The man in the iron mask is a centuries-old tale that has been passed down through stories, art, and even movies starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It all began in the 1680s, when a mysterious prisoner, locked up by order of King Louis XIV of France, was spotted wearing a mask made of iron. No one ever saw his face, and the age old question lingered for hundreds of years: who was the man in the iron mask?
Theories about the prisoner have bounced around for centuries, but modern historians have finally come up with a conclusive answer. Although the identity of the masked man has been revealed, the tales perpetuated by the likes of author Alexandre Dumas and philosopher Voltaire still live on to this day.
Along with speculation from other historians, history professor Paul Sonnino claimed in 2016 that he finally found an answer to a nearly 400-year-old question: who was the man in the iron mask? His name was Eustache Dauger, and he was probably a valet. It gets a bit tricky from there.
Although the consensus is that Dauger was a valet, no one knew who he worked for, nor why he was put under such close guard for 30 years. An arrest warrant for Dauger, dating back to 1669, included instructions on limiting Dauger's contact with other prisoners, and "[threatening] him with death if he [spoke] one word except about his actual needs."
Sonnino concluded that Dauger was a valet for the treasurer working for Cardinal Mazarin, an extremely wealthy minister of France who effectively served as president of the state before the role had actually been created. The theory is that Dauger knew Mazarin was stealing, spoke out about it, and was punished severely for it. That would explain the pains taken to seclude Dauger and keep his identity a secret—all to protect Mazarin.
The tale began as a rumor spread throughout France about a strange prisoner made to wear an iron mask. In 1687, a gazette reported the prisoner's transfer from the harsh fortress of Pignerol. In 1698, the prisoner moved again, this time to the Bastille in Paris. In reports from guards at the Bastille, he still wore the iron mask.
Although reports of the man in the iron mask began as early as his incarceration, his story really took off after his death in 1703. Even the circumstances surrounding his death were mysterious; it was said that everything he owned was burned, and the walls of his prison cell were scrubbed clean. Thus began the myth of the man in the iron mask.
Sonnino's conclusion gives a lot of insight into why concealing Dauger's identity was so imperative. The long-standing myth of the iron mask is legendary. A hidden identity gave way to persistent speculation, rumors, and tall tales that circulated for hundreds of years. The mask Dauger was forced to don not only buried his identity, but allowed for a fascinating story to become part of French history.
Sonnino backed up another claim that many historians had been saying for years: the man in the iron mask was more likely the man in the velvet mask. Rather than wearing the metal accessory consistently, he was probably forced to wear it to hide his identity while being transferred between prisons.
The velvet mask is less dramatic, but makes a lot more sense historically. Women at that time wore masks of velvet to protect their skin from the sun, for accessorizing, or for keeping their identity a secret during an assignation—a respectable way to do something most certainly not respectable.