Who Was The Real Man In The Iron Mask?
On November 19, 1703, a tomb in the Bastille’s Saint Paul Cemetery welcomed the corpse of a man who had spent almost the last four decades of his life in various prisons of France. He is without a doubt the most famous prisoner in French history, even though nobody knows why he had to spend over thirty-five years in prison, reportedly in near perfect isolation and often with his face covered.
The first known record of the man dates back to July of 1669 when Marquis de Louvois in a letter to the governor of Pignerol prison, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, stated a prisoner by the name of Eustache Dauger would be arriving, who was “only a valet.” This man would go on to be the “man in the iron mask.”
But was this his real name? That is uncertain, and in the letter it is clear that the name was added by a different person than who wrote the rest of the letter. Why this is the case is one of the many mysteries surrounding this prisoner.
From here we have numerous references of the man, some more credible than others. For instance, Voltaire mentions him in his work, Le siècle de Louis XIV. Voltaire was imprisoned in the Bastille for about a year in 1717 where he met many inmates who had supposedly come in contact with the mysterious prisoner while he was still alive. (Incidentally, another fun fact about the famed enlightenment thinker is that Voltaire made his fortune by helping to rig the lottery.)
The existence of the man in the iron mask is also noted by other historical references such as Le mémoire secret pour servir a l‘histoire de la Percy by an unknown author; the writings of one of the most famous journalists of the French Revolution, Friedrich Melchior-Baron von Grimm; and the personal diary of Etienne de Junca, deputy of the Bastille during the time of the famous prisoner’s death.
The source, however, that made this prisoner famous among the masses was the book by Alexandre Dumas, The Man in the Iron Mask, which was the third and final book in the series that began with The Three Musketeers. Dumas’ book, although it is considered to be mainly fiction, seems to contain some useful historical data, with the author having conducted quite a detailed investigation into the case. The Frenchman’s novels were often inspired by real people’s stories which he then created fictional stories around. (This is also the case with The Count of Monte Cristo, which was loosely based on a *supposedly* real man, at least according to the author of the work Dumas read, police archivist Jacques Peuchet. More on this in the Bonus Facts below.)
In any event, as mentioned, the order for Dauger’s imprisonment was given by the Marquis de Louvois, Louis XIV’s Secretary of State for War. Among other things, the order mentioned that Dauger had to be kept in high-security prisons, and he was not to come in contact with anyone but a very select few. And if he ever dared to speak of anything other than his immediate needs, he should be executed immediately.
Towards this end, he had the same keeper for the rest of his life, the aforementioned French prison warden Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars, who was extremely ambitious but purportedly not particularly bright or capable.
But as with most things concerning the real man, finding the truth among all the early reports is exceedingly difficult. For instance, while it is claimed he was ordered to never come in contact with other prisoners nor speak of anything but his immediate needs, at one point Saint-Mars is known to have received permission for Dauger to become a servant in prison to former superintendent of finances (and fellow prisoner) Nicolas Fouquet, when his normal servant was ill. The only stipulation was that he was not to meet with anyone else other than Fouquet. If others were around, Dauger was not to be there. Why was Fouquet granted such access? It has been speculated that it is because Fouquet was expected to spend the rest of his life in prison, though of course this wouldn’t preclude him writing letters or meeting with others, making the whole lifting of the supposed restrictions even more curious.
The fact that Dauger was initially named a valet and later served as one in prison is also significant, if true. Given the protocols of the age, had he been royalty, or even just someone who had royal blood, this would probably not have been allowed. Someone of the royal blood imprisoned for life on dubious charges? Perfectly fine (often given servants and many of the perks of nobility while there). Subjected to becoming a servant by fellow royalty? This would have been unthinkable.
Whatever the case, the main reason we all remember this particular prisoner instead of numerous others who bore similar fate is his mask. Why was his face covered and hidden from public view? Some historians claim that this was nothing but a trick the ambitious Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars came up with during the inmate’s transfer to Sainte-Marguerite in 1687, so he could impress the crowds with the importance of the prisoner the king himself had entrusted him to guard. It was after this journey that the idea that the prisoner was forced to wear an iron mask first started to circulate.
On September 18, 1698, Saint-Mars was again transferred, this time becoming the governor of the Bastille in Paris, at which point Dauger once again was moved with him. According to Voltaire and in turn the prisoners who supposedly saw the man in the iron mask at the Bastille, this prisoner had to wear the mask at all times. However, it should be noted that the aforementioned Lieutenant du Junca who worked at the Bastille noted that the mask was actually made from black velvet when he observed it.
Ultimately, Dauger died in prison on November 19, 1703. Saint-Mars described him as “disposed to the will of God and to the king,” unlike most of the prisoners
If it is true that he was forced to wear a mask at all times, the logical conclusion, in conjunction with the fact that he was allowed to be a servant of Fouquet, is that perhaps it wasn’t a big secret, but that the man behind the mask was recognizable or had an obvious resemblance to another person, most likely one in power (whether by relation or pure unlucky coincidence.)
