The man behind the Iron Mask

On November 19, 1703, a man who had spent 40 years of his life in several prisons throughout France was buried in Bastille’s Saint Paul Cemetery. Scripts by Voltaire and, mainly, Alexander Dumas, made this man one of the most famous prisoners of all ages, even if his name was never revealed. He is known as the man behind the Iron Mask. 


The Sources

As it appears, the story of the imprisoned man was known among the nobles from the time the man was still alive. The first written report is found in Voltaire’s “Le siecle de Louis XIV”. Voltaire was imprisoned in Bastille for about a year, back in 1717. Being there, he met people who had come in contact with the mysterious prisoner and others, who only heard various narrations about his story.

Different interesting reports can be found in books from that period, such as «Le mémoire secret pour servir a l’ histoire de la Percy» by an unknown writer, writings by Frederic-Melchior Grimm referring to the time of the French Revolution and  Etienne de Junca’s diary. The last, was a deputy commander of Bastille at the time of the prisoner’s death.

Finally, the most known artwork is Alexander Dumas’ (“The man behind the Iron Mask ”, which was the third and last book of the series that started with “The 3 Musketeers”) who made the story known to the public. Dumas’ book, even if it was a fictional interpretation of the story, includes many valuable historical facts while the writer himself, has done a very detailed research concerning the subject.

Contemporary bibliography about the subject is rich as well, given the fact that the research concerning the definition of the prisoner’s identity, is a favorite academic subject.


The Story

The exact chronology of the prisoner’s custody is unknown. It is estimated though in the 1660’s decade. Voltaire states that he was taken into custody in 1661, but it is more probable that the event happened in 1669. The place of his confinement was fort Pignerol, near the Alps, where he stayed until 1681.

At the same time Pignerol’s commander was Saint Mars, who is an important character in the story of the man behind the iron Mask, as after their first meeting at Pignerol they were never to part again. Saint Mars went on to transfer the prisoner to every prison he serviced afterwards, until his last stop at Bastille.

In 1681, Saint Mars takes over command of Exiles near Pignerol, and brings along with him the mysterious prisoner. Six years later, in 1687, Saint Mars moves to the prison of Sainte Marguerite Island, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This happens to be the first public appearance of the prisoner. His transfer was made using a chair covered with oilcloth while the prisoners face was locked behind an iron mask.

In 1698 the prisoner is transferred to Bastille with Saint Mars as commander. In this transfer, the prisoner wears just a velvet mask that covers his face.

The conquest of Bastille by the Parisians in 1789 gives us the last historic element about the case. A note, dated 1703, was discovered in the prison diary, made by the prison’s second in command Etienne de Junca, recording the death of the man behind the velvet mask. It also states that he was buried in Saint Paul’s cemetery. The name in the death certificate was Marchioly and on the tombstonee M. de Marciel.

Only a few things are known about the stranger’s life inside the prisons that he stayed. Most of the information comes from Voltaire, who gathered that knowledge while talking to prisoners and guards, mainly in Bastille. Other information comes from unknown scripts of the 17th century and the early post-rebellion era.

The general image that is formed using those sources describes the unknown prisoner as a tall man with good manners and at the time of his death (1703), between 45 and 60 years of age. It seems more likely that the man died when he was 60 years old according to the reports of his second transfer (1781, Pignerol-Exiles), that tell us about a mature rather than a young man.

It is very possible that the prisoner was not obliged to wear the mask al the time. There are certain hints that the mantle of mystery, starts to cover the prisoner only after 1687 and his transfer from Exiles to Saint Marguerites’ prison while it starts to get bigger after his transfer to Bastille. On the other side, there is a version of the story which states that it was forbidden for him to communicate in any written or oral form, not only with the outside world but even with his guards who had had orders to kill him at once in case he tried to contact them. At the same time, it was their duty to treat the prisoner with respect and credit.

Rumor has it that the prisoner’s cell was specially configured with 3 subsequent doors and locks which led to his cell, the last of them accessed only by Saint Mars. This cell configuration is reported to be found in all the 4 prisons where the prisoner was held. Saint Mars was totally responsible about his guarding and had straight correspondence with Louis XIV’s minister Louvois, about subjects concerning the prisoner.

This is the basic contour of the man behind the iron mask history. It is difficult although, especially after all those years, to evaluate the quality and reliability of such information. It is also hard to place the story in its correct dimensions without referring generally to the sociopolitical condition of the era.


Louis XIV’s Kingdom

The 17th century is to many people the beginning of the end for the French Monarchy. The century starts with Louis XIII’s enthroned in 1610, aged 9. His kingship coincides with Cardinal’s Richelieu time, who, acting like an omnipotent prime minister, set the foundations for the French public administration. In 1615 Louis XIII married Ann of Austria who was the daughter of the King of Spain but their marriage was mostly a hate relationship. Her erotic relationship with the Duke of Buckingham as well as her catholic origin in a time when France and the Protestant countries were allies (30 years war), led to Richelieu blaming her for high treason a charge which she earned remission for.

