The Lerin Islands are well known for the boat service from Cannes with pretty promenades on the Île Sainte-Marguerite and visits to Île Saint-Honorat for church services and spiritual retreats at the monastery.
A small number of visitors (and residents for that matter) are aware, however, of the history of the Royal Fort on Sainte-Marguerite, which became a political prison under Louis XIV and was more specifically the prison for the celebrated Man in the Iron Mask, imprisoned 1687-1698, and for six Protestant pastors.
In the 1680s the French severely persecuted the Protestants in France culminating in the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 by Louis X1V, which gave Protestant pastors two weeks to leave France and anyone else trying to emigrate was liable to the galleys or life imprisonment. Nevertheless, a quarter of a million Protestants, including businessmen and skilled artisans, fled France during this period to countries like Holland and South Africa; others went further abroad to North America.
My ancestor, Gabriel Mathurin, was one of the six pastors imprisoned on Sainte-Marguerite for religious crimes, he had returned secretly from Holland to Paris in order to carry out clandestine masses. He was denounced and sent to Sainte-Marguerite, where the priests lived a horrific existence of solitude. The group – Paul Cardel, Pierre Salve de Bruneton, Gabriel Mathurin, Matthieu de Malzac, Eliée Giraud and Gardien Givry – were allowed no physical activity nor any communication between them. Held in the strictest secrecy, they constantly tried to break this isolation: the singing of psalms heard, despite the thick walls of one dungeon to another, was a sign of prayer and affirmation of their faith but also a sign of recognition and mutual encouragement to resistance.
Most of the six priests died on the island. Thanks to Queen Anne of England my ancestor was released after a quarter of a century of detention, at the age of 75, and rejoined his wife in Ireland where he died three years later.
Visitors to the island can see the prison cells where the priests were held and the Huguenot memorial.
The Man in the Iron Mask has never been identified. He wore a black velvet mask, not an iron mask, and spent ten years on Sainte-Marguerite. Clearly Louis XIV had good reason for his identity to remain anonymous, and numerous researchers have tried to solve the enigma.
The period of Protestant Persecution in France is long forgotten but any visitor to the fort of Sainte-Marguerite will have his or her memory awakened as to the historic horrors conducted in the name of religion.
Guided tours of Fort Royal from June 15th to September 15th are included with the Musée de la Mer’s €6 admission charge.