'Mad' King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Uncovering His Life, His Secrets, and His Magnificent Castles

'Mad' King Ludwig II of Bavaria is an alluring and enigmatic figure - a fascinating character who was responsible for building some of the most impressive castles in Europe.

The reason that the 'Fairytale King' is so interesting is as he's surrounded in real mystery. There are so many unanswered questions about the life of King Ludwig.

  • Was he murdered, or did he commit suicide?
  • Why was he obsessed with Medieval fantasy and fairytales?
  • What was his relationship with Wagner?
  • What inspired his phenomenal array of fairytale castles (including Neuschwanstein)?
  • Finally (and perhaps most importantly!) was 'Mad' King Ludwig actually insane - or was he merely eccentric, and branded 'mad' by those who wished to bring him down?

Neuschwanstein Castle Neuschwanstein Castle, perched precariously on its cliff top home. Credit: Jack V, CC-BY-2.0.

Although we'll probably never have definite answers to any of these questions, it's really worth delving into the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria to try and unpick his interesting (and unusual!) existence...

Ludwig As A Little Prince, Growing Up In His Own Little Castle

King Ludwig 'Mad' King Ludwig of Bavaria

Ludwig was born back in 1845. Ironically enough, his birth was clouded in mystery - although he was technically born on August 24th, his birth certificate was made out for August 25th - the same day on which his Grandfather had been born.

Sadly enough, Ludwig and brother Otto were brought up by King Maximilian of Bavaria, and Princess Marie of Prussia - two individuals who didn't particularly care for each other, or for their children. Ludwig grew up detached and a loner, left to live in his own imagination.

As a little prince, Ludwig spent much of his life staying at Hohenschwangau Castle - a modern, mock-castle, built by his father King Maximilian. It meant that, quite literally, he was a real little prince growing up in a real little castle.

When this was mixed in with his excitable imagination, it formed his obsession with Medieval chivalry, Medieval legend and fairytale castles. And this obsession was to last all his life.

Forced Onto the Throne At a Tender Age

The Monogram of King Ludwig II Ludwig II's Monogram

Suddenly, when King Ludwig was just 18, he was forced onto the throne. His father died quickly, and most unexpectedly, of sepsis; and the young Ludwig was thrust into becoming King Ludwig II of Bavaria with very little preparation or forewarning.

Ludwig became king in 1865, and experienced a terrible defeat two years later, aged just 20.

Prussia was expanding rapidly and, during the 'German War', the super-state conquered both Austria and Bavaria. This was a disaster - it meant that Bavaria was reduced from independence to an annexe of Prussia.

Despite such a phenomenal failure, Bavarian people generally remained sympathetic to Mad King Ludwig (indeed, the such sympathy continues to this day!).

He was seen as a handsome and generous young man, who was very visible to his subjects. Indeed, there are numerous tales of him riding around his lands, and gifting vast sums of money to lucky peasants who had happened to treat him with kindness.

This failure of losing Bavaria to Prussia haunted Ludwig II for the rest of his life. It caused him to retreat into himself. He began to yearn to be a Medieval ruler - an omnipotent and powerful king whose rule couldn't be challenged - imagining that he was much more than being a fallible constitutional monarch.

Ludwig II of Bavaria's Obsession With the Work of Wagner

King Ludwig Portrait Portrait of a young King Ludwig

Ludwig II of Bavaria was obsessed with the work of Wagner. From his adolescence, he was enthralled by Wagner's opera, and the rich German mythology which the music was based upon. Indeed, one of Ludwig's first actions when he became king was to summon Wagner to his court.

Wagner and Ludwig had, in many respects, a synergistic relationship. Ludwig organised huge musical festivals, and built concert halls in Munich, all designed to honour Wagner's work.

Without Ludwig, Wagner would never have achieved the fame that he's known for today. But the partnership worked for Ludwig, too - Wagner acted as his muse, inspiring Ludwig creatively, and acting as inspiration for his castles and theatrical projects.

Like many of Ludwig's other passions, his interest in Wagner was to become a dangerous obsession. Ludwig began to lose himself in the fantasy worlds depicted in Wangerian myth - he started dressing as some of the operatic characters, and began to sleep in the day and only venture out at night.

Mad King Ludwig's Obsession With Phenomenal Castles

Hohenschwangau Castle Hohenschwangau Castle.
Credit: Crash Vorich.

Having grown up in Hohenschwangau Castle, a castle built in the 1800s by his own father, it could be no surprise that Ludwig II of Bavaria would also become obsessed with building extravagant new palaces.

Part of his motivation seemed to stem from his desire to live in a fantasy world. But it also seems that we wished the castles to serve as elaborate stages for performances of Wagner, and as fortresses of retreat, where he could hide from the demands of the world outside.

Linderhof Castle Linderhof Castle.
Credit: Yilmaz Ovunc.

