The Man in the Iron Mask (French: L'Homme au Masque de Fer) is a name given to a prisoner arrested as Eustache Dauger in 1669, held in a number of jails, including the Bastille and the Fortress of Pignerol (today Pinerolo), since he was always held in the custody of Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, for a period of 34 years and who died on 19 November, 1703 under the name of Marchioly, during the reign of Louis XIV of France 1643-1715. The possible identity of this man has been thoroughly discussed and been the subject of many books, mainly because no one ever saw his face, that was hidden by a mask of black velvet cloth.

In the second edition of his Questions sur l'Encyclopédie (French for "Questions on the Encyclopaedia"), published in 1771, the writer and philosopher Voltaire claimed that the prisoner wore an iron mask and was the older, illegitimate brother of Louis XIV. In the late 1840s, the writer Alexandre Dumas elaborated on the theme in the final installment of his Three Musketeers saga: here the prisoner is forced to wear an iron mask and is Louis XIV's twin brother.

What actual facts are known about this prisoner are based mainly on correspondence between his jailer and his superiors in Paris.

The first surviving records of the masked prisoner are from late July 1669, when Louis XIV's minister the Marquis de Louvois sent a letter to Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the prison of Pignerol, 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.

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. Saint-Mars himself was to see Dauger only once a day in order to provide food and whatever else he needed. Dauger was also to be told that if he spoke of anything other than his immediate needs he would be killed, but, according to Louvois, the prisoner should not require much since he was "only a valet".

Historians have noted that the name Eustache Dauger was written in a different handwriting to the rest of the text, suggesting that while a clerk wrote the letter under Louvois's dictation, a third party, very likely the minister himself, added the name afterwards.

The man himself was arrested by Captain Alexandre de Vauroy, garrison commander of Dunkirk, and taken to Pignerol where he arrived in late August. Evidence has been produced to suggest that the arrest was actually made in Calais and that not even the local governor was informed of the event — Vauroy's absence being explained away by him hunting for Spanish soldiers who had strayed into France via the Spanish Netherlands.

The first rumours of the prisoner's identity (as a Marshal of France) began to circulate at this point. According to many versions of this legend, the prisoner wore the mask at all times. It is more probable that he was masked only during transport, such as when he was taken from prison to prison, and when there were outside visitors to the jail.

The prison at Pignerol, like the others at which Dauger was later held, was used for men who were considered an embarrassment to the state and usually only had a handful of prisoners at a time.

Saint-Mars's other prisoners at Pignerol included Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli (or Matthioli), an Italian diplomat who had been kidnapped and jailed for double-crossing the French over the purchase of the important fortress town of Casale on the Italian border. There was also Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis of Belle-Île, a former government minister, surintendant des finances, who had been jailed by Louis XIV on the charge of embezzlement; and the Marquis de Lauzun, who had become engaged to the Duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the King, without the King's consent. Fouquet's cell was above that of Lauzun.

In his letters to Louvois, Saint-Mars describes Dauger as a quiet man, giving no trouble, "disposed to the will of God and to the king", compared to his other prisoners who were either always complaining, constantly trying to escape, or simply mad.

Dauger was not always isolated from the other prisoners. Wealthy and important ones usually had manservants; Fouquet for instance was served by a man called La Rivière. These servants, however, would become as much prisoners as their masters and it was thus difficult to find people willing to volunteer for such an occupation. Since La Rivière was often ill, Saint-Mars applied for permission for Dauger to act as servant for Fouquet. In 1675 Louvois gave permission for such an arrangement on condition that he was only to serve Fouquet while La Rivière was unavailable and that he was not to meet anyone else; for instance, if Fouquet and Lauzun were to meet, Dauger was not to be present.

The fact that the man in the mask served as a valet is an important one. Fouquet was never expected to be released, thus meeting Dauger was no great matter, but Lauzun was expected to be set free eventually and it would have been important not to have him spread rumours of Dauger's existence. Historians have also argued that 17th-century protocol made it unthinkable that a man of royal blood would serve as a manservant — thus very much discrediting those suggestions that Dauger was in any way related to the king.

After Fouquet's death in 1680, Saint-Mars discovered a secret hole between Fouquet and Lauzun's cells. He was sure that they had communicated through this hole without supervision by him or his guards and thus that Lauzun must have been made aware of Dauger's existence. Louvois instructed Saint-Mars to move Lauzun to Fouquet's cell and to tell him that Dauger and La Rivière had been released. In fact they were held in another cell in another part of the prison, their presence there being highly secret.

