Front Matter Gauls Defeat Romans Vercingetorix Saints of France Attila, Scourge of God Story of Clovis Sons of Clovis Mayors of the Palace Charles the Hammer Pepin the Short Charlemagne in Lombardy Defeat at Roncesvalles Emperor of the West Louis the Pious War of Three Brothers Louis the Stammerer Paris defies the Sea Kings Rollo the Viking Hugh Capet Becomes King Bishop Betrays the Duke Robert the Pious The Peace of God Harold Visits Duke William William Sails to England The Battle of Hastings Peter the Hermit First War of the Cross Louis the Fat and Laon King Fights his Vassal Second War of the Cross French Queen of England How Normandy Was Lost Albigenses War Battle of Bouvines Story of Hugh de La Marche Reign of St. Louis St. Louis's last Crusade Peter the Barber Knights vs. Weavers Pope vs. Philip the Fair Sons of Philip the Fair Philip VI vs. Flanders Battle and Plague King vs. Charles the Bad The Jacquerie Stephen Marcel Betrays Paris Charles V and du Guesclin Du Guesclin Fights for France The Madness of Charles VI The Battle of Agincourt The Maid of Orleans End of Hundred Years' War King vs. Charles the Bold Troubles of Duchess Mary Charles the Affable Knight Without Reproach Battle of the Spurs Francis I, Gentleman King King Taken Prisoner Duke of Guise Defends Metz Calais Returns to France The Riot of Amboise Huguenot and Catholic St. Bartholomew Massacre War of the Three Henries The Protestant King Edict of Nantes Reign of Favorites Taking of La Rochelle Power of the Cardinal-King Reign of Louis XIV The Man in the Iron Mask The Height of Power Edict of Nantes Revoked War of Spanish Succession

History of France - H. E. Marshall

The Man in the Iron Mask
Louis XIV (Sun King) [1643-1715]

Louis was now twenty-two, and for some years had been of an age to rule. But he had not really ruled, for all the power had been in Mazarin's hands. Yet although Louis had submitted to Mazarin he had submitted unwillingly. He had an over-powering sense of his own importance. He believed that he had been chosen by heaven to rule over France, and that to heaven alone he must answer for his deeds. "The state is myself," he used to say.

But the nobles and the people had up to this time no knowledge of the lofty ideas their King held about his office. So every one about the court asked himself who should succeed Mazarin, who should be prime minister.

They were greatly astounded when Louis announced to them that henceforth he meant to have no prime minister.

As soon as Mazarin was dead Louis called his counsellors together. "I have gathered you together," he said, "to tell you that up to the present it has been my desire that the Cardinal should manage my affairs. In future I shall be my own prime minister. You will aid me with your advice when I ask for it. I beg you therefore to seal nothing but by my orders, to sign nothing without my commands.

"The State is myself!"

"I will settle this matter with your Majesty's ministers," said an ambassador, one day.

"I have no ministers, Mr. Ambassador," replied Louis; "you mean, I suppose, my men of business."

Although Louis had no prime minister he was surrounded by great men. For the age of Louis XIV, as it is called, was the age of great men. There were great soldiers, statesmen, writers, thinkers, painters, and sculptors. Never was there a more brilliant court.

It would be impossible in this book to tell of even all the great soldiers and statesmen. But there is one statesman, Colbert, whose name must always be linked with that of Louis XIV. He was minister of finance—that is, he looked after the money matters of the kingdom, and, like Sully, he was so clever that he was able to lessen the taxes for the poor people and yet manage to find more money for the King.

Colbert took an interest in everything, in agriculture, in commerce, and in manufactures, which since the days of Sully and Henry IV had been much neglected. He took an interest too in the navy, and in the Colonies, in the making of roads and bridges, in the framing of new laws, in art and letters. There was no end to his energy, and he worked as never man worked. He worked at least sixteen hours a day, and wore himself out in the service of his King.

France grew greater in peace than she had ever done in war. "Everything in the state flourished," says a writer of the time; "everywhere there were riches. Colbert raised everything, finance, trade, manufactures, and even letters to the highest rank."

Colbert really loved Louis, but Louis simply made use of Colbert. And few people loved Colbert, for in his own way he was as much a tyrant as his master. He expected to be obeyed at once and without question. He was so cold and hard that he was called the man of marble, and one clever lady called him the North because of his chilling manners. He went his own way without listening to any one, and it was useless to try to turn him from it. One day a lady came to ask a favor. She fell on her knees before him, begging him to listen to her. Colbert rose, and fell on his knees in front of her. "I implore you to leave me in peace," he said, and she was obliged to go away unsatisfied.