His private palace of Linderhof was designed as a refuge for a reclusive king to hide away from the hubbub of his kingdom, deep within the Bavarian countryside. This tiny palace was designed for one person alone - it has only ten rooms, and four of these were for servants.

Much of Linderhof is designed for a man who enjoyed his own company - the dining table only has enough space for one person to eat!

Linderhof also has the distinction of having its own grotto - a little space filled with rocks, water-fountains and stalactites, delicately lit and designed as a space to host performances of Wagner.

Herrenchiemsee Castle Herrenchiemsee Castle.
Credit: Allie Caulfield.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria also attempted to re-create the grandeur of the Palace of Versailles within his backyard. The palace of Herrenchiemsee was built upon an island floating in Germany's largest inland lake - a perfect little spot to assure the eccentric King's privacy.

The entire spot was designed to emulate the sharp-lined majesty of Versailles, and elaborate French paintings were hung in its finished, furnished rooms.

Of course, the most famous of Ludwig's castles - and, indeed, probably the most famous and emblematic castle in the world - was the magnificent Neuschwanstein Castle. Designed as the ultimate cliff-top refuge - and a huge theatre for Wagner - this masterpiece was again unfinished at the time of Ludwig's death.

Neuschwanstein Castle As Fantasy Castles go, the sheer size and scale of Neuschwanstein is breathtaking. Credit: Jeff Wilcox, CC BY 2.0.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria's Fall From Power and the Diagnosis of 'Madness'

Unfortunately, Mad King Ludwig's interest in building spectacular castles quickly developed into an unhealthy preoccupation. Ludwig neglected his royal duties, instead becoming increasingly withdrawn and focusing all his energies on building progressively more impressive - and outlandish - designs.

It's misconception that Ludwig's castle-building exploits bankrupted the state of Bavaria. Most of the vast debts that Ludwig racked-up were in his own name, and, by 1885, he'd accrued a phenomenal debt of some 14m marks - held against his own name and his family's.

Ludwig's obsession with castles was pathological - and damaging to the state of Bavaria. He was wasting huge amounts of time - and money - dispatching his advisors to the four corners to the globe to uncover architectural details for his next masterpiece.

He had become indifferent to state-business, and instead obsessed over his personal projects. He begged foreign governments for loans to further fund his endeavours, and was unable to rein in his excessive spending.

King Ludwig Brooch Brooch of King Ludwig

As a result of all these problems, his government advisors began plotting. Ludwig II couldn't be removed from his throne by constitutional means - but he could be forcibly withdrawn if it was decided that he was too ill to rule.

The man was undoubtedly eccentric - but government advisors saw the best way to depose King Ludwig was for him to be diagnosed as clinically insane, and therefore incompetent.

As a result - although he had no prior diagnosis of 'madness' - he was suddenly declared to be mentally insane by four separate, government-sanctioned psychiatrists, in 1886.

Ludwig was immediately forced to resign from the throne - under duress - and was forced out of his lodgings within Neuschwanstein Castle, which was being constructed at that time.

The Death of King Ludwig: Was it Murder?

Ludwig's Crypt King Ludwig's crypt

Historians don't know for sure how 'Mad' King Ludwig died. We do know that he died in 1886, and his body was found floating in Lake Starnberg - alongside the body of his psychiatrist, Dr Gudden. His death occurred just days after he was decreed to be 'mad', and was deposed from the throne.

One of the official theories was that Ludwig had killed his psychiatrist (there were marks of struggle on Gudden's body), and Ludwig had then either committed suicide, or drowned accidentally within the lake after the struggle.

A lot of things don't entirely add up from this version of events. King Ludwig had never before displayed any violent tendencies; and, although he had mentioned suicide to his psychiatrist, it didn't appear that he was particularly inclined to take his own life (and, even if he had, it's not clear how he would have actually killed himself).

It's also unlikely he would have drowned, as he had been a strong swimmer from an early age.

King Ludwig Murder Supposed image
of Ludwig's corpse

One persistent theory is that Ludwig was murdered. There're two modern pieces of 'evidence' which may point to this conclusion: Siegfried Wichmann, a modern art-historian, has discovered what he claims to be an authentic image of Ludwig's body, painted just after his death, which shows blood dripping from the side of his mouth.

This is pictured, to the right. If this were a true picture of King Ludwig's corpse, it would suggest that he died of violence or trauma: not of drowning.

The other piece of evidence is a anecdotal. 50 years ago, Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz, a distant relative of the Royal family, pulled out a sensational find at a tea-party: a grey-jacket with a bullet-hole, which she claimed to be King Ludwig II's - and therefore proof of his murder.

The tea-party was absolutely stunned, but this crucial piece of evidence was lost in a house-fire a few years later.

What was the real story behind Ludwig II's death? The truth is, we'll probably never know entirely. Unless his corpse is exhumed - which his relatives have always resisted - we'll never have an accurate post-mortem to answer these key questions about King Ludwig's life.

Are you reading about King Ludwig because you're going to visit Neuschwanstein Castle?

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