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!
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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 Books, Amazon 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.
©2021 Sharon Bennett Connolly