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From The Chautauquan, A Monthly Magazine, February, 1895, No. 5, Volume XX., The Chautauquan Literary and Scientific Circle, Dr. Theodore L. Flood, Editor, Meadville, PA; pp. 531-536.





THE Man with the Iron Mask! What interest, what legends, his mysterious imprisonment has given rise to! What floods of ink have been poured out in clearing up the true history of his career! Marius Topin, writing on this inexhaustible subject in 1870, stated that since the time of Voltaire no less than fifty writers had striven to untangle the threads of conjecture which had wrapped him about. And Topin forgot at least a dozen, and did not pretend to enumerate the monographs on the subject, which are still in manuscript in our archives, nor the authors of general histories — not to mention the dramas, novels, and poems. Since 1870 many more works on the unknown captive have appeared, more scientific, more scholarly than their predecessors, but all to 532 no purpose. It would seem that Michelet’s conclusion, “The story of the Man with the Iron Mask, will probably be never known,” was not far out of the way. Yet unexpectedly, within the last year, documents have been brought to light which appear to offer a final solution of the much-vexed problem.

Of all the books which have been written regarding this inmate of the French prisons of state, the following extract from the diary of the warden of the Bastille is the origin and foundation :  “On Thursday, September 18, 1698, at three o’clock in the afternoon, Monsieur de Saint Mars, governor of the fortress of the Bastille, came to take command, coming from his former post at the Saint Margaret Islands. He brought with him, in his chair, a prisoner whom he had at Pignerol, and whom he always keeps masked; whose name is never spoken. And on alighting from his chair he immediately placed him in the first room of the Basinière tower. At nine in the evening I, with Rosarges, one of his own keepers, led him to the third room of the Bretaudière tower, a chamber I had fitted up several days before his arrival at the order of Monsieur de Saint Mars. This prisoner will be attended by Rosarges and fed from the governor’s table.”

Some years later this same warden, Du Junca by name, recorded the death of the captive :  “On Monday, November 19, 1703, the unknown prisoner, always masked with a mask of black velvet, the one Monsieur de Saint Mars brought with him from the Saint Margaret Islands, and whom he had watched for many years, having been somewhat ailing yesterday after mass, died to-day at ten in the evening without suffering much. Monsieur Giraut, our chaplain, confessed him yesterday, but, surprised by death, he did not receive the sacraments. The chaplain exhorted him a moment as he was dying. The unknown was buried in St. Paul’s cemetery. On the register of deceases a name unknown to me was given him, and the register was signed by Rosarges and the doctor, Arreil.” In a note on the margin of this leaf he adds :  “I have since learned that the name on the register was Monsieur de Marchiel.”

The curiosity excited among the jailers and officials of the prison may be assumed as proportionate to the amount of secrecy employed in concealing the unknown’s identity. The memory of the Iron Mask (we see it was a black velvet one in reality) was cherished by them, enriched with what few details they could gather, and some decades later the tradition of this mysterious stranger, handed down from his contemporaries to their successors, found its way into print in various forms. The most direct and least exaggerated shape it took was the addition of such facts as may very well have existed, such as the deference shown him by the governor, his burial in new clothes, white in color, furnished by the governor, and the burning and melting of everything which his room contained after his death.

There are also indications of the interest aroused outside of prison walls by the masked captive, as well as the testimony of his jailers, and these were gathered together by a grandnephew of the governor, Saint Mars, and addressed to the French public through the journal l’Année littéraire. The writer, Palteau, relates that Saint Mars, on his way to the Bastille, visited his ancestral estate with his prisoner. The peasants naturally went out to welcome their lord. They saw Saint Mars eating with his prisoner, whose back was turned to the dining room windows opening on the court.

“The peasants I questioned,” continues Palteau, “could not see whether or not he ate with his mask on. But they noticed that Monsieur de Saint Mars, who was opposite to him, laid two pistols by the side of his plate. A single valet served them and kept the door of the room carefully closed. When the prisoner crossed the court he had on his black mask. The peasants could see his lips and teeth. He was tall, with white hair.”

