Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Man in the Iron Mask

Of all the mysterious figures in history, no one has sparked more interest, and provided such little detail, as the Man in the Iron Mask. Despite more than 300 years of puzzle, conjecture and uncertainty, there are precious few clues to his identity. The man is a enigmatic character who has been the subject of a classic novel by Alexandre Dumas and countless feature films. His place in the public’s mind is assured, but despite arousing such popular interest, no crucial revelations have been discovered. All we know is that he was a distinguished prisoner, and from the moment he was imprisoned, he had to hide his identity behind a strange mask.

The Man in the Iron Mask was first imprisoned sometime in the 1660s, probably towards the end of the decade. He was initially jailed at the fortress of Pignerol in the French Alps, where he was guarded by Benigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars, who would continue to be his personal jailer until the mysterious man’s death. He was transferred to the nearby prison in Exiles in 1681, and then to the island castle of Sainte Marguerite in 1687. It was during this second change of jail that the first witness account reported seeing a prisoner in an iron mask. In 1698 Saint-Mars was made the governor of the Bastille, the famous Parisian prison. Consequently, the masked man moved to the French capital and more reports, this time of a man in a black velvet mask, were recorded. He is said to have died in the Bastille in 1703. 

The Man in the Iron Mask. Reputedly the King’s unfortunate twin brother, there is little or no evidence as to whether
he ever existed or not.

The actual details one have of his life are extremely scant. A death certificate states the prisoner’s name was Marchioly, and he was about 45 years old when he died. This seems unlikely, particularly as he had been held in captivity for almost 40 years. One man who initiated many theories about the Bastille’s mysterious inmate was another, later, resident of the jail – the philosopher and writer Voltaire who had spoken to the man’s captors. He revealed that the man had been in jail since 1661, and was young, tall and handsome when first captured. He was said to dress in exquisite clothing, had refined hobbies and tastes and, crucially, he looked very much like a member of the French Royal Family.

Although Voltaire was a known adversary of French Royalty, this suggestion that the prisoner was possibly a twin brother of King Louis XIV lingered, and was adopted by Dumas for his novel. Despite the fact that an identical physical resemblance to the king would account for the man being permanently masked, it seems unlikely that such a monumental fact could have stayed a secret. However, the king’s birth did have some unusual qualities, and there is a strong possibility that the prisoner may have been an illegitimate brother of Louis XIV.

Other theories for the masked man’s identity include that he was actually the playwright Moliére, who had been imprisoned for fear of corrupting the king. This can be discounted because Moliére would have been too old to fit the dates recorded. There are also suggestions that he may have been Nicolas Fouquet, a envied wealthy French nobleman, or even an illegitimate lovechild of Charles II of England.

What cannot be in doubt is the reverence with which he was treated. Saint-Mars was known to call him, ‘my prince’, and his guarding soldiers referred to him as ‘Tower’. It has even been revealed that the soldiers would often remove their hats when entering his chamber, and would stand silently until the man motioned them to sit. In 1711, Princess Palatine, the king’s sister-in-law, wrote a letter about how the man was flanked at all times by two musketeers who had orders to immediately kill him if he removed his mask. Similarly, letters between the king and Saint-Mars have revealed that the prisoner should be executed straight away if he tried to talk or communicate with anybody.

Certainly, the prisoner warranted special attention, whoever he was. Many experts have wondered why, if he was such a threat to the French Royal Family, he was not just executed anyway. However, the fact that was allowed to live, but only behind a mask, perhaps does indicate he had an interesting relationship with the monarchy. The identity of the Man in the Iron Mask is now a fact lost in time, and the true story of his life is probably a tale we will never fully know.

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