The twilight atmosphere of the candlelit evenings organized by Vaux-le-Vicomte castle leads to novelistic, legendary and adventurous ramblings, especially when accompanied by macaroons and glasses of champagne. So let’s talk about the legend of the Iron Mask, approached by French writer Alexandre Dumas in “The Vicomte de Bragelonne” which evokes the figure of Nicolas Fouquet, the first owner of Vaux-le-Vicomte. “The Vicomte de Bragelonne” is a long, very long French novel published between 1847 and 1850 as a series in the newspaper Le Siècle.

Last part of the most famous trilogy of Alexandre Dumas, it follows the “Three Musketeers” and “Twenty Years After” and closes the adventures of our dear musketeers, who are now evolving under the reign of King Louis XIV.

You have to be wary of Alexandre Dumas, always. His talent as a storyteller is such that it is easy to forget his little arrangements with historical veracity. Dumas knows his business and always has a keen sense of the era in which he immerses his characters. Starting from real people or proven historical facts, he has no second thoughts about distorting dates and events so that they serve the plot of his novels.

The historian is obliged to explain himself with Dumas, because he knows well that posterity has taken away Dumas’ image of Richelieu, Mazarin, Colbert, Fouquet, Louis XIV, the Iron Mask”.

Jean-Yves Tadier Professor at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, in the preface to the “Vicomte de Bragelonne”

Even if d’Artagnan did exist, even if the Queen’s ferrets were indeed offered to the Duke of Buckingham and even if Lucy Hay, whose avatar is Milady, did try to steal them for Richelieu’s account, these people and events bear little relation to their romantic counterparts, literally transfigured by Dumas in “The Three Musketeers”.

The same obviously goes for “The Vicomte de Bragelonne”, which evokes the dark legend of a very real but famously unknown prisoner who died in captivity – the Iron Mask. This legend made a lasting impression, so much so that the few filmmakers who took over Dumas’ novel only took out this illustriously unknown character, abandoning the other intrigues and characters, however rich, of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne”.

The fate of this illustrious stranger is disturbing: a long-time prisoner, traveling between the prisons of Pignerol, Exilles, Sainte-Marguerite and the Bastille, the famous prisoner permanently wore a mask which concealed his identity, until his death in prison in 1703. Enough to whip up the craziest imaginations, already under the reign of Louis XIV.

Some thought they guessed under the mask a Molière imprisoned because of “Tartuffe”, others, a young adulterine son of King Louis XIV, imprisoned for having slapped the Dauphin, others, Nabo the supposed lover of the wife of Louis XIV and even… d’Artagnan himself.

Voltaire amplified the legend in 1751, by asserting in his “Siècle de Louis XIV” that the Iron Mask had been imprisoned since 1661 – a pivotal year during which the one who was not yet the Sun King took the reins of the kingdom – and “that he wears a mask whose chin strap had steel springs” (while we only spoke before of a velvet mask) and “that orders had been given to kill him if he discovered himself” even if he was treated with the utmost respect. Voltaire formulates the hypothesis that the Iron Mask is none other than the twin brother of the Sun King. The text is to be handled with care, the Iron Mask becoming, under the pen of Voltaire, the symbol of the oppression exerted on the peoples by the absolute monarchs.

The mystery of the Iron Mask having never been solved with certainty, historians still debate on the subject.

One of the two most tenacious hypotheses remains that of Nicolas Fouquet. Superintendent of Finances of a young and still fragile Louis XIV, Nicolas Fouquet becomes, by intelligently manipulating the public accounts, one of the richest men of the kingdom of France.

Between 1653 and 1661, he builds Vaux-le-Vicomte castle, born of wasteland and fields that Fouquet methodically bought up in order to enlarge his domain. The most daring artists work there, long before Versailles: Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre, for the best known. The young and still fragile Louis XIV came there twice before a last invitation which would be the final straw and which would ratify a decision taken a few months earlier and largely guided by Colbert – namely the arrest of Fouquet. On August 17, 1661, the man who would become the Sun King is invited to Vaux-le-Vicomte with a pomp that frightened the young sovereign – water fountains, a buffet for a thousand covers orchestrated by Vatel, a play by Molière. Louis XIV considers that it is necessary to “replenish all these people”: he has Fouquet arrested by d’Artagnan (the real one, not that of Dumas) and steals the artists Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Nôtre on the way, whose talent would soon be exercised at Versailles. Nicolas Fouquet is sentenced after a long trial to banishment from the kingdom for embezzlement of public funds, but Louis XIV, finding the sentence too light, increases his sentence to life imprisonment in Pignerol, a Piedmontese fortress. Fouquet dies there in 1680 – long before the supposed death of the Iron Mask.

The second of the most tenacious hypotheses is that of a certain Eustache Dauger, or Danger or Dangers. The name is hardly illustrious, and for good reason: the said Eustache is a valet, arrested in 1669 on the written order of the Sun King, and placed incommunicado in the same prison as Nicolas Fouquet, Pignerol. Arrested in Calais, he would have surprised the secret negotiations that were taking place between the plenipotentiaries of Louis XIV and Charles II, aimed at converting England to Catholicism.

Destinies merge and this is where historians diverge: for some, it is Nicolas Fouquet who becomes the Iron Mask, for others it is our dear Eustache, and for others, Eustache learns in captivity secrets belonging to Fouquet and therefore becomes doubly dangerous.

Whatever is the true identity of the person buried under this mask, the person who becomes the Iron Mask is intimately linked to that of his jailer, Bénigne de Saint-Mars who will have devoted much of his life to the strict removal of his prisoner from the public light. They will have crossed Piedmont and France together for several decades – from Pignerol to Exilles to Sainte-Marguerite to the Bastille where the Iron Mask died in 1703.

“The Vicomte de Bragelonne” will resurrect the ghosts of yesteryear by summoning Louis XIV, Nicolas Fouquet and the Iron Mask.

The novel follows, at the dawn of the symbolic year 1661 during which Louis XIV asserts himself as the sole ruler, the adventures of our famous musketeers and of the one who gives its title to the novel, Viscount Raoul de Bragelonne.

Raoul, who is the adored son of Athos, nourishes a tender and reciprocal feeling –– for the sweet and beautiful Louise. Alas, the sweet and beautiful Louise is Louise de la Vallière and she will quickly fall under the spell of a lover who is certainly young and still fragile, but oh so magnetic – I named Louis XIV.

D’Artagnan leaves his service to save the English monarchy.

Amorous and political intrigues intertwine perfectly, as always, with Dumas who knows so well how to twist History so that it serves his novelistic purpose. This is obviously the case with the Iron Mask, which is certainly not a simple valet under the pen of Dumas.

Since we are deciding between History and novels, let’s also talk about Suzanne du Plessis-Bellière, born of Bruc de Montplaisir – who lends her features to one of the characters of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne”, Elise.

Suzanne du Plessis-Bellière, great friend of Nicolas Fouquet, has, according to some sources, served as a model for the heroine of another series of novels: “Angélique, Marquise of the Angels” by Anne Golon.

(To be more precise, it is only a single source, who is the descendant of the Montplaisir family, who wrote a biography of his ancestor and who probably saw it as a means of promoting his biographical work soberly titled “The Marquise of Pleasures: The True Story of the Marquise of the Angels”).

I dispute, I contest.

I guess that the Montplaisir descendant did not read a single line of Anne Golon’s novels. Angélique, the paper heroine who has little to do with her silly and eroticized cinematographic avatar from the 1960s, is certainly not Fouquet’s friend – he is an enemy – and has nothing common with Suzanne du Plessis-Bellière, apart from the fugitive name they share. Suzanne du Plessis-Bellière, before and after the eclipse due to her great friendship with Nicolas Fouquet, evolves and establishes herself as much as possible at the Court where Angélique, successively Countess of Peyrac then Marquise du Plessis-Bellière, rebels against royal power and quickly breaks away from it to experience material and emotional freedom far away from the sovereign control in Morocco, La Rochelle and Canada. Anyway.

So many ghosts, real or invented, in Vaux-le-Vicomte…

It seems that the enigma of the Iron Mask will remain insoluble for a long time. But what do you want, I’m drinking champagne and the twilight atmosphere of the candlelit evenings organized by Vaux-le-Vicomte castle leads to novelistic, legendary and adventurous wanderings…

October 20, 2023