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Unexplained Mysteries of The Man in the Iron Mask

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Man in the Iron mask

In 1698 a mysterious man was imprisoned in the Bastille. Almost no one seemed to know who he was, although residents of the French prison were usually important people who had fallen out of favor with King Louis XIV. This man had been a captive of the government since at least 1687, and for all that time his face had been hidden by a mask.

The masked man died in 1703, but rumors about his strange existence continued to circulate. In 1711 the king's sister-in-law, the Princess Palatine, mentioned the story in a letter to her aunt. The prisoner was treated very well, she said, but two musketeers stood by him at all times, ready to kill him if he removed his mask. He ate in the mask, slept in the mask, and eventually died in the mask. Even at the royal court his identity remained a mystery.

The philosopher and writer Voltaire was confined to the Bastille in 1717. He spent almost a year there, and later told a friend that he had spoken to people who had served the Man in the Iron Mask. In his book The Age of Louis XIV, published in 1751, Voltaire 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. The prisoner was young (in 1661), tall and very handsome. He dressed in the finest lace and linen, and enjoyed playing the guitar.

In his later writings Voltaire dropped broad hints about the prisoner's possible identity. According to Voltaire, the man was about 60 when he died, and bore a striking resemblance to someone very famous. Of course, the most famous face in France at that time belonged to King Louis XIV, who was also in his 60s. Another writer, Joseph de Lagrange-Chancel, lived at Versailles during Louis XIV's reign and was imprisoned on Sainte-Marguerite in the 1720s. He asserted that Benigne d'Auvergne de Saint-Mars, the governor of Sainte-Marguerite, treated the masked man deferentially and called him "my prince."

In 1768 a descendant of Saint-Mars wrote that the prisoner was called "Tower" by his captors. He didn't have to wear the mask all the time, only in public, and the guards sometimes saw him without it. When prison officials were in Tower's presence they politely removed their hats and remained standing until the prisoner gave them permission to sit.

Stories about the masked prisoner are often conflicting. Some writers state that he wore a mask of black velvet, not iron. Etienne Du Junca, who was second in command of the Bastille, never saw the prisoner without his black velvet mask. Du Junca wrote in his journal that the prisoner was buried under the name M. de Marchiel. A later writer located a death certificate giving the prisoner's name as Marchioly and his age as approximately 45.

In 1789 journalist Frederic-Melchior Grimm claimed that a royal valet had revealed to him that Louis XIV had an identical twin. The twins' father, Louis XIII, feared the brothers would grow up to fight over the throne, so he sent the second-born baby away to be raised in secret. The boy was taken into a nobleman's household and treated with great respect, but he was never told who he really was. As a young man he saw a portrait of his brother and guessed the truth. He was immediately arrested, and spent the rest of his life as the Man in the Iron Mask.

Many people believed this (probably fictional) account, which was elaborated and embroidered by other writers as the years passed. It has been said that when the Bastille was stormed by a revolutionary mob, the prince's skeleton was discovered, still wearing its iron mask, but there is no record that this actually happened. Napoleon supposedly believed that he was descended from the unfortunate prince, who, according to legend, had married the daughter of the governor of Sainte-Marguerite.

The Sun King

Many people found it difficult to believe that Louis XIV was really the son of Louis XIII and his wife, Anne of Austria for one simple reason: Louis XIII and his wife hated each other. Their marriage remained unconsummated for at least four years; it was twenty-three years before their first child, Louis, was born.

Rumors flew that Louis, the "God given" miracle child, was actually the son of Anne's favorite, the Duc de Beaufort. Legend has it that Beaufort was imprisoned in the iron mask to prevent anyone from learning that he was the king's real father.

Beaufort was not the only man rumored to have conducted an affair with Anne. Years earlier she had enjoyed a brief flirtation with the English Duke of Buckingham. It has been suggested that the Man in the Iron Mask was their secret son. Another story links Anne to a foreigner known only as C.D.R. Like Beaufort, C.D.R. is said to have been Louis's real father, and like Beaufort he supposedly ended up in the iron mask. In yet another version of the story, the Iron Mask is Marc de Jarrigue de La Morelhie, the son-in-law of the queen's physician. Morelhie stumbles across proof that Louis XIV is not Louis XIII's son, and is imprisoned in the iron mask to prevent him from sharing his dangerous knowledge with others.

It has even been claimed that the Iron Mask was the daughter of Anne of Austria and Louis XIII. Fearing their first child would be their last, and needing a boy child to inherit the throne, the royal couple supposedly swapped their baby girl for someone else's son. The imposter was raised as Louis XIV, and the real princess was banished to imprisonment in the iron mask. (This story was politically motivated. A year after Louis XIV's birth, Anne of Austria gave birth to her second son, Philippe. The enemies of Louis XIV's descendants wanted to believe that Philippe, not Louis, was Louis XIII's eldest son and the rightful heir to the throne.)

Louis XIV's father died when he was four. For 18 years Anne of Austria served as her son's regent, advised by Cardinal Mazarin. It was whispered that she had married Mazarin. Eventually the story arose that Anne and Mazarin had a secret son who became -- of course! -- the Man in the Iron Mask.

Louis XIV is 23 years old in the Alexandre Dumas story The Man in the Iron Mask. The story's characters include Louis's mother, Anne of Austria, and his mistress, Louise de Valliere. Louis's ministers Colbert and Fouquet also play important roles. The king did have a group of aristocratic guards called the Musketeers, but the musketeers in Dumas's story are fictional.

