Portrait of Louis II, King of Bavaria — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis
Dreamers and idealists exist in every profession and strata of society. With their heads in the clouds and their feet only occasionally on the ground, these people look at the world not as it is, but see it as it never was. Sometimes their idyllic ways are harmless, but other times they can lead to great trouble for both themselves and people who depend on them.
Among history’s most famous and tragic idealists is King Ludwig II of Bavaria. The ruler of Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, King Ludwig II believed in the ideals of a bygone age, where benevolent kings ruled over their subjects by the Grace of God. A romantic in every sense of the word, Ludwig found the world he lived in so far different from what he believed it should be that he renounced it and built a world of his own. His idealism would lead his country to deem him mad, and strip him of his throne. Soon after, he died under bizarre circumstances, the exact cause of his death remaining a mystery even 130 years later.
Upbringing and early life
Ludwig II as a boy, with his parents.
Ludwig II was born August 1845 to Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia. The royal couple were aloof with Ludwig and his brother Otto. They were strict with their boys, emphasizing duty above all else. Despite this restrictive environment, Ludwig II showed early that he had a vivid imagination. He enjoyed playing dress up, play acting, and loved art. He was generous with his possessions as well. Ludwig tended to keep to himself, and already was beginning to see himself as a divine sovereign. These traits would shape and define Ludwig for the rest of his life.
In 1864, Ludwig II was crowned king at the tender age of 18, yanked out of his idyllic life into the rough and tumble life of politics. The unprepared boy king two years later found himself embroiled in the German War with his uncle, the King of Prussia, who promptly conquered both Bavaria and Austria. The king had gone from sovereign to vassal within two years.
But even as this was going on, Ludwig II was seemingly more engrossed in his fantasy world than the harsh realities of life at the head of a constitutional monarchy. He became fascinated by the works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operas and music presented an idealized vision of ancient Germany and brought to life the ancient stories of his homeland. When he became king, Ludwig became Wagner’s friend and patron, helping the composer to reach new heights of fame.
Castles, madness, and the death of a king
Photochrom print of Neuschwanstein Castle, from 1890.
King Ludwig II never felt like he was a “real” king. Kingship in the 19th century was far different than kingship in the medieval era Ludwig idolized. Bavaria was a constitutional monarchy, with many legal restrictions placed upon monarchical power. Ludwig was frustrated by these constrictions on what he felt was the divine rule of a king. In his mind, he envisioned an ideal holy kingdom, much like that of King Arthur and his knights, which far from being a story for Ludwig was a historical fact and the blueprint for what a kingdom should be. Since reality was far from this ideal, Ludwig isolated himself more and more in a world of his own creation.
He began grand construction projects of so-called “fairy tale” castles, magnificent structures built to evoke romantic feelings of a bygone era of chivalry. He began in 1875 to sleep during the day and to wake at night. He receded more and more into his dream land of chivalric ideals, identifying with one of King Arthur’s knights, a man named Parzival (also spelled Percival) who was so pious and faithful that he became the Grail King.
A pious man himself, Ludwig deeply identified with his fictional counterpart’s struggles with sin and sensuality. Particularly, Ludwig struggled with homosexual urges. He had been engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, in 1867. He repeatedly pushed back the date of the marriage, but eventually broke it off completely. He never married and remained, so far as anyone knows, a celibate bachelor the rest of his life. Driven by his struggles and piety, Ludwig went as far to remodel his own castle, Neuschwanstein, to make it into the Castle of the Holy Grail, bringing his fantasy of being Parzival into the real world.
However hard the king tried to isolate himself from the world, he could not escape the hard realities. The king had squandered his fortune on the castles and the other trappings of his fairy-tale world, and was squandering the state coffers as well. The Bavarian government intervened in 1885. He was declared insane and deposed from the throne. The former king was interned in Berg Palace while the government decided what to do with him. Only a day later, Ludwig II was found floating in the lake, dead, along with this psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden.
What happened to the Mad King?
Ludwig II’s death was a mystery from day one. The king, who was a strong swimmer, was found floating in waist deep water. The Bavarian government claimed that the king had killed himself by drowning, and his psychiatrist ad died trying to save him. Few have bought this explanation, given the king’s piety. Many believe he was murdered by an assassin. Some fishermen on the lake claimed they heard gun shots that day, along with his psychiatrist who witnessed the killing. In the 21st century, some want to exhume the king’s body and use modern technology to examine him, but the House of Wittelsbach, his family, refuses and claims the murder allegations are false. Unless and until they relent, the mystery of who killed the Mad King Ludwig II will remain unsolved.
“King Ludwig II of Bavaria,” neuschwanstein.de. 3/6/16. Bayerische Verwaltung der staatlichen Schlosser Garten und Seen. http://www.neuschwanstein.de/englisch/ludwig/biography.htm
Paterson, Tony. “Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig.” Independent.co.uk. 11/9/2007. Independent. 3/6/16. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/murder-mystery-of-mad-king-ludwig-399742.html
“The Death of King Ludwig II.” Lib.cam.ac.uk. 2009-2011. University of Cambridge. 3/6/16. http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/deptserv/german/spotlight4.html