The Search For the Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Story by Paul Sonnino

“By 1872 there were at least nineteen different theories about the man in the iron mask, each one more preposterous than the other.”

I’ve long been interested in the story of the man in the iron mask. It seems a particularly cruel fate that this man died without his identity revealed, and, recently, while reading The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel, all my interest resurged. Wrangel mentioned, that as a young boy, he visited the Peter Paul fortress which served as a prison run by his great-uncle, the Commandant. One day, Wrangel sees an old man called only “the unknown” who’s been imprisoned for more than sixty years. So here we have two young men both locked up for the duration of their lives. Both unidentified.

the search for the man in the iron mask

If you dig into the story of the man in the iron mask, you immediately run into the notion that this man was masked in order to conceal his identity, and that theory, of course, leans towards the idea that the prisoner was recognizable (an idea Voltaire was quite excited about)–an identical twin of the king, for example. But if you stop and think about it, this was not the age of social media. There was no facebook, no television, cameras did not exist. Just how many people would recognize the king, let alone someone who resembled him?

And that brings me to The Search for the Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Story and it’s thrilling that the author, Paul Sonnino, a history professor at UC Santa Barbara tackled this fascinating historical mystery. First he lays out some of the popular theories regarding the possible identity of the man in the iron mask:

  • a son of Oliver Cromwell
  • the rabble-rousing” Duke de Beaufort
  • a bastard child of Anne of Austria produced from rape
  • the child conceived between Anne of Austria and a lover
  • a bastard son of Louis XIV

The quest begins with the very simple known facts: “On or about August 20, 1669,” The prisoner was taken to the “citadel of the fortified town of Pinerolo in northern Italy.” Already a prisoner there was “the notorious Nicolas Fouquet, one-time superintendent of finances under Louis XIV.” The author picks up the development of the legend of the man in the iron mask again in 1687:

By that time Fouquet was dead, and the author of a handwritten news letter began to spread another rumor. According to him, the governor, whom he referred to as Cinq Mars, had picked up a prisoner wearing an iron mask in Pinerole and transported him to the island of Sainte-Marguerite off the Mediterranean Coast. The author, moreover, intimated that this prisoner was Fouquet, who was, therefore, still alive. This was the beginning of the legend of the man in the iron mask.

Sonnino argues that amidst all the rumors, gossip, scandal sheets, anti-royalty sentiment, and creative elaboration “evidence of some sort of prisoner, moreover, eventually surfaced. When, in September of 1698, the governor, whose name happened to be Saint-Mars, assumed a new position as governor of the Bastille in Paris, he brought the prisoner with him, and this event was broadcast all over Europe by the Gazette d’Amsterdam. ”

Tracing the legend’s exponential growth, the author then tracks the creative embellishments added by Voltaire while the mask morphs from iron to silver to pewter and ultimately black velvet. But it’s finally thanks to Jesuit Henri Griffet, “former chaplain of the Bastille,” who had in his possession a journal belonging to Etienne de Junca, second-in-command at the Bastille from 1690-1706, that a breakthrough appears in the mystery. De Junca “noted the arrival of Saint-Mars accompanied by an old prisoner who was masked and who had been with Saint-Mars since his days in Pinerola. We read nothing more in this journal about this prisoner until November 19, 1703, when Junca noted that the prisoner, ‘who was always masked with a black velvet’ had died and was quickly buried under the name of ‘Marchioly.’ “

Sonnino’s aim, in discovering the identity of the man in the iron mask, is to separate fact from legend. This is an extremely personal, passionate quest, and the author explains how the germ of this novel was created when former student, Ron Martin, suggested a logical argument regarding the “secret of the iron mask.” Essentially this is a detective story with Sonnino taking us through the popular list of suspects and eliminating them one by one, and then the real quest begins. There are times when Sonnino thinks he has his man only to uncover evidence, or a timeline, to the contrary. It’s best if the reader comes to this book with a grounding in French history as there are many many names here as the quest continues

It takes a love of history–not fiction–to tackle this sort of monumental quest, so bravo to Sonnino for having the energy, curiosity and the desire to discover the truth. For this reader, the story of the man of the iron mask has always been paradoxical. The prisoner seems to have been ‘important,’ and yet apparently no one lobbied for his release, no influential family seemed to step forward. This indicated that the prisoner was, arguably, a ‘nobody,’ friendless or powerless, so why all the secrecy? Why all the security?  We will probably never know the identity of the prisoner beyond any doubt, but the author certainly provides a cogent, logical and satisfactory theory backed up with documentation that fits his discovery.

review copy.



Filed under Non Fiction, Sonnino Paul

2 responses to “The Search For the Man in the Iron Mask: A Historical Detective Story by Paul Sonnino

  1. This sounds like a fascinating story. I suspect I would need to brush up on my French history to get the most out of it, otherwise some of the details might pass me by. I had heard of the Louis XIV theory but not most of the others.

  2. “There was no facebook, no television, cameras did not exist. Just how many people would recognize the king, let alone someone who resembled him?” Easy: the king’s face was on the coins. I think that’s how Louis XVI got caught when he tried to flee to Varennes. Someone recongnised him from seeing his face on coins.

    I’ve always heard about the rumour that the iron mask was connected to Louis XIV.

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