Sunday, 15 August 2010

Who was the Man in the Iron Mask?

The mystery of the Man in the Iron Mask is an on-going, never-ending puzzle, even now—over 300 years after the fact. 

Who was he? The Sun King's twin? (A conjecture made famous in a novel by Dumas and recreated on screen.) One of the Musketeers? The Italian trickster Marguerite? It has even been suggested by a respected French historian that the Man in the Iron Mask might have been a woman.

It's perplexing. We know so much — and yet not enough. We know that named Eustache Dauger — or, rather, Eustache d'Auger — was arrested in 1669 and held in various prisons for 34 years until his death in the Bastille in Paris in 1703. He wore a mask (some claim iron, others cloth), and was not allowed to speak to anyone. 

Gary McCollim, an historian I know though an on-line discussion group on all things pertaining to the French king Louis XIV, recently reviewed a new publication by French historian Vergé-Francheschi: Le masque de fer (The Iron Mask). 

When it comes to The Mask, fancy has traditionally had a way of overtaking facts, and what's interesting about this publication is that the author appears to be rigorous about only considering first-hand documentation. All non-witness accounts have been eliminated. 

From the actual witness accounts a portrait emerges of a man of average height with black hair  and a slightly brown complexion. Shortly before his death in 1703, he had no grey hair. Given that he was in his early 40s at the time of his death, The Mask would have been a boy when imprisoned.

This rules out the theory that The Mask was the Sun King's brother: if so, the prisoner would have been over 60 at his death.

The author also rules out the theory that The Mask was Italian because his jailor chose Italian litter bearers to carry him. The Mask was forbidden to speak to anyone, and his jailor would not have chosen bearers who spoke the prisoner's language. 

In this way, the author eliminates the various contenders, settling on a new proposition: that The Mask was an Algerian slave who witnessed the death of his master, the troublemaker Duke de Beaufort (shown at right). Was Beaufort, honoured a hero after his death in battle against the Turks, in fact murdered with the complicit knowledge of the Royal Family? Was the slave a witness? Yes and yes. At least this seems to be this author's proposition. 

But if this is the case, why was the prisoner masked? The assumption has been that a mask was used to hide the identity of this man. (Ah! He looks just like the King! Etc.) However, masks were also used to hide hideous facial injuries. This author proposes that Beaufort's slave might have suffered battle injuries. 

Captured by Beaufort during his raids on Algeria, Beaufort had had the boy baptized in Paris and gave him the name Eustache. It's not too great a leap to imagine the name "Eustache de Algiers" becoming "Eustache d'Auger." 

Mystery solved?


Sandra Gulland


Michelle @ The True Book Addict said...

Very interesting! That seems very plausible. However, I still love the romanticized version of him being the Sun King's twin, however fictional the account!

Anonymous said...

There'd be no reason to hide the face of a prisoner nobody was supposed to see anyway. If he were freely wandering around in public there might be cause for masking him. Since he wasn't, why bother with the mask? Secondly, the people of the 17th C were far more inured to the sight of a crippled or mangled person than we are today. A man with nasty injuries could survive as beggar, as indeed many people still do.

Sandra Gulland. said...

Khazarkhum, you make an interesting point. It's possible that the injuries were quite severe, but even so ...