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The Man in the Velvet Mask still guards some of history’s secrets

Posted in Historical articles, History, Literature, Mystery, Royalty on Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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This edited article about the Man in the velvet/iron mask first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 598 published on 30 June 1973.

Man in velvet mask,  picture, image, illustration

English rebel, son of a king or a minor Italian nobleman — who was the Man in the Mask held in the Bastille? Picture by Neville Dear

On an early autumn afternoon in 1698, a litter, with curtains tightly drawn, was carried into the Bastille, the formidable fortress on the east side of Paris. The great gates closed behind it with that deep, resonant boom the litter’s occupant knew only too well.

Hands drew the curtains aside, and he stepped out into the courtyard.

He paused for a moment, his eyes scanning the high stone towers that reared up above him.

The heavy velvet mask that covered his face was beginning to itch: he longed to remove it, but he knew that the Sieur de Saint-Mars, his jailer for nearly thirty years, was standing too close by, and was watching him intently. If he tore off the mask to let fresh air reach his prickling skin, Saint-Mars might kill him where he stood, just as he had once threatened him with death if he attempted to tell anyone what he knew.

That evening, when the masked man was safely locked away inside his cell, Saint-Mars sent word to King Louis XIV’s Minister for War that France’s most secret, most confidential state prisoner was once more safe from curious eyes. As ordered, no one had been allowed to scrutinise or recognise him on the long journey north from the Isle de Ste Marguerite.

On that journey, a few peasants had had a glimpse of the prisoner when he and Saint-Mars had stopped at a chateau near Villeneuve. But all they had seen was a tall, long-haired man, anonymous and faceless behind his ever-present mask.

Almost two centuries passed before anyone was able to enlarge on this flimsy evidence, and give the mysterious prisoner a name. But during that time, speculation bred a whole range of ingenious theories, and also made the velvet mask into something truly sinister.

It was Voltaire who first suggested that it had “springs of steel.” From there, it grew into the cruel restricting mask of iron, of which Dumas wrote in his novel “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1848-1850).

Dumas, like Voltaire, named the prisoner as the twin brother of Louis XIV. He was also identified, however, with various French and English noblemen, the playwright Moliere, and perhaps more reasonably, with a man known to have been a political prisoner of Louis XIV.

This was Ercole Matthioli, envoy of the Duke of Mantua, who had deeply angered Louis in 1679 when he betrayed the French king’s secret purchase of a Mantuan fortress: in revenge, Louis had Matthioli kidnapped and imprisoned.

A less dramatic, but far more likely candidate than any of these was Eustache Dauger, who was named in 1890 by biographer Jules Lair. Forty years later, in 1930, the historian Maurice Duvivier pieced together Dauger’s history which, as far as official records are concerned, ended abruptly in 1668.

Dauger, a courtier and army officer born in 1637, was one of several unfortunates whom Louis XIV considered undesirable and therefore ripe for detention. He had been involved in a nasty incident in 1665, when he had killed a drunken page in the king’s presence, and he seems to have taken part, too, in the one activity that really scared the despotic Louis: sorcery and black magic.

Whether for these or other reasons, there is no doubt that Dauger displeased the king, who personally ordered his arrest in July 1669, and his imprisonment under the eye of the Sieur de Saint-Mars, at the citadel of Pignerol, in Piedmont.

It was clear from the start that Dauger was no ordinary prisoner. He was detained under a Lettre de Cachet, a legal device that ensured secret arrest, and was kept in a cell with iron-barred windows and an all-concealing basket-work grille.

Dauger was warned that he would be killed at once if he spoke about anything more important than his “ordinary necessities,” and official correspondence about him constantly stressed to St-Mars that “no one must know what he was up to before 1669.”

In 1675, though, Dauger was allowed to become valet to Nicolas Fouquet, one-time Minister of Finance, but now imprisoned in the Pignerol in deep disgrace. Fouquet already had a valet, a man named La Riviere, and for five years, until Fouquet’s death in 1680, he and Dauger were constantly together.

La Riviere was not a prisoner and when Fouquet died, he should by rights, have been allowed to leave.

Instead, he was locked with Dauger into a high security cell.

Just as La Riviere lost his freedom at this time, Dauger appears to have lost his name. From 1680 onwards, he was referred to cryptically as “the Ancient Prisoner,” “the man of the Tower” or “the man who was sent to you.”

When Saint-Mars became governor of Exiles, thirty miles from Pignerol, in 1681, the “man” and La Riviere both went with him. At Exiles, where the wretched La Riviere died in 1687, they were kept in such secrecy that even the priest who came to say Mass for them had to do so standing outside their cell door.

Twice more, Saint-Mars was promoted, first in 1687 to the governorship of Iles St Marguerite in the Bay of Cannes, and in 1698 to the Bastille. On both occasions, his “Ancient Prisoner” accompanied him, travelling to St Marguerite in a sedan chair covered by a thick waxed cloth through which he could not be seen. His disguise, on transfer to the Bastille on 18th September 1698, was equally impenetrable.

When he died there in 1703, he was buried under the name “Marchioly.”

For a long time, “Marchioly” was presumed to be a French version of “Matthioli,” the name of the perfidious Mantuan who was in the Pignerol during the last two years of Dauger’s own imprisonment there.

Because of this, Matthioli was thought to be the mystery prisoner. Then, in 1869, a letter written by Saint-Mars revealed that there was a thirteen-year gap between 1681 and 1694 in the time Matthioli was in his care. Thirty years of official correspondence showed that the “Ancient Prisoner” remained in prisons run by Saint-Mars throughout his detention. Also, Matthioli is known to have died in 1694, whereas the diaries of Etienne de Jonca, King’s Lieutenant at the Bastille, specifically state that the masked prisoner died there nine years later. And of all Saint-Mars’ prisoners, only the fate of Eustache Dauger is not accounted for.

The detective work which has named Dauger as the Man in the Velvet Mask has not, however, revealed the crime which merited such long and strict confinement. Nor has it explained why the need was so great for his identity to remain unknown.

As Louis XIV perhaps intended, these still remain among the best-kept secrets that have ever puzzled history.

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