The Man in the Iron Mask: The True Story of Europe’s Most Famous Prisoner

Written by Josephine Wilkinson
Review by G. J. Berger

In 1669, French soldiers arrested Eustache d’Auger. He was jailed without formal charges or trial, not uncommon for those who displeased the all-powerful King Louis XIV. Thirty-four years and four different prisons later, Eustache died suddenly in Paris’s Bastille.

Letters to and from those who dealt with him commanded that Eustache’s identity and the deeds that brought him down must forever remain secret. Anyone who saw his face or talked to him about more than his ordinary needs would be slain on the spot. When others might see him, he supposedly wore an iron mask hinged at the jaw line to allow eating, or a velvet cloth covered his entire head, or he tied on a simple face mask. Over the centuries this prisoner captured the imagination of many, ranging from Voltaire and Alexandre Dumas to Paramount Pictures in 1998. Well regarded historians explained that only the King’s twin and fear of shared power could justify such brutal secrecy.

Using a rich store of letters, notes, drawings, and other writings through the ages, Wilkinson’s narrative history takes a deep look into Eustache’s prison journey and those who encountered him. Back sections of her work analyze the conjectures about who he was, why he was captured, and the reasons for the secrecy. She concludes with her own firm answers. Photographs of documents and portraits, many footnotes and a bibliography enhance the reader’s journey. Despite often dry analysis of detailed facts and theories presented by others, many parts of Wilkinson’s telling read like a tragic and complex tale impelled by human egos and greed. This account adds to Wilkinson’s impressive writings about Louis XIV and other larger-than-life characters of that age.