The true identity of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ is one of history’s most enduring mysteries. Immortalised in literature by Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later, the reality behind the legend has proved notoriously difficult to nail down. Here are 10 facts about France’s most famous prisoner.
1. The Man in the Iron Mask was a real person
Although best known as a fictional character created by Alexandre Dumas, the Man in the Iron Mask was a real person. Voltaire, who studied legends from the Bastille, Provence and the island of Sainte-Marguerite, incorrectly deduced that the mysterious prisoner must have been an important man.
2. Dauger or Danger?
The mysterious prisoner was a man named Eustache Dauger or Danger. The first version of his name could be an error or the result of a badly formed ‘u’, for variants of Danger (d’Anger, d’Angers, Dangers) with an ‘n’ appear most frequently in the official correspondence.
Eventually, though, he would lose his name altogether and be referred to as the ancient prisoner or, as his gaoler liked to call him, ‘my prisoner.’
3. Eustache was kept in secret
Eustache’s ordeal began on 19 July 1669 with his arrest in Calais by Alexandre de Vauroy, sergeant major of Dunkirk. He was taken in stages with a small escort to Pignerol, a journey of some three weeks. Here, he was placed into the care of Saint-Mars, a former sergeant of the musketeers. Saint-Mars was ordered to prepare a special cell for Eustache, closed behind 3 doors and so situated that the prisoner could not be heard if he tried to cry out or otherwise draw attention to himself.
4. Whose prisoner?
Although the original lettre de cachet authorising his arrest stated that Louis XIV was dissatisfied with Eustache’s behaviour, he may not have been Louis’s prisoner. Louvois, the minister for war, took a great deal of interest in Eustache, even adding secret orders to letters he had dictated to his secretary. He may have been the one to request the lettre de cachet from the king in the first place.
Once in prison, Eustache was at the mercy of Saint-Mars, who would enjoy fame and fortune as the gaoler of illustrious prisoners. Once they died or were released, he made a mystery of Eustache, encouraging people to think he, too, must be a man of consequence. As a result, Saint-Mars insisted on Eustache with him upon his promotion as governor of the Bastille.
5. ‘Only a valet’
Even in prison, a person’s social rank was preserved, and he or she would be treated accordingly. Eustache was described as ‘only a valet’, and this is reflected in his prison
experience. He was kept in a miserable cell, served poor food and provided with cheap furniture. Later, he was even sent to serve as a valet to another prisoner, a man of high rank.
6. He was held in four prisons
Throughout his 34 years as a state prisoner, Eustache would be held in four prisons: Pignerol in the Italian Alps; Exilles, also in the Italian Alps; the island of Sainte-Marguerite off the coast of Cannes; the Bastille, then on the eastern edge of Paris.
Of these, two still exist today: Exilles, although it was extensively renovated in the 19th century and no longer resembles the fortress Eustache knew. The second is on Sainte-Marguerite. Now a maritime museum, visitors are shown the cell believed to have been that in which Eustache was kept.
7. There are many theories about his identity
Of the many candidates put forward as the Man in the Iron Mask, the first was the duc de Beaufort, whose name was mentioned in a rumour begun by Saint-Mars in 1688. The most recent (so far) has been the famous musketeer, d’Artagnan, a theory proposed by Roger Macdonald.
However, Eustache had been identified as the Man in the Iron Mask as long ago as 1890, when lawyer and historian, Jules Lair, first made the connection. Most scholars and researchers, however, refused to accept his findings, believing that the now legendary prisoner could not have been a lowly valet.
Consequently, the search for the ‘real’ Man in the Iron Mask continued. Despite this, the answer to the mystery lies in the official records and correspondence, which have been available for anyone to read for almost two centuries.
8. A Woman in the Iron Mask?
During the 19th century, those who favoured the introduction of a constitutional monarchy based on the House of Orléans used the legend of the Man in the Iron Mask for their own purposes. They claimed that the mysterious prisoner was actually a daughter of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, born to the couple after 23 childless years of marriage. Thinking they would never have a son, they hid away their daughter and chose a boy to replace her, whom they brought up as Louis XIV.
9. The iron mask may not have existed
The mask of iron said to have been worn by the prisoner adds an element of horror to his intriguing story; however, it belongs to legend, not history. In the last years of his captivity, Eustache did wear a mask when he was expected to be seen by others, such as when he crossed the prison courtyard to attend mass or if he had to be seen by a physician. This was a loo mask made of black velvet and which covered only the upper portion of his face.
The iron mask was invented by Voltaire, who probably based it on a contemporary story originating in Provence in which it is stated that Eustache was forced to cover his face with a mask made of steel during the journey from Exilles to Sainte-Marguerite. There is, however, no historical support for this.
10, Dead and buried
Eustache died in 1703 at the Bastille after a sudden illness. He was buried in the fortress’s parish church, Saint-Paul-des-Champs, and a false name was entered into the register. This name resembled that of a former, more illustrious prisoner, suggesting that the wily Saint-Mars was still using pretence to boost his own prestige. Sadly, church and its yard no longer exist, the area having been developed in modern times.
Dr Josephine Wilkinson is an author and historian. She received a First from the University of Newcastle where she also read for her PhD. The Man in the Iron Mask: The Truth about Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner is her 6th book with Amberley Publishing.