On 19 November 1703, a prisoner in France’s notorious Bastille Prison, his identity hidden behind a mask of black velvet, suddenly died. But who was the mysterious masked man who occupied the third chamber of the prison’s Bretaudière Tower? The elder brother of Louis XIV? The illegitimate son of Oliver Cromwell? It is a mystery which has continued for over 300 years.
What is known about the celebrated prisoner, named in the burial register as M. de Marchiel, is the day and the circumstances of his death. According to his gaoler, Du Junca, on 19 November 1703, after attending Mass, he suddenly felt ill, and had to be helped back to his cell. There he quickly lost consciousness and died at about 10 o’clock that night.
The prison doctor was summoned, but could find no cause for the prisoner’s terrible death. The following morning he was secretly buried in the cemetery of the Church of St. Paul. According to the gaoler, the funeral expenses amounted to forty pounds.
Du Junca also recorded in his diary that the prisoner arrived at the Bastille on 18 September 1698, accompanied by the governor, M. de Saint-Mars, and M. de Rosarges, a sergeant. At nine o’clock that night Du Junca and de Rosarges took him to his chamber in the Bretaudière Tower.
The arrival was further elaborated by Voltaire, himself a prisoner at the Bastille on two occasions, in 1717 and 1726. In his work The Century of Louis XIV, he wrote:
“In the greatest possible secrecy, an unknown prisoner, slightly above average height, young and with the most beautiful and noble countenance, was taken to the Château of the île Sainte-Marguerite. Throughout the journey the prisoner wore a mask of which the chin straps had steel springs to allow the man to eat. They were under orders to kill him if he removed the mask. He remained on the île until, in 1690. a trusty officer called Saint-Mars …. having being made governor of the Bastille, took him .... to the Bastille [where] he was refused nothing that he asked for. His greatest cost was for the finest linen and for lace”.
Voltaire added that he also played the guitar.
Over the course of the following fifty years Voltaire tried unsuccessfully to discover more about the masked man. In 1771 he decided that he was the elder brother of Louis XIV, the illicit fruits of a secret liaison between the king’s mother, Anne of Austria, and an unknown lover. Upon learning of the existence of this illegitimate elder brother, Louis had him interred and his identity hidden behind a velvet mask.
But not everyone agrees with Voltaire. So unless Patricia Cornwell gets on the case, the identify of the Man in the Iron Mask could remain a mystery that will haunt us in perpetuity.