It took apparently 23 years for a crown prince to be born. This prince was Louis in 1638 and another prince called Philippe, born in 1640. Since the prince’s birth there were many rumors around, doubting whether the child was the King’s son, based on the fact that the Royal couple had bad relations.

Young Louis was crowned King by the name of Louis XIV in 1643 after his father’s sudden death. Due to his young age, his mother took over the custody while the real Governor of France was Cardinal Mazarin. Louis XIV took over control of the Kingdom in 1661 after Mazarin died. He was the King of France until 1715 for 72 years with his rule being the longest in the entire European history.

One and only phrase is enough to describe the time of Louis’s Kingdom “ I am the State” (L’ état c’ est moi). The precedent governing of France by the Cardinals such as Richelieu and Mazarin had made the French Public Administration capable of functioning in a fully centralized way which allowed Louis the XIV to control everything within his country.

One of the main aspects of Louis’ rule is the building of the Versailles Palace, in which a large court was lodged. At the same time, a majestic ritual was developed, which was concentrated around “King Sun’s” persona, as Louis is known in history. He married the Spanish Princess Mary-Teresa (1660) and they had seven children. Louis also had several relationships and illegitimate offsprings.

His Kingdom was also an era of wars and religious unrest. In 1685 the Nantes Edict was abolished and a series of Protestant pogroms began. This caused numerous conflicts with Protestant States as well as the bleeding of the royal financial and human resources.

In a time when absolute monarchy reached its peak, many nobles were imprisoned and executed without specific accusations while this phenomenon was more common for the common people. One of the most representative examples is Fouquet, minister of Economics, who was jailed in Pignerol in 1661 (Louis was inspired by his mansion to build the Versailles Palace) and died in prison in 1680, probably poisoned. Another famous prisoner was Count de Lauzun a military officer who was jailed in Pignerol in 1671, having fallen in disgrace although he was set free in 1681.

This is the condition in France in the time when the mysterious prisoner was transferred around the Kingdom’s prisons.



The major question for all of the researchers of the case is the reason for hiding the prisoner’s identity. The answer is obvious: The prisoner’s face was known to people or had a certain similarity to another famous person. It is worth to point out that the 17th Century is a period when only a few people gained facial publicity given the fact that photographs and television were not yet invented.

Another important question, if the stories concerning the exclusion of communicating with the prisoner are accepted, is: what kind of secret did he know? A secret of such importance that remained dangerous even 30 years after his arrest.  Furthermore why didn’t the King order his death in order to ensure his silence?

A series of assumptions were built around those questions, some of which are more credible than others.

The most common assumption is the one that Alexander Dumas develops in his theory. According to this, the mysterious prisoner is no other than Louis XIV’s twin brother. After they were born one of the twins was removed and his identity was kept secret in order to avoid any succession problems. This fact explains why the prisoner had to wear the mask, as his face looked very much like that of “The King Sun”. Another version of the same story claims that the prisoner was an elder half-brother and not a twin to Louis XIV whose father was the Duke of Buckingham. In fact the theory of “Royal relation” belongs to Voltaire and Dumas simply developed it as a novel. This hypothesis, despite its exciting plot, is highly unlikely. The birth of any successor to the throne was a great happening for the court. During labor a lot of people were present thus making the birth of twins a secret shared by too many people. Some of them, actually, quite a lot of them, would not hesitate to use this information as a weapon against Louis XIV, whose absolute governing created more enemies than friends amongst the nobles.  Louis XIV’s practices in conducting state affairs, lead to the certainty that if such a relation existed, he would have eliminated the possible danger in a more radical way (killing the imprisoned twin brother) and not by retaining a huge danger for his throne in hypnosis. It should be noted that the prisoner was described as a tall man, while the king was short and used shoes with double soles and heels as well as high wigs to appear taller.

Another interesting but rather unlikely assumption, identifies the prisoner with the known writer Moliere (Jean Baptiste Poquelin). According to this theory, Moliere’s caustic writings caused the rage of the court as well as fanatic Catholics, which demanded and achieved his arrest. Moliere’s death in 1673 was fake while the writer remained in prison behind the mask until 1703. The weak point in this theory, is the fact that if the story is true, Moliere managed to reach the age of 83 years, unbelievable for the era, and unlikely for his dissolute way of living, being behind bars!  This is also contradicted by the prisoner’s age at the time of his death (around 60 years).

A lot of other names have also been considered but almost every one of them has at least one major weak point.

The Duke de Beaufort: Chief Admiral of France who got killed in 1669 fighting against the Turks. He was the lover of Ann of Austria and a possible candidate for the real paternity of Louis XIV. The weak point in this case is his death in the battlefield in front of many eye-witnesses and the very old age which he should have reached in 1703.

