Book Corner: The Man in the Iron Mask by Josephine Wilkinson

The Man in the Iron Mask has all the hallmarks of a thrilling adventure story: a glamorous and all-powerful king, ambitious ministers, a cruel and despotic gaoler, dark and sinister dungeons – and a secret prisoner. It is easy for forget that this story, made famous by Alexandre Dumas, is that of a real person, who spent more than thirty years in the prison system of Louis XIV’s France never to be freed. This book brings to life the true story of this mysterious man and follows his journey through four prisons and across decades of time. It introduces the reader to those with whom he shared his imprisonment, those who had charge of him and those who decided his fate. The Man in the Iron Mask is one of the most enduring mysteries of Louis XIV’s reign, but, above all, it is a human story. Using contemporary documents, this book shows what life was really like for state prisoners in seventeenth-century France and offers tantalising insight into why this mysterious man was arrested and why, several years later, his story would become one of France’s most intriguing legends.

I have long had a fascination with the story of the Man in the Iron Mask, probably thanks to my obsession for all things related to The Three Musketeers. Alexandre Dumas covers a version of the story in the last book, Ten Years Later (Dix Ans Plus Tard). In Dumas’ version, the prisoner is a twin brother of Louis XIV, who had been spirited away after birth in order to avoid a succession competition between the two heirs. And Dumas was not the only one to advance a theory. In other stories, the young man is an illegitimate older brother, a lookalike, the English Duke of Beaufort, various of Louis XIV’s ministers…

The list is a long one.

In The Man in The Iron Mask: the Truth About Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner, Josephine Wilkinson finally separates the legend from the history and brings the real story of the mysterious prisoner to light.

It began with a letter written to an obscure gaoler in the distant fortress of Pignerol at the end of July 1669. Saint-Mars, the governor of the donjon of Pignerol, was alerted to the imminent arrival of a new prisoner. It was of the utmost importance to the king’s service, he was told, that the man whose name was given as ‘Eustache d’Auger’ should be kept under conditions of the strictest security. Particularly, it was imperative that this man should be unable to communicate with anyone by any means whatsoever.

Saint-Mars was being warned in advance of the arrival of his prisoner so that he could prepare a secure cell. He was ordered to take care that the windows of this cell were ‘so placed that they could not be approached by anyone’, and that it was equipped with ‘enough doors closing one upon the other’ that Saint-Mars’s sentries would not be able to hear anything. Saint-Mars himself was to take to this ‘wretch’, once a day, whatever he might need for the day, and he was not under any pretext to listen to what the prisoner might say to him, but instead to threaten to kill him if he tried to speak of anything except his basic needs. The sieur Poupart, commissioner for war at Pignerol, was on standby waiting to begin work on the secure cell, while Saint-Mars was authorised to obtain some furniture for the prisoner, bearing in mind that ‘since he is only a valet’ this should not cost very much.’

The letter to Saint-Mars, which was dated 19 July 1669, was written on the orders of Louis XIV by François-Michel Le Tellier, marquis de Louvois. Still only twenty-eight years old, Louvois was destined to play a vital role in the story of the Man in the Iron Mask. Serving as Louis XIV’s minister of state for war, Louvois had been educated at the Jesuit Collège de Clermont in the rue Saint-Jacques in Paris. Upon leaving the school in 1657, he was instructed in French law by his father, the formidable secretary of state for war, Michel Le Tellier. Louvois then served at the parlement of Metz as counsellor before obtaining the survivance of his father’s office. He worked in the ministry for war for a time, learning the job under his father’s guidance, but Le Tellier would hand over increasing amounts of ministry work to his son and, upon being made chancellor in 1677, he would leave Louvois in sole charge. As the minister for war, the garrison and prison of Pignerol came under Louvois’s jurisdiction, as did any prisoner who might be held there.

Beautifully written and told as a narrative following the career of the supposed Man in the Iron Mask’s gaoler, Josephine Wilkinson traces the origins of the legend, the facts of the story and the embellishments that came after, helped along by the likes of Voltaire and Liselotte, Duchess of Orleans. The Man in The Iron Mask: the Truth About Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner, is a fabulous investigation of every aspect of the Iron Mask story. Tracing the prisoner’s life from the fortress of Pignerol to his last few years in the Bastille, the book clears up so many mysteries, misunderstandings and questions that have arisen over the years.

Josephine Wilkinson has written a superb book that will have the reader engrossed from the very first pages. For anyone with even a passing interest in the Man in the Iron Mask, it is an essential addition to their library.

I cannot recommend it highly enough!

The Man in The Iron Mask: the Truth About Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner is available from Amazon and Amberley Books.

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Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available in paperback and hardback from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.


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©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Louis XIV The Real King of Versailles

Louis XIV – UK edition

Louis XIV’s story has all the ingredients of a Dumas classic: legendary beginnings, beguiling women, court intrigue, a mysterious prisoner in an iron mask, lavish court entertainments, the scandal of a mistress who was immersed in the dark arts, and a central character who is handsome and romantic, but with a frighteningly dark side to his character.

