Man in the Iron Mask

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This article is about an aspect of French history. For other uses, see Man in the Iron Mask (disambiguation).
"Iron Mask" redirects here. For the band, see Iron Mask (band).
L'Homme au Masque de Fer (The Man in the Iron Mask). Anonymous print (etching and mezzotint, hand-colored) from 1789. According to the caption on the original (not seen here) the Man in the Iron Mask was Louis de Bourbon, comte de Vermandois, an illegitimate son of Louis XIV.

The Man in the Iron Mask (French: L'Homme au Masque de Fer) is a name given to a prisoner who was arrested as Eustache Dauger in 1669 or 1670 and held in a number of jails, including the Bastille and the Fortress of Pignerol (today Pinerolo, Italy). He was held in the custody of the same jailer, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, for a period of 34 years. He died on 19 November 1703 under the name of Marchioly, during the reign of Louis XIV of France (1643–1715). The possible identity of this man has been thoroughly discussed and has been the subject of many books, as no one ever saw his face because it was hidden by a mask of black velvet cloth.

Writer and philosopher Voltaire claimed (in the second edition of his Questions sur l'Encyclopédie, published in 1771) that the prisoner wore an iron mask and was the older, illegitimate brother of Louis XIV. In the late 1840s, writer Alexandre Dumas elaborated on the theme in the final installment of his Three Musketeers saga: here the prisoner is forced to wear an iron mask and is Louis XIV's identical twin.[1] Dumas also presented a review of the ideas about the prisoner extant in his time (circa 1840) in the chapter "L'homme au masque de fer" of the sixth volume of his Crimes Célèbres.[2]

What facts are known about this prisoner are based mainly on correspondence between his jailer and his superiors in Paris.

The prisoner[edit]

Arrest and imprisonment[edit]

The earliest surviving records of the masked prisoner are from late July 1669, when Louis XIV's minister the Marquis de Louvois sent a letter to Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the prison of Pignerol, then part of France. In his letter, Louvois informed Saint-Mars that a prisoner named Eustache Dauger was due to arrive in the next month or so.

The town of Pinerolo

Louvois instructed Saint-Mars to prepare a cell with multiple doors, one closing upon the other, which were to prevent anyone from the outside listening in. Saint-Mars himself was to see Dauger only once a day in order to provide food and whatever else he needed. Dauger was also to be told that if he, Dauger, spoke of anything other than his immediate needs he would be killed, but, according to Louvois, the prisoner should not require much since he was "only a valet".

Historians have noted that the name Eustache Dauger was written in a handwriting different from the rest of the text, suggesting that a clerk wrote the letter under Louvois' dictation, while a third party, very likely the minister himself, added the name afterwards.

The man himself was arrested by Captain Alexandre de Vauroy, garrison commander of Dunkirk, and taken to Pignerol, where he arrived in late August. Evidence has been produced to suggest that the arrest was actually made in Calais and that not even the local governor was informed of the event – Vauroy's absence being explained away by his hunting for Spanish soldiers who had strayed into France via the Spanish Netherlands.[3]

The first rumours of the prisoner's identity (as a Marshal of France) began to circulate at this point. According to many versions of this legend, the prisoner wore the mask at all times.

The masked man serves as a valet[edit]

Illustration c.1872
L'Homme au masque de fer, by Jean-Joseph Regnault-Warin.

The prison at Pignerol, like the others at which Dauger was later held, was used for men who were considered an embarrassment to the state and usually held only a handful of prisoners at a time.

Saint-Mars' other prisoners at Pignerol included Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli (or Matthioli), an Italian diplomat who had been kidnapped and jailed for double-crossing the French over the purchase of the important fortress town of Casale on the Italian border. There was also Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis of Belle-Île, a former superintendent of finances, who had been jailed by Louis XIV on the charge of embezzlement; and the Marquis de Lauzun, who had become engaged to the Duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the King, without the King's consent. Fouquet's cell was above that of Lauzun.

