King Ludwig II is famous for creating enchanted Bavaria, the land of beautiful Palaces and imposing Castles – the Fairytale King. He is also the only European Monarch to be deposed having been judged insane by a panel of psychiatrists.
He was born on 25 August 1846, in the Nymphenburg Palace near Munich the eldest son of the future King Maximilian II and as such the soon to be Crown Prince.
His education as the future Monarch was conventional and relentless, he was forced to study ten hours a day, trained in the rigours of royal protocol, and put on a strict diet and regime of physical fitness. Little time was available to play as a child might and estranged from his parents who took no interest in his upbringing beyond dynastic necessity he was placed in the hands of a series of nannies and often brutal and uncaring tutors.
His only escape from the martinets who controlled his life were the summers he spent at the beautiful Medieval Castle of Hohenschwagen and it was evident from an early age that Ludwig with his glazed expression was an unusual child who spent too much time with his imaginary friends, or wandering alone talking to, himself.
Even his absent parents were concerned by reports of his remoteness and mental lassitude it was not healthy for an heir to the throne to spend so much time in flights of fancy. Yet they remained uninterested in spending more time with their child instead demanding that his tutors merely beat him out of it. When they suggested to his father that it would be good for his son to join him on his daily walk, he replied:
“But what am I to say to him? After all, my son pays no attention to what others tell him.”
Indeed, so distant would Ludwig become from his parents that he would later refer to his mother as – “My predecessors consort.”
His best friend as he grew up was the young Duchess Elisabeth, the future Empress of Austria, and with her he was able to live out the world of his imagination reciting poetry together, learning to dance, they would even re-stage scenes from the great operas.
There was no physical attraction between them however, at least not on Ludwig’s part, and he was to struggle all his life to reconcile his homosexuality with his Catholic faith.
Even so, they were devoted to one another, she was his dove, and he her eagle.
Crown Prince Ludwig was just eighteen years of age when his father died and he succeeded to the Throne.
At his Coronation people were struck at how handsome he was, almost pretty in fact, with dark wavy hair and blazing blue eyes. He looked every bit the dashing young Monarch and his people were confident that his reign would herald a new era of prosperity for the Kingdom.
From the outset of his reign Ludwig came under pressure to marry and produce an heir but no sooner had his betrothal to the Duchess Sophie been announced in January 1867, than he declared he would rather drown himself than marry, and the engagement was broken off.
By now most of his closest associates were men and it wasn’t difficult to see where his sexual proclivities lay.
He also hated the responsibility that came with being King and he drove his Ministers to distraction with his refusal to perform his royal duties or even take an interest in politics.
Instead, one of the first things he did upon becoming King was to invite the composer Richard Wagner to stay.
He had always loved Wagner and it was the perfect music for him to indulge his fantasies writing to the composer during the crisis of his engagement that he would rather marry him.
Wagner declined the proposal but nonetheless remained impressed by the young King writing:
“Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the Gods.”
His Ministers were less than pleased having the troublesome and dangerous radical Wagner in their midst, even so he was to remain eighteen months.
In 1866, Ludwig had made the mistake of pledging his support to Austria in their war against Prussia and after the latter’s victory he came under intense pressure to agree to the formation of a single unified German State.
When in 1871, Prussia defeated France, this time with Bavaria as an ally the pressure was such that he was forced to reluctantly agree.
Bavaria was now subsumed as part of the Second Reich but despite its special status within it, Ludwig was less than pleased to see his Kingdom reduced to a Prussian Client State. In the end the decision had been made for him by his Ministers but he let his displeasure be known by refusing to attend the Coronation of Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Following the formation of the German State, Ludwig effectively withdrew from politics altogether but his decision to reign, rather than rule only seemed to bring his eccentricities into clearer focus, and the gossips had a field day.
He refused to meet with Ministers, attend the Royal Court, or preside at public functions and in the last ten years of his reign he did not hold a single State Banquet. Instead he preferred to roam the countryside enjoying the hospitality of ordinary people than life at the Royal Court, and always generous with his money he would lavish gifts upon those who had been kind to him.
Free of the formalities of government and the strictures of Courtly necessity he could now indulge his fantasies without restraint, and he loved nothing more than to build castles travelling abroad to find ideas for his building projects.
And the projects he embarked upon were all his own, he chose the locations, trawled architects drawings, chose the decorations, and approved the furnishings. He wanted no input from the Bavarian State either intellectually or financially and refused to use State funds, though he did plunder the Welfensfonds, the money which Prussia had bribed Bavaria with to secure its compliance in the formation of the Reich.
As far as Ludwig was concerned this was dirty money that he would cleanse and purify by using it in the cause of beauty.
He also squandered much of the Wittelsbach family fortune.
Among the more significant Castles he built were the Schloss Neuschwanstein, the Schloss Linderhof, and the Schloss Herrenchiemsee. He also provided the funds for Wagner to build the Fiestpielhaus in Bayreuth designed for the production and performance of his operas, and to maximise their impact.
By 1885, the King was 14 million marks in debt and was busy trawling the Financial Houses of Europe looking for even more funds. In the meantime, his Ministers wanted rid of this useless and wasteful King and his increasingly erratic behaviour was to provide them with the excuse for doing so.
As he had got older he became ever more prone to violent rages and was described as behaving like a petulant child who would often beat his servants. He would refuse to permit women into his presence and in the summer months he would amuse himself by holding midnight picnics during which his male grooms would dance naked for his entertainment.
In June 1886, a report signed by four prominent psychiatrists was published accusing Ludwig of suffering from acute paranoia and declaring him insane and unfit to rule.
When Ludwig learned that his Ministers intended to move against he decided to act, but it was already too late.
At 4.00am on 10 June 1886, a Commission led by Dr Bernhard von Gudden, one of the signatories of the report, arrived at Neuschwanstein Castle with a warrant for Ludwig’s arrest and deposition. It stated:
“His Majesty has been declared paranoid and suffering from such a disorder freedom of action can no longer be tolerated and, therefore, Your Majesty is declared no longer capable of ruling for the length of Your Majesty’s life.”
Ludwig ordered the local police to protect him and for a time the Commissioners were placed under arrest.
Ludwig’s friends now suggested he flee whilst he still could but he instead decided to release a statement imploring the Bavarian people to rally to his defence, but the Authorities were able to suppress this before it was widely distributed.
Having failed to rally the people Ludwig now ordered the release of the Commissioners and placed himself in their custody. Upon doing so he asked them:
“How can you declare me insane when you have never even met me, or examined me?”
It was a reasonable question, but no answer was forthcoming.
Held captive at Castle Berg on the banks of Lake Starnberg on 13 June, Ludwig suggested that Dr Gudden accompany him on his morning walk. It was a lovely day, the sun was shining, and so the doctor readily agreed.
It was a walk from which neither of them would return.
There is no definitive report of what happened but according to the journal of Ludwig’s personal fisherman Jacob Lidl, a boat had been provided by Ludwig’s friends to whisk him across the lake but as he got into it and began to row a shot rang out from the shore and he was killed.
Dr Gudden’s body was later discovered in waist deep water with his skull crushed in.
Did Ludwig murder the doctor?
Before he died Lidl admitted that he had been intimidated into never speaking about what he had witnessed.
Was Ludwig truly insane or just a self-indulgent fantasist?
That we can never know for sure but at the age of just 39 the Fairytale King of Bavaria was dead, but he left behind a legacy that can be seen and enjoyed by all those who visit his German playground of the Gods.