The Man in the Iron Mask is a legendary figure from French history. He was a prisoner in the 17th century whose identity was concealed by royal decree. His true identity has never been discovered, leading to much historical and fictional speculation throughout the following centuries. Many believed he was a relative of the king or possessed information that could be damaging to the French government or the French crown. The novel The Man in the Iron Mask by French author Alexandre Dumas has inspired several adaptations in film, theatre, and television.
In 1669, France was ruled by Louis XIV, one of the nation’s most powerful and influential kings. That year, a minister of the king arranged a special prison detail for a captive known as Eustache Dauger. Dauger was to be held in solitary confinement, to have limited contact with prison guards or officials, and to wear a velvet mask. Dauger remained in prison for the rest of his life, first near Spain and later in Paris’ infamous Bastille, dying in 1703. These facts are a matter of historical record, but many legends, rumors, and stories soon surrounded the man in the mask.
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Many historical documents of the era were destroyed in the French Revolution of 1789. No surviving record has revealed the true identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, but many candidates have been put forth over the years. One was the Italian count Ercole Antonio Mattioli, also imprisoned by Louis XIV’s regime; the name Marchioly on the grave of the Man in the Iron Mask seemed to confirm this for many 19th-century scholars. Another was the French soldier and adventurer Eustache Dauger, imprisoned after a scandal involving high-ranking French officials. Both candidates have been discredited by historical documents discovered in the intervening years.
Voltaire, the famed 18th-century French writer and philosopher, speculated in print that the prisoner’s mask was made of iron, not velvet, and that he was an illegitimate brother of the king. While probably fanciful, these details seized the popular imagination of French citizens living a century after Dauger. Revolutionaries storming the Bastille in 1789 claimed to find a skeleton and an iron mask; this claim was also later discredited. In the 1840s, Alexandre Dumas made the Man in the Iron Mask part of the final adventure of his legendary heroes, the Three Musketeers.
Dumas’ novel added many melodramatic elements, claiming the Man in the Iron Mask was the twin brother of the king and the rightful heir to the throne. The popular novel was adapted to film many times during the 20th century. The 1939 version, directed by James Whale, is for many the definitive version of the story; later versions in 1977 and 1998 borrowed heavily from its plot. Consequently, the legendary figure has become associated with swashbuckling adventure and high-ranking conspiracy. The true identity of the Man in the Iron Mask, meanwhile, remains an enduring mystery.