Most everyone has heard of L’Homme au Masque de Fer, or the Man in the Iron Mask. He has been put in countless books and even has his own movie. But what is the real story?
What little we know about him is from his jailer, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of the Fortress of Pignerol in Pinerolo, which at that time was part of France. The first recorded mention of him was in a letter in 1669 from the Marquis de Louvois to Saint-Mars of a masked prisoner being transferred to Pignerol. The Marquis was a minister to Louis XIV, and instructed Saint-Mars to construct a special cell with multiple doors, one closing on the other. Apparently this prisoner knew secrets because the doors were designed to prevent eavesdropping and Saint-Mars was instructed to kill the prisoner if he spoke of anything more than his basic needs. He was put in a mask of black velvet, not iron, so no one could see his face. The letter named this unfortunate as Eustache Dauger.
Dauger arrived at Pignerol in August of 1669 and was escorted by Captain Alexandre de Vauroy, the garrison commander of Dunkirk. Pignerol was where the French put embarrassments away to forget about. Sharing the prison was Nicolas Fourquet, Marquis of Belle-Île, who had been convicted of embezzlement, Count Ercole Antonio Mattioli, who double crossed the French to the Italians, and the Marquis de Lauzun, who dared to marry a relative of the king without permission. Dauger was in illustrious company. Dauger was not allowed to see or speak to the prisoners, with the exception of Fourquet. Occasionally, he served as valet to Fourquet as Fourquet was a prisoner for life. Lauzun was expected to be released eventually.
In 1681, Saint-Mars was transfered to the prison fortress of Exiles, then to Sainte-Marguerite outside Cannes. His enigmatic prisoner went with him on each move. The rumors flew that on these moves, Dauger wore an iron mask. In 1698, the two were transferred to the Bastille in Paris. Another cell with double doors was constructed and there Dauger stayed until his death in 1703. He was buried under the name “Marchioly”.
Afterward, his cell was scrubbed and all items of metal were melted down. Rumors spread at court that two Musketeers had been at his side his whole life ready to shoot him dead if he took of his mask.
Who was this man really? Contemporary theories suggest he was a Marshall of France, Oliver Cromwell’s son or Francois, Duke of Beaufort. Later writers, like Voltaire and Dumas, embroidered on the tale and called him Louis XIV’s illegitimate older brother, from a liason between Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and Louis’ identical twin respectively.
Another theory put forth is that Dauger was really Louis XIV’s father. Louis XIII had been estranged from his wife for years, then all of a sudden she turned up pregnant. Rumors flew that the sickly Louis could not have been the father as he was impotent. Before Louis XIV’s birth, the heir to the throne was Gaston d’Orleans. He was hated by Louis XIII and his chief minister Cardinal Richelieu. The speculation was that Richelieu found an illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV to do the deed and voila bebe.
However, historians argue that his time as Fourquet’s valet disproves the prisoner of having royal blood. Prisoner or not, they would not allow royalty to debase himself as a servant.
There are a million more theories and no solid answers. However, there was a real person named Eustache Dauger de Cavoye. He was in the army and involved with the l’Affaire des Poisons. In the 1930s, historian Maurice Duvivier found enough evidence to convince him that Dauger was supplying poisons to high nobles accused in the affair under the psuedonym Auger. The scandal had been huge and involved many people close to the king and allegations of black mass and poisonings. If Auger was Dauger, there was probably a wealth of dangerous secrets he knew.
However, evidence has come to light that Eustache Dauger de Cavoye was in prison some place else when Dauger was taken to Pignerol. This leaves us back where we started- exactly no where.
Maybe he was Charles III’s illegitimate son who acted as a go between for secret dealings between England and France or a disgraced general of Louis XIV. We will never know. However, I hope whoever and where ever he is, he is resting in peace with no more masks.