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The Man in the Iron Mask

23 Jun

During the reign of King Louis XIV, an enigmatic man spent several decades confined to the Bastille and other French prisons. No one knew his identity or why he was in jail. Even stranger, no one knew what he looked like—the prisoner was never seen without a mask covering his face. The anonymous prisoner has since inspired countless stories and legends, yet most historians agree that he existed. The mysterious prisoner lived during the reign of Louis XIV. To his supporters, Louis was le Roi Soleil (“the Sun King”) in whose reign France expanded and strengthened her borders. To his detractors, he was a near tyrant, whose belief in absolutism—the idea that he ruled as God’s representative on Earth—had turned France into a police state. After his death, the unknown prisoner’s story began to take on a life of its own as gossips said that his punishment stemmed directly from the French throne. From the very outset, the “masked man” stories were more than just lurid tales: They played directly into anti-Louis propaganda. During the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) the Dutch, fighting to protect their republic from French expansion, exploited the rumor to undermine the legitimacy of Louis XIV. Agents of the Dutch spread claims that the masked prisoner was a former lover of the queen mother, and was the king’s real father—which would make Louis illegitimate. Historians have, however, discounted the theory popularised by famed philosopher Voltaire and writer Alexandre Dumas that the masked man was the twin brother of Louis XIV. So who was he?

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