The mystery surrounding this famous French prisoner has intrigued historians, writers and the public for centuries. Archives containing letters and documentation are to be found in their abundance in many French libraries and museums, not to mention the many fictional novels that have included the story. However, the identity of this mysterious figure has remained an enigma until as recently as just before the outbreak of World War I (1914). This article will describe the myths, the facts and the romanticism surrounding 'The Man with the Iron Mask'.
The first official report of this prisoner was written by the Officer-in-Charge of the main tower of the Pinerolo or Pignerol Fortress, Benigne d'Auvergne de St-Mars. At that time, January 1665-April 1681, there were five prisoners under St-Mars' control and one of these is believed (by the German historian Dr. Wilhelm Broecking) to have been 'The Man with the Iron Mask'. Little did St-Mars know at the time just how famous his prisoner would become.
St-Mars was transferred to Exiles where he was the Governor from 1681-1687 (the masked prisoner was not at Exiles), before he became the Governor of the French islands Saint Marguerite and Saint Honorat (called the Ilês de Lerins off the coast of Cannes in the French Riviera today). The masked prisoner went with the Governor to these islands before St-Mars was finally, under King Louis XIV's orders, made the Governor of the Bastille in Paris (1698-1708). The masked prisoner came with St-Mars to the Bastille where he stayed until his death five years later on November 19th, 1703 at around 10pm.
His death was sudden and unexpected, so rapid in fact that the prison chaplain had not been able to perform the last rites. The name - Monsieur de Marchiel - was entered into the register and his burial cost 40 livres (old pounds). The original death certificate was kept at the City Hall in Paris until 1871 when it, and the building, was destroyed in a fire. His final resting place was St. Paul's cemetery in Paris.
It was not until after his death that public interest in the Man with the Iron Mask reached epic proportions. Stories abounded growing more fanciful by the day, fed by writers who had talked to prisoners at the Bastille, and by people in high-ranking positions. It was during this time that the legends took root and many accepted the stories as facts.
The people of Paris believed that the masked prisoner was actually the twin brother of King Louis XIV, imprisoned because he was seen as a threat to the throne. He was kept masked (under threat of death if he removed his disguise) so the story goes, to prevent anyone from knowing his true identity. There were various 'twists' regarding the prisoner's heritage; some believed he was the younger or elder brother of King Louis, others that Louis was a bastard and the prisoner the rightful King. The question of who his father was, was also greatly debated - being given alternatively as the Duke of Buckingham, a monk called Fiacre, Louis XIII and Cardinal Mazarin. Most believed his mother was Queen Anne of Austria, the wife of Louis XIII.
Not everyone thought the prisoner was a royal prince however, including Duchess Elizabeth Charlotte of Orleans. In her letters she suggested that the masked prisoner had been an English Lord, imprisoned for his involvement with the Duke of Berwick against King William of England.
Writers, including Voltaire, contributed to the many myths surrounding the prisoner by writing that the masked man had tried to communicate his true identity to the outside world by writing on a silver plate and throwing it from his prison window to the river running beside the Bastille.
These, and similar stories, suggested that this prisoner was given special privileges, including the contention that Governor St-Mars himself attended to his needs and wants. It was also widely believed that prison officials gave him the utmost respect - waiting to be invited before they spoke to him, providing fine linens, special meals and expensive books for his use. Much was made of his supposed love of fine linens, 'proving' to many without a doubt that he must have been a Royal.
The last thread of stories regarding this, now famous, prisoner, were directly concerned with the mask that he wore. Many believed that it was made of iron; constantly encasing his head and that there was a moveable, hinged jaw to enable him to eat. There is no truth in these stories however because documentation quite clearly reveals that the mask was made of black velvet.
That he was given special privileges is also disputed. The evidence reveals that when he first arrived at the Bastille officers had furnished his room. This suggests that he was not wealthy because at this time prisoners were expected to furnish their own rooms.
That he was royal is also open to question in that he did not have his own room the entire time he was at the Bastille, but rather, in 1701 when the prison became overcrowded, he was made to share with two others (Ricarville - imprisoned for criticizing the government when he was drunk, and Tirmon - a servant accused of dealing in 'black magic' and in seducing young girls).
If the government had wanted to keep his identity secret and prevent him talking to other prisoners, the argument goes that they would have kept him segregated in a room of his own. There is also no conclusive proof that he wore the mask while in his cell (putting paid to the notion that it was a permanently-fixed iron mask) and also that in the seventeenth century it was quite common in Italy (less so in France) to mask prisoners. In fact, while the prisoner was at the Bastille there were two other masked prisoners in custody there.
In the Ilês de Lerins and Cannes there is another legend. The people there believe to this day that the Man with the Iron Mask was Louis XIV's brother, the rightful King of France. They also believe that he escaped in the dead of night via a rope from the island of St. Marguerite and met supporters with horses on Cannes' shores. There he rode a white horse to Paris where he was killed in an ambush.
However, the facts, careful research and deductive reasoning led Dr. Broecking to the conclusion that the masked prisoner was probably the Italian Antonio Ercole Matthioli, born December 1, 1640 at Bologna.
Matthioli, an astute, clever man became the Secretary of State to the Duke of Mantua, a province of Italy. He was awarded the title of senator by the Duke's successor, Ferdinand Charles IV - which held the hereditary title of Count. Matthioli became powerful and rich but his unscrupulous selling of a treaty drawn up by Louis XIV of France and the Duke of Mantua (whereby Louis pledged to buy the fortress at Mantua) to France's enemies resulted in him being kidnapped by French soldiers and held at Pinerolo for treason. The Duke of Mantua disowned him and Matthioli was given the fictitious name of Lestang, kept masked for his protection.
It is notable that the Man with the Iron Mask was buried under the name of Marchiel - this may have been a French misspelling of his true name.
In conclusion, the story of the Man with the Iron Mask captured the imagination of the world. It is tempting to believe that he was really King Louis XIV's brother but the facts suggest that he was probably a powerful Italian Count. Regardless of the truth, the Man with the Iron Mask's story led many French people to mistrust the French Bourbon dynasty and may have contributed to the French Revolution.
Napoleon has even been connected to the mysterious masked prisoner - many believed he was a direct descendant and therefore had the divine right to overthrow the monarchy. The myths surrounding the masked prisoner live on today in film, books, plays and poetry. His fame has therefore surpassed the historical facts.
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