A few weeks ago I commenced my quest to search for the truth behind the legend of the Man in the Iron Mask. Having tried to bring as much salacious gossip to the fore as possible, I reached the conclusion that the man was not the libertine, possible back street abortionist and devil worshipping rapist Eustache Dauger de Cavoye. He ended up locked up in an asylum and not in the Bastille. Here then, is the solution as best as I can understand it.
Pinerolo is now a northern Italian city near the border with France in the province of Turin and the Piedmont region. Back in mid 1669 it was under French control and was called Pignerol. The city was and still is famous for, amongst other matters, its fortress and prison. Perhaps because it was as far away from Paris as one could possibly get but still be within French territory, it was where prisoners who were a potential embarrassment to the French state could be kept imprisoned safely and out of the way.
In 1669 the fortress prison of Pignerol was under the command of a man called Benigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars. It was a bit of a dead end job. At the time Saint-Mars only had one prisoner, although he was an important one, Fouquet, King Louis XIV’s former minister who was spared death by strangulation and was given a lifetime of gilded solitary confinement and which was to drive him slightly mad, as was customary in those days.
Fouquet was also allowed the company of two valets who were to share his isolation. One called Champagne, and one called La Riviere.
In July 1669 Saint-Mars received letters telling him to prepare for a new prisoner. The orders came from François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois (1641 – 1691) who was the French Secretary of State for War for a significant part of the reign of Louis XIV.
“You will prepare the furniture necessary taking note of the fact that since the prisoner is only a valet he will need nothing of significance”
wrote Louvois. Later he was provided with funding for his charge, 4 livres a day. By comparison the former minister Fouquet was given an allowance of 20 livres per day.
The prisoner had been arrested by a captain of the garrison in Dunkirk called de Vauroy who had received direct orders from the King. His orders were not to put the prisoner in a mask, but simply to arrest him on site and take him to Pignerol.
Louvois gave Saint-Mars orders “to keep [the prisoner] safe in custody preventing him from communicating with anyone by word of mouth or in writing”.
The letters from Louvois make it quite clear who the prisoner was. He was named as Eustache Dauger. This, however, is a different Eustache Dauger to the devil worshipping libertine Eustache Dauger de Cavoye as discussed previously. Saint-Mars confirmed this when he wrote back to Louvois in August as follows:
“M. de Vauroy has delivered Eustache Dauger into my custody and I have him locked up in a secure place until the cell I am having prepared for him is ready. In the presence of M. de Vauroy I have warned him that if he ever spoke to me or anyone else about anything other than his simple needs I would run him through with my sword”.
Louvois was very concerned that the prisoner should not be able to communicate. He issued specific orders about this:
“You must make sure that the windows are so placed that they do not give on to anywhere accessible to anyone and that there are doors closing one upon another so that the sentries will not be able to hear anything. You personally must take the wretch whatever he needs for the day once a day and you must never listen to anything he tries to tell you, no matter what the pretext might be. You must threaten to kill him if he ever opens his mouth to speak to you about anything except the bare necessities of his life … You will prepare the furniture necessary, taking note of the fact that, since the prisoner is only a valet, he will need nothing of any significance.”
The cell was peculiar and took 8 months to construct. A month later orders were varied allowing the prisoner to have access to a doctor and a priest, although there were still restrictions on what he was allowed to communicate.
There are other details all of which point to the same conclusion. The man arrested and sent to Pignerol in July 1669 was not the twin brother of King Louise XIV, nor was he a devil worshipping and murderous disgraced soldier who had links to the Court. He was a relatively modest individual, a valet, but he knew something highly embarrassing, which the French State, or high up persons within it, wanted to be kept a secret. What it was, I do not think anyone knows. At a best guess, I would say it was possibly about the King and his many mistresses. But in truth no one knows.
The point is often made that if this was the case, one might have expected him to have been found face down in the river, or having an unfortunate meeting with a dagger in a back alley. In fact, as John Noone points out in his book “The Man Behind The Iron Mask” that is not quite how 17th Century France worked. Unlike the lethal world of renaissance Italy, assassination was rare and regarded as poor form. Locking someone up on the orders of a person in high office was an acceptable part of Absolutism.
In 1671 a further prisoner arrived, a soldier and colonel in the King’s bodyguards called Lauzun. Lauzun was a powerfully built, ugly, impudent, brute of a man with wit but a serious attitude problem which had both captivated and annoyed those at court, and he was always involved in intrigues. When he did not get a particular position he felt he deserved, he publicly berated and insulted the king for breaking his promises (and his chief mistress, Madame de Montespan). Having finally overstepped the mark, he was shipped off in an instant to Pignerol. He was to prove an incredibly irascible, cantankerous and troublesome prisoner, too violent to be dealt with, and involved in endless escape attempts. He had one valet and lived like a wild cave man, forever plotting escapes and digging secret tunnels, including one in a chimney which he used to make clandestine visits to Fouquet.