In his letters to Louvois, Saint-Mars describes Dauger as a quiet man, giving no trouble, "disposed to the will of God and to the king", compared to his other prisoners who were either always complaining, constantly trying to escape, or simply mad.[3]

Dauger was not always isolated from the other prisoners. Wealthy and important ones usually had manservants; Fouquet for instance was served by a man called La Rivière. These servants, however, would become as much prisoners as their masters and it was thus difficult to find people willing to volunteer for such an occupation. Since La Rivière was often ill, Saint-Mars applied for permission for Dauger to act as servant for Fouquet. In 1675 Louvois gave permission for such an arrangement on condition that he was to serve Fouquet only while La Rivière was unavailable and that he was not to meet anyone else; for instance, if Fouquet and Lauzun were to meet, Dauger was not to be present.

It is an important point that the man in the mask served as a valet. Fouquet was never expected to be released; thus, meeting Dauger was no great matter, but Lauzun was expected to be set free eventually, and it would have been important not to have him spread rumours of Dauger's existence. Historians have also argued that 17th-century protocol made it unthinkable that a man of royal blood would serve as a manservant – casting some doubt on those suggestions that Dauger was related to the king.[1]

After Fouquet's death in 1680, Saint-Mars discovered a secret hole between Fouquet and Lauzun's cells. He was sure that they had communicated through this hole without detection by him or his guards and thus that Lauzun must have been made aware of Dauger's existence. Louvois instructed Saint-Mars to move Lauzun to Fouquet's cell and to tell him that Dauger and La Rivière had been released. In fact, they were held in another cell in another part of the prison, their presence there being highly secret.

Other prisons[edit]

Fortress of Exilles

Lauzun was freed in 1681. Later that same year, Saint-Mars was appointed governor of the prison fortress of Exiles (now Exilles in Italy). He went there, taking Dauger and La Rivière with him. La Rivière's death was reported in January 1687; in May, Saint-Mars and Dauger moved to Sainte-Marguerite, one of the Lérins Islands, half a mile offshore from Cannes.

It was during the journey to Sainte-Marguerite that rumours spread that the prisoner was wearing an iron mask. Again, he was placed in a cell with multiple doors.

On 18 September 1698, Saint-Mars took up his new post as governor of the Bastille prison in Paris, bringing the masked prisoner with him. He was placed in a solitary cell in the pre-furnished third chamber of the Bertaudière tower. The prison's second-in-command, de Rosarges, was to feed him. Lieutenant du Junca, another officer of the Bastille, noted that the prisoner wore "a mask of black velvet".

The prisoner died on 19 November 1703 and was buried the next day under the name of Marchioly. All his furniture and clothing were reportedly destroyed afterward, the walls of his cell scraped and whitewashed and everything of metal which the man had possessed, or used, melted down.

In 1711, King Louis's sister-in-law, Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine, sent a letter to her aunt, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, stating that the prisoner had "two musketeers at his side to kill him if he removed his mask." She described him as very devout, and that he was well treated and received everything he desired. It might be noted, however, that the prisoner had already been dead for eight years and that the Princess had not necessarily seen him for herself; thus she was quite likely reporting rumours she had heard at court.


The fate of the mysterious prisoner – and the extent of apparent precautions his jailers took – created significant interest and many legends. Many theories are in existence and several books have been written about the case. Some were presented after the existence of the letters was widely known. Later commentators have still presented their own theories, possibly based on embellished versions of the original tale.

Theories about his identity made at the time included that he was a Marshal of France; or the English Henry Cromwell,[4] son of Oliver Cromwell; or François, Duke of Beaufort. Later, many people such as Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas[5] put forward other theories about the man in the mask.

It has even been suggested that he was one of the other famous contemporary prisoners being held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger.


King's relative[edit]

Voltaire claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. However, the sincerity of this claim is uncertain. Alexandre Dumas used this theory in his book The Vicomte de Bragelonne, but made the prisoner an identical twin of Louis XIV. This book has served as the basis – even if loosely adapted – for many film versions of the story.

Hugh Ross Williamson[6] argues that the man in the iron mask was actually the father of Louis XIV. According to this theory, the "miraculous" birth of Louis XIV in 1638 would have come after Louis XIII had been estranged from his wife for 14 years. Furthermore, the king was old, weak, ill, and not expected to live much longer, and may have been impotent, which implies that Louis XIII was not the father.

