Who Was The Man in The Iron Mask?

Jun 17, 2022 0 comments

The man in the iron mask has been a historical enigma since the 18th century. Born circa 1658, he became a prisoner that hopped across the tightest facilities of France his entire life. But in all this time, his identity remained hidden behind a face mask. Several theories about who he was were floated and shot down over centuries, and only a few have held ground till date.

The man was first imprisoned in Pignerol in 1681. From there, he went from one prison to another, always under high security, until being transferred to Bastille, where he met his death. His grave at St Paul cemetery held the name Marchioly and gave his age as “about 45”. But speculations about his real name and origins had begun long before his passing. Records of the Bastille recorded the incarceration of the man, which were pursued by hundreds of people to find the truth to his life. A steady stream of literature poured over the mystery of the hidden face, though no two works ever agreed on the nitty-gritties. But why was his identity kept a mystery, and how was it maintained?

“The Man in the Iron Mask”. Anonymous print from 1789.

One of the first mentions of the man in the iron mask appeared in the Memoires secrets pour servir a l’Histoire de Perse by an anonymous author. It purportedly revealed only facts that were not available to the common public thus far, but in the process, sparked a controversy that burst into flames whose embers burnt well into the modern centuries.  

Louis XIV had a legitimate son named Louis and an illegitimate son named Gaifer (Louis de Bourbon, comte de Vermandois). According to the story, the man behind the mask was Gaifer. Enmity between the brothers caused Gaifer to strike Louis one day—a crime that was punishable by death under ordinary circumstances. However, after much consideration, the king decided to send his son into the army, where his death was faked by the plague. Gaifer was transported to Sainte-Marguerite for a life sentence with utmost secrecy while the world was mourning by his tombstone.

To maintain the secret of his identity, Gaffer remained veiled in front of the prison guards as well as the chef who brought in his food. His care was handed to a sole commander who knew who he was, and had orders to kill anyone who came about the reality of the situation. Anyone who uncovered the truth was done away with, the secret sent to the grave with him. As the commander was promoted to governorship of Bastille, Gaffer was transported with him too.

The incarceration of the Man in the Iron Mask as recorded in the Bastille prison register on 18 September 1698.

This story had many loopholes though. For instance, the events during Louis XIV’s did coincide with the developments in the story. But his son Louis was born in 1661, and the written clue to Gaifer’s imprisonment, which is a letter, dates back to 1691. The letter was written when Gaifer was already 20 years in prison, a timeline which does not coincide with his year of birth.

However, Voltaire came forward some time later and illustrated a web of events that used this very theory as its roots. The prisoner originally wore only a black velvet mask. It was Voltaire who described an iron clasp in the mask, one which allowed the prisoner to eat without removing his mask. One thing that was different in his account was the origin story: the prisoner was not the son, but the twin brother of Louis XIV. Along with great physical descriptions, Voltaire added to the story details that he got from the physician at the Bastille. The latter had attended to the prisoner many times, having only inspected his tongue and body, but never his face.

However, Voltaire notes that at the time when the prisoner was sent to Sainte-Marguerite, there was no news of any high-ranking person of interest disappearing from the political landscape.

The man in the iron mask in his cell, carving his name on a pewter plate. Lithograph by Georges René Villain (1854-1930)

In 1745, a new theory hypothesised that the man was a foreign noble and the father of Louis XIV. Another historian, Lagrange-Chancel, later related that the prisoner was in fact Duc de Beaufort, as he had learnt during his own time in the Iles-Sainte-Marguerite. Duc de Beaufort brought many disasters to the royal navy during his tenure under Louis XIV, until he was allegedly slain on the battlefield in Candia. His body, however, was never recovered—a fact that conveniently aligned with Lagrange’s story.

The man in the iron mask also became popular in the works of fiction drafted by Alexander Dumas. In his The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, written in the 1840s, the prisoner featured as the illegitimate twin brother of Louis XIV just as Voltaire had described.

Over the years, modern theorists have rejected all these ideas for the immense complications they presented. By now, the prisoner has become Eustache Dauger, who was a valet. Whose valet, no one knows. According to Paul Sonnino, he was the valet of Cardinal Mazarin, the minister of France who accumulated vast wealth by cunningly wresting it from the royal family for generations. However, Eustache knew of his ill deeds and managed to blurt them out at the wrong hour, causing his incarceration.

A pool of questions still remain unanswered, and no one knows for sure who, if he existed, this enigmatic man was. Is it a web political plays, conniving lies and personal enmity that ties around his story, or a mere spool of social gossip and fictional curiosity?

# The Man in the Iron Mask
# LiveScience
# The Current: UC Santa Barbara


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