Visit the Ile-de-Lérins, Where the Man in the Iron Mask was Imprisoned

Aerial view of Ile Sainte-Marguerite, Côte dAzur, France
Aerial view of Ile Sainte-Marguerite, Côte d'Azur, France |  © REX / Shutterstock | © REX / Shutterstock
Alex Ledsom

The Man in the Iron Mask isn’t just a Hollywood film. It’s a real story about a man who was kept imprisoned, moved from place to place and whose identity has never been fully revealed or discovered. One of his prisons was on the Iles de Lérins, just off the coast of Cannes, a spectacular place that you can visit.

No one actually knows who the Man in the Iron Mask was

During the reign of King Louis XIV, in the 1680s, a legend grew about a man who was being kept prisoner, whose name was never spoken and who always wore an iron mask. He was always accompanied by the same prison guard. Originally, they were seen at prison fortresses in the Alps and then, they were transferred to the small island of Sainte-Marguerite off the coast of Cannes. When the guard later became governor of the Bastille in Paris, the prisoner went along too. It was here in Paris that reports state he died in 1703. He was buried, his clothes were burnt and his cell was scraped and whitewashed clean.

Fort Royal, a former prison which once held the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask, Sainte-Marguerite Island

Theories suggest he was a twin brother of the king or a valet

Fort Royal, a former prison which once held the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask, Sainte-Marguerite Island

The legend was made famous by books and films

Voltaire – one of France’s most famous thinkers – was locked up in the Bastille in Paris in 1717 and heard the story from many of the inmates. They described how this prisoner was incredibly refined with the best manners, ate on his own and was only ever visited by the prison guard. Voltaire’s description was used as a base by the reputed French author, Alexandre Dumas who wrote about another infamous imprisonment at Château d’If off the coast of Marseille in The Count of Monte Cristo. The Man in the Iron Mask became a key character in The Vicomte of Bragelonne, the last in a series of novels beginning with The Three Musketeers.

Leonardo Dicaprio in The Man in the Iron Mask, 1998

The fortress is on the island of Sainte-Marguerite

Just a 15-minute boat ride from the centre of Cannes in southern France sits a group of four small islands (the Iles de Lérins). The island of Sainte-Marguerite is the largest and mostly made up of pine tree forests, except for the old 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) because an abbey was founded here 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 pretention (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 unforgettable destination that’s worth the day trip.

Aerial view of Ile Sainte-Marguerite, Côte d’Azur, France

Death of the Iron Mask prisoner

In 1698, the “Iron Mask” was transferred from the Isles Sainte-Marguerite, an island fortress in the Mediterranean Sea, to the Bastille in Paris, where he remained until his death in 1703. Throughout his captivity, the man’s identity was kept a closely guarded secret, and no official records were kept regarding his confinement.

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