But the question remains, if he was just a lowly servant who either had the ill fortune to witness something the king did not want widely known, or had a face that displeased the king or someone else in power for whatever reason: why didn’t the French authorities simply choose to kill him? Those of the peasant class could be easily killed by those in power with as little as an accusation as being in league with the devil, among numerous other excuses. Why take the risk of leaving him alive and take the effort and expense of so carefully guarding him? And if he was of royal blood, why was he allowed to function as a servant? For that matter, if he had a big secret, why was he allowed to come in contact regularly with Fouquet who he might have slipped the secret too and who, in turn, might have revealed it to others via letters?
Needless to say, the fact that little of it makes much sense has led to numerous theories and speculation with little in the way of hard evidence to back any of them. According to Voltaire, the man in the iron mask was the older, illegitimate brother of Louis XIV (via Cardinal Mazarin and Anne of Austria), while according to Dumas, the mysterious prisoner was none other than Louis XIV’s twin, who was minutes older and thus the legitimate king of France.
Another theory is that he was actually the real father of King Louis XIV. You see, Louis XIII was quite old at the time of the “miraculous” birth of Louis XIV. But an heir was needed, lest Louis XIII’s brother Gaston d’Orléans become king, something certain powerful entities, like Cardinal Richelieu and the queen herself would have likely been against for various political reasons. Thus, this particular theory states that the Cardinal and Anne arranged for another man to father the child. As with the other theories, there is little in the way of actual evidence to back it, but at the least it would explain why the prisoner would be so fond of the king despite that same king having had him imprisoned for life. Of course, would a king really allow his own father to function as a servant, assuming he knew? And if he didn’t know, why keep him alive or even imprison him at all?
One of the more compelling theories to date comes from a coded message King Louis XIV sent concerning General Vivien de Bulonde, who invoked the ire of the king when he fled from approaching troops from Austria, abandoning supplies and even wounded soldiers. Once the coded message was cracked, it was revealed that it stated:
His Majesty knows better than any other person the consequences of this act, and he is also aware of how deeply our failure to take the place will prejudice our cause, a failure which must be repaired during the winter. His Majesty desires that you immediately arrest General Bulonde and cause him to be conducted to the fortress of Pignerole, where he will be locked in a cell under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlement during the day with a 330 309.
So what’s a 330 and 309? Well, the theory goes that the 330 meant “masque” and the 309 meant “full stop,” but the evidence for this is mostly speculation.
Whether the mask part is correct or not (perhaps the king just had a penchant for ordering prisoners he really was angry with to wear masks as a form of punishment), the main problem with this theory is that records indicate that General Vivien de Bulonde didn’t die until 1709, whereas the man in the “iron” mask died in 1703.
So what of the name given, Eustache Dauger. Does this provide any clues, or was it simply made up? It is known that a real Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, the son of a captain in Cardinal Richelieu’s guards, did exist, born in 1637. Further, he ultimately also joined the army but eventually was forced to resign in disgrace after killing a young boy in a drunken brawl. Later, he was incarcerated. After complaining to his sister about his treatment in prison in 1678 and shortly thereafter complaining to the king, the king did issue an edict that de Cavoye should no longer be allowed to communicate with anyone, unless a priest was present.
The problem with the de Cavoye theory is that he was being held in Saint-Lazare when the man in the iron mask was in Pignerol. Further, beyond the fact that de Cavoye does not fit the description of Saint-Mars “disposed to the will of God and to the king,” among other accounts, there is significant evidence that he died in the 1680s, well before the more famous Eustache Dauger.
So in the end, while we know quite a bit about the “man in the iron mask,” whether he was actually guilty of a legitimate crime, who he really was, or even whether he truly was forced to wear an iron mask all the time may never be known. It’s even possible he really was just some guy whose real name was Eustache Dauger, and he simply was a valet who angered the king, but not enough to have him killed. Though why such trouble should be had on an a valet’s account would be anybody’s guess. Perhaps an affair with the king’s favorite mistress? Who knows? But on the positive side, it sure makes for an intriguing story.
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- The specific story that inspired The Count of Monte Cristo was that of a shoemaker, Pierre Picaud, that Jacques Peuchet stated lived in 1807. The story goes that he had the good fortune of becoming set to be married to a wealthy woman, which would have significantly raised his status in life, at which point some of his companions became jealous and accused him of being a spy for England. During his imprisonment, he was made to serve an extremely wealthy cleric, who ultimately grew to love Picaud as a son. Picaud then was left the cleric’s fortune when he died, at which point Picaud used his newfound wealth to attempt to get away with revenge on the three who had accused him of being a spy. Pechet stated that the police reports on the matter claimed Picaud ultimately murdered the first by stabbing him, then poisoned the second. The worst fate of all was left for the third man, who had married Picaud’s former fiancée. First, Picaud convinced the man’s son to turn to a life of crime, to his doom. He then coerced the man’s daughter into becoming a prostitute, before stabbing and killing the man himself. Whether any of this story is true or not is anybody’s guess. But, at the least, it inspired Dumas to write his great work The Count of Monte Cristo. (Editor’s note: My favorite book of all time. If you haven’t read it; I highly recommend you do. It’s very long, but also phenomenal from cover to cover.)
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