Dear Straight Dope:
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?
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 day 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 repression.
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 (père), 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 these documents.
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 in 1698.
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 position.
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 identity secret.
- 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.
The argument for Matthioli:
The Mystery of The Iron Mask, by Theodore M.R. von Keler, published by Haldeman-Julius Company (1923)
The argument for Dauger:
The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Stories, by Andrew Lang, London (1901). A summary can be found at www.blackmask.com
The Man Behind the Iron Mask, by John Noone, published by Palgrave-Macmillan (1998). This book has a comprehensive explanation of almost every theory, a detailed bibliography, maps and pictures.
SDStaff Dex, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.