The Man in the Iron Mask by Dr Josephine Wilkinson

Thank you to Amberley for sending me a copy of Jo Wilkinson’s latest book, The Man in the Iron Mask.  

If you are interested in history and the back stories of who did what to whom, then The Man in the Iron Mask will have you enthralled.  Dr Wilkinson’s knowledge of the court of Louis XIV of France and the history of the individuals surrounding him is second to none. The way this biography is written has all the elements of a superbly written thriller.  The big difference is this book is about real people and real places.

Just who was the Man in the Iron Mask?  How did he come to be incarcerated in Pignerol and other places?  What had he done to incur the wrath of Louis XIV? Who were his gaolers and did he have any privileges?  These questions are all examined by Dr Wilkinson who has investigated the surviving original documents contained in the French archives .

The main character is the governor of Le Pignerol, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint Mars, whose career is to guard select prisoners in his care.  His instructions come from François-Michel le Tellier, Marquise de Louvois, the king’s powerful Minister for War.  

The first prisoner to come into the care of Saint Mars is Nicholas Fouquet, who had been Louis XIV’s finance minister.  A simple Lettre de Cachet ensured Fouquet’s imprisonment, even though as an aristocrat his imprisonment allowed him various luxuries to give him some comfort during his sentence.  Ever since the 13th century this simple document had been used by French kings to avoid any legal processes, often to silence political enemies, or to punish those of aristocratic birth who had become a threat or an annoyance.  Fouquet’s was signed by the king and a secretary of state, then sealed with the official Seal of France.  Other lettres de cachet may just have had the signature of a minister of state and the Seal, which equally  ensured the fate of an individual. There was no appeal; the individual just disappeared from the public eye view, with only his family knowing their whereabouts.  There was also no specific time limit to that document and any possibility of freedom lay in the gift of the king.

What had Nicholas Fouquet done to deserve to be imprisoned in the bleak prison of Le Pignerol? He is the one anomaly to those prisoners under Saint Mars care since he did not become imprisoned under one of these lettres, but underwent a four year judicial process. But why?  Had he upset someone at court?  Had he been dipping his fingers in the royal finances? For some time he was Saint Mars’s only political prisoner, but that changed when Eustache Dauger was sent east to Le Pignerol.  Dauger was not an aristocrat and a minor figure at court so just why he was subject to a letter de cachet is unknown, and the conditions he was held under are ones that can only be described as mental torture.  He is forbidden to have contact with anyone, especially the third prisoner to be gaoled  – the duc de Lauzun.  Unlike Lauzun and Fouquet, Dauger did not enjoy any comforts to ameliorate the awfulness of his surroundings. Dauger’s isolation comes to an end as he eventually becomes Fouquet’s valet, but is still not allowed to speak to or come into contact with the duc de Lauzun or anyone else, but at least his conditions are far better than before, and he does now have human contact.

Lauzun was an inveterate practical joker and elements of his antics are described, allowing the reader to come to have some sense of this man’s character and just why the king might have wanted to punish him.  Louvois’s wishes regarding Lauzun’s imprisonment are emphatic – no contact with Dauger.  Just why remains a mystery.  He is eventually allowed to return to court, but only under strict conditions. 

Dr Wilkinson’s descriptions of the various individuals is superb.  Saint Mars the self-important puffed-up gaoler who carries out his orders to the letter with a sadistic pleasure that is unnerving, but he does not appreciate that he is just as much a prisoner as those whom he guards. Fouquet (I’ve always had a soft spot for Nicholas Fouquet), a sophisticated man who appreciated the finer things in life such as art, architecture, beautiful gardens and knew how to throw a great party, but finds himself imprisoned for no apparent reason as far as he is aware; and the prankster Lauzun who seems to have irritated everyone with his antics prior to his imprisonment.  Then there are the various valets who, while not officially prisoners are by virtue of whom they are serving, and there are the other prisoners who end up going mad because of the isolation and conditions they are made to endure.  Eustache Dauger from all accounts appears to have remained sane, but little is known about him that he continues to intrigue us.

 By 1685 Louis’s campaign against the Huguenots meant that he no longer felt he was required to continue their protected status granted by his grandfather, Henry IV.  Louis was a dedicated Catholic and he rescinded the 1598 Edict of Nantes, requiring those at court who were Huguenots to convert Catholicism or leave the country.  Those who continued to practice their religion in secret ended up imprisoned, often in the Bastille or elsewhere.  One unfortunate was a Paul Cardel.  He was imprisoned in the third prison where Saint Mars became governor, and where his ‘guests’ from Le Pignerol were also held -the Île Sainte Marguerite.  Louvois’s instructions about Cardel’s imprisonment to Saint Mars are harsh in the extreme, plus Saint Mars is ordered to ensure no one knows that Cardel is imprisoned on the island.  Cardel came under the authority of the secretary of state for the royal house, the Marquis de Seignelay which suggests that Louvois was exceeding his authority by imprisoning this individual.  Soon Cardel is joined by other ‘heretics’ and it is clear the king is purging the land of Huguenot ministers.  

The use of the lettres de cachet allowed the king to change his mind, thus ensuring he would not have executed anyone on a whim.  In time Louis comes to consider these heretics as being misinformed, as opposed to being criminals and the lettres de cachet allow him to have a change of heart either regarding a person’s incarceration or to vary the conditions under which they are held.  Thus the king’s conscience can remain clear for when the time comes to meet his Maker and he has to account for his actions during his time on earth

The descriptions of the various prisons are supported by images from Dr Wilkinson’s collection.  Le Pignerol, forty miles to the southwest of Turin was the first, followed by a move to the cold and damp Château d’Exilles.  The description of how a prisoner is moved from the Château to a group of islands in the Mediterranean where Saint Mars takes up a new position as governor and where his wife dies in 1691, is chilling in its barbarity.  Then the final move to the Bastille in Paris and Saint Mars’ final governorship.

 Dr Wilkinson draws us into the various relevant intrigues of the French court bringing us closer to an understanding of what might have brought these men to be subjects of lettres de cachet and their incarceration ‘at the king’s pleasure’.  We come to realise that the glittering court was a nest of vipers where naked ambition and greed for promotion meant you had to be on your guard against being stabbed in the back all the time. You begin to wonder why anyone with any sense would want to be there.  The doings of royal mistresses, close associates, consequences of broken promises, who was taking advantage of being able to act beyond their paygrade and most intriguingly, the people involved, or accused of being involved in the Affair of the Poisons, provides a full and engaging description of the world of the Sun King and that of his closest advisors.  

But who was the man behind the mask?  Was it a man of noble birth?  Or perhaps someone who had been forgotten within the labyrinth of the French prison system?  Was he there because he had been engaged in passing information or messages between lovers, or had he personally upset Louvois, the powerful minister of war? Or was he just someone who had stumbled on a state secret?  I was hooked from the start and Dr Wilkinson’s analysis of all the surviving evidence as to the possible identity of this mystery man is very convincing.  

 I loved Dr Wilkinson’s biography of Louis XIV and found that having read that has made reading this book even more enjoyable as that biography has provided me with an understanding of the Sun King’s character and background.  Both books are published by Amberley in the UK and Pegasus in the US. This is a link to my review of Dr Wilkinson’s biography of Louix XIV.

            Dr Wilkinson has excelled herself with her latest investigation.  I wonder what she will produce next?

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