The Man in the Iron Mask
In 1698 a mysterious man was imprisoned in the Bastille. Almost no one seemed to know who he was, although residents of the French prison were usually important people who had fallen out of favor with King Louis XIV. This man had been a captive of the government since at least 1687, and for all that time his face had been hidden by a mask.
The philosopher and writer Voltaire was confined to the Bastille in 1717. He spent almost a year there, and later told a friend that he had spoken to people who had served the Man in the Iron Mask. In his book, The Age of Louis XIV, published in 1751, Voltaire said that the prisoner was forced to wear an iron mask as early as 1661, when he was held captive on the island of Sainte-Marguerite. The prisoner was young (in 1661), tall and very handsome. He dressed in the finest lace and linen, and enjoyed playing the guitar.
In his later writings, Voltaire dropped broad hints about the prisoner’s possible identity. According to Voltaire, the man was about 60 when he died, and bore a striking resemblance to someone very famous. Of course, the most famous face in France at that time belonged to King Louis XIV, who was also in his 60s.
In 1789, journalist Frederic-Melchior Grimm said a royal valet had revealed to him that Louis XIV had an identical twin. The twins’ father, Louis XIII, feared the brothers would grow up to fight over the throne, so he sent the second-born baby away to be raised in secret. The boy was taken into a nobleman’s household and treated with great respect, but he was never told who he really was. As a young man he saw a portrait of his brother and guessed the truth. He was immediately arrested, and spent the rest of his life as the Man in the Iron Mask.
Many people believed this (probably fictional) account, which was embroidered by other writers as the years passed. It has been said that when the Bastille was stormed by a revolutionary mob, the prince’s skeleton was discovered, still wearing its iron mask, but there is no record that this actually happened. Napoleon supposedly believed that he descended from the unfortunate prince, who, according to legend, had married the daughter of the governor of Sainte-Marguerite.