Lauzun was freed in 1681. Later that same year Saint-Mars was appointed governor of the prison fortress of Exiles (now Exilles in Italy). He went there, taking Dauger and La Riviere with him. La Riviere's death was reported in January 1687 and in May Saint-Mars and Dauger moved to Sainte-Marguerite, one of the Lérins Islands.

It was during the journey to Sainte-Marguerite that rumours spread that the prisoner was wearing an iron mask. Again, he was placed in a cell with multiple doors.

On September 18, 1698, Saint-Mars took up his new post as governor of the Bastille prison in Paris, bringing the masked prisoner with him. He was placed in a solitary cell in the pre-furnished third chamber of the Bertaudière tower. The prison's second-in-command, de Rosarges, was to feed him. Lieutenant du Junca, another officer of the Bastille, noted that the prisoner wore "a mask of black velvet".

The prisoner died on November 19, 1703, and was buried the next day under the name of Marchioly. All his furniture and clothing were reportedly destroyed afterwards.

In 1711, King Louis's sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine, sent a letter to her aunt, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, stating that the prisoner had "two musketeers at his side to kill him if he removed his mask". She described him as very devout, and that he was well treated and received everything he desired. It might be noted though that the prisoner had already been dead for eight years and that the Princess had not necessarily seen him for herself. She was quite likely reporting on rumors she had heard at court.

The fate of the mysterious prisoner — and the extent of apparent precautions his jailers took — created much interest and many legends. There are almost a hundred theories in existence and many books have been written about the case. Some were presented after the existence of the letters was widely known. Later commentators have still presented their own theories, possibly based on embellished versions of the original tale.

Theories about his identity made at the time included that he was a Marshal of France; or the English Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver Cromwell; or François, Duke of Beaufort. Later, many people such as Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas put forward other theories about the man in the mask.

It has even been suggested that he was one of the other famous contemporary prisoners being held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger.


The King's relative Voltaire claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. How serious he was is hard to say. Alexandre Dumas used this theory in his book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, but made the prisoner a twin brother. It is this book that has been adapted for the many film versions of the story.

Hugh Ross Williamson argues that the man in the iron mask was actually the father of Louis XIV. According to this theory, the 'miraculous' birth of Louis XIV in 1638, after Louis XIII had been estranged from his wife for over twenty years, implies that Louis XIII was not the father.

The suggestion is that the King's minister, Cardinal Richelieu, had arranged for a substitute, probably an illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV, to become intimate with the Queen, and father an heir. At the time, the heir presumptive was Louis XIII's brother Gaston d'Orléans, who was also Richelieu's enemy. If Gaston became King, Richelieu would quite likely have lost both his job as minister and his life, so it was in his interests to thwart Gaston's ambitions. Louis XIII also hated Gaston and might thus have agreed to the scheme.

Supposedly the father then left for the Americas, but in the 1660s returned to France with the aim of extorting money for keeping his secret, and was promptly imprisoned. This theory would explain both the secrecy surrounding the prisoner, whose true identity would have destroyed the legitimacy of Louis XIV had it been revealed, and (because of the King's respect for his own father) the comfort of the terms of his imprisonment.

Lending credence to the theory that the man in the mask was the father of Louis XIV are the facts recorded by Will and Ariel Durant. Louis XIII was known to be a flamboyant homosexual who could not tolerate the presence of women. He scandalized visiting dignitaries by receiving them while viewing pornographic homosexual theatrical productions created for his entertainment, avoiding attempts by Richelieu to try to get the Queen under the same roof as the King for at least one night. Finally the Queen and her retinue arrived at the same location as the King and it was on that occasion (and perhaps for several days after) that Louis, willing to sacrifice all for the royal succession, bedded the Queen. Within a normal interim the Queen gave birth to the child who became Louis XIV. When the marked resemblance to the actual father became evident it was deemed necessary to keep his identity a state secret.

Later, when the King's flagrant indiscretions became so widely known that the stability of the throne was threatened, it was decided to acknowledge many of the so-called illegitimate heirs of Louis XIII. Such claims were commonly made by women who had been alone with a king for any reason. By that means the public could dismiss the unacceptable moral situation described in the darker rumors about him. As a result even many otherwise responsible genealogists today accept these illegitimate "heirs" of Louis XIII.

