That of the Iron Mask was a nickname given to a man identified as Eustache, who was in the custody of Saint-Mars.
“Call me cursed!” The man, whose voice was almost drowned out by the storm, was dressed completely in black, “a kind of ghost, his head covered with a black case and a black mask, a terrible thing to behold.”
In his epic 1850 book, The Viscount of Bragelonne, Alexander Dumas created a captivating image of the Man in the Iron Mask that would inspire countless films and cement the mysterious figure’s place in popular culture. Dumas would be inspired by a legend that had emerged almost two centuries earlier.
It told the story of a mysterious prisoner who had been secretly arrested and imprisoned in France. He had spent decades in various dark and dank dungeons, ending at the Bastille.
Closely guarded, they kept him in solitude, where no one could hear what he might have to say; and he was not even allowed to speak his name.
He was guarded by a jailer who was ordered to kill him if he spoke of anything other than his needs.
The jailer, however, showed great respect for this prisoner, even standing, hat in hand, in his presence.
Because in Dumas’s story he was not just any prisoner: he was one of the most outstanding men in the country.
According to legend (and Dumas’ novel), the prisoner was forced to wear an iron mask over his face to hide his identity. And two musketeers were ready to kill him if he ever took it off.
Because what they had imprisoned was a state secret. And after his death, his cell was cleaned and scraped, and his miserable furniture destroyed in case he had written his name somewhere hidden.
A twisted family secret
Another man who was intrigued by this legend was the French writer Voltaire, who investigated the history of the prisoner and the horrible mask that he had apparently been forced to wear.
He discovered that far from being a tale, the man in the iron mask had really existed: he was a prisoner who lived in the time of Louis XIV, who reigned between 1643 and 1715 and who was known as the Sun King.
Voltaire speculated that there was only one reason an unknown prisoner would have to hide his face: he resembled the one man all French would instantly recognize, the Sun King himself.
Voltaire concluded that the prisoner must have been the secret twin brother of King Louis, who had been imprisoned to preserve the security of the kingdom.
This twin theory inspired Alexandre Dumas, who incorporated it into the elaborate plot of The Viscount de Bragelonne. Largely as a result of the Dumas story and the films it later spawned, the legend of the Man in the Iron Mask has intrigued people for years.
However, the actual story is completely different from the one Dumas wrote. Letters sent between Louis XIV the French war minister Louvois and a jailer named Benigno de Saint-Mars suggest that the man in the iron mask was probably a humble prisoner named Eustache.
Furthermore, he was not wearing an iron mask permanently. This was an invention of Voltaire, who wrote that the prisoner wore “a mask whose chin had steel springs that allowed him to eat while wearing it.”
However, there is no historical basis for this. In reality, Eustache was only forced to wear a mask made of black velvet in the last years of his life and only when a bystander could see it.
The theory that the man in the iron mask was Eustache was first put forward by Jules Lair, a French lawyer-turned-historian, in 1890.
This was rejected by many historians because Eustache was not considered interesting or important enough, so the search continued.
But there is no real reason why a humble prisoner could not have been the man in the iron mask.
Eustache’s story begins in late July 1669, when Louis XIV issued a lettre de cachet, an arrest warrant for a man who was to be captured as soon as they saw him and brought to the Pignerol fortress in the Italian Alps.
The terrible, and often bizarre, treatment he endured while incarcerated was remarkably similar to that in Dumas’s fictional narrative: He was held in top-secret conditions, and his jailer, Saint-Mars, claimed that no one could see or hear him.
Once a day, Saint-Mars dropped a small package of food on the floor of his cell. And if Eustache tried to talk about anything but his most basic needs, Saint-Mars would kill him, an order he declared he was willing to carry out: my sword ”.
A humble valet
Here, Dumas’s version strays from the truth. Far from being the king’s secret twin, or even a high-ranking prisoner, Louvois described Eustache as “just a valet.”
In seventeenth-century France, a person’s rank was preserved even in prison. As a valet, Eustache was of humble status, and this was reflected in the insignificant items provided to him.
They gave him cheap clothes. As Louvois had said, clothes for “this type of person” should last three or four years.
By contrast, Saint-Mars’ other state prisoner, the aristocratic Nicolas Foucquet, the disgraced finance superintendent, received nine suits each season.
While Eustache had no one to take care of him or keep him company, Foucquet enjoyed the services of the valet.
Eustache’s food was barely enough to keep him alive; yet Foucquet ate some of the best food that he could have enjoyed had he been free.
However, there was one respect in which the two men were the same: Foucquet was also closely guarded and prohibited from communicating with the outside world, at least for the first few years of his imprisonment.
The two men were thrown together while in prison; and then Eustache was forced to serve as the disgraced superintendent’s valet.
Being a prisoner’s valet was decidedly an undesirable job. Helpers had to stay with their masters, remained in prison, and were forbidden even to visit their families while on duty.
Foucquet was supposed to have two valets while in prison. But one had died, so only one valet, named La Rivière, was at his service.
After failing to find a replacement, Saint-Mars recalled that Eustache had been described to him as a valet and, with the permission of Louis XIV and Louvois, successfully placed him as Foucquet’s second valet.