1902 Encyclopedia > The Man in the Iron Mask

The Man in the Iron Mask

IRON MASK. The Man in the Iron Mask is the name by which a French state prisoner, whose identity has given rise to much curious inquiry, is universally known.

The facts established by contemporaneous evidence respecting this mysterious personage, who died in 1703, were, until a modern writer largely added to them, neither numerous nor of very great importance.(Footnote 360-1)

Enough indeed is related to show that even in his lifetime the veiled prisoner had become an object of curious mystery. Other instances occur, however, of captivity under like conditions, and nothing in the treatment of the Mask proves that he was a personage of rank and importance. It has been indisputably shown that it was no uncommon practice, especially in the reign of Louis XIV., to isolate human beings and keep them immured, their very features being carefully hidden, and that the victims were persons of all conditions.

Though one or two efforts had been previously made to find out the name of the unknown prisoner, Voltaire was the first writer of note to give form and life to the vague traditions that had been current about the Mask; and we may probably ascribe to his suggestive account the increased importance which since his time the subject has been supposed to possess. In his Age of Louis XIV the historian hinted that the Mask was a person of high rank; and he graphically described how this mysterious being endeavoured to commune with the outer world by throwing out, on the shore of Sainte Marguerite, from the grated window of his gloomy dungeon, a piece of fine linen, and a silver plate, on which he had traced some strange characters to reveal a horrible tale of misfortune.

This work was published in 1751, nearly fifty years after the death of the Mask; and from this time the problem who he was has been investigated with no little diligence. The editor of the Philosophic Dictionary suggested that he was an illegitimate son of Anne of Austria, born in 1626; and in 1790 he was identified, in the Memoirs of Cardinal Richelieu with a supposed twin brother of Louis XIV., put out of the way by the great Cardinal to avoid the ills of a disputed succession.

As early as 1745 the Mask was said, by an anonymous writer, to have been the count of Vermandois, one of the bastards of Louis XIV; in 1759 M. Lagrange-Chaucel endeavoured to prove that he was the duke of Beaufort, a hero of the Fronde; a few years afterwards M. St Foix conjectured that he was the duke of Monmouth, the English pretender of 1685; and others have laboured to show that he was either a son of the Protector Cromwell, or Fouquet, the minister of Louis XIV, or Avedick, the Armenian patriarch, whose treacherous imprisonment by the ambassador of France was one of the worst acts of that unscrupulous king. The claim, finally, of Ercolo Mattioli, a diplomatic agent of the duke of Mantua, was put forward in 1770, and since that time has found zealous advocates in MM. Roux-Fazillac, Delort, Topin, and in the late Lord Dover; indeed, until lately it was generally thought that Mattioli was the mysterious captive.

The claims, however, of none of these can stand the test of the searching inquiry which recent discoveries have made possible. Voltaire does not inform us who the Mask was; his hint that he was an exalted personage is at variance with a remark of his on the same subject in a later work ; and as for the tale of the attempts made by the Mask to divulge his name and fate, these have been traced to a Huguenot pastor, imprisoned in the islands of Sainte Marguerite. There is no evidence that the illegitimate child of Anne of Austria, or the twin brother of Louis XIV ever existed. Fouquet died in 1680, the count of Vermandois in 1683, and the duke of Beaufort in 1689 ; Monmouth fell under the axe of the headsman ; Avedick was not imprisoned until 1706.

The case made on behalf of Mattioli also breaks down when carefully sifted. Mattioli was certainly imprisoned at Pignerol, and that for a considerable time; he was also long under the care of Saint Mars; and he was detained at the Sainte Marguerites, in the custody of the same jailer. But on the other hand the Mask is never named in the numerous documents that refer to him; he was certainly imprisoned at Exiles; and he was brought from the Sainte Marguerites, and died in the Bastille; whereas Mattioli’s name occurs not seldom in the correspondence of Saint Mars; he cannot be traced to Exiles; and it is almost certain that he died at the Sainte Marguerites in 1694.

