Who was the Legendary Prisoner who could not Show his Face?

In the 60th year of King Louis XIV's reign, an enigmatic individual known as the 'ancient prisoner' died in the Bastille. The reason for the man's 34-year incarceration was never divulged, but today, we all know of the bizarre aspects of his imprisonment, thanks to the romantic novelist Alexandre Dumas, who wrote a book based on the old prisoner called "The Man in the Iron Mask". Dumas popularised the notion that the Bastille's most famous prisoner was either the Sun King himself or his twin brother, and that the prisoner wore an iron mask, but the real facts concerning the masked prisoner are much more mysterious. All that is known is that in July 1669, a man was arrested in Dunkirk (which was then an English posession); whether this man was entering or leaving the country has never been established. He was taken to the prison fortress at Pignerol (near Turin) in Piedmont, north-western Italy. Monsieur Saint-Mars, the governor of the prison had received a letter on July 22nd, 1699 from the French Minister of War, the Marquis de Louvois, telling him to take extraordinary security precautions with a prisoner who was being sent to the fortress at Pignerol:

The King has commanded that I am to have the man [the 
prisoner] named Eustache Dauger sent to Pignerol. It is 
of the most importance to His service that he should be 
most securely guarded and that he should in no way give 
information about himself nor send letters to anyone at 
all. I am informing you of this in advance so that you 
can have a cell prepared in which you will place him 
securely, taking care that the windows of the place 
in which he is put do not give on to any place that can 
be approached by anyone, and that there are double doors 
to be shut, for your guards must not hear anything. You 
must yourself take to him, once a day, the day's necess- 
ities, and you must never listen, under any pretext 
whatever, to what he may want to reveal to you, always 
 threatening to kill him if he ever opens his mouth to
speak of anything but his day-to-day needs.
  Shortly after Dauger arrived at Pignerol, the prison governor wrote back to Monsieur de Louvois, confirming the prisoner's arrival:
Monsieur de Vauroy [the military governor of Dunkirk] 
has handed over to me the man named Eustache d'Auger [sic]. 
As soon as I had put him in a very secure place, while 
waiting for the cell I am having prepared for him to 
be completed, I told him in the presence of Monsieur 
de Vauroy that if he should speak to me or anyone else 
of anything other than his day-to-day needs, I would 
run him through with my sword. 
On my life, I shall not fail to observe, 
             very punctiliously, 
                  your commands. 

  This obviously suggests that Dauger was no ordinary prisoner, and that he had information that posed some sort of dire threat to the security of the realm. 

In March 1698, Saint-Mars was given the post of governor at the Bastille. When he arrived in Paris with Dauger, his prisoner was now wearing a black velvet mask with metal clasps.
  The arrival of the masked prisoner naturally made everyone in the Bastille curious. The gossipers at the prison had a field day. Some said that the strange prisoner was the illegitimate offspring of the Queen Mother and her Chief Minister Cardinal Mazarin, while others believed that the prisoner was the real Louis XIV and that the king of France was an illegitimate son. Voltaire, one of the greatest intellects of his age (and the man who invented the myth of the 'iron' mask), proposed that the prisoner in the mask was an illegitimate half-brother of Louis XIV, the result of infidelity by the queen of Louis XIII. There was no shortage of theories, but the only person whoever saw the face of the prisoner was Saint-Mars, and he never revealed what he knew. A doctor who once examined the man in the mask never actually got to see his face; he only inspected the man's tongue and his naked body, but he did note that the prisoner had dark skin, and was "admirably made." He also said that the enigmatic captive had an "interesting voice," but never elaborated further on this curious remark.
  In 1703, the man in the mask died at the Bastille. All the furniture and personal belongings in the cell where the masked man had been detained were burned, and the surfaces of the cell's walls were scraped and whitewashed in case the prisoner had engraved a message. Even the tiles of the floor in the cell were replaced.
  The faceless'ancient prisoner' who had lived his prison life in such anonymity, was buried in an unmarked grave. The name on his burial certificate names him Marchioly, which only deepens the mystery of the masked prisoner's identity.
  The blatant clue to the identity of the man in the velvet mask is the need for the prisoner to be masked at all. Why was it so important for his face to remain concealed for so long? Did the prisoner bear a striking resemblance to some prominent person in France? The fact that a special governor was appointed to the masked prisoner all of his life means he must have been someone of note. Why wasn't he simply executed after his arrest at Dunkirk? Was he allowed to live because he meant too much to someone in power? Several historical revisionists have come to the conclusion that Voltaire may have hit the nail on the head when he suggested that the prisoner was the half-brother of Louis XIV.
  Another unusual theory that been put forward in recent years is that the prisoner was the real father of Louis XIV. It is known that for 13 of their 22 years' marriage, Louis XIII and his queen, Anne of Austria had no children, because the king was impotent. Cardinal Richelieu - who was at the time the effective ruler of France - knew it was in the interests of  the monarch to produce an heir (who could become the puppet king of the Richelieu faction). Richelieu used his diplomatic skills to get the separated royal couple back together for a reconciliation, and the result of this rapprochement was the birth of a boy in 1638. The news of the birth shocked the French nation, as it was widely known that the royal couple detested one another, and many thought it strange how the king and queen - who had never had a child before - were suddenly able to produce a heir. It has been suggested that the unprincipled Richelieu persuaded the queen to have sexual intercourse with a young nobleman in order to produce a heir to the throne. This nobleman would probably have been one of the bastard sons of the promiscuous Henry of Navarre - all half-brothers of King Louis XIII - which would have meant that the queen's lover had royal Bourbon blood in his veins. This theory would certain explain why Louis XIV was so unlike his royal 'father'. Perhaps the masked prisoner had to have his face concrealed because of the tell-tale resemblance he bore to his son. This would also explain why the 'Sun King' never had the most famous prisoner of the Bastille secretly murdered; that would have been patricide.

ISBN: 0-75252-407-0    (PARRAGON)

   Back to Index