Who was the man in the iron mask?

Evidence suggests the man in the iron mask might have been Louis XIV's twin brother, but this fact is uncertain. No one will ever know who the masked prisoner was.

The story of the Man in the Iron Mask is a myth rooted in truth. The mystery surrounding this famous French prisoner has intrigued historians, writers, filmmakers and the public for centuries. In the archives of French libraries and museums there are many letters and various documents to be found in their abundance, not to mention the many fictional novels that have included the story. There is much mystery regarding exactly who the masked prisoner was and what he looked like. For centuries following his death, many people have made up various stories and theories about the prisoner’s existence and why he was imprisoned behind a mask. Evidence suggests he might have been the twin brother of Louis XIV, but this is far from certain.

The first official report of this prisoner was written by the Officer-in-Charge of the main tower of the Pinerolo or Pignerol Fortress, Benigne d'Auvergne de St-Mars. From January 1665 to April 1681, there were five prisoners under St-Mars' control and one of these is to have been 'The Man with the Iron Mask'. Little did St-Mars know at the time just how famous his prisoner would become.

St-Mars was transferred to Exiles where he was the Governor from 1681-1687 (the masked prisoner was not at Exiles), before he became the Governor of the French islands Saint Marguerite and Saint Honorat (called the Ilês de Lerins off the coast of Cannes in the French Riviera today). The masked prisoner went with the Governor to these islands before St-Mars was finally, under King Louis XIV's orders, made the Governor of the Bastille in Paris (1698-1708). The masked prisoner came with St-Mars to the Bastille.

Alexandre Dumas created his own version of the story, and it cannot be disputed that there was, in fact, a man imprisoned and forced to wear a mask. The exact identity of the man was never revealed. In fact, great care was given to conceal his identity. However, at that time, only those who had fallen out of favour with the king were imprisoned.

It is not known what that mask was made of. Some scholars, including Alexandre Dumas, assert that the mask was made of iron. According to some accounts, the iron mask had a movable hinged lower jaw held in place by springs that made it possible for the prisoner to eat while wearing it. The only known evidence is that it was made of black velvet. Regardless of what it was made of, the man must have eaten and slept in the mask because he was found with it intact when he died.

Two of Louis XIV’s musketeers guarded the prisoner’s cell day and night and threatened to kill the man if he removed the mask. By doing this, they were able to keep his identity anonymous.

News of the mysterious man’s imprisonment spread throughout France and dozens of theories regarding his identity were created. The masked prisoner remained at the Bastille until his death on November 19th, 1703 at around 10pm.

His death was sudden and unexpected, and the prison chaplain was not able to perform the last rites. The name - Monsieur de Marchiel - was entered into the register and his burial cost 40 livres (old pounds). The original death certificate was kept at the City Hall in Paris until 1871 when it, and the building, was destroyed in a fire. His final resting place was St. Paul's cemetery in Paris.

After his death public interest in the Man with the Iron Mask reached epic proportions. Stories abounded growing more fanciful by the day, fed by writers who had talked to prisoners at the Bastille, and by people in high-ranking positions. It was during this time that the legends took root and many accepted the stories as facts.

The tale of the Man with the Iron Mask has captured the imagination of the world. It is tempting to believe that he was really King Louis XIV's brother but the facts suggest that he was probably a powerful Italian Count. Whatever of the truth, the Man with the Iron Mask's story led many French people to mistrust the French Bourbon dynasty and this may have contributed to the French Revolution.

The myths live on today in film, books, plays and poetry. His fame has therefore surpassed the historical facts.