16 Of History’s Best Kept Secrets

By Steve

As George Orwell poignantly noted in his legendary novel 1984: “If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.” History is littered with failed attempts at secrecy; from the attempted cover-up of Watergate to the Gunpowder Plot, but what about those that were successful? Not all secrets are designed to be kept forever, and some secrets were not intended to become so even in the first place. Whilst some secrets on this list remain shrouded in mystery, others were revealed in dramatic style after miraculously, and at great pains to those involved, accomplishing their deceptive purposes.

A gilded bas-relief at Auch Cathedral depicting the Ark of the Covenant. Wikimedia Commons.

Here are 16 of the best-kept secrets in history:

L’Homme au Masque de Fer (The Man in the Iron Mask), by Anonymous (c. 1789). Wikimedia Commons.

16. The identity of The Man in the Iron Mask, imprisoned for 34 years in France, remains a secret to this day

The Man in the Iron Mask was a prisoner of Louis XIV of France, arrested in either 1669 or 1670 and held until his eventual death in 1703. Imprisoned at various locations (including some time at the Bastille), the identity of The Man in the Iron Mask remains one of history’s most enduring and best kept secrets. Remaining in the custody of the same jailer for 34 years, Bénigne Dauvergne de Saint-Mars, great lengths were taken to ensure the identity of the anonymous prisoner – known contemporaneously as “Eustache Dauger” – remained a secret. Nobody was permitted to see the prisoner’s face, which was covered at all times by velvet cloth and a mask, whilst two musketeers allegedly stood guard at the prisoner’s side, ready “to kill him if he removed his mask”. His cell was specially designed with multiple doors, with one closing upon the other opening to ensure that nobody could overhear conversations within.

Finally, after his death on November 19, 1703, all of his belongings, furniture, and clothing were immediately destroyed. They repainted the walls of his cell and anything made of metal, including the mask, was melted down. Several theories exist regarding the identity of The Man in the Iron Mask. Voltaire contended that the prisoner was an illegitimate half-brother of King Louis XIV. Another theory dreamed up by Marcel Pagnol claimed the prisoner was the twin of Louis XIV, born second and thus hidden to prevent a challenge to the succession. And Hugh Williamson argued he was the true father of the consequently illegitimate Louis XIV. Other suggestions range from a disgraced general or the valet of an executed nobleman, to the illegitimate son of Charles II of England.