Some months ago, my dear French friend Dr. Firenza Pesta set me a challenge which has given rise to a certain degree of obsession amongst some historians and academics, particularly in France: who was the Man in the Iron Mask? It being a bank Holiday, I thought it might be a good time to leave the woes of the world behind for a while, and ramble on a bit.
The first thing I would have to say is that I found this quite a tricky and time consuming investigation. At first I found very few satisfactory resources, and a search of the web provided little satisfactory information. Mostly I was directed to the suggestion that he was Leonardo di Caprio, which, though he is a fine actor, was not quite the answer I was looking for. Another seemingly perfectly sensible website reached the firm conclusion that he was, in fact, Dr Who. And not just any Dr Who, but the David Tennant incarnation. It was all part of a plot, you see ….. Of course.
However, I persisted. It would be wrong not to credit a fellow web site or blog which assisted me, and there is a readable and charming overview of theories and information here: at the “Straight Dope” Site.
I was also immensely assisted by obtaining a copy of “The Man Behind the Iron Mask” by novelist John Noone.
Mr. Noone started to research the topic with a view to writing a novel, and ended up writing a historical thesis, which to my mind is the best available analysis of the various theories. It is quite a dense work, but still readable.
Now it is important, on these rambles, that there should be not just fact, but salacious and quite unnecessary voyeuristic diversions into all manner of violence, treachery, plotting and sex. It is therefore with great satisfaction that I can report that the story of the Man in the Iron Mask, although perhaps having no perfectly conclusive ending, will throw up plots, adultery, treachery, and better still stories of Devil worship, male rape and mass poisonings in the salons of France.
It was the 18th Century author and philosopher Voltaire who really set the matter running.
According to Voltaire, writing in about 1750, in 1661 in the reign of the Sun King, Louise XIV, a prisoner was taken in extreme secrecy to the remote island of Saint-Marguerite off the cost of Provence. This prisoner was young and handsome and noble, and he wore a mask with steel springs which would allow him to eat, but he was forbidden to take the mask off on pain of death. How it is known the prisoner was noble and handsome if he had a mask on is not explained. The prisoner was to remain on the island for nearly thirty years until 1690, at which point he was transported in secrecy to the forbidding and infamous Bastille prison in Paris. There he remained until 1703, when he died, and was buried in a night time ceremony in the parish church of St Paul.
In later works, Voltaire provided a “nudge nudge, wink wink” about the identity of this noble but unfortunate prisoner. It was clear, said Voltaire, that if the prisoner’s face had been revealed it would have been “too striking a resemblance” to all and sundry for comfort. Voltaire did not say “too striking a resemblance” to whom, but he did not have to. The implication was clear. There was only one man in France whose features were so widely known: the “Sun King”, Louis XIV.
And so the legend that the Man in the Iron Mask was a relative of the King was born.
With the cat out of the (iron?) bag, the story then began, in the awful modern phrase, to gain traction, all the more so after the French Revolution. In 1789, one month after the fall of the Bastille, an ex-patriot German journalist called Frederic Grimm published a story expressly identifying the man as the King’s twin brother, a baby who had been “more handsome and vigorous” than the first born King himself. Fearful that twins would ignite a dynastic civil war, the slightly younger, on the instructions of Cardinal de Richelieu, the eminence rouge, the younger child was spirited away to an asylum, and later sent to live with a minor nobleman. But when the young man grew up, he discovered his true lineage and the Sun King’s response was instant and final: and so his incarceration began. The story was taken up by a defrocked priest called Soulavie, who published an alleged memoir of a dissolute French Aristocrat called Armand de Vignerot du Plessis. Du Plessis was a Marshal of France, and great nephew of the brilliant Cardinal Richelieu himself, but appears to have been largely what one would call a rake and a piss artist. Soulavie wrote his life up in a fake memoir, and Soulavie spiced it up with plots, a princess shagging the Duc D’Orleans to get information, and plenty of codes. It sold like hot cakes. It was the “Da Vinci Code” of its day.
