man in the Mask.
If Dauger is the Man in the Mask, that would combine the reality and several legends
fairly well. However, if Matthioli was the Man in Mask at the Bastille, then the
story of Dauger became a legend associated with the mysterious prisoner. Thus, for
example, the "velvet mask" of 1698 and the covered sedan chair of 1687 may have become
combined into the mythos, that the man was masked for his entire imprisonment. So
the Man in the Mask is potentially not one individual but two, whose stories are
combined (and spiced up with stories of other prisoners) into one legend.
We may never know, but the debate continues. The results of the last International
Symposium on the Iron Mask are presumably available. Everyone needs a hobby.
By the way, the 300th anniversary of the death of the Man in the Mask (November 19,
1703) is coming up. This gives you plenty of time to prepare for a blowout party.