Mysterious Events in History Death of the Man in the Iron Mask Part 1

About the mysterious event in history involving the death of the man in the Iron Mask.


When: November 19, 1703

Where: The Bastille, Paris, France

The Mystery: Who was the "man in the iron mask," whose identity aroused the curiosity of all Europe for decades after his imprisonment by Louis XIV? The facts are these:

By order of the King, a mysterious prisoner was jailed in 1669 at Pignerol, in a cell with windows protected by iron bars and a basket-work grille. He had not been tried or sentenced. His jailer, from then until the prisoner's death 34 years later, was M. de Saint-Mars, an under officer of the musketeers, a subordinate of D'Artagnan, later immortalized by novelist Alexandre Dumas. Saint-Mars's job was to keep the prisoner from being recognized or communicating with anyone.

In 1681, the prisoner was moved to Exiles. In 1687, he was moved again, this time to the prison at Ile Sainte-Marguerite in the Bay of Cannes. To make sure he would remain unidentified, Saint-Mars took the prisoner there in a sedan chair covered with waxed cloth.

Sometime during his stay at Ile Sainte-Marguerite, the prisoner wrote something, probably desperate, with a steel fork on a silver plate. He threw it out the window to land on the beach, where it was picked up by a fisherman. When the fisherman brought it to the prison, Saint-Mars asked him if he could read. "No," the fisherman replied, and Saint-Mars said, "It is lucky for you, for it would have been necessary to put you to death if you could."

In 1698, Saint-Mars took the prisoner to the Bastille. On the journey, tradition has it, Saint-Mars stopped at his Chateau of Palteau, near Villeneuve, and ate his dinner with 2 pistols beside his plate, facing the masked prisoner. (This story gives the 1st reference to a mask, which was not made of iron as legend has it, but of black velvet stiffened with whalebone.)

In 1703, the prisoner died. In his journals, Etienne du Jonca, the King's lieutenant at the Bastille, wrote, "On the same day, 19 November, 1703, the unknown prisoner, always masked with a mask of black velvet, whom M. de Saint-Mars, the governor, brought with him on coming from the Ile Sainte-Marguerite, whom he had kept for a long time, the which happening a little ill yesterday on coming from mass, he died today, about 10 o'clock at night, without having had a serious illness.... And this unknown prisoner, kept here for so long, was buried on Tuesday at 4 o'clock P.M., 20 November in the graveyard of St. Paul, our parish...." In the church register, it was recorded that the prisoner's name was Marchioly. (The name was probably a false clue.)

Who had the masked prisoner been? The King would not tell, nor would his advisers, and they were the only ones who knew. M. de Chamillart, one of those advisers, was asked to tell the secret on his deathbed; he refused.

Louis XV, who also knew, said, "If he were still alive, I would give him his freedom." Later Louis said, "No one has yet told the truth and all conjectures are false."

Possible Solutions: The mistress of the previous minister said the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria, the wife of Louis XIII, fathered illegitimately by the English Duke of Buckingham. He had been put in jail, she stated, because he looked so much like Louis XIV.

There were other rumors that maintained the prisoner had royal blood. Andrew Lang, 19th-century mystic, said the prisoner was the eldest natural son of King Charles II of England, a rogue and master hoaxer who had incurred the anger of the King of France. It was rumored, too, that the prisoner was really Louis XIV himself, kept in prison while his illegitimate half brother occupied the throne. While in prison, the rumor continued, he married and had a son, who was taken to Corsica and given the name de buona parte ("of good family") and became the grand-father of Napoleon.

Until 1869, the most credible theory was that the man in the iron mask was an envoy of the Duke of Mantua, one Mattioli, who had double-crossed the King of France. This was discredited by a letter written by Saint-Mars in 1681, which showed that Mattioli had been out of his custody for 13 years.

Evidence from state papers unearthed after the French Revolution and other sources now tells us that the man was probably a valet (confidential secretary) named Eustache Dauger, whose father had been captain of Cardinal Richelieu's musketeers and was probably known at court. Eustache was the black sheep of the family, dishonorably discharged from the army, disinherited by his mother for unstated reasons, accused of the murder of a drunken page on the staircase of the Royal Palace.

Why was he imprisoned, though, if indeed he was the man in the "iron" mask? Rumor has it that he might have been illegitimate royalty, or was used as the King's double on a secret mission, or impersonated the King. But no one knows for sure, or probably ever will.

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