The general

In 1890 Louis Gendron, a French military historian, came across some coded letters and passed them on to Etienne Bazeries in the French Army's cryptographic department. After three years 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.

At the Siege of Cuneo in 1691, Bulonde was concerned about enemy troops arriving from Austria and ordered a hasty withdrawal, leaving behind his munitions and wounded men. Louis XIV was furious and in another of the letters specifically 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". The dates of the letters fit the dates of the original records about the man in the mask. However, in 17th-century French avec un masque would mean "with a person in a mask".

Some believe that the evidence of the letters means that there is now little need of an alternative explanation for the man in the mask. Other sources, however, claim that Bulonde's arrest was no secret, was actually published in a newspaper at the time and that he was released after just a few months. His death is also recorded as happening in 1709, six years after that of the man in the mask.

The valet

In 1801 revolutionary legislator Roux Fazaillac stated that the tale of the masked prisoner was an amalgamation of the fates of two separate prisoners, Ercole Antonio Mattioli (see below) and an imprisoned valet named "Eustache D'auger".

Andrew Lang, in his The Valet's Tragedy and Other Stories (1903), presented a theory that "Eustache Dauger" was a prison pseudonym of a man called "Martin", valet of the Huguenot Roux de Marsilly. After his master's execution in 1669 the valet was taken to France, possibly by capture or subterfuge, and imprisoned because he might have known too much about his master's affairs.

The son of Charles II

In The Man of the Mask (1908), Arthur Barnes presents James de la Cloche, the alleged illegitimate son of the reluctant Protestant Charles II of England, who would have been his father's secret intermediary with the Catholic court of France. Louis XIV could have imprisoned him because he knew too much about French affairs with England.

One of Charles's confirmed illegitimate sons has also been proposed as the man in the mask. This was the Duke of Monmouth. A Protestant, he led a rebellion against his uncle, the Catholic King James II. The rebellion failed and Monmouth was executed in 1685. But in 1768 a writer named Saint-Foix claimed that another man was executed in his place and that Monmouth became the masked prisoner, it being in Louis XIV's interests to assist a fellow Catholic like James who would not necessarily want to kill his own nephew. (Saint-Foix's case was based on unsubstantiated rumours, and allegations that Monmouth's execution was faked.)

The government minister Other popular suspects have included men known to have been held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger. Fouquet himself has been considered, but the fact that Dauger is known to have served as his valet makes this unlikely. During the taking of the Bastille during the French Revolution of 1789, it was reported that a skeleton was found, still chained to the wall, and with an iron mask next to him. An inscription claimed that his name was "Fouquet".

This discovery has since been discredited, however, and it is supposed that it was an attempt by the leaders of the Revolution to make up for the fact that there were no actual political prisoners in the Bastille at the time of its taking. In fact there were only a handful of people serving time for forgery and a couple of lunatics.

The Italian diplomat

Man in the Iron Masque crop
Another candidate, much favoured in the 19th-century, was Fouquet's fellow prisoner Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli (or Matthioli). He was an Italian diplomat who, in 1678, acted on behalf of the debt-ridden Charles IV, Duke of Mantua, in the selling of Casale, a strategic fortified town near the border with France. Because a French occupation would be unpopular, discretion was essential, but, after pocketing his commission once the sale had been concluded, Mattioli leaked the details to France's Spanish enemies who made a bid of their own before the French forces could occupy the town. Mattioli was kidnapped by the French and thrown into nearby Pignerol in April 1679. The French took possession of Casale two years later.

Since the prisoner is known to have been buried under the name "Marchioly", many believe that this is proof enough that he was the man in the mask. The Hon George Agar Ellis reached the conclusion that Mattioli was the state prisoner commonly called The Iron Mask when he reviewed documents extracted from French archives in the 1820s. His book, published in English in 1826, was also translated into French and published in 1830. The German historian, Wilhelm Broecking came to the same conclusion independently seventy years later.

Since that time, letters purportedly sent by Saint-Mars, which earlier historians evidently missed, indicate that Mattioli was only held at Pignerol and Sainte-Marguerite. He was never at Exiles or the Bastille and therefore it is argued that he can be discounted.

Ad blocker interference detected!

Wikia is a free-to-use site that makes money from advertising. We have a modified experience for viewers using ad blockers

Wikia is not accessible if you’ve made further modifications. Remove the custom ad blocker rule(s) and the page will load as expected.