The story of King Ludwig II of Bavaria

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The early ears
Ludwig II of Bavaria was born in Nymphenburg Castle outside Munich on August 25, 1845. He was the eldest son of King Maximilian II and Queen Marie. As a child, he was given a typical 19th century upbringing - an indifferent father and schooling which consisted of constant beatings. Obviously miserable as a child, his most enjoyable times were during the summer when the family spent their time in the newly restored Schloss Hohenschwangau. The Queen took Ludwig and his younger brother Otto on hikes in the nearby mountains, and it was here that Ludwig developed his love for nature. At the age of thirteen, he was told of the upcoming production of a Wagner opera, Lohengrin, which he acquired a copy of and studied, learning it by heart (possibly due to the hero being a swan-knight, a creature he enjoyed feeding in the nearby lakes). He would also acquire and read all his other works, and heard his first Wagner opera in 1861. In 1863, the young Prince Ludwig got a copy of the Ring Cycle, where in the preface, Wagner comments that in order for the opera (Ring) to be produced, a German Prince would be required to provide the funds.

My horse for a kingdom!
In 1864, King Maximilian II died at the age of 53. Ludwig ascended the throne at the age of 18, and it took him only days to track down the composer and bring him to Munich. Wagner, who had problems with his creditors, saw Ludwig as his rescuer, and one might say the two enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. They spent a lot of time together, both at Schloss Berg by Starnberger See and at Schloss Hohenschwangau. Fearful of Wagner's influence on the King and state matters, the ministers in Munich forced Wagner out of Bavaria, and into Switzerland. To the young king, this was a heavy blow.

Love and war
The years after were troublesome as well, as Bavaria was drawn into the war between Austria and Prussia (Preüssen), and unfortunately for the king, the side he had to choose (Austria) lost, and along with it part of Bavaria's independence.

After the war, Ludwig was noticed for spending a lot of time with the sister of the Austrian Empress, Sophie. She was a fellow Wagner enthusiast and the two seemed made for each other. Thanks to eager planning from Sophie's mother, the two were engaged and were to be married in 1867. It soon became evident that the prince was uncomfortable with the idea of marriage, and would leave court balls early, and the affair ended the same year, whereupon he moved back to the mountains and Hohenschwangau, and longed to be with his great Master (Wagner), as is apparent by a letter he sent to him:

"I write these lines sitting in my cosy gothic bow-window, by the light of my lonely lamp, while outside the blizzard rages. It is so peaceful here, this silence is stimulating, whereas in the clamour of the world I feel absolutely miserable. Thank God I am alone at last. My mother is far away, as is my former bride, who would have made me unspeakably unhappy. Before me stands a bust of the one, true Friend whom I shall love until death... If only I had the opportunity to die for you."

From this time on, Ludiwig started planning and building his castles. Still in his early twenties, the task of being king was too great for him, as his army had to engage in another war with France, sending the king into desperation and a world of make-believe, to withdraw from it all. In 1869, the construction of Schloss Neuschwanstein began. He withdrew himself from all state affairs, and spent time in Hohenschwangau, Berg and Linderhof when it was finished. He arranged for private theatre or opera performances, some of these in Munich. On a tour of Schloss Hohenschwangau, you will be shown the window from which Ludwig used his spyglass to follow the construction of Neuschwanstein.

Prussia was victorious in the war against France, and Ludwig finally agreed to unify Bavaria with Germany, even though it would shatter his dreams of sovereignity and see him merely as a figurehead in a constitutional monarchy.


The castles
Further planning of castle building made the Bavarian Cabinet more than raise their eyebrows. In 1885, several projects were planned, underway or finished.

These would undoubtedly be the greatest legacy he left behind. Originally meant for his sole enjoyment, the castles have become world famous tourist attractions. Of these, Neuschwanstein is the most famous, even though few know it by its real name (perhaps more people think that it resembles the Disney logo or Sleeping Beauty castle in Disneyland, when it is in fact the opposite way round).

Neuschwanstein is the ultimate fairy-tale castle, and was modelled after the castle in Wartburg in Thuringia (Thüringen), which was also the actual location where the Wagner opera Tannhäuser took place. Designed by Christian Jank, it was also to house several paintings depicting scenes from Wagner operas, mainly Lohengrin and Tannhäuser. Interestingly enough, in Ludwig's days, the castle was referred to as Vorderhohenschwangau or 'further/upper Hohenscnwangau', and was given its present name after the king's death. Building commenced in 1869 and ended in 1892, six years after the king's death, which is contrary to common belief that it ceased as soon as the king died. A lot of the interior and exterior was planned to be spectacular, including gold pating in some places. As the budget ran lower and lower together with the building of the other castles, cheaper solutions appeared, visible even on the tour of the 14 finished rooms. More paintings depicting Wagner opera scenes were added, and in the end, only The Flying Dutchman was left out. All paintings depict the original legends that had inspired Wagner, however.

