For many centuries historians, writers and philosophers tried to give an answer to one of the most curious mysteries which has intrigued the public opinion of all times, thanks also to the many books before and films later which dealt with the subject.

Who was the mysterious prisoner that in the France of the 17th century was forced to wear an Iron Mask?

The philosopher Voltaire said in 1771 that the prisoner was no one else but the illegitimate twin/older brother of the Sun King Louis XIV. The writer Alexandre Dumas resumed Voltaire words and in his third and last book on the Three Musketeers, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”, inserted an episode where he talked about a romanticised version of the Iron Mask.

According to Dumas, the prisoner was Louis XIV’s twin brother

The name Iron Mask was the one given to a mysterious prisoner, arrested in 1669 or 1670 and kept in different prisons. For 34 years, until his death in 1703, the stranger was moved from one detention centre to another, always followed by the same official who was leading each jail where the two would move to.

This was Benigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, whom participated to the prisoner’s funeral as well, buried on the 19th of November 1703 in the Parisian cemetery of Saint-Paul-des-Champs, with the fake name of Marchiergues or Marchioly.

Below: mannequin exhibited in the underground of the Vaux-le-Vicomte Castle. Picture by Prosopee shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Many hypothesis have been enunciated and loads of words written on the possible identity of the man, whose face was never seen by anyone because that was covered by a velvet mask secured by metallic belts. Even though his unlucky existence might come across as a fictional tale, in reality a lot of proof had been gathered from the many buildings where he was taken. Iron Mask arrived to the Bastille in 1698 coming from the Fort Royal of the Île Sainte-Marguerite. Before that he was kept at the Exilles fort, moved there after having been in Pinerolo, Piedmont, for 12 years.

Exilles fort

Below: picture by K. Weise shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Even though the Iron Mask had undeniable privileges such as abundant and good quality food, luxury clothes and the authorisation of keeping books in his cell, his restrictions were inhuman. He could not speak to anybody apart from his confessor, whom had the professional confidentiality, and his doctor who would treat him in case of need.

The other person with whom he could exchange words was the head guard, but only for topics related to his detention. he could remove his mask for eating and sleeping, but never in the presence of other people.

All these informations are documented through letters, registers, and depositions collected  during the detention in the Bastille. In those years many hypothesis had been formulated about his identity

Maybe he was a French Count, an English Lord or a relative of some European noble family

Many rumors were spread, some maybe put out there to muddy the waters.

Fort Royal

Below: picture by Cédric Puisney shared via Wikipedia – licence Creative Commons

Voltaire, once he heard about Iron Mask during his brief detention to the Bastille, started some researches which led to the discovery of his death day, the fake name on his tombstone and certain discrepancies on the prisoner’s age.

The conclusions the philosopher came up with were infallible though they don’t resolve the mystery

-No one could speak with the prisoner who most likely was aware of some serious secret, probably source of troubles for a high up personality;
– The sight of his face could raise up suspects, so he must have been a well known person;
– Physically eliminating this inconvenient human was not a walkable way, maybe for political or affective reason.

Voltaire, as well as Dumas later on concluded that the person could be a step brother or twin brother of Louis XIV, to keep away in order to avoid objections on the right to the throne. Hugh Ross Williamson asserted that Iron Mask was instead the father of the Sun King, whose birth was actually miraculous: it occured 20 years after the union of the Queen Anne and Louis XIII, at that point maybe impotent, he did not have any contact with the wife’s bedroom anymore.

According to this theory, in order to secure the succession to the throne and avoid that the enemy Gaston d’Orleans would take over, step brother of Louis XIII, the powerful Cardinal Richelieu had convinced the King, with the consent of the Queen, to let a young vigorous man with royal blood to cover for his duty underneath the bed sheets.

In this case, an embarrassing resemblance between Louis XIV and the natural father would have sanctioned a condemnation of the latter to an iron mask for the rest of his days.

In order to unfold the mystery it is necessary to start off from the fortress of  Pinerolo, where very few prisoners were locked at a time. The mysterious prisoner must have been amongst the 6 ones that later followed Saint-Mars in the following relocations. The spy Dubreil, a Jacobin monk, the servant La Riviere, the ex finance minister Nicolas Fouquet, the Italian count Antonio Mattioli, and a man named Eustache Dauger, charged for poisoning and sexual assaults.

This last one was not a very important prisoner to require such a severe security measure. He could have been exchanged with the ex minister, supposedly dead in 1680. However Mr Fouquet does not appear as a dangerous character to justify the total isolation.

One of the most reliable theories identifies the Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli as Iron Mask. The Italian nobleman was a controversial person, conducting a double if not triple political game: informer of the Savoy family, King of France and the one of Spain and of this one, he was certainly aware of dangerous secrets. However useful alive as he could reveal things to the French government.

Furthermore he was registered at the Fortress of Pinerolo under a false name, things that might have caused diplomatic accident between France and House Savoy and for this, the use of the mask. Although Mattioli appears as dead in 1694, there is no certainty that the body was not replaced by another one. Further clue that agrees with this hypothesis is the incision on the tombstone of Iron Mask: “Monsieur Marchioly”, does recall the sound of Mattioli.

The hypothesis, even though reliable, are plenty. There is always something that does not sound completely right though. The mystery of Iron Mask will most likely remain as such forever, buried along with Louis XV, the last person that had knowledge of the masked man’s identity and that, according to him, was just character involved in a “not very important matter”.

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