Another bad day at work or at school, not exactly nice news concerning your bank statement or pocket money, another bill to pay, another gray, sad day to face without anything exciting to look forward to…Have you ever wanted to be somebody of importance, a prince or a princess? Perhaps you have even imagined your life as such a person. Your servants would do what they can to keep you happy, arranging plenty of entertainment and nice meals every single day…you could pursue any interest you want to, visit a lot of interesting places regardless of cost…you would enjoy a nice company of kind, intelligent people who would be honoured by your patronage…you could marry whoever you fancy…right? Wrong. Let me confront your dream with reality. Its name is Ludwig II of Bavaria (Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm sometimes rendered as Louis II in English). He was a real prince and the heir to the Bavarian throne. His life was not a bed of roses, though, far from it.
Born in Nymphenburg Palace (today located in suburban Munich), he was the eldest son of Maximilian II of Bavaria and his wife Princess Marie of Prussia. The boy who would later be known by many nicknames, the Swan King, the Mad King of Bavaria, the Dream King, and Mad Ludwig among them, spent much of his youth in a castle named Hohenschwangau (it means “high region of the swan”). Maybe because of that even as a 12-year-old boy Ludwig had already developed a fascination with Wagner’s Lohengrin and its Swan Knight.
Did he had a happy, “princely” childhood? To put it in a nutshell, no. Like many young heirs in an age when kings governed most of European countries, Ludwig was continually reminded of his royal status, both extremely indulged and severely controlled by his tutors and subjected to a truly Spartan regimen of study and exercise. There are some who point to these stresses of growing up in a royal family as the causes for much of his odd behavior as an adult. Ludwig was not close with either of his parents. King Maximilian’s advisers had suggested that on his daily walks he might like, at times, to be accompanied by his future successor. The King replied, “But what am I to say to him? After all, my son takes no interest in what other people tell him.” Later, Ludwig would refer to his mother as “my predecessor’s consort” – it sounds sad but he really didn’t have any closer bond with her. He was far closer to his grandfather, the deposed and notorious King Ludwig I, who came from a family of eccentrics. Birds of a feather…
Now about nice company. As an adolescent, Ludwig befriended his aide de camp, Prince Paul, of Bavaria’s wealthy Thurn and Taxis family. The two young men rode together, read poetry aloud, and staged scenes from the Romantic operas of Richard Wagner. The friendship ended when Paul became engaged in 1866. During his youth Ludwig also initiated a lifelong friendship with his half-first cousin once removed, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria, later Empress of Austria also known as Sissi. They loved nature and poetry; Elisabeth called Ludwig “Eagle” and he called her “Dove.” As Elisabeth married very early, as a sixteen-year-old girl, they didn’t have much time together as well.
Crown Prince Ludwig had just turned 18 when his father died and he ascended the Bavarian throne. Although he was not fully prepared for high office, his youth and brooding good looks made him popular in Bavaria and elsewhere. You might think – a perfect opportunity for the young man to take the life in his own hands and show his mettle. Well, easier said than done.
Looking back in 1873, Ludwig described it thus:
“I became king much too early. I had not learned enough. I had made such a good beginning … with the learning of state laws. Suddenly I was snatched away from my books and set on the throne. Well, I am still trying to learn…”
Ludwig’s first year of reign did not go well, and the already shy young king soon withdrew even more, away from Munich and into his beloved mountains in the Bavarian Alps. He was notably eccentric in ways that made serving as Bavaria’s head of state problematic. He disliked large public functions and avoided formal social events whenever possible, and preferred a life of fantasy that he pursued with various creative projects. The king enjoyed traveling in the Bavarian countryside, pretending to be a medieval feudal lord and chatting with farmers he met along the way. He also delighted in rewarding those who were hospitable to him during his travels with lavish gifts.
In May of that same year Ludwig had his first meeting with his music idol Richard Wagner.