Louis believed himself to be semidivine. His self-identification as the Sun King, which was reflected in iconography of the sun god, Apollo, influenced every aspect of Louis’s life: his political philosophy, his wars, and his relationships with courtiers and subjects.

As a military strategist, Louis’s capacity was debatable, but he was an astute politician who led his country to the heights of sophistication and power – and then had the misfortune to live long enough to see it all crumble away. As the sun began to set upon this most glorious of reigns, it brought a gathering darkness filled with the anguish of dead heirs, threatened borders, and a populace that was dangerously dependent upon – but greatly distanced from – its king.

Ever since reading The Three Musketeers as a teenager, the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV have been my guilty pleasure. The sumptuous and decadent courts of these two French kings contrast sharply with murderous intrigues and international politics. So when I heard Josephine Wilkinson was writing a new biography, I was eager to read it – the only problem was waiting patiently for her to finish it…

And now it is finally here!

Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles  was well worth the wait.

Louis XIV – US edition

It is clear to anyone who reads this marvelous biography that the author is fascinated by her subject. Her story of Louis’ life and career is analysed in every detail, from his relationships with his family, lovers and ministers, to his love for his people and deep sense of duty. Written in an easily accessible, conversational style, the book is a pleasure to read and devour.

The research is impeccable, giving the reader the impression of being a fly on the wall, watching Louis develop and grow through every period of his life. This is no whitewash of Louis’ life and career; Josephine Wilkinson doesn’t shy away from criticising the king of France when he deserves it. She delves into every aspect of Louis’ life; his family, mistresses and a work ethic that will put most people to shame. An astute politician, adept strategist, the author demonstrates that Louis saw himself as a servant of the nation.

On the eve of his coronation, Louis attended vespers at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims. After the service, he presented a silver-gilt chef reliquaire of Saint Rémi to the cathedral. This was a reliquary in the shape of a human head, designed to hold the skull and facial bones of the saint. Louis had it engraved with his own image on one side and a Latin inscription commemorating the event of his coronation on the other. The king then made his confession before retiring for the night.

The quiet of the archiepiscopal palace was disturbed at six in the morning, when the bishops of Beauvais and Châlons, resplendent in the full robes of their office, proceeded towards the closed doors of the king’s chamber. The precentor rapped lightly with his silver staff, upon which a voice from within asked, ‘What do you desire?’ This was the grand chamberlain, who received the answer, ‘The king.’ The grand chamberlain replied, ‘The king is sleeping.’ This ritual was repeated twice more, after which the bishop of Châlons said, ‘We desire Louis, the fourteenth of that name, son of King Louis the Thirteenth, whom God has given to be our king.’

The doors now opened to admit the bishops, who stood at the foot of the richly adorned bed in which Louis lay. Louis, who pretended to be asleep, opened his eyes and crossed himself with holy water, which had been offered by the bishop of Châlons. After the bishop said a short prayer over him, Louis rose from the bed…


If you are a fan of the BBC tv series, Versailles, you will love this book. It tells the real history of the show, giving you a wonderful insight into the lives of, not only, Louis himself, but also of Philippe, Liselotte and Colbert. The glamour of Versailles contrasts with the various intrigues and rumours which surround the court, the Affair of the Poisons, the downfall of Fouquet and the wonderful D’Artagnan all get their stories told in an entertaining and engaging manner.

Louis’s foreign and domestic policies, his relationships with his fellow monarchs, his nobility and ministers, are analysed and dissected in this expertly executed and thorough study of the Sun King. The language is wonderful, drawing you back into the world of the seventeenth century.

Josephine Wilkinson ably demonstrates how Louis took control of his life and career, how he  created the court at Versailles to make the monarch the centre of administration, court life, and the sun around which the nobles of France  would orbit. It is clear that the author has a remarkably thorough understanding of the histories of Louis XIII and XIV, and the development of the monarchy in France. She uses this background information admirably to demonstrate how Louis develops his own style of ruling, and the subjugation of the nobility to his rule, thus creating the most glamorous court in Europe; Versailles.

Once in a while you get to read a book that you have been looking forward to for a long, long time, and that lives up to all your expectations. Josephine Wilkinson’s biography is just such a book. This is a wonderful study of Louis as both a man and a king, examining every aspect of his life, the public and the private.

Louis XIV: The Real King of Versailles feels like pure indulgence when you are reading it. It is a sheer pleasure to read and devour. The impeccable research and wonderful writing style may lead you to forget that you are learning as you are reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


Louis XIV: The Real King of Versaillesis available in the UK from Amberley Publishing and Amazon. It is also available in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

About the author:

Josephine Wilkinson is an author and historian. She received a First from the University of Newcastle where she also read for her PhD. She has received British Academy research funding and has been scholar-in-residence at St Deiniol’s Library, Britain’s only residential library founded by the great Victorian statesman, William Gladstone She now lives in York, Richard III’s favourite city. She is the author of The Princes in the Tower, Anne Boleyn, Mary Boleyn, and Richard III (all published by Amberly), and Katherine Howard (John Murray).


Out Now!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.


You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly