The subject of countless books and Hollywood films, many believe The Man In The Iron Mask to be a work of complete fiction rather than historical fact. What’s true is that 320 years after the death of the purported prisoner, this famous French tale is still shrouded in mystery, yet having recently visited one of the sites of his incarceration, there is indeed a real story about a masked man who was kept imprisoned under dubious circumstances, shifted from place to place and whose identity has never been fully revealed or discovered.
One of the sites of his much documented captivity was on the Iles de Lérins, near Cannes, and in the summer of 2023 I saw for myself the story of a spectacular island fortress and its most famous prisoner, a story of identity (or lack of) that has fascinated me since childhood, along with the similarly executed The Prince And The Pauper.
When you think of Cannes you will very likely summon up celebfolk images of the glitzy gem on the Côte d’Azur famous for its annual Film Festival, endless designer emporiums, and that Elton John video with him mincing along the Boulevard de la Croisette outside the Carlton Hotel here.
Alas, one of the many surprises that the micro city can also boast is that there’s a rather famous prisoner and a major part of French folklore that was held captive just off its eternally sunny shores.
The so-called Man In The Iron Mask was imprisoned for 11 years — a third of his total three-decade incarceration — in the Fort Royal on Île Sainte-Marguerite. With his cell and surroundings now open to visitors, in August I made the short half-mile trip by ferry from the Cannes port side to the largest of the Lérins islands to learn more of the famous legend and his unique royal prison.
Fort Royal was the coastal retreat where the state capture of the Sun King’s convicts was put in to practice. As you gradually approach the shores of Sainte Marguerite Island, the imposing medieval Fort Royal stands proudly perched above the water, on the side of the cliffs. For conquerors or curious alike, it is impressive and very very scenic, and you can immediately feel the weight of history on its broad stone shoulders.
Sainte Marguerite is a gorgeous getaway, mostly made up of pine tree forests, except for the fortress, which was built in 1624 and completed in 1627. Its neighbour, the island of Saint Honorat, is the more well-known of the group (the other two islands are too small to be habitable) due to a popular abbey was founded by monks. They produce wine, lavender and honey and you can still visit on retreat if you join the monks in their vow of silence. People love Sainte-Marguerite for its lack of pretence (particularly in relation to the bling of Cannes), undeveloped beaches and panoramic vistas across the Mediterranean. Add to that the history of the 17th century and the Man In The Iron Mask and you have an unspoilt traffic-free destination that’s easily worth the day trip.
Once you enter the fortress compound, the sound of the heavy wooden door opening gives the impression of having lived through the centuries. Most cells are largely the same in design — a fairly large room with a fireplace and stone toilet hole that would have been richly furnished with all the comforts available at that time. These were no ordinary prisoners.
Although overlooking the bay of Cannes, the three sets of heavy bars that criss-cross the windows remind us that we are in a high security prison, and by visiting one cell in particular, we can bear witness to a fragment of the life of the Man In The Iron Mask.
Stripped of his freedom, the Man In The Iron Mask was also deprived of his name and even his face. For that is the heart of his legend; a man never to be recognised or identified. His name was never spoken, and his identity already hidden by the locked iron mask, the mystery man arrived on the island in 1687 and was confined to a cell in the prison wing, built especially for him under the orders of King Louis Quatorze (XIV), the monarch who rebuilt France with an iron fist.
A captive yet under curiously privileged conditions, the prisoner has always been believed to be imprisoned at the king’s behest, and the special treatment afforded him led to rumours he was in fact Louis’ secret brother, possibly an identical twin banished by a paranoid monarch worried that he might try to gain power (indeed, this is the Three Musketeers version starring Leonardo Dicaprio based on the theories of everyone from Voltaire to Dumas) — yet it was tradition in French society back then for queens to give birth in public, and no record of twins was ever documented. As Toyah once warbled, it’s a mystery.
There have been theories that the prisoner was Louis’ son, who was banished for being homosexual. He could have been the bastard son of Louis’ mother or even a Pygmy who had made Louis’ queen pregnant. Whatever the truth, his legend, however distorted and Hollywood-ised, remains intact. Whether he was a close relative of the ruler, a deposed minister or an overly curious valet bulging with secrets, no one truly knows who was hiding behind the famous metal face.
Interestingly, the masked man was always accompanied by the same prison guard. Originally, they were seen at prison fortresses in the Alps and then, after a decade on the remote outpost of the Côte d’Azur, when the guard later became governor of the Bastille in Paris, the prisoner was also transferred. It was here in the hotbed of the French capital that reports state L’Homme au Masque de Fer died in 1703. He was buried in an unmarked grave, his clothes burnt and his cell meticulously scraped and whitewashed clean as if he had never existed.
Tous pour un, un pour tous.
PS Perhaps we could duo some lovely photos?