The suggestion is that the King's minister, Cardinal Richelieu, had arranged for a substitute, probably an illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV, to become intimate with the queen and father an heir. At the time, the heir presumptive was Louis XIII's brother Gaston d'Orléans, who was also Richelieu's enemy. If Gaston became King, Richelieu would quite likely have lost both his job as minister and his life, so it was in his interests to thwart Gaston's ambitions. Louis XIII also hated Gaston and might thus have agreed to the scheme, and the queen would have had the same interest, as Gaston would have removed her from any influence.

Supposedly the father then left for the Americas but in the 1660s returned to France with the aim of extorting money for keeping his secret and was promptly imprisoned. This theory would explain both the secrecy surrounding the prisoner, whose true identity would have destroyed the legitimacy of Louis XIV had it been revealed, and also - because of the King's respect for his own father - his comfortable imprisonment and why he was not simply killed.

This theory was first postulated by British politician Hugh Cecil, 1st Baron Quickswood. He said this idea has no historical basis and is hypothetical. Williamson held that to say it is a guess with no solid historical basis is merely to say that it is like every other theory on the matter although it makes more sense than any of the other theories; there is no known evidence that is incompatible with it, even the age of the prisoner, which Cecil had considered a weak point; and it explains every aspect of the mystery.[6]

French general[edit]

In 1890, Louis Gendron, a French military historian, came across some coded letters and passed them on to Etienne Bazeries in the French Army's cryptographic department. After three years Bazeries managed to read some messages in the Great Cipher of Louis XIV. One of them referred to a prisoner and identified him as General Vivien de Bulonde. One of the letters written by Louvois made specific reference to de Bulonde's crime.

At the Siege of Cuneo in 1691, Bulonde was concerned about enemy troops arriving from Austria and ordered a hasty withdrawal, leaving behind his munitions and wounded men. Louis XIV was furious and in another of the letters specifically ordered him "to be conducted to the fortress at Pignerol where he will be locked in a cell and under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlements during the day with a 330 309." It has been suggested that the "330" stood for masque and the 309 for "full stop." However, in 17th-century French avec un masque would mean "in a mask".

Some believe that the evidence of the letters means that there is now little need of an alternative explanation for the man in the mask. Other sources, however, claim that Bulonde's arrest was no secret and was actually published in a newspaper at the time and that he was released after just a few months. His death is also recorded as happening in 1709, six years after that of the man in the mask.[3]

The valet[edit]

In 1801, revolutionary legislator Pierre Roux-Fazillac stated that the tale of the masked prisoner was an amalgamation of the fates of two separate prisoners, Ercole Antonio Mattioli (see below) and an imprisoned valet named "Eustache D'auger".

Andrew Lang, in his The Valet's Tragedy and Other Stories (1903), presented a theory that "Eustache Dauger" was a prison pseudonym of a man called "Martin," valet of the Huguenot Roux de Marsilly. After his master's execution in 1669 the valet was taken to France, possibly by capture or subterfuge, and imprisoned because he might have known too much about his master's affairs.

Son of Charles II[edit]

In The Man of the Mask (1908), Arthur Barnes presents James de la Cloche, the alleged illegitimate son of the reluctant Protestant Charles II of England, who would have been his father's secret intermediary with the Catholic court of France. Louis XIV could have imprisoned him because he knew too much about French affairs with England.

One of Charles's confirmed illegitimate sons has also been proposed as the man in the mask. This was the Duke of Monmouth. A Protestant, he led a rebellion against his uncle, the Catholic King James II. The rebellion failed and Monmouth was executed in 1685. But in 1768, a writer named Saint-Foix claimed that another man was executed in his place and that Monmouth became the masked prisoner, it being in Louis XIV's interests to assist a fellow Catholic like James who would not necessarily want to kill his own nephew. (Saint-Foix's case was based on unsubstantiated rumours, and allegations that Monmouth's execution was faked.)[3]

Government minister[edit]

Other popular suspects have included men known to have been held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger. Fouquet himself has been considered, but the fact that Dauger is known to have served as his valet makes this unlikely.