Wagner’s operas appealed to the king’s fantasy-filled imagination and filled an emotional void. On 4 May 1864, the 51-year-old Wagner was given an unprecedented 1¾ hour audience with Ludwig in the Royal Palace in Munich. Later the composer wrote of his first meeting with Ludwig:
“Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.”
He definitely had a point there. The king settled Wagner’s considerable debts, and proposed to stage Tristan, Die Meistersinger, the Ring, and other operas Wagner planned. It seemed the king finally found a kindred spirit but the composer’s extravagant and scandalous behaviour in the capital was so unsettling for the conservative people of Bavaria, that Ludwig was forced to ask Wagner to leave the city six months later, in December 1865. The king apparently also toyed with the idea of abdicating in order to follow his hero into exile, but Wagner quickly dissuaded him (it’s good to have a royal paying your debts after all). Wagner might be considered a brilliant composer but during his life he also gained the reputation as an exploiter, a womanizer and a crook, constantly on the run from creditors – definitely a controversial figure, not exactly the right company for any young man, let alone a young ruler.
The opportunity arose for poor Ludwig to act also as a knight and a warrior. Relations with Prussia took centre stage starting in 1866. During the Seven Weeks’ War, which began in July, Ludwig agreed (as did several other German principalities) to take the side of Austria against Prussia. When the two sides negotiated the war’s settlement, the terms required that Ludwig accept a mutual defense treaty with Prussia. This treaty placed Bavaria back on the firing line three years later, when the Franco-Prussian War broke out. Prussia and her allies prevailed in this conflict, and an emboldened Prussia now finished her campaign to unify all of the minor German kingdoms into one German Empire under the rule of King Wilhelm I of Prussia, who would now be declared Emperor, or Kaiser.At the request of Prussian Minister President Bismarck (and in exchange for certain financial concessions), Ludwig wrote a letter (the so-called Kaiserbrief) in December 1870 endorsing the creation of the German Empire. With the creation of the Empire, however, Bavaria lost its status as an independent kingdom and became just another dependent state. Ludwig attempted to protest by refusing to attend the ceremony where Wilhelm I was proclaimed the first Kaiser but it was too little too late. From then on, Bavaria’s foreign policy was dictated by Prussia and the king was only a “vassal” of his Prussian uncle. In fact Ludwig proved to be just another king-puppet (a.k.a. a constitutional monarch with some rights and duties but little actual freedom of action), not a great knight in shiny armour. Small wonder that after the creation of the greater Germany, Ludwig increasingly withdrew from politics, and devoted himself to one of his beloved hobbies – different creative projects, most famously his castles, where he was finally in control of everything, personally approving every detail of the architecture, decoration and furnishing. He built a fantasy world around him in which he could feel he was a real king.
What about the love life of our sweet prince? Unfortunately it was as far from fairy tale standards as possible as well. Ludwig got engaged to Duchess Sophie of Bavaria (in the photograph on the left), his cousin and the youngest sister of his dear friend Empress Elisabeth of Austria, mentioned above. The engagement was publicized on 22 January 1867, but people soon noticed the strange lack of affection between young couple. There were even rumours that Sophie fell in love with a photographer who took her photos as the future queen and didn’t care about her fiance. After repeatedly postponing the wedding date, Ludwig finally cancelled it in October. That night he wrote in his diary:
“Sophie is finished with. The gloomy picture vanishes. I longed for freedom, I thirsted for freedom, to wake from this horrible nightmare.”
Hmm…strange reaction but maybe not so much if you know that throughout his reign, Ludwig went through a succession of very close friendships with men, including his chief equerry and Master of the Horse, handsome and blond Richard Hornig (1843–1911), Hungarian theatre actor Josef Kainz, and a courtier AlfonsWeber. In a diary the king kept, not unlike a contemporary tormented teenager or a movie star, he recorded some private thoughts considering the attempts to suppress some sexual desires and remain true to his Roman Catholic faith. Ludwig’s original diaries from 1869 were lost during World War II, and all that remains today are copies of entries during the 1886 plot to depose him. These transcribed diary entries, along with private letters and other surviving personal documents, suggest that Ludwig was homosexual and struggled with his orientation throughout his life. Homosexuality had not been punishable in Bavaria since 1813 but still it was not perceived the right thing for a royalty or indeed any decent person. Small wonder poor Ludwig used his personal fortune to fund the construction of a series of elaborate castles. I suppose it was his way to compensate for the lack of happy, fulfilling relationship; some people drink, some people eat chocolate, some people build one castle after another…Finally one hobby and pleasure nobody would criticize a king for…or wouldn’t they?
