1703 THE ‘MAN IN THE IRON MASK’ DIES IN PRISON
The elusive political prisoner passed away on 19 November 1703, without anyone ever knowing his true identity
“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.
ONLY A VALET?
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.
DESTROYING THE EVIDENCE
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