Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary
The Philosophical Dictionary
Selected and Translated by H.I. Woolf
New York: Knopf, 1924

Scanned by the Hanover College Department of History in 1995.
Proofread and pages added by Jonathan Perry, March 2001.

Man in the Iron Mask

THE author of the " SiecIe de Louis XIV." is the first to speak of the man in the iron mask in an authenticated history. The reason is that he was very well informed about the anecdote which astonishes the present century, which will astonish posterity, and which is only too true. He was deceived about the date of the death of this singularly unfortunate unknown. The date of his burial at St. Paul was March 3rd, 1703, and not 1704. (Note.--According to a certificate reported by Saint-Foix, the date was November 20th, 1703.)

He was imprisoned first of all at Pignerol before being so on St. Margaret's Islands, and later in the Bastille; always under the same man's guard, Saint-Mars, who saw him die. Father Griffet, Jesuit, has communicated to the public the diary of the Bastille, which testifies to the dates. He had this diary without difficulty, for he held the delicate position of confessor of prisoners imprisoned in the Bastille.

The man in the iron mask is a riddle to which everyone wishes to guess the answer. Some say that he was the Due de Beaufort: but the Duc de Beaufort was killed by the Turks at the defence of Candia, in 1669; and the man in the iron mask was at Pignerol, in 1662. Besides, how would one have arrested the Duke de Beaufort surrounded by his army? How would one have transferred him to France without anybody knowing anything about it? And why slould he have been put in prison, and why this mask?

Others have considered the Comte de Vermandois, natural son of Louis XIV., who died publicly of the small-pox in 1683, with the army, and was buried in the town of Arras.

Later it was thought that the Duke of Monmouth, whose head King James II. had cut off publicly in London in 1685, was the man in the iron mask. It would have been necessary for him to be resuscitated, and then for him to change the order of the times, for him to put the year 1662 in place of 1685; for King James who never pardoned anyone, and who on that account deserved all his misfortunes, to have pardoned the Duke of Monmouth, and to have caused the death, in his place, of a man exactly like him. It would have been necessary to find this double who would have been so kind as to have his neck cut off in public in order to save the Duke of Monmouth. It would have been necessary for the whole of England to have been under a misapprehension; for James then to have sent his earnest entreaties to Louis XIV. to be so good as to serve as his constable and gaoler. Then Louis XIV. having done King James this little favour, would not have failed to have the same consideration for King William and for Queen Anne, with whom he was at war; and he would carefully have preserved in these two monarchs' consideration his dignity of gaoler, with which King James had honoured him.

All these illusions being dissipated, it remains to be learned who was this prisoner who was always masked, the age at which he died, and under what name he was buried. It is clear that if he was not allowed to pass into the courtyard of the Bastille, if he was not allowed to speak to his doctor, unless covered by a mask, it was for fear that in his features might be recognized some too striking resemblance. He might show his tongue, and never his face. As regards his age, he himself said to the Bastille apothecary, a few days before his death, that lie thought he was about sixty; and Master Marsolan, surgeon to the Marechal de Richelieu, and later to the Duc d'Orleans, regent, son-in-law of this apothecary, has repeated it to me more than once.

Finally, why give him an Italian name? he was always called Marchiali! He who writes this article knows more about it, maybe, than Father Griffet, and will not say more.


It is surprising to see so many scholars and so many intelligent and sagacious writers torment themselves with guessing who can have been the famous man in the iron mask, without the simplest, most natural, most probable idea ever presenting itself to them. Once the fact as M. de Voltaire reports it is admitted, with its circumstances; the existence of a prisoner of so singular a species, put in the rank of the best authenticated historical truths; it seems that not only is nothing easier than to imagine who this prisoner was, but that it is even difficult for there to be two opinions on the subject. The author of this article would have communicated his opinion earlier, if he had not believed that this idea must already have come to many others, and if he were not persuaded that it was not worth while giving as a discovery what, according to him, jumps to the eyes of all who read this anecdote.

However, as for some time past this event has divided men's minds, and as quite recently the public has again been given a letter in which it is claimed as proved that this celebrated prisoner was a secretary of the Duke of Mantua (which cannot be reconciled with the great marks of respect shown by M. de Saint-Mars to his prisoner), the author has thought it his duty to tell at last what has been his opinion for many years. Maybe this conjecture will put an end to all other researches, unless the secret be revealed by those who can be its guardians, in such a way as to remove all doubts.

He will not amuse himself with refuting those who have imagined that this prisoner could be the Comte de Vermandois, the Duc de Beaufort, or the Duke of Monmouth. The scholarly and very wise author of this last opinion has well refuted the others; but he had based his own opinion essentially merely on the impossibility of finding in Europe some other prince whose detention it would have been of the very highest importance should not be known. M. de SaintFoix is right, if he means to speak only of princes whose existence was known; but why has nobody yet thought of supposing that the iron mask might have been an unknown prince, brought up in secret, and whose existence it was important should remain unknown?

The Duke of Monmouth was not for France a prince of such great importance; and one does not see even what could have engaged this power, at least after the death of this duke and of James II., to make so great a secret of his detention, if indeed he was the iron mask. It is hardly probable either that M. de Louvois and M. de Saint-Mars would have shown the Duke of Monmouth the profound respect which M. de Voltaire assures they showed the iron mask.

The author conjectures, from the way that M. de Voltaire has told the facts, that this celebrated historian is as persuaded as he is of the suspicion which he is going, he says, to bring to light; but that M. de Voltaire, as a Frenchman, did not wish, he adds, to publish point-blank, particularly as he had said enough for the answer to the riddle not to be difficult to guess. Here it is, he continues, as I see it.

"The iron mask was undoubtedly a brother and an elder brother of Louis XIV., whose mother had that taste for fine linen on which M. de Voltaire lays stress. It was in reading the Memoirs of that time, which report this anecdote about the queen, that, recalling this same taste in the iron mask, I doubted no longer that he was her son: a fact of which all the other circumstances had persuaded me already.

"It is known that Louis XIII. had not lived with the queen for a long time; that the birth of Louis XIV. was due only to a happy chance skilfully induced; a chance which absolutely obliged the king to sleep in the same bed with the queen. This is how I think the thing came to pass.

"The queen may have thought that it was her fault that no heir was born to Louis XIII. The birth of the iron mask will have undeceived her. The cardinal to whom she will have confided the fact will have known, for more than one reason, how to turn the secret to account; he will have thought of making use of this event for his own benefit and for the benefit of the state. Persuaded by this example that the queen could give the king children, the plan which produced the chance of one bed for the king and the queen was arranged in consequence. But the queen and the cardinal, equally impressed with the necessity of hiding from Louis XIII. the iron mask's existence, will have had him brought up in secret. This secret will have been a secret for Louis XIV. until Cardinal Mazarin's death.

"But this monarch learning then that he had a brother, and an elder brother whom his mother could not disacknowledge, who further bore maybe the marked features which betrayed his origin, reflecting that this child born during marriage could not, without great inconvenience and a horrible scandal, be declared illegitimate after Louis XIII.'s death, Louis XIV. will have judged that he could not use a wiser or juster means than the one he employed in order to assure his own tranquillity and the peace of the state; means which relieved him of committing a cruelty which policy would have represented as necessary to a monarch less conscientious and less magnanimous than Louis XIV.

"It seems to me, our author continues, that the more one knows of the history of those times, the more one must be struck by these assembled circumstances which are in favour of such a supposition."

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