In the same letter Palteau tells of a nobleman who tried to satisfy his curiosity in the matter, by mounting guard under 533 the prisoner’s windows at the Saint Margaret Islands. From his post of observation “he had examined him all night. He could see him very well. He did not wear his mask. His face was white, his body large and well built, his limbs rather too heavy, and his hair white, though he was still in the vigor of years. He passed almost the entire night walking to and fro in his room.”

This letter of Palteau was published in 1768. But already the makers of legends were at work, starting with the statements of Du Junca’s diary, and aided powerfully by Voltaire’s influence. The latter had been sent to the Bastille in 1719, and again in 1726, and could speak with some show of authority. In his “Age of Louis XIV.” he improves on what he heard while sojourning in the fortress, and begins his account of the Man with the Iron Mask with the year 1662. At that time Voltaire states that a man of commanding stature and noble and handsome countenance was sent to the island of Saint Margaret. His name was unknown to his guards, but he had on a mask, with a “mouthpiece moved by steel springs, so that he might eat with his mask on. He was to be killed if he took off his mask.” These poetical fancies were enhanced by the respect shown him by the great minister, Louvois, “who remained standing in his presence,” and by the luxury with which he was surrounded after his transference to the Bastille (which Voltaire puts in 1690). There “he was refused nothing he desired. His great passion was for the finest linen and lace. He played the guitar. He had the best of fare and the governor rarely sat down in his presence.”

The historian cites the words of the physician attached to the prison in regard to the prisoner’s physical appearance. He [the physician] said that he never saw his face, although he had often examined his tongue and the rest of his body. He was admirably formed, the physician said. His skin was somewhat swarthy in color. He excited interest by the very tone of his voice, never complained of the situation in which he was, and never gave a hint as to who he could have been.

Various legends were formed regarding the attempts of the prisoner to reveal his identity to the world outside, and one of these is cited by Voltaire, rather in contradiction to what the physician had told him. When the Mask was at Saint Margaret, “one day he wrote with a knife on a silver plate, and threw the plate out of the window, toward a boat which was near the shore, almost at the foot of the tower. A fisherman, to whom the boat belonged, picked up the plate and carried it to the governor. The latter, amazed, asked the fisherman :  ‘Have you read what is on this plate, and has anyone seen it in your possession?’ ‘I don’t know how to read,’ he answered, ‘I have just found it and no one has seen it.’ He was detained until the governor had assured himself that he had never been able to read and that no one had seen the plate. ‘Go!’ said he to him, ’it is very fortunate for you that you don’t know how to read.’ ”

Another form of this legend current in the south of France, was more tragic in its ending than the one Voltaire had cited. A writer named Papon says :  “I found in the citadel an officer of the volunteers, seventy-nine years old. He told me his father, who had served in the same company, had often narrated that a member of the company saw one day, under the prisoner’s window, something white floating on the water. He got it and carried it to Monsieur de Saint Mars. It was a shirt of fine linen, carelessly folded, on which the prisoner had written from one end to another. Saint Mars, after having unfolded it and read several lines, asked the soldier, while laboring himself under very great embarrassment, whether he had had the curiosity to read what was on it. The soldier protested time and again that he had read nothing, but two days later he was found dead in his bed.”

Both of these legends, Voltaire’s and Papon’s, had some foundation in fact, though they were not at all connected with the Iron Mask. The proof is in Saint Mars’ own words, who, in a letter to a 534 friend in 1692, complains of certain Huguenot pastors imprisoned at Saint Margaret, and the trouble they made him by singing at the top of their voices, and writing on their tin plates and linen, so as to make themselves known to their friends outside. By this interesting transference of characteristics from one person to another we see how the Man with the Iron Mask profited by all the unusual doings of his age.

Of course the active minds and the busy tongues of the legend makers in old France did not content themselves with enlarging and distorting the references they could gather from contemporaries of the silent captive. They strove to explain the secrecy which surrounded him, and in so doing magnified immeasurably his importance in the world of affairs. Voltaire, whose fanciful narrative had been favorably received, was emboldened by his success to advance the theory that he was masked on account of his resemblance to some one. This was in 1770. In 1771 the same writer, basing his supposition on the Mask’s alleged fondness for lace and fine linen, in turn rested on the simple statement of the white burial shroud — claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria (renowned for her liking for lace and linen) and the Cardinal Mazarin. He would thus be a half-brother of Louis XIV., and his elder in years. He would have been brought up secretly, but after the cardinal’s death Louis would have discovered the truth and imprisoned and masked the tell-tale countenance.

