The Real-Life Inspiration For The Man In The Iron Mask

Back in the bad old days of the French monarchy, one mystery boggled the public. In the Bastille Prison lived a man whose identity was unknown. Many said the prisoner was the King's political opponent, others say he must have been a disgraced member of the Royal Family. No one knew him; no one had seen his face. He was the Man in the Iron Mask.

The Man in the Iron Mask went from an interesting prison urban legend to a pop culture phenomenon when Alexandre Dumas wrote his aptly titled novel The Man in the Iron Mask. In 1998, a movie based on the book starring Leonardo di Caprio was released. All the while, the man's real identity remained shrouded in mystery. But, thanks to research, we now know the inspiration behind the legend.

According to LiveScience, the likeliest candidate is Eustache Dauger, a former valet to the treasurer of Cardinal Mazarin. Mazarin was an influential figure in France and amassed great wealth. Paul Sonnino, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara, claims Dauger must've known secrets about Mazarin's wealth. Dauger, however, did not wear an iron mask but a velvet one and not all the time either. AV Club writes when Dauger first arrived in prison, strict instructions demanded no could see him except for the warden, and his cell had to be fitted with doors to prevent anyone from listening in. Dauger could not even ask for food, or else he would be killed right away.

The Man in the Iron Mask must've known something shady

It would make sense if Dauger is the prisoner in question. As a valet to someone in Mazarin's inner circle, he had insider knowledge of the Cardinal's dealings. LiveScience speculates that Dauger blabbed about what he knew at the wrong time and Mazarin, fearing for his reputation, ordered Dauger arrested. Dauger himself was also a very controversial figure, per AV Club. Dauger allegedly participated in a bisexual orgy and a Black Mass. He probably murdered a page boy, too. No one is sure if Eustache Dauger was even his real name; it could've been an alias meant to throw people off the scent. After all, he knew secrets.

There might be another inspiration for the story. According to History, an Italian count named Ercole Matthiole is another likely candidate for the masked prisoner. It's said that Matthiole tried to double-cross King Louis XIV during negotiations. His name even resembles the one etched into the Man in the Iron Mask's grave — Marchioly — though Matthiole died several years too early to be the masked man.

So the real-life inspiration for Dumas could be either of the two men. As a great writer, Dumas may have even embellished a little to make his story more intriguing. What we do know is that there was a prisoner kept away from everyone else. And that is definitely enough to spark a brilliant story.