From there the story has spread in many ways. One story goes that his jailer’s daughter fell in love with him, and they married and had a child. Since the father’s name was not to be spoken, the child was given the family name of the mother: De Bonpart. You can see where that one is going. Ultimately these stories reached their apogee in the Alexandra Dumas novel, The Viscount of Bragelonne, which wove the story into his Three Musketeer stories. That is the incarnation with which we are more familiar today,
Before I examine the facts behind the legend, first of all, I think it is important to set some context of the times and the stories. “The Sun King”, Louise XIV, was perhaps France’s most spectacular incarnation of royal magnificence. He was handsome, brilliant, physically brave (the extremely painful, dangerous and invasive operation on what I will politely call his bum to remove a tumour was endured in stoic silence with, of course, no anesthetic) ambitious and demanding. He also liked a lot of good food, good art and good sex. Under his reign France threatened (my apologies to my dear friend Dr Pesta) to overawe and achieve hegemony in Europe. At home, he was an absolutist, his most famous saying being the one which has passed into common parlance, “L’état, c’est moi!”. He was the living embodiment of the State.
In this absolutist world, inconvenient people did get locked up. And yet there seems to have been some regard for process, in as much as there was at least a nod in the direction of legality, and less of the overt political assassinations that I last discussed in my treatment of the Borgia’s and Renaissance Italy. So it is all a bit of a muddle when it comes to who could be locked up by whom, and for what.
Second, Voltaire and the later writers were writing in the run up to, and aftermath of, the French Revolution. Stories which caused doubt about the legitimacy or principles of the Monarchy were good copy.
Now let me see if I can establish some facts. The story does have a basis in fact.In 1698 a new governor called Saint – Mars was appointed as commander of the Bastille. To quote from the Straight Dope site:
“Our first record of a masked prisoner is from a notebook kept by Lieutenant Etienne du Junca, an official of the Bastille from October 1690 until his death in September 1706. His notebooks are “the most important and reliable source of information we have about the management and conduct of the Bastille under Louis XIV,” according to Theodore M.R. von Keler.
The entry for Thursday, September 18, 1698, records the 3 p.m. arrival of a new governor of the Bastille, Bénigne d’Auvergne de Saint-Mars. Du Junca writes that Saint-Mars “brought with him, in a litter, a longtime prisoner, whom he had in custody in Pignerol, and whom he kept always masked, and whose name has not been given to me, nor recorded.”
Saint-Mars had been at Pignerol from 1665 to 1681, so the Man in the Mask had been imprisoned for at least 18 years prior to his arrival at Bastille, and perhaps as long as 33 years.
Du Junca’s later comments indicate that the prisoner was well treated, and had no complaints. He was permitted to attend Mass on Sundays and holidays, but had to keep his face covered by a “black velvet mask.” Du Junca’s report is the only mention of a mask, and note that it is black velvet, not iron.
Five years later, on November 19, 1703, Du Junca records the death and burial of the “unknown prisoner, who has worn a black velvet mask since his arrival here in 1698.” Saint-Mars had the name “Marchialy” inscribed in the parish register, but spelling in those days were subject to what John Noone calls “orthographical disorder.””
Who was this man? There have been many candidates but these are the main ones
The King’s Relative
Voltaire claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. How serious he was is hard to say. Alexandre Dumas used this theory in his book, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, but made the prisoner a twin brother.
Another theory argues that the man in the iron mask was actually the father of Louis XIV. According to this theory, the ‘miraculous’ birth of Louis XIV in 1638, after Louis XIII had been estranged from his wife for over twenty years, implies that Louis XIII was not the father.
The suggestion is that the King’s minister, Cardinal Richelieu, had arranged for a substitute, probably an illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV, to become intimate with the Queen, and father an heir. At the time, the presumptive was Louis XIII’s brother Gaston d’Orléans, who was also Richelieu’s enemy. If Gaston became King, Richelieu would quite likely have lost both his job as minister and his life, so it was in his interests to thwart Gaston’s ambitions. Louis XIII also hated Gaston and might thus have agreed to the scheme.