Italian diplomat[edit]

Another candidate, much favoured in the 1800s, was Fouquet's fellow prisoner Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli (or Matthioli). He was an Italian diplomat who acted on behalf of debt-ridden Charles IV, Duke of Mantua in 1678, in selling Casale, a strategic fortified town near the border with France. A French occupation would be unpopular, so discretion was essential, but Mattioli leaked the details to France's Spanish enemies, after pocketing his commission once the sale had been concluded, and they made a bid of their own before the French forces could occupy the town. Mattioli was kidnapped by the French and thrown into nearby Pignerol in April 1679. The French took possession of Casale two years later.[3]

The prisoner is known to have been buried under the name "Marchioly", and many believe[citation needed] that this is proof enough that he was the man in the mask. The Hon. George Agar Ellis reached the conclusion that Mattioli was the state prisoner commonly called The Iron Mask when he reviewed documents extracted from French archives in the 1820s. His book,[7] published in English in 1826, was also translated into French and published in 1830. German historian Wilhelm Broecking came to the same conclusion independently seventy years later. Robert Chambers' Book of Days supports the claim and places Matthioli in the Bastille for the last 13 years of his life.[citation needed]

Since that time, letters purportedly sent by Saint-Mars, which earlier historians missed, indicate that Mattioli was only held at Pignerol and Sainte-Marguerite and was not at Exiles or the Bastille and, therefore, it is argued that he can be discounted.[1]

Eustache Dauger, name of the prisoner[edit]

In his letter to Saint-Mars announcing the imminent arrival of the prisoner who would become the "man in the iron mask," Louvois gave his name as "Eustache Dauger" and historians have found evidence that a Eustache Dauger was living at the time and was involved in shady and embarrassing events involving people in high places known as l'Affaire des Poisons. His full name was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye.[3]

Records indicate that he was born on 30 August 1637, the son of François Dauger, a captain in Cardinal Richelieu's guards. François was married to Marie de Sérignan and they had 11 children, nine of whom survived into adulthood. When François and his two eldest sons were killed in battle, Eustache became the nominal head of the family. Like them he joined the army where he came under the command of Armand de Gramont, comte de Guiche, a brave soldier, notorious playboy and bisexual.


In April 1659, Eustache and Guiche were invited to an Easter weekend party at the castle of Roissy-en-Brie. By all accounts it was a "debauched" affair of merry-making, with the men involved in all sorts of "sordid" activities, including attacking a man who claimed to be Cardinal Mazarin's attorney. It was also claimed[by whom?], among other things, that a black mass was enacted, and that a pig was baptized as "carp" in order to allow them to eat pork on Good Friday. Other activities, such as heterosexual and homosexual sex, may also have taken place.

When news of these events became public an enquiry was held and the various perpetrators jailed or exiled. There is no record as to what happened to Dauger, but in 1665, near the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, he allegedly killed a young page boy in a drunken brawl involving the Duc de Foix. The two men claimed that they had been provoked by the boy who was drunk, but the fact that the killing took place near a castle where the King was staying meant that this was not a good enough explanation and, as a result, Dauger was forced to resign his commission.

Dauger's mother died shortly afterwards. In her will, written a year previously, she passed over her eldest surviving sons, Eustache and Armand, leaving the bulk of the estate to their younger brother Louis. Eustache was restricted in the amount of money to which he had access, having built up considerable debts, and left with barely enough for "food and upkeep." As titular head of the family, he had come into some small estates, but gave these up to Louis, who provided him with an additional annual payment.

Affair of the Poisons[edit]

Main article: Affair of the Poisons

In the 1930s, historian Maurice Duvivier linked Eustache Dauger de Cavoye to the Affair of the Poisons, a notorious scandal of 1677–1682 in which people in high places were accused of being involved in black mass and poisonings. An investigation had been launched, but Louis XIV had instigated a cover-up when it appeared that his mistress, Madame de Montespan, and his sister-in-law, Henrietta, the Duchesse of Orléans, were involved.[3]

The records show that during the enquiry the investigators were told about a supplier of poisons, a surgeon named Auger, and Duvivier became convinced that Dauger de Cavoye, disinherited and short of money, had become Auger, the supplier of poisons, and subsequently Dauger, the man in the mask.

In a letter sent by Louvois to Saint-Mars, shortly after Fouquet's death while in prison (with Dauger acting as his valet), the minister adds a note in his own handwriting, asking how Dauger performed certain acts that Saint-Mars had mentioned in a previous correspondence (now lost) and "how he got the drugs necessary to do so". Duvivier suggested that Dauger may have poisoned Fouquet as part of a complex power-struggle between Louvois and his rival Colbert.