The ball once set rolling, other explanations of the mystery were in order. The memoirs of the Due de Richelieu, published in 1790, pretended to have Saint Mars himself as authority for the statement that the Mask was the younger twin of Louis XIV., and was shut up for reasons of state. Better than this, the papers left by the Baron de Gleichen affirm that the Mask was the true heir to the throne, and was set aside for the son of the queen and cardinal, the historical Louis XIV. In this way the Bourbon family from Louis down would have no right to rule. But even De Gleichen was improved upon by ardent Bonapartists, and many pamphlets were circulated under the Empire which endeavored to prove that this lawful heir, while confined at Saint Margaret, had married the daughter of one of the wardens, and had begotten the head of the house of Bonaparte. Thus the claims of Napoleon on the crown of France would rest on his being the true representative of the old Bourbons!

We all know the old saw regarding the comparative vitality of truth and error. The identification given the Mask by Voltaire, though abandoned a hundred years ago by all students of history, has become the popular one. For this we are to thank, first of all the general desire of mankind to make the unknown illustrious, and also the cleverness of Alexandre Dumas, who owed to it part of the story of his “Vicomte de Bragelonne.” The playwrights of the French theater have had their share in its diffusion as well. This hypothesis of royal blood was founded on the supposed deference shown the Mask by the highest dignitaries of the crown. That he was carefully looked after is clear; but a letter of Saint Mars, written in 1696 from Saint Margaret, proves that no unusual respect was awarded him, but that he waited on himself, even to returning his dishes to his keeper after meals.

Side by side with the tradition that the Mask was a brother of the Great Monarch, existed other traditions of his royal lineage. One was that he was Louis de Bourbon, son of Louis XIV. and the unfortunate Mlle. de la Vallière. The reason given for his imprisonment was a blow he had struck the dauphin. This legend was floated in a book published in 1745, and for a while was the favorite explanation of the mystery. Later, by twenty years or so, it was argued that the Man with the Iron Mask was the Duke of Monmouth, who had raised the standard of revolt in England against James II., for which offense he had presumably perished on the scaffold. Still a third offshoot of kingly stock came forward further to confuse the complicated question. This was the grandson of Henry IV. and Gabrielle d’Estrées, the Duc de Beaufort, 535 who really died at the siege of Candia in 1669. All of these claimants found more or less credence among the common people.

But scholars did not stop here. Investigating and conjecturing they unearthed, after popular interest in the matter had somewhat subsided, no less than nine other individuals who might have been the fated prisoner. Of both low and high degree were these newcomers, ranging from an Armenian patriarch, abducted and confined because of his persecution of the Catholics, to an ignoble valet, Eustache Dauger by name, who was indeed with Saint Mars at Pignerol and Saint Margaret, but does not seem to have been transferred to the Bastille, a prison reserved for captives of a better grade than he. Yet the fact that this man was so long with Saint Mars has made the probability of his identity with the Iron Mask greater than that of any other, save one. And this one can be hereafter considered beyond a doubt as the uncomplaining captive of the Bastille.

In 1770 a letter written by Baron Heiss, an Alsatian of literary reputation, affirmed that the man in question was Mattioli, secretary of state to the Duke of Mantua. This view was based on an Italian pamphlet, published by a friend of Mattioli about 1682. Heiss’ reasons attracted supporters, both in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. His side was the scientific, the documentary side. But his arguments availed nothing against Dumas and his “Vicomte de Bragelonne.” So new conjectures on the part of investigators took the place of Heiss’ evidence, until the year 1894 brought further light to bear upon this obscurity of two full centuries.