Supposedly the father then left for the Americas, but in the 1660s returned to France with the aim of extorting money for keeping his secret, and was promptly imprisoned. This theory would explain both the secrecy surrounding the prisoner, whose true identity would have destroyed the legitimacy of Louis XIV had it been revealed, and (because of the King’s respect for his own father) the comfort of the terms of his imprisonment and the fact that he was not simply killed.
Louis Gendron, a French military historian, came across some coded letters and passed them on to Etienne Bazeriesin the French Army’s cryptographic department. After three years Bazeries managed to read some messages in the Great Cipher of Louis XIV. One of them referred to a prisoner and identified him as General Vivien de Bulonde. One of the letters written by Louvois made specific reference to de Bulonde’s crime.
At the Siege of Cuneoin 1691, Bulonde was concerned about enemy troops arriving from Austria and ordered a hasty withdrawal, leaving behind his munitions and wounded men. Louis XIV was furious and in another of the letters specifically ordered him “to be conducted to the fortress at Pignerol where he will be locked in a cell and under guard at night, and permitted to walk the battlements during the day with a 330 309″. It has been suggested that the “330″ stood for masque and the 309 for “full stop”. However, in 17th-century French avec un masque would mean “with a person in a mask”.
Some believe that the evidence of the letters means that there is now little need of an alternative explanation for the man in the mask. Other sources, however, claim that Bulonde’s arrest was no secret and was actually published in a newspaper at the time and that he was released after just a few months. His death is also recorded as happening in 1709, six years after that of the man in the mask.
In 1801 revolutionary legislator Pierre Roux-Fazillac stated that the tale of the masked prisoner was an amalgamation of the fates of two separate prisoners, Ercole Antonio Mattioli (see below) and an imprisoned valet named “Eustache D’auger” or “Danger” – the spellings vary, as they did in those days.
Andrew Lang, in his The Valet’s Tragedy and Other Stories (1903), presented a theory that “Eustache Dauger” was a prison pseudonym of a man called “Martin”, valet of the Huguenot Roux de Marsilly. After his master’s execution in 1669 the valet was taken to France, possibly by capture or subterfuge, and imprisoned because he might have known too much about his master’s affairs.
The Son of Charles II
In The Man of the Mask (1908), Arthur Barnes presents James de la Cloche, the alleged illegitimate son of the reluctant Protestant Charles II of England, who would have been his father’s secret intermediary with the Catholic court of France. Louis XIV could have imprisoned him because he knew too much about French affairs with England.
One of Charles’s confirmed illegitimate sons has also been proposed as the man in the mask. This was the Duke of Monmouth. A Protestant, he led a rebellion against his uncle, the Catholic King James II. The rebellion failed and Monmouth was executed in 1685. But in 1768 a writer named Saint-Foix claimed that another man was executed in his place and that Monmouth became the masked prisoner, it being in Louis XIV’s interests to assist a fellow Catholic like James who would not necessarily want to kill his own nephew. (Saint-Foix’s case was based on unsubstantiated rumours, and allegations that Monmouth’s execution was faked.)
The Government Minister
Other popular suspects have included men known to have been held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger. Fouquet himself has been considered, but the fact that Dauger is known to have served as his valet makes this unlikely.
The Italian Diplomat
Another candidate, much favoured in the 19th-century, was Fouquet’s fellow prisoner Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli(or Matthioli). He was an Italian diplomat who, in 1678, acted on behalf of the debt-ridden Charles IV, Duke of Mantua, in the selling of Casale, a strategic fortified town near the border with France. Because a French occupation would be unpopular, discretion was essential, but, after pocketing his commission once the sale had been concluded, Mattioli leaked the details to France’s Spanish enemies who made a bid of their own before the French forces could occupy the town. Mattioli was kidnapped by the French and thrown into nearby Pignerol in April 1679. The French took possession of Casale two years later.
Since the prisoner is known to have been buried under the name “Marchioly”, many believe that this is proof enough that he was the man in the mask. The Hon. George Agar Ellis reached the conclusion that Mattioli was the state prisoner commonly called The Iron Mask when he reviewed documents extracted from French archives in the 1820s. His book, published in English in 1826, was also translated into French and published in 1830. The German historian, Wilhelm Broecking came to the same conclusion independently seventy years later. Robert Chambers’ Book of Days supports the claim and places Matthioli in the Bastille for the last 13 years of his life.