One of the reasons Louis XIV is so well remembered today is that he built the spectacular French palace of Versailles. The Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Man in the Iron Mask (based on Dumas's novel) takes place in the 1660s, when Louis XIV was just beginning to improve his property at Versailles. Parts of the movie were shot at Nicholas Fouquet's lovely palace, Vaux-le-Vicomte, which inspired Louis XIV to build Versailles. The king's envy of Vaux led him to have Fouquet arrested -- and some people believe that it was Fouquet who became the Man in the Iron Mask.

Alexandre Dumas

Although few people today realize that the Man in the Iron Mask was a real person, many have heard of him thanks to the movies based on the 19th century French novel The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas. It is possible that Dumas's interest in the Iron Mask legend was inspired by his grandfather, the Marquis Antoine-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, who grew up at the royal court of Versailles.

In the 1760s the marquis married Marie-Cessette or Louise-Cessette Dumas, a slave from Haiti. The couple's son, Thomas-Alexandre, became a general in the army of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. But Thomas-Alexandre fell out of favor with the emperor and was imprisoned. He died when his son Alexandre was four.

Alexandre Dumas lived in poverty until his 20s, when he became a successful playwright and a popular figure in French high society. After writing 50 plays he turned his attention to novels. He and his assistants produced hundreds of books, many of them very long. Perhaps Dumas's most famous work is The Three Musketeers, which was so popular that it led to two sequels. The second sequel, The Vicomte de Bragelonne, consisted of three volumes. The third volume was The Man in the Iron Mask. It was not the first fictional work based on the Iron Mask legend, but it became the best-known version of the old tale.

Who Was That Masked Man?

We know little about the Man in the Iron Mask, but it seems unlikely that he was, as legend suggests, the identical twin of Louis XIV. The king was quite short (although his platform shoes and high wigs gave him the illusion of height); the Man in the Iron Mask was tall. The masked prisoner's death certificate stated that he was around 45; the king was then 66.

Of course, the Man in the Iron Mask could have been a non-identical brother of the king. Still, the arguments in favor of his royal heritage tend to be rather silly. Voltaire's publisher became convinced that the Iron Mask was the son of the queen after reading that both were fond of wearing fine linen!

Many, many solutions have been proposed to the mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask. It has been suggested that he was masked to hide the fact that he was black -- or that he was actually the Woman in the Iron Mask! Most experts believe that the Iron Mask was a nobleman, or the male servant of a nobleman.

Men Who Might Have Worn The Iron Mask

The Duc de Beaufort: The Grand Admiral of France. Beaufort was killed in 1669 while fighting the Turks. Some believe that he was actually imprisoned in the iron mask because he, and not Louis XIII, was the real father of Louis XIV, but there is no evidence for this.

Eustache Danger: A valet who was arrested in 1669 for unknown reasons. Writer John Noone suggests in his 1988 book The Man Behind The Iron Mask that the governor of the Bastille kept Danger in a mask simply to impress others with the fact that he had been entrusted with an important prisoner.

Eustache Dauger de Cavoye: A French military officer who was arrested in 1668, possibly for participating in Satanic rituals. The reasons for his arrest were supposedly covered up because one of the king's mistresses was also a Satan worshipper. It has also been theorized that Dauger was the illegitimate half brother of Louis XIV, which was why he was forced to wear the mask.

Nicolas Fouquet: Louis XIV's Minister of Finance. In 1661 the king attended a splendid fete at Fouquet's mansion and became so jealous that he had Fouquet arrested. Fouquet died in prison in 1680. According to legend, Louis had promised that year to finally free Fouquet, but changed his mind after learning that his current mistress had once been romantically involved with Fouquet. To avoid keeping his promise he had Fouquet's death staged; the unhappy minister lived secretly on as the Man in the Iron Mask.

Count Ercolo Antonio Matthioli: An Italian who worked for the Duke of Mantua. The French wished to buy the fortress of Casale from the duke, but Matthioli mishandled the negotiations and was imprisoned at the order of Louis XIV. Matthioli is said to have worn a mask voluntarily because it was an Italian tradition.

Moliere: A famous actor and playwright. Moliere died in 1673 of consumption. According to one theory, Moliere's death was faked and he was imprisoned in the iron mask because his plays had offended powerful religious zealots.

The Duke of Monmouth: The illegitimate son of Britain's King Charles II. Monmouth was executed in London in 1685 for leading a rebellion against British king James II. Legend has it that James was unwilling to order his own nephew's death, so he had someone else executed in Monmouth's place, and sent the real duke to France to live out his days as the captive in the iron mask.

Nabo: A black dwarf who allegedly had an affair with Louis XIV's wife, Maria-Theresa. According to legend, Nabo was imprisoned after the queen gave birth to his baby. Determined to hush up the scandal, the king sent the child away to be raised in secrecy, and had Nabo imprisoned in the iron mask.

The Comte de Vermandois: An illegitimate son of Louis XIV. Vermandois died of smallpox in 1683 at age sixteen. His death took place while he was on a military campaign, and was well documented; however, in the 18th century some believed Vermandois had not died at all, but was spirited away to prison and the iron mask for the crime of striking the king's legitimate son. But Louis XIV was extremely generous to his illegitimate children, making this story highly unlikely.

The legend of the Man in the Iron Mask continues to intrigue people to this day. His identity will probably always remain one of history's great mysteries.

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