Unfortunately building a big fat fairy-tale style castle can be disastrous for your finances, even if you descend from a family of means; Ludwig built several of them and these constructions weren’t supposed to be self-financing either. Figures for the total costs between 1869 and 1886 for the building and equipping of each castle were published in 1968: Schloß Neuschwanstein 6,180,047 marks; Schloß Linderhof 8,460,937 marks ; Schloß Herrenchiemsee (from 1873) 16,579,674 marks. Guide books of the time give 20 German marks = £1 sterling. Of course he gave employment and revived the economy in the region but you can have too much of a good thing – the king definitely was going over the top with the number of his projects. How many castles are needed in such a small country as Bavaria used to be? Mind you, building castles was not the only passion of Ludwig .
Between 1872 and 1885, the king had 209 private performances (Separatvorstellungen) given for himself alone or with a guest, in the two court theatres, comprising 44 operas (28 by Wagner, including eight of Parsifal), 11 ballets and 154 plays (the principal theme being Bourbon France) at a cost of 97,300 marks. The King complained to the theatre actor-manager Ernst Possart: “I can get no sense of illusion in the theatre so long as people keep staring at me, and follow my every expression through their opera-glasses. I want to look myself, not to be a spectacle for the masses.” We can understand such a feeling better nowadays as these performances can be compared with watching TV at home or going to the cinema but at that time it was considered a rather weird attitude. People went to an opera or a theatre not only because they wanted to listen and watch but mostly because they wanted to be seen and heard and they wanted to see and hear the others. Social events were truly social, it was one of their charms.
Although the king had paid for his pet projects out of his Privy Purse and not the state coffers, that did not necessarily spare Bavaria from financial fallout. By 1885, the king was 14 million marks in debt, had borrowed heavily from his family, and, rather than economizing, as his financial ministers advised him, he undertook new opulence and new designs without pause. He demanded that loans be sought from all of Europe’s royalty, and remained aloof from matters of state. Feeling harassed and irritated by his ministers, he considered dismissing the entire cabinet and replacing them with fresh faces. The cabinet decided to act first.
Seeking a cause to depose Ludwig by constitutional means, the rebelling ministers decided on the rationale that he was, like his younger brother, Otto, mentally ill, and unable to rule. They asked Ludwig’s uncle, Prince Luitpold, to step into the royal vacancy once Ludwig was deposed. Luitpold agreed, so long as the conspirators produced reliable proof that the king was in fact helplessly insane.
Between January and March 1886, the conspirators assembled the Ärztliches Gutachten or Medical Report, on Ludwig’s fitness to rule. Most of the details in the report were compiled by Count von Holnstein, who was disillusioned with Ludwig and actively sought his downfall. Holnstein used his high rank to extract a long list of complaints, accounts, and gossip about Ludwig from among the king’s servants.
Was Ludwig II of Bavaria insane? Could you believe the accounts of servants, simple people, some of them undoubtedly testifying under pressure, bribed or intimidated or both? These were the main points which made the case:
- · Ludwig was known to take moonlit rides in an elaborate sleigh with servants dressed in 18th century livery,
- · the king had bad table manners (sic!),
- · He rowed in a shell shaped boat around Linderhof Palace while listening to operatic performances,
- · He would sit in a mirrored room in Linderhof at night, and enjoy a dazzling display of candlelight and the optical illusion of a room without end,
- · He was holding night-time picnics while his male servants danced naked in the moonlight,
- · From 1875 on he lived at night and slept during the day,
- · He had a penchant for fantasy, and indulged this with too many elaborate building projects,
- · He was rumored to have frequently dined alone in Linderhof, insisting that his servants set a place for his imaginary guests,
There are many modern doctors who believe Ludwig II was suffering from Asperger Syndrome – an autism spectrum disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests. The king’s behavior greatly supports that belief. For people not knowing anything about that illness, though, the king might appear strange or even insane especially if it suited their purposes. In my opinion a major point in favor of King Ludwig II was that he used much of his own money for his eccentricities, including his castles, and not the coffers of Bavaria. He showed a greater understanding of his country’s financial needs and a greater responsibility than many contemporary politicians.