Dauger in prison[edit]

However, evidence has emerged that Dauger de Cavoye actually died in the Prison Saint-Lazare, an asylum run by monks which many families used in order to imprison their "black sheep". Documents have survived indicating that Dauger de Cavoye was held at Saint-Lazare in Paris at about the same time that Dauger, the man in the mask, was taken into custody in Pignerol, hundreds of miles away in the south.

These include a letter sent to Dauger de Cavoye's sister, the Marquise de Fabrègues, dated 20 June 1678, which is filled with self-pity as Eustache complains about his treatment in prison, where he has been held for 10 years, and how he was deceived by their brother Louis and Clérac, their brother-in-law and the manager of Louis' estate. A year later, he wrote a letter to the King, outlining the same complaints and making a similar request for freedom. The best the King would do, however, was to send a letter to the head of Saint-Lazare telling him that "M. de Cavoye should have communication with no one at all, not even with his sister, unless in your presence or in the presence of one of the priests of the mission". The letter was signed by the King and Colbert.

A poem written by the Comte de Brienne, himself an inmate at the time, indicates that Eustache Dauger de Cavoye died as a result of heavy drinking in the late 1680s. Historians consider all this proof enough that he was not involved in any way with the man in the mask.[1][3]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Alfred de Vigny, "The Prison" [8] Alfred de Vigny, the great French writer, composed in 1821, a lengthy poem which purports to tell events which occurred at the death bed of the Man in the Iron Mask. An aged priest is called to offer the last rites of the Catholic Church to a mysterious prisoner. The poem begins with the bitter complaint of the priest who has been delayed an hour blindfolded before he is taken by a circuitous route to the prisoner. Eventually they arrive at a dungeon where the blindfold is removed, and in the dim light the priest sees an old dying man. The jailer respectfully addresses the prisoner as "Mon prince" and announces the arrival of the holy man. "What do I care?" replies the prisoner. The priest calls upon him to repent his sins. The prisoner declares at length that he has been imprisoned since he was a child, and effectively has had no life. In the dim light the priest realizes with shock that he cannot see the face of the prisoner, since it is covered by an iron mask. At this point the priest remembers from his youth being told of a state prisoner, who succeeded in casting off his mask and attempting to flee. Those around caught a glimpse of a handsome young man bearing a resemblance to the king of France. He was quickly subdued. A young entrant to a convent testified that he was guiltless, and wrongly sentenced. The priest tells the prisoner that God himself suffered terribly on the cross, and the prisoner's sorrows would open the gates of heaven to him, would he just accept God. The priest fails. The prisoner becomes delirious, and dies unshriven. The priest is desolate, and stays on praying to God to forgive him for his failure. The poem ends with the priest seeing with horror that the outline of the mask projects through the shroud, and even in death the prisoner has no release.
  • Alexandre Dumas, The Vicomte de Bragelonne
  • Henry Vizetelly, The Man With the Iron Mask
  • Juliette Benzoni, Secret d'etat
  • Louis-César, Cassandra Palmer series
Films and television
  • 1983: "The man in the iron mask" - A track on Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy by Billy Bragg.
  • 1992: "The Iron Mask" - A CD by gothic rock band Christian Death.
  • 1992: Las Vegas (In the Hills of Donegal) - A song released by Irish folk rock group Goats Don't Shave features the lyrics, "Who was the man in the Iron Mask, was Jack the Ripper set free?".
  • 2006: Tilting the Hourglass - A song released by rock band Alesana on their debut album On Frail Wings of Vanity and Wax, in which the imprisonment and feelings of the prisoner are portrayed in song.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d The Man in the Iron Mask, Timewatch TV documentary presented by Henry Lincoln, BBC, 1988
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h The Man Behind the Iron Mask by John Noone, 1988
  4. ^ Dumas, Alexandre, Celebrated Crimes, volume 6, p. 2008,
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b Williamson, Hugh Ross (2002). Who Was The Man In the Iron Mask? and Other Historical Mysteries. Penguin. ISBN 0-14-139097-2. 
  7. ^ George Agar Ellis, The true history of the State Prisoner commonly called the Iron Mask, here identified with Count E. A. Mattioli, extracted from documents in the French archives (London, J. Murray, 1826)
  8. ^

External links[edit]