In the year 1662, the first year of the absolute reign of Louis XIV., there occurred an event without parallel in history, and which still remains shrouded in the mystery in which it was from the first involved. There was sent with the utmost secrecy to the Château of Pignerol an unknown prisoner, whose identity was kept secret with the most extreme care. All that can be said of him is that he was young, well-formed and attractive in appearance, and above the usual stature. As for his face, whether it were handsome or ill-favored, noble or base, no man could say, for it was concealed by an impenetrable mask, the lower portion of which was made movable by steel springs, so that he could eat with it on, while the upper portion was immovably fixed.
This mysterious state prisoner remained for a number of years at Pignerol, under charge of its governor, M. de Saint Mars, an officer of the greatest discretion and trustworthiness. He was afterwards removed to the castle of the Isle of Sainte Marguerite, on the coast of Provence, where he remained for years in the same mysterious seclusion, an object of the greatest curiosity on the part of all the people of the prison, and of no less interest to the people of the kingdom, to whose love of the marvellous the secrecy surrounding him appealed. The mask was never removed, day or night, so far as any one could learn, while conjecture sought in vain to discover who this mysterious personage could be.
This much was certain, no person of leading importance had disappeared from Europe in the year 1662. On the other hand, the masked prisoner was treated with a consideration which could be looked for only by persons of the highest birth. The Marquis of Louvois, minister of war under the "Grand Monarque," was said to have visited him at Sainte Marguerite, and to have treated him with the respect due to one of royal birth. He spoke to him standing, as to one far his superior in station, and showed him throughout the interview the greatest deference.
In 1698, M. de Saint Mars was made governor of the Bastille. He brought with him this mysterious masked prisoner, whose secret it was apparently not deemed advisable to intrust to a new governor of Sainte Marguerite. As to what took place on the journey, we have some interesting details in a letter from M. de Formanoir, grand nephew of Saint Mars.
"In 1698, M. de Saint Mars exchanged the governorship of the islands [Sainte Marguerite and Sainte Honnat) ?> for that of the Bastille. When he set out to enter on his new office he stayed with his prisoner for a short time at Palteau, his estate. The mask arrived in a litter which preceded that of M. de Saint Mars; they were accompanied by several men on horseback. The peasants went out to meet their seigneur. M. de Saint Mars took his meals with his prisoner, who sat with his back towards the windows of the room, which looked into the court-yard. The peasants of whom I made inquiry could not see if he had his mask on when eating; but they observed that M. de Saint Mars, who sat opposite to him at table, had a pair of pistols beside his plate. They were attended by a single valet only, Antoine Ru, who took away the dishes set down to him in an antechamber, having first carefully shut the door of the dining-room. When the prisoner crossed the court-yard a black mask was always on his face."
The extreme caution here indicated was continued until the prisoner reached the Bastille. With regard to his life in this fortress we are better informed, since it must be acknowledged that the record of his previous prison life is somewhat obscure. All that seems well established is that he was one of the "two prisoners of the Lower Tower" at Pignerol, in 1681; that he was spoken of to Saint Mars as "your ancient prisoner," and "your prisoner of twenty years' standing;" that in 1687 he was removed from Exiles to Sainte Marguerite with the same care and secrecy observed in the journey to the Bastille, his jailer accompanying him to the new prison, and that throughout he was under the care of the relentless Saint Mars.
Of the life of this remarkable state prisoner in the Bastille we have more detailed accounts. Dujunca, the chief turnkey of that prison, has left a journal, which contains the following entry: "On Thursday, the 18th September, 1698, at three o'clock in the afternoon, M. de Saint Mars, the governor, arrived at the Bastille for the first time from the islands of Sainte Marguerite and Sainte Honnat. He brought with him in his own litter an ancient prisoner formerly under his care at Pignerol, and whose name remains untold. This prisoner was always kept masked, and was at first lodged in the Basinière tower. . . . I conducted him afterwards to the Bertaudière tower, and put him in a room, which, by order of M. de Saint Mars, I had furnished before his arrival."
Throughout the life of this mysterious personage in the Bastille, the secrecy which had so far environed him was rigidly observed. So far as is known, no one ever saw him without his mask. Aside from this, and his detention, everything that could be was done to make his life enjoyable. He was given the best accommodation the Bastille afforded. Nothing that he desired was refused him. He had a strong taste for lace and linen of extreme fineness, and his wishes in this particular were complied with. His table was always served in the most elegant manner, while the governor, who frequently attended him, seldom sat in his presence.
During his intervals of ailment he was attended by the old doctor of the Bastille, who, while often examining his tongue and parts of his body, never saw his face. He represents him as very finely shaped, and of somewhat brownish complexion, with an agreeable and engaging voice. He never complained, nor gave any hint as to who he was, and throughout his whole prison life no one gained the least clue to his identity. The only instance in which he attempted to make himself known is described by Voltaire, who tells us that while at Sainte Marguerite he threw out from the grated window of his cell a piece of fine linen, and a silver plate on which he had traced some strange characters. This, however, is an unauthenticated story.
The detention of this mysterious prisoner in the Bastille was not an extended one. He died in 1703. Dujunca's journal tells the story of his death. "On Monday, the 19th of November, 1703, the unknown prisoner, who had continually worn a black velvet mask, and whom M. de Saint Mars had brought with him from the island of Sainte Marguerite, died to-day at about ten o'clock in the evening, having been yesterday taken slightly ill. He had been a long time in M. de Saint Mars' hands, and his illness was exceedingly trifling."
There is one particular of interest in this record. The "iron mask" appears to have been really a mask of black velvet, the only iron about it being the springs, which permitted the lower part to be lifted.
The question now arises, Who was the "man with the iron mask"? It is a question which has been long debated, without definite conclusion. Chamillard was the last minister of Louis XIV. who knew this secret. When he was dying, his son-in-law, Marshal de Feuillade, begged him on his knees to reveal the mystery. He begged in vain. Chamillard answered that it was a secret of state, which he had sworn never to reveal, and he died with it untold.
Voltaire, in his "Age of Louis XIV.," was the first to call special attention to this mystery, and since then numerous conjectures have been made as to who the Iron Mask really was. One writer has suggested that he was an illegitimate son of Anne of Austria, the queen-mother. Another identifies him with a supposed twin brother of Louis XIV., whose birth Richelieu had concealed. Others make him the Count of Vermandois, an illegitimate son of Louis XIV.; the Duke of Beaufort, a hero of the Fronde; the Duke of Monmouth, the English pretender of 1685; Fouquet, Louis's disgraced minister of finance; a son of Cromwell, the English protector; and various other wild and unfounded guesses. After all has been said, the identity of the prisoner remains unknown. Mattioli, a diplomatic agent of the Duke of Mantua, who was long imprisoned at Pignerol and at Sainte Marguerite, was for a long time generally thought to be the Iron Mask, but there is good reason to believe that he died in 1694.
Conjecture has exhausted itself, and yet the identity of this strange captive remains a mystery, and is likely always to continue so. The fact that all the exalted personages of the day can be traced renders it probable that the veiled prisoner was really an obscure individual, whom the caprice of Louis XIV. surrounded with conditions intended to excite the curiosity of the public. There are on record other instances of imprisonment under similar conditions of inviolate secrecy, and it is not impossible that the king may have endeavored, for no purpose higher than whim, to surround the story of this one with unbroken mystery. If such were his purpose it has succeeded, for there is no more mysterious person in history than the Man with the Iron Mask.