Linderhof was Ludwig's second castle and also his favourite, as he stayed here regularly. It resembles more of a royal villa than an actual castle, considering its small size, and was also the only one to be completed in the King's lifetime, and was built between 1874 - 1878. It was to replace the former hunting lodge on the grounds, which was moved to another spot on the castle grounds. The interior is a Ludwig version of Rococo, perhaps more reminiscent of the heavy and ponderous Baroque style. Still, out of the three castles, this one most closely resembles a livable 'house'.

The park deserves mention as well, and is perhaps even more magnificent than the castle. Laid on rolling small hills, one of the definite highlights is the pond and fountain in front of the castle, which shoots a varying-intensity jet of water into the air at regular intervals. Likewise, the Venus grotto is a small marvel to visit and very atmospheric, depicting a scene from Tannhäuser. Here, Bavaria's first power station was built with the sole intention of lighting up the cave in various colours to suit the king's mood. The Moorish kiosk is designed to resemble an Arabian Nights fantasy, complete with a peacock throne. The Moroccan house was moved to Oberammergau in recent years, but has since been moved back (or copied?) to the castle grounds.

Herrenchiemsee is the most grandeur of the castles, and was built to resemble or rival Versailles itself. Only one of three wings was completed however, yet it sits marvellously on a small island (Herreninsel) in lake Chiemsee, somewhat further from the other two castles (southeast of Munich). Most of it was finished in 1885, taking only seven years to construct and letting Ludwig realise his fantasy of his own Versailles.

What seemed even more frightening to the Cabinet was the further plans for another castle similar to Neuschwanstein, to be built over the old ruin of Falkenberg. Furthermore, a Chinese Palace in Austria as well as an enormous Byzantine Palace were on the drawing board. The King paid for his castles from his own pocket however, not the State coffers, as some would believe. He received an annual income of 4.5 million Marks, but was 14 million Marks in debt by 1886. As Ludwig was finally denied further loans, he got desperate and sent servants out in several directions to try to raise money - from various heads of state throughout Europe.


How to depose a king
The Prime Minister and Cabinet decided to take action - also based upon the fact that they had heard of Ludwig's possible plans to replace the government. In order to secure their positions, they had to get rid of the king with the utmost speed and secrecy. Their only possibility of declaring that he was unfit to rule was to prove he was insane. They sought the help of Ludwig's uncle, Prince Luitpold, who at the age of 60 was not ambitious and would only agree to help if undeniable facts of his insanity were laid forward. Four eminent psychiatrists, led by Dr Bernhard von Gudden, were brought in to compile a report with the intention of declaring the king insane. Gossip and stories were brought in, bribes were made and bullying was done in order to get as much negative information as possible. Some servants who hated their master willingly participated.

In March 1886 the report was completed, and claimed in short the following:
- insanity ran in his family (his brother Otto had already been diagnosed as insane)
- he was shy to the point of mania (referring to Court balls, where he hid behind curtains)
- his behaviour was childish and bizarre (he did have strange picnics arranged in moonlight where children's games were played)
- he would refuse to see his Ministers
- he suffered from hallucinations and talked to imaginary guests at his dinners
- he suffered from strange and sick fantasies (he had imagined pulling his father out of his coffin and bashing his ears)
- he had a holy tree he bowed to whenever he passed it
- he often made strange dancing moves or pulled his beard when he got excited
- he would toward the end order his prisoners flogged or exiled (which never occurred)
- he would beat his servants (to which no physical evidence was given)
- servants were sent out on ridiculously expensive missions, such as venturing to the Blue Grotto of Capri in order to check that the Venus Grotto at Linderhof matched its lighting
- the King was obsessed with absolute monarchy
- the King's manners were atrocious, as had been revealed by careful inspection of his clothes after dining

The report then concluded, addressing the King himself in the following way:
"Your Majesty is in a very advanced stage of mental disorder, a form of insanity known to brain-specialists by the name 'Paranoia'. As this form of brain-trouble has a slow but progressive development of many years duration, Your Majesty must be regarded as incurable, a still further decline of the mental powers being the natural development of this disease. Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling, which incapacity will be not only for a year's duration, but for the length of Your Majesty's life."

The reference to one year was included as rules stated that the King could be deposed if he was unfit to rule for more than a year.

It is somewhat impressive to see that the top ranking psychiatrists at the time could conclude from all this that the King was insane, without ever having examined him. The document was dubious at best, nevertheless, it was shown to Prince Luitpold, who waited in doubt for 3 months before finally giving in to the pressure from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet.

Arrest, part I
On June 9th, 1886, a Government commission headed out to arrest the king at Schloss Neuschwanstein. On a stroke of 'luck', the king found this out, and ordered the local police and fire brigade to guard the guates of the castle. As the king found out the commission was headed by a trusted Minister, he was furious and had them arrested and locked up in the castle, yet they were released the day after, even though they thought they would be executed (which was also used against him).


