The Man in the Iron Mask-Fact or Fiction


By Deborah Cole



There have been many films about the man in the iron mask. There was a silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks as D'Artagnan; made in 1929, it was called The Man in the Iron Mask. Another film by the same name was made in 1976, starring Richard Chamberlain. The latest Hollywood movie is the film made in 1998, also called The Man in the Iron Mask, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Academy-Award winner Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Gerard Depardieu and Gabriel Byrne. The History Channel recently aired a documentary that explores the history behind the legend.

The 1998 film is the one most people recognize. The film is well done and the costuming is excellent. The cast did a great job. Leonardo DiCaprio played the dual roles of Louis XIV and his identical twin, Philippe. Jeremy Irons as Aramis and John Malkovich as Athos did justice to their roles and Gerard Depardieu as Porthos was great in the comic-relief part. The best actor of the movie was Gabriel Byrne, who played D'Artagnan, captain of the Musketeers and biological father of Louis and Philippe.

The film grabs the viewers' attention immediately by proclaiming "Some of this is legend but at least this much is fact - when the rioting citizens of France destroyed the Bastille, they discovered within its records a mysterious entry…Prisoner number 64,389,000 - The Man In The Iron Mask" (The Man in the Iron Mask. 1998). The movie tells the story of the identical twin to Louis XIV, raised in the country by a priest and an old woman, who called him Philippe. On his deathbed, King Louis XIII tells Louis XIV that he has an identical twin brother. He also tells his wife, Queen Anne of Austria, that the child she thought had died at birth is still alive. Louis XIV immediately has his brother placed in an iron mask and sent to the Bastille. Six years passed before Philippe is set free by the three musketeers, Aramis, Athos and Porthos. They intend to replace Louis with Philippe and pass Philippe off as Louis XIV. One man, D'Artagnan stands in their way. He is the captain of Louis' Musketeers and the biological father to the twins. He stands by his king, his son, even though he does not always agree with his decisions. Only Anne and D'Artagnan know that Louis is his son and not the son of Louis XIII. This causes problems for D'Artagnan with his friends because he stands behind a king they hate and want to replace. In the end, the kings switch places, with D'Artagnan finding out that there was a second child born. He decides to protect Philippe and dies doing so but not before telling Philippe and his friends, that he is Philippe's father.

With the numerous films made about this story, inevitably the man in the iron mask is a source of intrigue to people.He has been so since the time of Voltaire. No one knows much about him, thus the fascination. We can ask several questions about this man: Was he really kept in the Bastille masked? Was his mask really made of iron? Finally, who was he?

Several sources document the existence of the man in the iron mask and his imprisonment in the Bastille. In their book, The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom, Han-Jurgen Lusebrink and Rolf Reichardt write, "The greatest sensation was caused, however, by news, spread earlier by word of mouth, of the so-called man in the iron mask. This prisoner was committed in 1698, died after a short illness in 1703 at the age of about forty-five [also thought to be about 60], and was pseudonymously buried in the cemetery adjacent to the prison, which was a common procedure" (p. 13). Further proof that the man was in the Bastille is in Theodore von Keler's work: he wrote, "In the diary or 'journal' kept by Lieut. Etienne du Junca, who was an official of the Bastille from October 10, 1690 to the day of his death on September 28, 1706,…under the date of September 18, 1698, we find a detailed report of the arrival of M. de St-Mars, which report, in translation reads as follows: 'On Thursday, September 18, at 3 p. m., the new governor of the Bastille, M. de St-Mars made his official entry into this prison. He comes from the islands of Ste. Marguerite and St. Honarat and has brought with him, in a litter an old prisoner, whom he had in custody in Pinerolo, and whom he kept always masked, and whose name has not been given to me, nor recorded'" (von Keler, 1923). Given this documented evidence, it is without a doubt that there was a masked man at the Bastille during the reign of Louis XIV.

We now turn to the question of how was the man masked. Was his mask truly made of iron? Voltaire wrote in The Age of Louis XIV, "This prisoner wore…a masque', of which the bottom part had steel springs, contriv'd so that hecould eat without taking it off. Orders were given, that if he shewed any inclination to discover himself, he should be immediately killed…. This stranger being carried to the Bastile [sic], had the best accommodations…" (Lusebrink, p15). "Voltaire [also] said that the prisoner was forced to wear an iron mask as early as 1661, when he was held captive on the island of Sainte-Marguerite" (Cinderella, 1997-2002). However, Lieut. Du Junca wrote in his diary, "The prisoner was permitted to attend Mass on Sundays and holidays, but had to keep his face covered by a 'black velvet mask'" (von Keler, 1923). According to Theodore von Keler, "this report of du Junca…is the first and only definite statement describing the mask as 'black velvet' and not 'iron', as popular belief has it" (von Keler, 1923). Since Voltaire's description of the masked man was published in 1751 and du Junca was an official in the Bastille during Louis' reign, his account of the occurrences would seem to be more credible than that of Voltaire, who was probably writing from oral accounts.

Which brings us to our next question, who was the masked man? According to von Keler, "The less actual news one hears, the more fabricated stories will be received in good faith - and the result was that within a few months of the arrival of the 'Masked Prisoner' there was a fair crop of stories running through the streets of Paris, each one wilder and more improbable than the preceding one. But really fantastic stories did not start until the death of the mysterious prisoner" (von Keler, 1923). Many believed the man was the illegitimate child of Anne of Austria with the father different in each story told. Some believed it was the identical twin brother of Louis XIV, whom Louis XIII had hidden away to protect the boys from fighting over the throne. Napoleon Bonaparte believed he was a direct descendant of this man.

"Voltaire's publisher became convinced that the man in the iron mask was the son of the queen after reading that both were fond of wearing fine linen!" (Cinderella, 1997-2002). Voltaire even wrote in his 2nd edition of Question sur l'encyclopedie par des amateurs, "The masked prisoner had been a bastard child of Queen Anne of Austria, wife of Louis XIII" (von Keler, 1923). Von Keler narrowed the choices down to two men, Eustache Dauger, valet to Rourde Marsilly, and Antonio Ercole Matthioli, the confidential minister of state of the Duke of Mantua, as they were the only prisoners "who had been in the custody of St. Mars and [were] alive at the time of the transfer of the latter to the governorship of the Bastille" (von Keler, 1923). He rules out Dauger by telling us "nothing in the records shows that Dauger was kept masked…" He also writes, "When Dauger was later transferred to the Bastille, he was thrown into a small brick cell…and treated with scant consideration. On the other hand, Mattholi was always treated with a certain respect…" (von Keler, 1923).

Whoever the man in the iron mask was, he continues to intrigue people. We may never know who he was with certainty but all the stories are entertaining nevertheless. This movie was great entertainment. The dialogue was especially moving especially in those scenes involving D'Artagnan. For those interested in reading more about this topic, see the following: John Noone's The Man Behind the Iron Mask: A True Story (Dec. 1988), Hugh Ross' Who was the Man in the Iron Mask? And Other Historical Enigmas (June 2002), and The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas, et al.