The Man in the Iron Mask (French: L’Homme au Masque de Fer) is a name given to a prisoner arrested as Eustache Dauger in 1669 or 1670, and held in a number of jails, including the Bastille and the Fortress of Pignerol (today’s Pinerolo).

He was held in the custody of the same jailer, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, for a period of 34 years.

The few facts known about this prisoner are based mainly on correspondence between his jailer and his superiors in Paris.

The Man died on 19 November 1703 under the name of Marchioly, during the reign of Louis XIV of France (1643–1715).

The possible identity of this man has been widely debated, and has been the subject of many books, because no one ever saw his face – which was hidden by a mask of black velvet cloth.

Hold On. Black Velvet CLOTH?


In the second edition of his Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (French for “Questions on the Encyclopedia”), published in 1771, the writer and philosopher Voltaire claimed that the prisoner wore an iron mask and was the older, illegitimate brother of Louis XIV. From which point, the iron mask passed into the traditions of the story.

Let’s face it; The Man in the Black Velvet Cloth Mask doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

In the late 1840s, the writer Alexandre Dumas elaborated on the theme in the final installment of his Three Musketeers saga.
Here the prisoner is forced to wear an iron mask and is Louis XIV’s identical twin brother.

Arrest Records and Imprisonment

The first surviving records of the masked prisoner date from late July 1669, when Louis XIV’s minister the Marquis de Louvois sent a letter to Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the prison of Pignerol (then part of France).

In his letter, Louvois informed Saint-Mars that a prisoner named Eustache Dauger was due to arrive in the next month or so.

Louvois instructed Saint-Mars to prepare a cell with multiple doors, one closing upon the other, which were to prevent anyone from the outside listening in.

Saint-Mars himself was to see Dauger only once a day in order to provide food and whatever else he needed. Dauger was also to be told that if he spoke of anything other than his immediate needs he would be killed, but, according to Louvois, the prisoner should not require much, since he was “only a valet”.

Historians have noted that the name Eustache Dauger was written in a different handwriting to the rest of the text, suggesting that while a clerk wrote the letter under Louvois’s dictation, a third party (very likely the minister himself) added the name afterwards.

The man himself was arrested by Captain Alexandre de Vauroy, garrison commander of Dunkirk, and taken to Pignerol where he arrived in late August.

Evidence has been produced to suggest that the arrest was actually made in Calais and that not even the local governor was informed of the event – Vauroy’s absence being explained away by his hunting for Spanish soldiers who had strayed into France via the Spanish Netherlands.

Why The Mask?

The first rumors of the prisoner’s identity (as a Marshal of France) began to circulate at this point.

According to many versions of this legend, the prisoner wore the mask at all times. It is more probable that he was masked only during transportation, such as when he was taken from prison to prison, and when there were outside visitors to the jail.

The prison at Pignerol (like the others at which Dauger was later held) was used for men who were considered an embarrassment to the state, and usually held only a handful of prisoners at a time.

Saint-Mars’s other prisoners at Pignerol included Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli (or Matthioli), an Italian diplomat who had been kidnapped and jailed for double-crossing the French over the purchase of the important fortress town of Casale on the Italian border.

There was also Nicolas Fouquet, Marquis of Belle-Île, a former superintendent of finances, who had been jailed by Louis XIV on the charge of embezzlement, and the Marquis de Lauzun – who had become engaged to the Duchess of Montpensier, a cousin of the King, without the King’s consent.

The Masked Valet

In his letters to Louvois, Saint-Mars describes Dauger as a quiet man, giving no trouble, “disposed to the will of God and to the king”.
This compared favorably to his other prisoners – who were either always complaining, trying to escape, or simply mad.

Dauger was not always isolated from the other prisoners.

Wealthy and important inmates usually had manservants; Fouquet, for instance, was served by a man called La Rivière.
These servants would become as much prisoners as their masters, and it was difficult to find people willing to volunteer for such an occupation.