The king’s friends and allies urged him to flee, or to show himself in Munich and thus regain the support of the people. Ludwig hesitated, issuing a statement instead:
“The Prince Luitpold intends, against my will, to ascend to the Regency of my land, and my erstwhile ministry has, through false allegations regarding the state of my health, deceived my beloved people, and is preparing to commit acts of high treason. […] I call upon every loyal Bavarian to rally around my loyal supporters to thwart the planned treason against the King and the fatherland.”
The government succeeded in suppressing the statement by seizing most copies of the newspaper and handbills. As the king, unused to solving a domestic crisis or generally a crisis of any kind, dithered, his support waned. Peasants who rallied to his cause were dispersed, and the police who guarded his castle were replaced by a police detachment of 36 men who sealed off all entrances. Now he was trapped inside. In the early hours of 12 June, a second commission arrived. The King was seized just after midnight and at 4 a.m. taken to a waiting carriage. He had asked Dr. von Gudden, who led the assailants, “How can you declare me insane? After all, you have never seen or examined me before.” only to be told that “it was unnecessary; the documentary evidence (so the servants’ tittle-tattle, nothing more substantial) is very copious and completely substantiated. It is overwhelming.” Ludwig was transported to Castle Berg on the shores of Lake Starnberg, south of Munich.
On 13 June 1886, around 6:00 pm, Ludwig asked von Gudden to accompany him on a walk through the Schloß Berg parkland along the shore of Lake Starnberg. Gudden agreed; the walk may even have been his suggestion, and he told the nurses not to accompany them. His words were ambiguous (“Es darf kein Pfleger mitgehen”) and whether they were meant to follow at a discreet distance is not clear. The two men were last seen at about 6.30; they were due back at eight but never returned. After searches were made for more than three hours by the entire castle personnel in a gale with heavy rain, at 11:30 that night the bodies of both the King and Gudden were found, floating in the shallow water near the shore. The King’s watch had stopped at 6.54. As usual, gendarmes patrolling the park had heard and seen nothing.
Ludwig’s death was officially ruled a suicide by drowning, but this has been questioned ever since. Ludwig was known to be a strong swimmer in his youth, the water was less than waist-deep where his body was found; what’s more the official autopsy report indicated that no water was found in his lungs. Ludwig had expressed suicidal feelings during the crisis, but the suicide theory does not fully explain Gudden’s death.
Many hold that Ludwig was murdered by his enemies while attempting to escape from Berg. One account even suggests that the king was shot. However, there was no evidence of scars or wounds found on the body of the dead king. Another theory suggests that Ludwig died of natural causes (such as a heart attack or a stroke) brought on by the extreme cold (12°C) water of the lake during an escape attempt. Perhaps after hearing a shot he fell into water and died of shock. Still in such a scenario the death of Gudden would remain a mystery – was he killed as an unwanted witness? Did he drown trying to rescue the king? Was he drowned with the king by unknown criminals? Was it just a bad accident without any witnesses?
The King was succeeded by his brother Otto, but since Otto was genuinely incapacitated by mental illness, the king’s uncle Luitpold remained regent.
One of Ludwig’s most quoted sayings was “I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.” He certainly managed that much – what really happened to Ludwig II and Dr. von Gudden that night will probably be a mystery forever.
Ludwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria, by Desmond Chapman-Houston, Dorset Press New York, 1990.