The Wittelsbachs ruled Bavaria and in a landscape of mentally unstable royals, they were a special breed. Ludwig was born into a family rife with eccentricities if not downright psychosis. His aunt Alexandra was convinced she had swallowed an entire grand piano made of glass. That just lets you know what we are dealing with.
Ludwig was born to Maximilian II and his wife Princess Marie of Prussia at Nymphenburg Palace. They were a mismatch pair even though they were cousins as Maximilian was Catholic and Marie was Protestant. Marrying cousins is never a great idea, however, in a family rife with mental illness it’s a disaster. When both Ludwig and his younger brother Otto began showing signs of mental instability the Wittelsbachs closed ranks and tried to blame Marie’s Prussian blood. No dice. The poor kids had problems on all sides.
He was originally going to be named Otto, but his grandfather Ludwig I stepped in and insisted the new baby named after him. The new prince was born on his grandfather’s birthday and even in the same hour, so why not? Ludwig I had his own problems over and above being overbearing, specifically with a scandalous actress named Lola Montez, but that is another post. Actually, the two Ludwigs became very close, much closer than Ludwig and his father. However, the young prince was not very close to anyone in his family. He grew up isolated in a very sparse and sheltered environment. Like many lonely children, he lived in his own head and had a vivid imagination. According to his mother, he enjoyed dressing up and play acting. His favorites were Medieval chivalry and legends and fairy tale castles. These interests turned into an obsession later in life. His childhood home was Hohenschwangau, or “high region of the swan”. This made a huge impression on Ludwig, who later became known as the “Swan King”.
Ludwig was thrust from this sheltered environment into the limelight when his father unexpectedly died in 1864. Ludwig became king at age 18, but had no training or education for a life of politics. He himself admitted, “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 …” The only bright spot for the young king was being able to meet his idol Richard Wagner. He had been exposed to Wagner’s music at a young age and he was fascinated with the Swan Knight from Lohengrin. Ludwig quickly became obsessed with Wagner and the legends his operas depicted. The two began a copious correspondence and the king financed the composer- paying his debts and building him a new Festspeilhaus concert hall in Bayreuth in 1876. His advisers at court were not happy with this obsession as they felt it was throwing money down a rathole. The country had already suffered a defeat in the Austro-Prussian War, where Bavaria had sided with Austria. They had joined the newly created Northern German Confederation in 1870, but maintained a privileged status with quasi-independence. This loss of status to Prussia haunted Ludwig and he longed to be an omnipotent and powerful medieval rules of old. However, the reality was Bavaria was short of cash as wars will do and no one in the government wanted to spend what they had on some composer. Ludwig was forced to exile Wagner in 1865, but they remained close until Wagner’s death in 1883.
Even with Wagner out of the way, Ludwig found other obsessions to pour money into. In 1868, he began an extensive building campaign. Three massive castles were built- Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee. In these castles, he made Wagner’s world of German legend come to life. Neuschwanstein is probably the most famous of these castles in southwest Bavaria. The theme of the castle is the Swan Knight, first encountered by Ludwig in Lohengrin. Underneath it, there is a private grotto and cave complete with swan gondola. Ludwig became obsessed with the Holy Grail and began to identify himself as the mythical Grail King. Neuschwanstein became the Castle of the Holy Grail and the Throne Room was redesigned as the Hall of the Holy Grail. Unbelievably, Neuschwanstein was not designed by an architect. Christian Jank was a theatrical set designer, which accounts for its magical appearance. In fact, Neuschwanstein is the model for the Disney castle at DisneyLand and DisneyWorld.
By 1886, Ludwig had become a recluse. He slept all day and did not get up until 5pm at night. He insisted on having dinners with long dead monarchs and had a special table constructed that lowered through the floor so he would see no servants change the courses. Ludwig threw massive performances just for him in his castles of Wagner operas, and only communicated to his ministers by letter. He had tried to get married, but had chickened out. There is much speculation that he was a homosexual. There were a series of close friendships with men, but this was just rumor. However, he was starting on a new castle at Falkenstein and was about to spare no expense. He was already 14 million marks in debt and foreign banks were about to seize all his property. His ministers had had enough.
From January 1886 to March 1886, the Ärztliches Gutachten was assembled. This was a medical report on whether Ludwig was fit to rule. Ludwig’s uncle Luitpold had agreed to depose him only on the condition Ludwig was found insane. So the ministers were going to do just that. Count von Holnstein, Ludwig’s chief opponent in the ministry, was in charge of compiling the report, which turned into a litany of complaints. The report was certified by Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, Dr. Hubert von Gashey, Dr. Friedrich Wilhelm Hagen and Dr. Max Hubrich. They concluded Ludwig was suffering from paranoia, a condition which today would be classified as schizophrenia, and unfit to rule. They also pointed to the fact Ludwig’s brother Otto was certifiably insane as the proof of family instability. The accuracy of this report is not known. However, a later study led by Heinz Häfner suggests Ludwig was not schizophrenic. In their article in the History Psychiatry, they state Ludwig’s behavior did not “provide reliable evidence of his purported mental illness.” It turns out, none of the doctors ever spoke to Ludwig. They based this diagnosis on secret interviews with his servants.
Despite these questions later, the verdict of insanity was all that was needed to dethrone Ludwig on June 10, 1886. It did not go well. The ministers as well as Dr. Gudden arrived at Neuschwanstein to place Ludwig into custody, however, he had been tipped off to their arrival. He summoned the local police to protect him, who turned back the ministers at gunpoint. To make things even stranger, Baroness Spera von Truchseß attacked the ministers, hitting them with an umbrella. It didn’t matter. Luitpold was proclaimed as Prince Regent, and Ludwig was finally apprehended and taken to Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg. And here’s where a weird story gets weirder.
On June 13, Ludwig and Dr. Gudden took a stroll around the grounds alone. They were last seen at 6:30 pm. The two did not return even after a huge storm with heavy rain and lightning hit. Their bodies were found floating in the shallows of the lake. Gudden had sustained blows to the head and neck and showed signs of strangulation. Ludwig’s death was ruled a suicide even though there was no water in his lungs and he had been a strong swimmer in his youth. Much later, Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz would show visitors a coat she claimed was worn by Ludwig when he died with two bullet holes in the back. Unfortunately, this coat was lost in a fire. A Bavarian art historian and specialist in 19th century painting also analyzed a portrait painted of Ludwig only hours after his death. Siegfried Wichmann maintains there is a trickle of blood in the corner of his mouth, which does not support the drowning theory.
We will never know the truth as the remaining members of the Wittelsbach family refuse to have Ludwig’s body exhumed for an autopsy. A memorial cross was constructed in the lake where Ludwig’s body was found.