Mattioli, as minister of the Duke of Mantua, had agreed to deliver to Louis XIV. the stronghold of Casale, for cash. Master of Pignerol and of this place, Louis could dominate all Northern Italy. The details were agreed to at Venice in 1678, the night of a ball, by Mattioli and the French ambassador, who were both masked with Venetian half-masks or dominos. In the next December the treaty was formally signed in Paris by Mattioli and the French minister, Louvois, who immediately began preparations to seize Casale. But scarcely had two months passed when the courts of Austria and Spain were in an uproar over the news. The French envoy was arrested in Milan. Mattioli had sold his master and the French king to the Austrians. In revenge it was resolved to abduct the treacherous Italian. He was tricked to the frontier and on May 2, 1679, found himself at Pignerol, in the hands of Saint Mars. Mattioli was then thirty-nine years of age.

This violation of international law was surrounded by the greatest secrecy. Only the leaders in the abduction knew the name of the prisoner, and the Italian pamphlet of 1682 states expressly that he was masked. The rumor was spread that he had died of an accident while traveling, and his wife consequently took the veil. The Duke of Mantua knew the truth of the matter, but being in Mattioli’s power in regard to the treaty with Louis, he was rather relieved than otherwise, and showed no desire to regain his minister. He ceded Casale in fact to Louis in 1681 and the chief reason for anger against Mattioli was thus removed. His birth and breeding would naturally procure henceforth good treatment, though it was still as important as ever that his fate should not be known.

The prisoner staid at Pignerol after Saint Mars had gone to another post, but in 1694 was transferred to his care again at Saint Margaret. With the transference his name was dropped, conformably to general orders for all prisoners in Saint Mars’ keeping. His designation is henceforward “my (your) former prisoner.” In 1698 he went with Saint Mars to the Bastille and was there made welcome as we have seen. He was at liberty to walk in the garden, attend mass, and was accorded the best treatment possible for a captive. But in public he always kept his mask, whether for reasons of state, to escape the reproach of having violated the law of nations, or from habit or preference on his part, is not known. Other prisoners wore masks in transit from one stronghold to another and it was the fact that this one wore his all the time which attracted popular 536 attention and excited the curiosity of those wardens who did not come into personal relations with him.

The register of his death referred to in Du Junca’s diary was preserved in the archives of the city of Paris until 1871, when it was destroyed by fire, during the Commune. But a facsimile of it exists and reads as follows  :  “The 19th (1703), Marchioly, about forty-five years of age, died in the Bastille. His body was buried in St. Paul’s churchyard, his parish, on the 20th, in the presence of Monsieur Rosage, major of the Bastille, and Monsieur Reglhe, head surgeon of the Bastille, who have signed.”

If we remember that “Marchioly” should be pronounced, after the Italian manner, “Markioly,” that Saint Mars, who furnished the name, wrote it in 1680 “Marthioly,” that the major of the Bastille was called “Rosarges” and not “Rosage” and the surgeon “Railh” and not “Reglhe,” we shall not be rash in assuming that the name on the church register is the name of the Mantuan minister.

And thus we have confirmed Louis XV.’s statement to Mme. de Pompadour, who repeated it to the Duc de Choiseul, that the Mask had been an Italian minister, as well as Louis XVI.’s remark to Marie Antoinette that he had been assured by Maurepas, that the prisoner was a subject of the Duke of Mantua, who had been lured to the frontier, and confined first at Pignerol and afterwards in the Bastille.

So the story of the Iron Mask is seen to be of very little importance. The legend which had involved even the throne of France, is found void and empty. But such was its hold, that the books and articles written on the subject since the time of Voltaire would fill a library. Curiously enough all serious historical works (with two or three exceptions) for more than a century, have reached the same conclusion, the right one. Yet at every fresh effort of science, legend, made more active by the passions aroused by the French Revolution, set itself at work again. But with the discovery of the name of the Mantuan minister on the register of St. Paul’s, science has gained the final victory, and has revealed to the world under the famous mask of black velvet, the face of Antonio Hercules Mattioli.


Elf.Ed. Notes

This is an early version of the article written by M. Funck-Brentano. It was later expanded , including images of the original letters, in a chapter in his later book :  Chaper IV :  “The Man with the Iron Mask,” in Legends of the Bastille, which is also online on this site.

For another solution, which seems less likely, see Reuben Parson’s essay on this site :  The Man with the Iron Mask..


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