The Count de Vermandois: Illegitimate son of Louis XIV who died because of smallpox in 1683 while being at a campaign in the town of Arras. The weak point in this theory is the fact of de Vermandois’ death itself, the death date being earlier than the first reports of the prisoner’s presence in Pignerol, joined with the fact of the absence of a serious reason for his imprisoning as Louis XIV was known for his generosity to his numerous illegitimate offsprings.

The Duke of  Monmouth: Illegitimate offspring of the king of England Charles II. He was executed by decapitation by his uncle James II for high treason in 1685. This scenario supports that James II wasn’t willing to kill his nephew and so he sent him to be jailed in France. Beyond chronological problems and the public execution of Monmouth, it should be considered almost unlikely that the King of England would supply France with a future weapon (to claim the English Throne) and that Louis XIV would never actually used it.

Count Antonio Matthioli: Italian nobleman who performed secret negotiations between Louis XIV and the Duke of Mantua in order to buy Casale Castle from France. Matthioli was imprisoned by Louis XIV in 1679 in Pignerol for the unsuccessful negotiations and his double play. There is no information about his whereabouts after imprisonment. It is worth to mention that Italian noblemen would traditionally request to wear a mask when in jail, in order to secure their anonymity until their future release. Even if the Matthioli case is interesting and could be accepted, it has a weak point. The need for privacy comes from the prisoner himself while his imprisonment was just an act of revenge and punishment for providing bad services. In his case, the continuous transfers and the secrecy measures under Saint Mars’ guiding had absolutely no sense. It is most likely that Matthioli remained in Pignerol until his death.


The unknown  Eustache d’ Auger

In the various scenarios there is also a totally unknown name: Eustache d’ Auger. According to some people he was a young man and a rather unknown lower rank nobleman, who was captured and jailed due to participating in black magic ceremonies, while according to others he was just a simple servant. In both cases d’ Auger appears to know an important secret. He was jailed in Pignerol in 19/7/1669 by written command of minister Louvois (one of the most trusted associates of Louis XIV and second most important man in the kingdom after Colbert’s death in 1683) to Pignerol’s commander, Saint Mars. In the mail archives of Louvois-Saint Mars there appears another letter of the minister in which he tells Saint Mars not to allow d’ Auger to communicate in any form with anybody. The arrangement with the 3 doors is used, a system which will be used again in the prisons of Exiles and Sainte Marguerite.

At the same time that d ‘Auger was in Pignerol (1669-1681), Minister Fouquet and Count de Lauzun were also held in the same prison. In 1675 d ‘Auger is placed in Fouquet’s service while the contact banning with the rest of the prisoners is in use, especially focused to de Lauzun. It seems that d’ Auger’s secret was important to some but already known to others.

Another factor in the equation comes from the political intrigues of the people close to the king. Louvois at that time had an intense conflict with the almighty Colbert in order to gain the king’s favor, a rivalry that ended with Colbert’s death in 1683. De Lauzun was a good friend of Colbert while Fouquet counted on Louvois for his release. It is extremely likely that d’ Auger knew a secret relevant to the Louvois-Colbert’s conflict. It is also possible that d’ Auger was Colbert’s servant or trusted man, who Louvois wouldn’t dare to murder. After Colbert’s death in 1683, d’ Auger himself as well as his secret didn’t have any importance for Louvois. This version though leaves unanswered the mystery that follows the prisoner in the years after 1683.

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The gap is filled by the excellent analysis of J.Noone in his book “The man behind the iron mask”. The conclusion of his analysis is that d’ Auger wore the metallic/velvet mask rarely and mainly during the transfers from prison to prison. The use of the mask was Saint Mars’ invention and had nothing to do with the Prisoner’s jailing and the reasons that caused it. It seems that the secrecy that accompanied the prisoner increased after 1681 and towards the end of his life.

Saint Mars is described as a man of limited abilities but large ambitions. Until the early 1680’s he was lucky enough to be responsible for two important people, Fouquet and de Lauzun. But with Fouquet’s death in 1680 and de Lauzun’s release in 1681 he felt that he would lose the court’s interest. So he tried to use d’ Auger in order to create a myth. The myth of a very important prisoner entrusted to him by the state and the King himself. In this way he believed that he would raise his personal shares.



Eustache d’Auger seems to be the most probable candidate for the “Man in the Iron Mask”. Definitely this scenario is the least impressing and attractive, in terms of conspiracy theories, a fact that makes it look more plausible than all the others. Additionally it is the version with the fewest flaws and combines almost every piece of the myth.

The “Man in the Iron Mask” is registered as one of the biggest mysteries of all times and one of the most tragic figures in history. Perhaps his mystery was the result of the vanity and ambition of a French civil servant. His true identity will never be known beyond any doubt, but he is already a mythical figure, eternal captive of time and history.




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