Is it impossible, then, to fix the identity of the unknown Mask? The latest writer upon the subject is M. Jung, a French staff officer, and his diligent investigations have brought us perhaps very near the solution of the problem. He appears to have fully proved that the prisoner of 1698 -- beyond question the mysterious Mask -- had for many years been guarded by St Mars; that he had long been known as your ancient prisoner," "your prisoner of twenty years standing"; and that at the Sainte Marguerites he was jealously watched with precautions nearly of the same kind as those afterwards taken at the Bastille.

He has shown moreover, that this very prisoner was, in 1687, removed to the Sainte Marguerites from Exiles, always under the eye of the same jailer, and that, too, with the care and secrecy observed in the journey to the Bastille; and, finally, he has traced the captive to Pignerol, still in the hands of the relentless St Mars, where, in 1681, we find him designated as one of the "two prisoners of the Lower Tower," apparently for some years in confinement. This prisoner, too, is never once named, which, as we have seen, was the case with the Mask. On the whole it would seem that M. Jung has established the identity of the object of our search with this unknown person.

He goes, however, a great deal further, and endeavours to find out the name and the history of the prisoner of the Lower Tower of Pignerol. His theory is that he was a criminal who probably played a prominent part in one of the numerous poisoning lots which disgraced the reign of Louis XIV; and he identifies him with a Lorraine gentleman who seems to have belonged to a murderous band of conspirators against the life of the king, and who, being then arrested at Peronne, was lodged in the Bastille in 1673, and thence taken, he makes out, to Pigmerol. His narrative abounds in interest, but he has adduced no valid proof to connect the supposed prisoner captured at Peronne with the prisoner of 1673; and he has not given us anything like evidence to associate this last-named person with either of the prisoners of the Lower Tower at Pignerol, or even to show that he reached that fortress. Besides, he has not ascertained the identity of these two prisoners.

The mystery of the identity of the Mask thus remains unsolved ; but the field of inquiry has been greatly narrowed, and further investigation will not improbably discover this strange historical secret. (W. O. M.)


360-1 Dujunea, the chief turnkey of the Bastille, whose register has fortunately been preserved, gives us this account of the captive:-- "On Thursday, the 18th September 1698, at three o’clock in the after-noon, M. Saint Mars, the governor, arrived at the Bastille for the first time from the islands of Sainte Marguerite and Sainte Honnat. He brought with him in his own litter an ancient prisoner formerly under his care at Pignerol, and whose name remains untold. This prisoner was always kept masked, and was at first lodged in the Basinière tower,... I conducted him afterwards to the Bertandière tower, and put him in a room, which, by order of M. de Saint Mars, I had furnished before his arrival."

A letter of M. de Formanoir, a grand-nephew of Saint Mars, furnishes the following details:-- "In 1698 M. de Saint Mars exchanged the governorship of the islands for that of the Bastille. When he set off to enter on his new office he stayed with his prisoner for a short time at Palteau, his estate. The Mask arrived in a litter which preceded that of M. de Saint Mars; they were accompanied by several men on horseback. The peasants went out to meet their seigneur. M. de Saint Mars took his meals with his prisoner, who sat with his back towards the windows of the room, which looked into the courtyard. The peasants of whom I made enquiry could not see if he had his mask on when eating; but they observed that M. de Saint Mars, who sat opposite to him at table, had a pair of pistols beside his plate. They were attended by a single valet only, Antoine Ru, who took away the dishes set down to him in an antechamber, having first carefully shut the door of the dining-room. When the prisoner crossed the courtyard a black mask was always on his face."

Dujunca’s journal contains this entry respecting the death of the secluded prisoner, who, it may be added, was named "M. de Marchiel" in the Bastille register:-- "On Monday, the 19th of November 1703, the unknown prisoner, who had continually worn a black velvet mask, and whom M. de Saint Mars had brought with him from the island of Sainte Marguerite, died to-day at about ten o’clock in the evening, having been yesterday taken slightly ill. He had been a long time in M. de Saint Mars’s hands, and his illness was exceedingly trifling."

The above article was written by William O'Connor Morris, author of The French Revolution and the First Empire, Great Commanders of Modern Times, and The Land System of Ireland.

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