The Man in the Iron Mask

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It is 300 years since the ‘man in the iron mask’ first appeared in the Bastille. This enigmatic figure had originally been imprisoned at Pignerol and then St Margaret’s Island before being transferred to the Bastille in 1698. There is still no definitive answer as to his identity.

The 1998 film, ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is loosely based on the 1850 novel by Alexandre Dumas and puts forward the hypothesis that the prisoner was the twin brother of Louis XIV. In true Hollywood style the good twin is switched, by the famous Three Musketeers, for the bad twin and France is saved from despotic rule; although there is no historical evidence that the king began as a despot and then had a sudden, overnight, change of personality.

Historically, Voltaire was the first to record the ‘man in the iron mask’ in an authenticated history entitled, “Siecle de Louis XIV”. He records that a man who was never seen, except when his face was hidden by an iron mask, was transferred to the Bastille in 1698 and died there in 1703 - as is recorded in the Bastille diary - and far from being a teen heart-throb DiCaprio look-alike, the man was about sixty years old when he died.

It is said that the existence of this mysterious figure was only brought to the notice of the general public after the ‘storming of the Bastille’ by rioting citizens in 1789. During the insurrection they discovered a strange entry in the records of the Bastille that referred to a prisoner, number 64389000, described as ‘the man in the iron mask’. Those citizens had obviously not been reading Voltaire as this notable writer and philosopher, who had written about this mystery, had already been dead for eleven years! The good citizens did discover, however, that the man had been buried under the name of Marchioli. This prompted many questions, the main one being, if his name was known, why did he have to wear a mask?

The riddle of the ‘man in the iron mask’ has given rise to innumerable legends concerning the identity of this enigmatic figure, but many of the contenders for the title can be discounted as improbable. Some thought that the man was the Duc de Beaufort, but he was killed by the Turks at Candia in 1669 and our captive was already in prison at Pignerol in 1662. Others suggested that he could be the Compte de Vermandois, natural son of Louis XIV, but he is known to have died of smallpox in 1683 while he was with the army, and was buried in the town of Arras. Later it was thought the ‘man in the iron mask’ was the Duke of Monmouth, but this is unlikely, considering that the Duke was publicly beheaded in England in 1685 by order of King James II.

A letter did surface which claimed that the ‘man in the iron mask’ was Girolamo Mattioli (referred to as Marchioli) an Italian diplomat, who was secretary to the Duke of Mantua, and had been imprisioned for revealing French negotiations to buy the Mantuan fortress of Casale. This theory does not explain why the prisoner was masked, or why the man, Saint-Mars, who had guarded him throughout all his years of imprisonment, treated him with such reverence.

Voltaire claimed that the identity of the ‘man in the iron mask’ was so obvious that it wasn’t even necessary to state his name. He theorised that this man was indeed a brother of Louis XIV, not a twin but an older brother--son of the queen, his mother, but not of his father Louis XIII--whose existence, had it been known, would have complicated the ascendancy. If Voltaire was right this would go a long way towards explaining the puzzling questions. Why isolate the prisoner? Why hide his features with a mask so that even his doctor never saw his face? Why treat him with respect and reverence?

The true story of the ‘man in the iron mask’ is forever hidden by the veil of three hundred years of history, but we will always be tantalised by the enigma he imposes. Voltaire is our closest historical source, and even he was only nine years old when this mysterious figure died. We must accept that the riddle will never be solved, but we can have endless fun trying, as Hollywood has so aptly demonstrated!

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