Since La Rivière was often ill, Saint-Mars applied for permission for Dauger to act as servant for Fouquet.

In 1675 Louvois gave permission for such an arrangement, on condition that he was to serve Fouquet only while La Rivière was unavailable and that he was not to meet anyone else. If, for example, Fouquet and Lauzun were to meet, Dauger was not to be present.

The fact that the man in the mask served as a valet is an important one.

Fouquet was never expected to be released, thus meeting Dauger was no great matter.
But Lauzun was expected to be set free eventually – and it would have been important not to have him spread rumors of Dauger’s existence.

Historians have argued that 17th-century protocol made it unthinkable for a man of royal blood to act as a manservant – thus putting a damper on those suggestions that Dauger was in any way related to the king.

After Fouquet’s death in 1680, Saint-Mars discovered a secret hole between Fouquet and Lauzun’s cells. He was sure that they had communicated through this hole without detection by him or his guards, and that Lauzun must have been made aware of Dauger’s existence.

Louvois instructed Saint-Mars to move Lauzun to Fouquet’s cell, and to tell him that Dauger and La Rivière had been released. In fact they were held in another cell in another part of the prison, their presence there being highly secret.

Terms in Other Prisons

Lauzun was freed in 1681. Later that same year Saint-Mars was appointed governor of the prison fortress of Exiles (now Exilles in Italy).
He went there, taking 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.

It was during the journey to Sainte-Marguerite that rumors spread that the prisoner was wearing an iron mask. Again, he was placed in a cell with multiple doors.

On 18 September 1698, Saint-Mars took up his new post as governor of the Bastille prison in Paris, bringing the masked prisoner with him.

He was placed in a solitary cell in the pre-furnished third chamber of the Bertaudière tower.

The prison’s second-in-command, de Rosarges, was to feed him. Lieutenant du Junca, another officer of the Bastille, noted that the prisoner wore “a mask of black velvet”.

The prisoner died on 19 November 1703, and was buried the next day under the name of Marchioly. All his furniture and clothing were reportedly destroyed, soon afterwards.

The Legend Grows

In 1711, King Louis’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Charlotte, Princess Palatine, sent a letter to her aunt, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, stating that the prisoner had “two musketeers at his side to kill him if he removed his mask”. She described him as very devout, and that he was well treated and received everything he desired.

It should be noted though that the prisoner had already been dead for eight years, and that the Princess had not necessarily seen him for herself; she was quite likely reporting rumors she had heard at court.

The fate of the mysterious prisoner – and the apparent extent of the precautions his jailers took – created much interest and many legends.

Theories about his identity made at the time included that he was a Marshal of France, or the English Richard Cromwell, son of Oliver Cromwell, or François, Duke of Beaufort.

It has even been suggested that he was one of the other famous contemporary prisoners being held at Pignerol at the same time as Dauger.

A Relative of The King?

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.

Alexandre Dumas used this theory in his book, “The Vicomte de Bragelonne”, but made the prisoner a twin brother. This book has served as the basis for many film versions of the story.

Hugh Ross Williamson 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 theory 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 heir 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 and his life, so it was in his interests to thwart Gaston’s ambitions. Louis XIII also hated Gaston, and might well have agreed to the scheme.

Supposedly the father then left for the Americas, but returned to France with the aim of extorting money for keeping his secret. Hence, the imprisonment.

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 the comfort of the terms of his confinement. That, and the fact that he was not simply killed.

A General?

In 1890 Louis Gendron, a French military historian, came across some coded letters and passed them on to Etienne Bazeries in 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 Cuneo in 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 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 “period”.

The dates of the letters fit the dates of the original records about the man in the mask. However, in 17th-century French avec un masque would mean “with a person in a mask”.

Other sources 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.

The Valet

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, 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.

Far-fetched? Maybe.

Good Story, Though.


Whoever he was, the prisoner in the iron mask remains an enduring mystery.

We’ll segue from a king who might have been, to one who probably never was.

Till then.