The elu­sive po­lit­i­cal pris­oner passed away on 19 Novem­ber 1703, with­out any­one ever know­ing his true iden­tity

History Revealed - - TIME CAPSULE NOVEMBER -

“A man is held to be crim­i­nal, some­times, not be­cause he has com­mit­ted a crime him­self but be­cause he knows of one which has been com­mit­ted” Alexan­dre Du­mas in his novel, The Man in the Iron Mask

Fans of the 1990s Leonardo DiCaprio film will know the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ as a friend of the Three Mus­ke­teers, and ill-treated twin brother of King Louis XIV of France. Found by the Mus­ke­teers fes­ter­ing in prison, he is res­cued and seeks re­venge on his for­mer cap­tor. How­ever, this is just one in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the mys­tery that re­mains un­solved over 300 years later. All we know about the masked pris­oner is that he lived an event­ful, yet un­happy, ex­is­tence, shunned by so­ci­ety and hated by the King. No ev­i­dence ex­ists that re­veals how he came to be im­pris­oned.

The­o­ries abound re­gard­ing the iden­tity of the Man in the Iron Mask. The film is based on Alexan­dre Du­mas’ 1847 novel, which pop­u­larised the idea that he was the King’s twin brother, whose ex­is­tence could have threat­ened his royal claim. Rev­o­lu­tion­ary writer Voltaire also be­lieved this might have been the case, and it was these two men who cre­ated the fan­tasy of the cast-iron mask. Though his iden­tity has not been con­clu­sively proved, let­ters un­cov­ered re­cently in the French National Ar­chives point to­wards a man named Eus­tache Dauger.


The first we hear of Dauger is in 1669. One of the King’s min­is­ters, the Mar­quis de Lou­vois, sent a let­ter to prison gover­nor Sain­tMars in Pied­mont, an­nounc­ing the ar­rival of a new in­mate. This was no or­di­nary jail – it was re­served specif­i­cally for a few men con­sid­ered an em­bar­rass­ment to the French na­tion. Un­like other prison­ers, the gover­nor was un­der strict in­struc­tions to keep Dauger silent. Only Saint-Mars him­self could visit, just once a day, to feed the pris­oner. A spe­cial cell was to be built, with two doors that closed upon each other – ap­par­ently to pre­vent any­one from out­side lis­ten­ing to what the pris­oner had to say.

In­deed, the pris­oner was barely al­lowed to speak at all. Lou­vois told the gover­nor that if the pris­oner spoke of any­thing other than his ba­sic needs, he was to be killed im­me­di­ately. Ru­mour has it that two mus­ke­teers were by his side at all times, ready to per­form this grisly duty. How­ever, the pre­sump­tu­ous Valois as­sumed that Dauger would not re­quire much, as he was “only a valet”.

While in prison, he put his skills to use, and ap­par­ently worked as a ser­vant to the dis­graced fi­nance min­is­ter Ni­cholas Fou­quet, who was in­car­cer­ated be­cause he had em­bez­zled money from the King’s trea­sury. But as Dauger was guarded at all times, his jail­ers en­sured that he could say noth­ing of what he knew. Per­haps they need not have wor­ried so much – Saint-Mars al­legedly re­ported back to his

su­pe­ri­ors that his enig­matic pris­oner was an in­cred­i­bly quiet man, “dis­posed to the will of God and to the King”.

When Saint-Mars was pro­moted and trans­ferred to the no­to­ri­ous Bastille in 1698, Dauger went with him. Here, he would spend the last five years of his life in iso­la­tion. An em­ployee of the Bastille noted in his di­ary that the pris­oner wore a black vel­vet mask – not one made from iron, as Du­mas de­scribed.


On 19 Novem­ber 1703, the masked pris­oner died, aged ap­prox­i­mately 45. He was buried the next day un­der the mys­te­ri­ous name ‘Mar­chi­oly’. Fur­ther­more, his cell was stripped bare, white­washed, the wooden fur­ni­ture burned, and metal ob­jects melted down. Clearly, the Bastille wanted to re­move all traces of his ex­is­tence.

Since we know very lit­tle of the truth, the King and his al­lies must have been suc­cess­ful in de­stroy­ing the ev­i­dence. The Man in the Iron Mask’s iden­tity, crime, or deadly se­cret has never been re­vealed. Though Dauger seems a likely can­di­date, at this stage it is still just spec­u­la­tion. In a re­cent book, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia claims that Dauger was a valet who stum­bled upon a royal scam, and was swiftly placed at His Majesty’s plea­sure. Other his­to­ri­ans con­tinue to in­ves­ti­gate whether the masked man was the King’s brother after all, or a mem­ber of the no­bil­ity who had fallen out of favour.

For in­stance, an­other the­ory places the mask onto Ital­ian count Mat­ti­oli, who shared a sim­i­lar name to the ‘Mar­chi­oly’ recorded on the pris­oner’s death cer­tifi­cate. Mat­ti­oli me­di­ated the pur­chase of an Ital­ian fortress owned by the Duke of Man­tua to the French King, but greed­ily stashed the money away for him­self, and hu­mil­i­ated Louis by re­veal­ing the pur­chase to France’s en­e­mies. He was swiftly in­car­cer­ated and placed un­der soli­tary con­fine­ment.

The lack of an­swers to the ques­tion of the man’s iden­tity hasn’t taken the shine off this cu­ri­ous case one bit. Nu­mer­ous films, tele­vi­sion shows and books con­tinue to feed our in­ter­est in his­tory’s most elu­sive pris­oner. What­ever the true story is, it has great im­pli­ca­tions for the old French royal dy­nasty – who were over­thrown, partly due to their prof­li­gate spend­ing and wide­spread cor­rup­tion. Did the Iron Mask discover some­thing that the monar­chy re­alised could cost them their throne, or even their lives? Frus­trat­ingly, we might never know.

Leonardo DiCaprio in the 1998 film, The Man in the Iron Mask

When Saint-Mars was trans­ferred to the Bastille prison in Paris, the mys­te­ri­ous con­vict moved with him

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