Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

I am Not Making This Up: Who Was That (Iron) Masked Man?

Written By: Tracy - Jan• 08•18

Man in the Iron MaskIn May 1687, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars took over as prison governor (a sort of warden) for the island prison of Sante-Marguerite, a mile of the coast of Cannes.

Saint-Mars was a special kind of prison warden. King Louis XIV Of France (the Sun King, I’ve written a lot about him, here and even a podcast here) trusted Saint-Mars with VIPs (Very Important Prisoners). The type who couldn’t be executed, but also couldn’t run around free.

So when Saint-Mars moved prisons, his VIPs went with him.

One of these prisoners garnered special notice, due to the velvet mask that he wore, concealing his face (and therefore his identity) from the curious public.

Ten years later, when Saint-Mars became Governor (warden) of the Bastille, the masked man moved with him.

Prison guards and prisoners who had been released later told stories that fueled public imagination (or at the very least, court gossip around Versailles).

They said that the mystery man served other prisoners as a valet. That he had to wear a mask of iron and that he was guarded by two musketeers. If he ever uttered a single word, his guards had orders to shoot him.

And, like fans of the Lone Ranger centuries later, all of France wondered: who was that masked man?

Theories ranged from King Louis XIV’s (theoretical) older twin brother, to his (theoretical) peasant father, to Henry Cromwell, son of Oliver Cromwell.

While the complete truth may never be known, historians think that the man’s name was Eustache Dauger.

During his imprisonment, he stayed in a cell with an “airlock”- style door to prevent anyone from listening at his cell and hearing secrets. He was allowed to serve as a valet to prisoners who would never be released. But never when they were in contact with prisoners who would someday go free. And Saint-Mars was ordered to kill the masked man if he ever talked of anything except his own basic needs.

Based on the evidence, experts theorize that Dauger was valet to a high-ranking French government official. That he simply saw too much and refused to stay silent about it.

Historians believe this because Sant-Mars and the nobles he held as prisoners (hidebound to tradition under King Louis XIV) would never have put another noble to work as a common valet.

A competing theory is that Dauger was a high ranking supplier in the Affair of the Poisons (which I’ve podcasted about). However, many of the prime suppliers were executed. If Dauger was lowly enough to serve as a valet, he would also be lowly enough to be executed, rather than imprisoned to silence.

The popular stories about the man in the mask only grew once influential writers got ahold of it. Voltaire learned of the masked prisoner from others imprisoned in the Bastille. In his writings, he changed the mask from Velvet to iron. Alexandre Dumas hypothesized that the masked man was King Louis’s older twin brother.

Although these stories grew in the telling, historians are adept at separating fact from fiction. But one thing may never be clear: what did the masked man, Dauger, know?

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