13 January 2022


Josephine Wilkinson. The Man In The Iron Mask: The Truth About Europe's Most Famous Prisoner. Amberley, 2021.

Imagine finding yourself under arrest following the orders of a great king. and being transported to the other end of your country where your destiny was to languish in a rough and dank castle cell with little light and no company, subject to frequent bouts of illness and under the strict commandment that you were to communicate with no one save your jailers. How long would you be able to last?
Well the remarkable thing is that the so-called 'Man in the Iron Mask' endured this, apart from an interlude of a few years when his conditions improved, from the time of his arrest in 1669 when he was probably aged about twenty-six until the day of his death in the Bastille some thirty-four years later. Such punishments could be legally inflicted on French subjects (and indeed illegally on kidnapped foreigners) under the system known as lettres de cachet, whereby anyone could be imprisoned without trial at the whim of the king. It is no wonder that many prisoners went mad either temporarily or permanently, but the prisoner never complained and appeared to be at peace with himself having submitted, 'to the will of God and to the king'.

The real identity of this prisoner, as is well known, has been the subject of frequent conjecture, Voltaire most famously speculating that he was the twin brother of king Louis XIV. The account offered here adeptly disposes of these old fairy tales and the author convinces me that she has unravelled the mystery of the prisoner's identity and his role in society. As to the cause of his imprisonment, here we are to some extent in the realm of conjecture.

Readers of her book will no doubt judge for themselves whether her suggested probable cause for the man's detention, which of course relates to the time of the man's arrest, convinces. For myself I am mostly convinced, although questions still remain, such as why it was that Louis XIV was apparently still anxious to keep secret the reason for his subject's detention at all times, to the extent that even the king's own kith and kin years later but before Louis's death were never able to unravel the mystery in spite of their curiosity.

This is a splendidly researched and well-written book. I found myself intrigued and fascinated by the detail of the daily lives of the prisoners as they endured the mental anguish of their ordeal. For me it was a real page-turner and is a definite must-buy.
  • Robin Carlile

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