The unsolved mystery behind the Man in the Iron mask

There have been many stories regarding the Man in the Iron Mask. A French political prisoner imprisoned at Pignerol in northwestern Italy in about 1681, he died at the age of forty-five in the Bastille in Paris in 1698 and was buried in the cemetery of Saint Paul under the name of Marchioly.

The Man in the Iron Mask. Anonymous print (etching and mezzotint, hand-colored) from 1789.. Photo Credit
The Man in the Iron Mask. Anonymous print (etching and mezzotint, hand-colored) from 1789..

His real identity was kept secret, causing many to speculate about who he really was. The controversial French Enlightenment author Voltaire, who himself was imprisoned for his writings, wrote that the prisoner was the brother of King Louis XIV.

Alexander Dumas, famous for his novel, The Three Musketeers, also touched on this theory in his book, Dix Ans plus tard ou le Vicomte de Bragelonne, or The Man in the Iron Mask. This idea has been carried into movies and television shows as well.

Île Sainte-Marguerite.
Île Sainte-Marguerite.

In 1998, MGM released a movie of the same name starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, and Gérard Depardieu.

In this story, the prisoner was the twin brother of King Louis XIV imprisoned so as not to interfere with Louis’ evil and uncaring reign over the starving populace of Paris.

He was rescued by the elderly Musketeers and traded places with the real Louis XIV to save France. The same story was told in the 1977 ITC Entertainment movie starring Richard Chamberlain, Patrick McGoohan, Louis Jourdan, and Ian Holm.

Illustration c.1872
Illustration c.1872

The year 1939 saw the movie release by Edward Small Productions starring Louis Hayward, Warren William, Alan Hale, and Joseph Schildkraut. An animated version of the tale was released by Australian based Burbank Films 1985 using the voices of Colin Friels, John Meillon, and Phillip Hinton.

The BBC released the now lost nine episodes of an acclaimed television series in 1968 with Nicolas Chagrin, Edwin Richfield, Roger Livesey, and Jack Gwillim in the starring roles.

Television series’ such as Mystery Files, Forbidden History, and Histories Mysteries have all touched on this enduring mystery.

There have also been countless TV episode offerings puns on the name, such as The Man in the Iron Shorts from The Love Boat in 1977, The Man in the Iron Cask from Time Gentlemen Please in 2000, and The Man in the Iron Chair from The Drew Carey Show in 1995.

The story of an imprisoned twin brother of the King has long been discounted as fiction and legend. As with many legends the facts and the fiction become so deeply intertwined it is difficult to separate the two.  Historically, it is believed that there was no iron mask.

Most historians agree that the mask was made of black velvet and was only worn when there may have been a danger of the true identity of the prisoner being revealed.  Medically speaking, the human skin would not be able to tolerate close contact with a metal mask for so many years without extreme damage to the tissue.


Fortress of Exilles.
Fortress of Exilles.

The prisoner was moved to several different locations in France during his time in custody, all equivalent to moves made by prison governor Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars.

This suggests that custody of the prisoner was given primarily to the governor. Various beliefs as to the identity of the prisoner range from an unknown English noble to Louis de Bourbon, Comte de Vermandois, the son of Louis XIV and Louise de La Vallière; French playwright, and actor Molière; Ercole Matthioli, a minister of Ferdinand Charles, Duke of Mantua; and Eustache Dauger, a valet.

British historian and author of Who Was the Man in the Iron Mask?, Hugh Ross Williamson claims that the prisoner was the father of Louis XIV.  This theory is widely discounted due to the fact that Louis XIII had been apart from his wife, Anne of Austria the daughter of Philip III of Spain, for over fourteen years before the reported birth of the prisoner.

Additionally, the sexual preferences of Louis XIII have been questioned leading to the theory that he was not even the biological father of Louis XIV. Still another theory is that Dauger is the same Eustache Dauger de Cavoye who was involved in the L’affaire des poisons, a murder scandal in France occurring during Louis XIV’s reign.

As it has become known that de Cavoye was imprisoned at Saint-Lazare in Paris by his family for celebrating Good Friday with a Black Mass and for trading in poisons and aphrodisiacs, this theory has also been discarded.

In 1669, the Marquis de Louvois, minister to Louis XIV, wrote to Saint-Mars advising him that a prisoner, Eustache Dauger would soon be arriving. Saint-Mars was instructed to provide a private cell with only a single visit per day from guards to provide for the prisoner’s immediate needs.

Dauger was forbidden to speak of anything outside of his personal requirements with the threat of a death sentence being used to enforce this edict.

Dauger was reported to have been secretly arrested in Calais by Captain Alexandre de Vauroy, commander of a garrison at Dunkirk. Other prisoners kept in Pignerol at the time were Count Ercole Antonio Matthioli, an Italian diplomat who had betrayed the French regarding the purchase of the town of Casale.

There was also Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île, vicomte de Melun et Vaux, the finance minister who had embezzled from the French treasury and the Marquis de Lauzun, who had, without the King’s knowledge, become engaged to the Duchess of Montpensier, the King’s cousin.

While imprisoned at Pignerol, Dauger became valet to Fouquet, filling in for Fouquet‘s sickly valet, La Rivière.  It was common for aristocratic prisoners to bring a manservant to prison with them.


Iron mask
Iron mask Photo Credit

Whether or not Dauger was a valet before his imprisonment or if he was made to serve Fouquet as an insult or simply for something to occupy his time is unknown. All accounts report Dauger as a quiet, unassuming man who caused no trouble.

It was decided, however, that Duager was never to be present if Fouquet was in the company of anyone else. Having been imprisoned with men that could have at some time been released, it was feared that the existence of Dauger would be made public.

For this reason, Fouquet was told that Dauger and La Rivière had been released when, in fact, they had just been moved to a different part of the fortress.

After Fouquet died in 1680, Dauger was transferred to Exilles and then to Sainte-Marguerite Island before moving back to Paris. Was Dauger truly the man in the mask? Was he a criminal or did he just know too much?

These questions may never be answered with any true validity, but the prisoner would live the rest of his life in seclusion in the Bastille while his legend lives on forever.

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