The Bastille Saint-Antoine (“The Bastille”) is one of the most famous fortresses in European history. Its biggest moment was as the location of the inciting incident that anchored the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789.
The foundation work started in 1357, with the main construction occurring after 1370. The end result was a massive stone enclosure secured by eight circular stone towers several stories tall. Its initial purpose was to house the soldiers and cannons that protected the eastern end of the river that flows through the center of Paris. The fortress served in various defensive roles in different wars and battles for many years. From 1659 onwards, it functioned as a state penitentiary.
In the 1700s, Louis XIV (he’s the one who built the Palace of Versailles) used the Bastille as a prison for upper-class members of French society who had opposed or angered him, including a few French Protestants. Louis XV and Louis XVI also used it for political prisoners, but by July of 1789, it was mostly empty. It held only seven prisoners (four forgers, a “lunatic” imprisoned at the request of his family, an assassin who had attempted to kill Louis XV thirty years before, and the son of an aristocrat who had been imprisoned by his father). The decision had already been made to tear it down and replace it with an open public space, but demolition had not yet begun.
From the thousands who had passed through its gates, one prisoner became famous.
A letter written in July of 1669 was sent from one of Louis XIV’s ministers, to Benigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, governor of a prison in southeast France. In the letter, a prisoner named “Eustache Dauger” was due to arrive in the next month or so. A cell was to be prepared for him, but it should have multiple doors, one door closing upon the other, to prevent anyone from listening to anything spoken inside the cell. The prisoner was to be seen only once a day, and he should never speak about anything other than his immediate needs, under threat of death. The man would be wearing a veil (a mask or hood) over his face when he arrived and was required to wear it continually. No one was to see his face.
The prisoner would wear that veil for the next 34 years.
Saint-Mars did as he was told and when appointed governor of a different prison in 1681, took Dauger with him. In 1687, Saint-Mars was posted to a prison on an island half a mile offshore from Cannes, and, again, took the veiled man with him. A similar cell with multiple doors had been arranged.
It was during this time that rumors spread that the man was wearing not a cloth veil, but an iron mask.
Twelve years later, Saint-Mars became the governor of the Bastille prison in Paris. As Dauger was again moved, an officer of the Bastille witnessed that the prisoner wore “a mask of black velvet”. It was in the Bastille that the prisoner died in November of 1703, never having been seen without the mask.
What little is known about the historical Man in the Iron Mask is based mainly on correspondence between Saint-Mars and his superiors in Paris. Some 800 documents were discovered in 2015 that indicated that Saint-Mars was, indeed, the lifetime jailer of Dauger and had been diverting for his own use the money provided by the king for his care. This could be an explanation of why Saint-Mars always took the prisoner with him to his new assignments. The documents also provided a description of the cell used by the masked prisoner, which contained only a sleeping mat, but no luxuries, as was previously thought.
The Man in the Iron Mask became a well-known character through the French author Alexandre Dumas in the late 1840s; a section in one of his Muskateer novels featured The Man in the Iron Mask. In it, the man is forced to wear an iron mask, and is portrayed as Louis XIV’s identical twin.
The rumors had already been going on for years. Voltaire claimed that the prisoner was a son of Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, and was therefore an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. In a 1965 essay, another author claimed that the prisoner was, indeed, Louie’s twin, but was born second, and was kept hidden in order to avoid a dispute over who would ascend to the throne.
There were other claims, including that the man was the natural father of Louis XIV; the illegitimate son or grandson of Henry IV; a French General who had angered Louis XIV; the son of Charles II of England; or an Italian diplomat kidnapped by the French; or just a common valet who had fallen from favor.
I remember the 1977 movie that featured Richard Chamberlain and Patrick McGoohan, but missed the more recent 1998 remake with Leonardo DiCaprio, Jeremy Irons, and John Malkovich. There is a long list of other appearances in the media by The Man in the Iron Mask, including DuckTales, and an episode of The Simpsons.
I became interested in the French Revolution listening to a history lecture by the travel guru Rick Steves. He referred to the Reign of Terror as having a test for patriotism during the French Revolution. Wanting to know more, I was soon swamped by descriptions of the Revolutionary Enlightenment, the storming of the Bastille, the various governing bodies and constitutions, the horrors of recurring persecutions, the shifting values of the politicians, and some of the individuals involved, all occurring in the decade after 1789.
I’m going to write about that decade for the next few blogs because I find a lot of similarities between what was happening then and what is happening now in the political and social climate of America. We can, again, see history repeating itself.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.