In 1674 another prisoner arrived, un-named but known as “the Dominican”. He appears to have been a priest arrested in Lyon, as a result of a scandal involving noble ladies who had been involved in some decidedly improper behaviour. He went mad, or madder, and lived in a state of chaos.
In 1675, one of Fouquet’s two valets, Champagne, died. Saint-Mars proposed to the powers that be in Paris that the prisoner who had been brought to Pignerol in 1669 should be appointed to replace Champagne. Louvois wrote back and approved the appointment, but on the strict proviso that he should serve Fouquet and no one else; in particular he should have no contact with the, now feral, Lauzun, who was busily tunnelling out, Colditz style, only to have the attempt thwarted when he emerged in a courtyard to the surprise of a servant girl who screamed at the sight of the Devilish apparition rising out of the ground. Nevertheless his guts and refusal to give up won him many admirers back in Paris.
The next prisoner to arrive was a spy and intriguer for hire called Dubreuil. The final prisoners arrived in May 1679. These prisoners were an Italian aristocrat called Count Matthioli and his valet.
Fouquet died in 1680, of the “apoplexy”, not unusual in those times.
At about the same time Saint-Mars discovered that Lauzun had created a secret passage through which he had been able to visit Fouquet, which meant that he had also almost certainly had contact with Eustache Dauger, and whatever secret he possessed. For whatever reason, this caused great concern to minister Louvois back in Paris. What then happened is both sad and remarkable. Both Eustache Dauger and his co valet, La Riviere, were released. Except they weren’t. They were “officially” released. But from Paris Louvois gave Saint-Mars a specific order about Dauger and La Riviere:
“It is His Majesty’s pleasure that you persuade M, de Lauzun that the man named Eustache Dauger and the said La Riviere have been set free and that you say the same thing to all those who ask you for news of them; that nevertheless you shut them both up in a room where you can assure His Majesty they will not be able to communicate with anyone by word of mouth or writing, and that M. de Lauzun will not be able to perceive they are locked up there”.
Thus, they were to be not simply prisoners, but secret prisoners, no longer officially in the system. They appear to have been held in the Lower Tower, and were simply referred to as “the two blackbirds” or “the two gentlemen in the Lower Tower”.
In fact Lauzun was freed in 1681.
It was about this time that the seeds of the legend of the Man in the Iron Mask were sown, not because the two secret prisoners were kept with their faces covered, but because rumours started about two now even more mysterious prisoners being held in secret, and as Saint-Mars wrote to Louvois in Paris that “he was obliged to tell [people] preposterous stories about who they were” to keep people satisfied and keep them off the trail. And so it began to be rumoured that two very important, high ranking prisoners were being kept in the prison. This boosted Saint-Mars status and ego, and may well have given him a taste for fame.
Later that same year Saint-Mars was appointed governor of the prison fortress of Exiles (now Exilles in Italy). He went there, taking his two secret prisoners Dauger and La Riviere with him. La Riviere’s death was reported in January 1687, and in May Saint-Mars and Dauger moved to Sainte-Marguerite, one of the Lérins Islands, half a mile offshore from Cannes.
Curiously, or perhaps not, it soon became rumoured in the area that Saint-Mars was in charge of a prisoner of extreme importance. Wild rumours began to circulate about who this may be. At one point Saint-Mars appears to have even had his unfortunate prisoner carted about for a while on a sedan chair, with his face covered with an iron mask, but this had to be discontinued because the poor man fell ill wearing it. There is clear evidence that Saint-Mars was encouraging these rumours, putting it about that his prisoner must not be named, that he was to be shot if he ever spoke and so forth. It was a strategy designed to attract notoriety and speculation and boost Saint-Mars reputation as a man of some importance.
In short, what seems to have happened is that Saint-Mars concocted a story to give him status and prestige when he was really at the dead end of a career, and only had one prisoner to guard; a valet, not the King’s twin brother. The whole thing was an exercise in publicity and spin, to increase the prestige of a petty bureaucrat – albeit with a true, and insignificant poor soul at the heart of it.
When he was eventually given his final posting to the Bastille he took his prisoner with him and engaged in much the same games. In fact, the prisoner was given a black velvet mask, not an iron one – the lessons of the prisoner’s previous illness when so encased had been learned, but still dramatic enough to court a bit of mystery and notoriety.
The prisoner died on 19 November 1703, and was buried the next day under the name of “Marchioly”. The name has been taken from one of the previous prisoners at Pignerol, but although that is not a completely neat end, I suspect it was just any old identity used to finally disguise the real name of Eustache Dauger; the man who the authorities had decided should simply disappear.
All his furniture and clothing were reportedly destroyed afterwards, the walls of his cell scraped and whitewashed and everything of metal which the man had possessed, or used, melted down.
And that is about as far as I can go. Dauger seems to have been a rather diffident, undemanding chap who spent 35 years in prison, largely alone, for knowing too much. What he knew I cannot say, but by the end of his life the Powers that be appear to have forgotten him, and what he may have known. He was used as a pawn in a game of publicity. It is a sad tale.
Gildas the Monk