Before Colbert came to power a man named Nicholas Fouquet looked after the money matters. He was clever, but he stole and wasted the people's money, and Fouquet made himself rich while the country was poor. So Louis caused him to be seized, and after a trial he was sent to prison.

He was sent to the dark and gloomy prison of Pignerol among the Alps. Here he remained until he died. And perhaps before Fouquet died there came to this gloomy fortress the mysterious prisoner who is known as the Man with the Iron Mask.

Who was this man in the mask? Perhaps we shall never know. But for some reason Louis had given orders that no one should see him, no one should even hear his name, no one should know what he had done, or why he was imprisoned. He was to be lodged in a cell, the windows of which could not be seen by any one. He was to be cut off from all sound by several doors. The Governor himself was to carry to him, once a day only, food enough to last him all day. But even he was commanded to listen to nothing the prisoner might say except about the most necessary things. If the prisoner insisted on talking the Governor was told to threaten him with death. Such were the harsh rules laid down for the treatment of this mysterious prisoner.

For many years the Man in the Mask lived in the prison of Pignerol. He was then moved from one prison to another and at last brought to the Bastille in Paris. When he travelled the greatest care was taken that no one should see him. He travelled in a sort of sedan chair made of oiled cloth. No one could see him, it is true, but neither could the poor man get any air, and so he travelled in great discomfort.

When they stopped at an inn for a meal the Governor sat opposite his masked prisoner with a pair of pistols beside his plate. And through all the long journey from the south of France to the Bastille the peasants followed the unknown one with wonder and awe. Who was he? What dreadful sin had he committed that he should thus be cut off from all his fellow creatures?

When this mysterious prisoner reached the Bastille his very name seemed to be lost. He was known to the jailers there only as "the prisoner from Provence."

For five more years his dreary, lonely life dragged out, then one day very suddenly he became ill. The next he died. In the dark of a November afternoon his body was carried out, and by the dim light of a lantern was hurriedly buried by two jailers in a graveyard near. To the end the unknown prisoner was masked with a black velvet mask. And it was not until after his death, almost as dark and mysterious as his life, that people began to make tales about him.

It was told then how he wore an iron mask with steel springs at the mouth so that he could eat. But the mask was really of back velvet.

It was said, although no one had ever seen his face, that when first imprisoned he was young and beautiful, that he always wore fine clothes and loved fine linen and beautiful lace, and that he used to amuse himself by playing on a guitar.

Even the Governor of the prison, it was said, treated him as a great person and never sat down in his presence. His table, too, was served with silver and fine linen.

One day, so the story goes, the Man in the Mask wrote something with a knife on a silver plate and threw it out of his window, toward a boat on the water just below the tower where he was shut up. For at this time he was imprisoned on an island in the Mediterranean. A fisherman picked up the plate and brought it to the Governor, who was greatly alarmed when he saw it.

"Have you read what is written on this plate," he asked. "Has any one else seen it?"

"I cannot read," said the fisherman. "And I have only just found it, so no one else has seen it."

The Governor was greatly relieved when he heard that. But he kept the fisherman prisoner until he made sure that he really could not read.

"Go," he then said; "it is well for you that you cannot read."

What was written on the silver plate? Why was the Governor so frightened?

We shall never know. Perhaps it is all a fairy tale and there was no plate and no writing.

But soon among other things people began to whisper abroad strange stories of who the Man in the Mask was. Some said that he was a brother of King Louis, an elder brother who ought to have been upon the throne, an elder brother so like himself that Louis dared not let his face be seen lest all the world should know his baseness. Others said that he was a son of Louis or that he was merely Fouquet.

They made many strange guesses. But no one was satisfied with them. So for more than two hundred years people have gone on asking questions about the Man in the Mask. They are still unanswered, although lately some people think they have proved that he was only an Italian who played traitor to Louis. Perhaps he was and perhaps not.

Others are just as sure that they have proved him to be a son of our King Charles II. Perhaps he was, perhaps not.

But although we cannot be sure who this Man in the Mask really was it gives us some idea of the terrible and absolute power of the King, when we remember that he was able to put a man in prison, and keep him there year after year without bringing him to trial. This he did too without any one daring to call his right in question. It was the King's will. That was enough.