The man in the iron mask is one of France’s historical prisoners, so mysterious was he to his contemporaries… and to their descendants. The fascination with his real identity has been the subject of much ink among writers and directors. Some stories are plausible and realistic, others are extravagant and romanticized. One thinks for example of Randall Wallace’s magnificent film released in 1998 and soberly entitled The Man in the Iron Mask.
This made it difficult for historians to try to find the historical truth about this prisoner, whose story oscillated between a real martyr, a popular myth or a prisoner used for ideological purposes. One historian, however, believes that he discovered the identity of the man in the iron mask almost 350 years after his imprisonment.
First, let’s take a quick look at this prisoner’s story. Imprisoned in 1669, he remained captive until his death 34 years later, in 1703. It is from this date that his legend begins to spread, as no one knows his name or the reason for his imprisonment. There have been many theories about his true identity: Nicolas Fouquet, superintendent of finance, arrested in 1661 for embezzlement of public funds and the crime of lèse-majesté, or , the king’s clandestine twin brother, a thesis put forward by Voltaire, to name only two of the best known.
Paul Sonnino is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He specialized in the reign of Louis XIV (born in 1638, crowned in 1643 and died in 1715). In his latest book, entitled The Search for the Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Story(Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) presents the reader with historical archival documents and correspondence concerning the prisoner and gives the various aspects of his investigation.
Historians agree that the identity of the man in the iron mask was Eustatius Dauger. During his incarceration, he wore a mask only occasionally. In addition, it was made of velvet and not iron [a material that would have caused sepsis]. They also agree that Dauger was a valet. What they were unable to determine up to that point was who he was the valet and why he had been held prisoner for over 30 years.
Through his research, Sonnino determined that Eustache Dauger was the valet to the treasurer of Cardinal Mazarin, an important figure in French history. Mazarin was the principal Minister of State from 1643 to 1661 and helped Anne of Austria to ensure the Regency. He was truly at the head of the country. When he died in March 1661, Mazarin left a bitter legacy to France, with largely corrupt institutions. The late Italian cardinal accumulated enormous wealth during his life, partly to establish his legitimacy among the nobles and the great fortunes of the time, with whom he was in opposition: we are talking about 8,700,000 pounds (not counting his material goods), making him the greatest fortune of the seventeenth century. In his will, for example, the Cardinal ordered that his personal accounts should not be examined, for the good of the kingdom. These will be burned a little later by the king.
Portrait of Cardinal Mazarin
Paul Sonnino argues that as valet to the treasurer of Mazarin, Eustache Dauger discovered that a large part of the Cardinal’s wealth had been built up partly on the backs of the English royal family.
What I was able to determine was that Mazarin had stolen part of his gigantic fortune from the previous royal couple in England. Eustache Dauger must have found out and told the wrong person or at the wrong time. At the time of his arrest, he received death threats: if he revealed his identity to anyone, he would be killed on the spot.
Although Paul Sonnino’s theory is interesting and plausible, it remains to be seen what other historians will say about it, who will not fail to seek refutations to this thesis. Paul Sonnino is indeed not the first to claim to have discovered the identity of the man in iron mask. Dauger is also not a newcomer to the history of the man in the iron mask, and many historians are bailing to find out whether the man really existed or whether it was a cover to hide a figure connected with affairs of state.
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