I’ve heard the stories about the Iron Mask ever since my adolescence. Being an admirer of historical mysteries, I set off researching the subject. I have never been convinced of the importance of this mystery, or why it is such a mystery at all.
During the reign of Louis XIV, there was a prisoner in a fort in Provence, who was later moved to the Bastille. The prisoner wore and iron mask, one that he could never remove and which kept his identity secret. No one knew who he was, they only knew that he was granted great honors and that great care was taken to keep his identity secret. There is the story of a fisherman who found a silver plate outside of the fort and returned it to the fort’s governor, Bénigne de Saint-Mars. The fisherman’s life was spared at that very moment because he was illiterate, and unable to read what the prisoner had scratched into the plate.
It is said that the prisoner died at the Bastille, as confirmed by the prison registry, but was subsequently decapitated before being buried, to keep his identity secret, even after his death.
Many extravagant theories have been offered concerning his identity. In particular, Alexander Dumas affirmed that he was no less than the twin brother of Louis XIV, which would have caused dynastic complications, so he was simply removed from the equation altogether. This, of course, in a historical absurdity, as the Queens of France gave birth in public, and after the birth of Louis XIV, Anne of Austria could not have had a second child without the whole Court knowing about it.
The Iron Mask was a legend invented by Voltaire. In the time of Louis XIV, he stated that one of the king’s ministers had told him the story. The Iron Mask, in reality, was simply a mask of velvet.
As for the identity, why not Mattioli, one of the most frequent candidates. The prime minister of the Duke of Parma was secretly imprisoned by France, in order to serve Louis XIV’s interests in this small but strategically important Italian state. Louis XIV learned that Mattoili was playing him, and secretly serving the Hapsburg Emperor, the rival and detested enemy of the king. So, in a rage, Louis XIV had him abducted and imprisoned for life. Of course, he couldn’t reveal that he had kidnapped a foreign prime minister in a foreign country, it would have caused and unprecedented diplomatic crisis.
Mattioli or not, there is an anecdote that corroborates my thoughts. One day, one of Louis XV’s daughters, Madam Sophie, asked him to tell her the secret of the Iron Mask.
“I will, my daughter,” the king replied, “On the condition that you swear to God to never tell this secret to anyone.”
“No, father.” Sophie replied, “I cannot do it, I won’t be able to keep my lips sealed.”
“Then I cannot tell you, but know that this secret is of no importance.”
This secret, important or not, was transmitted from king to king after the death of Louis XIV. It was the Regent, Philippe d’Orléans, who received the secret and later told it to King Louis XV, who has his ward. From then on, the secret remained within the House d’Orléans, but the last to know the truth was our ancestor, Philippe Egalité, the Duke d’Orléans. He was arrested and beheaded during the Revolution before he had the opportunity to tell the secret to his son, the future King Louis Philippe, and so the truth behind this secret of little importance died with him.