Who Was the Real Man in the Iron Mask?

Rumors of a mysterious prisoner during the reign of King Louis XIV became legend after Alexandre Dumas wrote his famous tale. His true identity remains a subject of speculation.

In the 1680s, whispers about a mysterious prisoner began to spread through France. Details were hazy, but the tale was arresting: An anonymous man had been locked up on the express orders of the French king Louis XIV. His identity was unknown, and his face could not be seen because he was forced to wear an iron mask.

A gazette from 1687 mentions the prisoner’s transfer to the citadel of Sainte-Marguerite, a tiny Mediterranean island off the coast of Cannes in southern France, in the custody of a former musketeer, Bénigne de Saint-Mars. Both guard and his prisoner had previously lived at the fortresses of Pignerol and Exilles in the Alps.

The pair moved again in 1698, when Saint-Mars was appointed governor of the Bastille prison in Paris. The mysterious prisoner’s arrangements had not changed from earlier accounts: A Bastille official wrote in his memoirs of his surprise at the arrival of his new superior who was accompanied by a man “who is always masked and whose name is never pronounced.”

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