Since that time, letters purportedly sent by Saint-Mars, which earlier historians missed, indicate that Mattioli was only held at Pignerol and Sainte-Marguerite and was not at Exiles or the Bastille and therefore it is argued that he can be discounted.
The Army Officer
In a letter to jailer Saint-Mars the prisoner is named as “Eustache Dauger” and historians have found evidence that a Eustache Dauger (same name as the valet described above but a different person) was living at the time and was involved in shady and embarrassing events involving people in high places. His full name was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye.
Records indicate that he was born on 30 August 1637, the son of François Dauger, a captain in Cardinal Richelieu’s guards. His son Eustache Dauger de Cavoye was also to be commissioned in the army. He seems to disappear from history in about 1668.
So which of them could it be? In his book “The Man Behind the Iron Mask” John Noone argues, to my mind that the idea of the king’s brother or relative being locked up in this way is fanciful, not least because it would be a good way of attracting attention, not keeping a secret, something to which I shall return.
So, if not the king’s twin or relation, who was it? One character seems to stand out. The army officer who vanishes from history in the late 1660’s. Time to examine a little of the life of roisterer, lecher, possibly homosexual rapist, murderer, Devil worshipper and purveyor of fine poisons, Eustache Dauger de Cavoye.
The facts surrounding Eustache Dauger Cavoy are interesting. He likes a good party. For example, at Easter 1659 he and his handsome friend and mentor the Comte de Guiche (described in some texts as brave, charming and also a notable bisexual and dualist) attended a house party held amongst a certain “party people set” of the time at the Chateau de Roissy. John Noone describes many of the group who assembled as “rakehell hooligans”. Although it was Easter, the house party did not devote itself entirely to religious solemnity. On Good Friday morning they went out hunting to work up an appetite, then opened the sherry and started a monumental drinking session. It was decided that roast pork would a good choice for dinner, but since eating meat on Good Friday was absolutely forbidden by Catholic doctrine, a pig was first “consecrated as a carp” to fit the bill. In the revelry a passing official dragged unto the courtyard was assaulted and humiliated. That was to prove a critical mistake. The official worked for the immensely powerful Cardinal Mazarin, Chief Minister of France, and after the King himself, the most powerful man in the country.
Mazarin was far from amused, and ordered an investigation. Wild stories of homosexual orgies, excess and blasphemies began to emerge. Stories of desecration of the Eucharist, Devil worship, and even cannibalism.
The disgrace was temporary, but more was to come. Scandal followed Dauger. In 1665 he was implicated in the death of a page boy. There were stories of a fight that got out of control, but the author Noone’s interpretation is that the case involved male rape and murder. This time the King ordered an inquiry. Dauger was disinherited and ordered to resign his commission and was broke.
Until recently, the last recorded reference to Eustache Dauger de Cavoye was in 1668. This fits very well with a man called Eustache Dauger being imprisoned in high security in Pignerol at some time in the late 1660’s. According to historian Maurice Duviver in a book published in 1932, what happened was this.
Dauger had been involved in Devil Worship for years. His luck ran out with the murder of the page boy, and he was disinherited and cashiered. He turned first to his Black Magic contacts, and then to organised crime to survive. He became, amongst other things a back street abortionist and a supplier of poisons to high placed individuals. Amongst these is Madame de Montespan, the celebrated mistress of Louis XIV himself. When Louise found out, he was taken into permanent and isolated imprisonment, forever to silence him.
So, is it true?
Unfortunately, probably not, although who knows what wickedness Eustache Dauger de Cavoye got up to. Because recently documents have been found which seem to conclusively prove that Eustache Dauger de Cavoye had indeed been locked up in 1669. But it was at his family’s own behest, and he was kept in an asylum in Saint-Lazare, where he was to unhappily remain until his death in the 1680’s.
It seems that the man who was brought to the Bastille in 1698 and had been kept in imprisonment in Pignerol since the 1660’s was, in fact, one of the other candidates on the list. And that on occasions he had been made to wear an iron mask. Next week I shall reveal who.
To be continued