The year was 1669. The place, just outside of Dunkirk. Agents of King Louis XIV of France captured a man and sent him secretly to prison with instructions to the warden:
“It is of the first importance that he is not allowed to tell what he knows to any living person . . . . You must yourself take to him, once a day, the day’s necessities and you must never listen under any pretext whatever, to what he may want to reveal to you. You must threaten him with death if he ever opens his mouth to you on any subject but his day-to-day needs.”
For thirty-four years the prisoner was transferred from one comfortable prison suite to another until he died in the Bastille at Paris in 1703. He always wore a black velvet mask. Once, it has been said, he scratched a message on a silver plate and threw it from his window. The fisherman who found it and brought it to the gate was allowed to live only because he could not read.
The great writer and philosopher Voltaire had been imprisoned in the Bastille in 1717 when he was a young man. there he had had a chance to talk with jailers who had known the masked man and all the gossip about him, but not his identity. Interested in discrediting the monarchy, Voltaire later concocted the theory that the masked man was Louis XIV’s elder brother, imprisoned by the King to prevent disturbances over potential rival claimants to the throne.
In 1801, after the French Revolution, it was rumored that the prisoner was Louis XIV himself, displaced on the throne by his illegitimate half-brother. In prison he had married (not uncommon in those days), the story went on, and fathered a son who was taken to Corsica, where he grew up and became the grandfather of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The most famous treatment of the story was that of Alexandre Dumas pere, who altered Voltaire’s version, making the prisoner the King’s twin brother, and also changed the material of the mask. His romance entitled The Man in the Iron Mask, was published in 1848.
Another version is that the prisoner was the true father of Louis XIV. The birth of Louis XIV in 1638 was thought at the time to be something of a miracle. His mother, Anne of Austria, and his presumed father, Louis XIII, had been estranged for many years and had had no children. Since the royal couple was faced with the need to produce an heir to the throne, and Louis XIII was ailing and quite likely impotent, it is possible that a surrogate father was arranged. This interpretation would explain why Louis XIV kept the mystery man imprisoned rather than having him killed, a deed which would have fixed on Louis the sin of patricide.
Many scholars have attempted in the last few centuries to unravel the mystery. Conclusive evidence would surely have surfaced by now. None has. People will continue to theorize about the masked prisoner, who became a legend and dropped out of history in 1669.
(Reader’s Digest Association Inc, Mysteries of the Unexplained, pp. 115-116; Tighe Hopkins, The Man in the Iron Mask, passim; Hugh Ross Williamson, Enigmas of History, pp 207-228).