Arrest, part II
On June 11th, a second commission left Munich with the intention to arrest the king. Peasants who had shown up at the castle to protect their beloved king were ordered home and a curfew was enforced by government forces. Posters were put up in the vicinity proclaiming Ludwig was no longer king. Ludwig, on the other hand, began to seriously nurtur plans of suicide. He wanted the key to the highest tower in the castle, but had earlier been told it could not be found (a lie, of course). On this day, however, it had been 'found', and he went up to his tower with the intention of throwing himself off it into the Pöllat gorge. However, this was a trap, as Gudden had prepared a police force waiting halfway up the tower and entered it with his force after the king (this tower is the one used by tours to reach the various floors of the castle). It was June 12th, and the arrest was a success. The king was told by Gudden that he had been found mentally ill and had been replaced by Prince Luitpold. The king asked how he could be declared insane when he had never been examined - to which the reply was that there was plenty of documentary evidence, therefore no reason for examination.


The curtains drawn
Ludwig was transported to Berg castle, which had been prepared well beforehand and turned partly into a mental asylum. The next day, after a large breakfast, Ludwig asked to be accompanied by dr Gudden on a walk around the castle grounds. Over lunch after they had returned, Gudden commented over how well Ludwig seemed to be, claiming his treatment was already working. It is strange that he could claim this when this would be the first time he actually had 'examined' the patient he had declared incurably insane not long ago. After an early dinner, Ludwig had asked for Gudden's company on another walk, and at around 18:10, they left the castle and passed from its view at 18:25, with no guards accompanying them - under Gudden's orders. Dinner had been ordered at 20:00.

When 8 o'clock as well as 9 o'clock came and went, and no sign of the pair was seen, a search party was ordered out. At around 10 in the evening, the king's jacket and overcoat were found floating in the water, and at around 22:30 the body of Ludwig was found lying face down in shallow water, 20 metres from the bank. Half an hour later, the body of dr Gudden was found nearby. King Ludwig's watch had stopped at 18:54. The Fairy-tale king was dead at the age of 40.

The news sent shockwaves across Europe and the World. He was buried on June 19th in the Royal Vault beneath St Michael's church in Munich. His heart, however, was removed and cremated and the remains lie in an urn in a small chapel in Altötting, also in Bavaria.
At Berg, a chapel has later been raised as a memoriam, and on the exact spot in the lake that he was found, a cross was placed.

The mystery
What actually happened at Starnberger See that night remains a mystery till this day. As there were no witnesses to these final events, only speculations and theories can be made. Some facts have been obscured, such as one claim saying no autopsy was made on the king, while another claimed one was made and resulted in no water being found in his lungs.


- Dr Gudden was discovered with a massive wound across his forehead
- Signs of a struggle were found beside the lake, as well as footprints leading down to it
- Gudden's umbrella was found near a seat next to the shore (the weather was unstable, much rain had fallen during the previous days)
- An autopsy was performed on dr Gudden, revealing water in his lungs, i.e. he drowned
- The local police confined the whole population to their homes after the bodies were found, and the king's loyal servants were placed under arrest, but released shortly thereafter (not confirmed though)


- Ludwig committed suicide: this is the official theory, and is explained thus: the two men were sitting on the seat near the water, and Ludwig rushed toward the lake to drown himself. As Gudden tried to stop him, they fought, and Ludwig knocked him out and drowned him as well as himself.

- Ludwig tried to escape: a boat could have waited on the other side to receive him, but Gudden tried to stop him, similarly to the above mentioned theory and met with the same fate. After Gudden's death, Ludwig could have had a stroke or heart attack - the water was freezing cold - and drowned. Or, a guard could have seen the struggle too late and shot and killed Ludwig thereafter, then ran away from the scene.

- Ludwig and dr Gudden were murdered: a Government plan to have Ludwig removed and killed, then covering it up as a suicide could have occurred, which could explain the sudden confinement of the nearby inhabitants.


Perhaps it is a good thing that this remains a mystery. It certainly adds to the atmosphere of the scenery, the castles and everything around it, and fortunes are made today on the mystery as well as the castles. A musical named "Ludwig - Longing for Paradise" is performed at the theatre Neuschwanstein, on the shores of Forggensee, near the castles.

Ludwig's construction projects cost more than a small fortune. A total calculation of the three castle's final build cost is around 31 million 1880-Marks, half of this amount from Herrenchiemsee alone. Based on assumption, if a normal year attracts 1.5 million visitors to Neuschwanstein (at € 9), and half a million to both Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee each (at € 7), assuming an income of two-thirds of the adult price (thus accounting for children & other reduced fares), the yearly income would be something like 13.5 million euros. Even when deducing a lot of administration costs, not to mention neverending maintenance of the palaces and gardens, the castles have already paid for themselves several times. Perhaps this is the greatest irony of it all...

Some of the information on this page may be based on tales handed down, or even speculations. There are no guarantees that everything quoted is accurate.

Source of information: Mark Yan's homepage


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