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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 Bastille1. 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.

Historically, Voltaire was the first to record the Man in the Iron Mask, in an authenticated history entitled Si├Ęcle 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 at about the age of 60. The story formed the basis of the 1850 novel of the same name by Three Musketeers author Alexandre Dumas

It is thought 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 11 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?

Just Who Was He?

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 Candia2 in 1669 and our captive was already in prison at Pignerol in 1662. Others suggested that he could be the Comte 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 imprisoned 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 would have complicated the line of succession. 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 Enigma Lives On

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.

The true story of the Man in the Iron Mask is forever hidden by the veil of 300 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.

1The Bastille was the notorious Parisian jail where torture was the norm for prisoners of a low rank. It was this prison that was stormed during the French Revolution.2An old name for the city of Iraklion, Crete, Greece.

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