I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Centuries of inbreeding among Europe’s aristocracy led to some strange characters turning up as monarchs. One such was “Mad” Ludwig II of Bavaria, but at least the citizens had the valid excuse that they didn’t vote an unsuitable candidate into power. Some now suggested that Ludwig has been unfairly tagged with the unflattering nickname.
Ludwig’s Early Years
Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm was born into the ancient House of Wittelsbach in August 1845; the family could trace its aristocratic roots back a thousand years.
He was distant from his parents and, when he became king in 1864, he referred to his mother as “my predecessor’s consort.”
He became close to his cousin Duchess Elizabeth of Bavaria, with whom he shared a love of poetry, riding, and nature. He ascended to the throne of Bavaria in 1864 and was engaged to be married to Elizabeth’s sister, Sophie. However the engagement was broken off and Ludwig never married.
Ludwig was almost certainly homosexual at a time when “The love that cannot speak its name” was a crime. Also, as a devout Roman Catholic, Ludwig must have struggled to repress his sexual inclinations, something that could contribute to his fragile mental health.
King Ludwig II on the Couch
Psychiatrist Christopher J. Ferguson describes Ludwig as “reclusive and emotional, and increasingly out of touch with the political realities of his diminishing kingdom.”
As a teenager, he reported hearing voices and seemed to find the reality in which he lived disturbing. So, he created alternate realities and focussed almost exclusively on architecture and art.
One escape from the real world was an obsession with Richard Wagner whose operas were filled with fantasies. The composer was definitely not gay, yet he encouraged the king’s affection and benefited greatly from Ludwig’s patronage.
The king built Wagner a grand home in Switzerland and pined for him when the two were separated, writing “I tell you, I cannot bear to live apart from him much longer. I suffer terribly . . . this is no passing, youthful infatuation . . .”
For his part, Wagner played along, clearly not wishing to see the flow of money stop. He wrote to Ludwig “What bliss enfolds me! A wonderful dream has become a reality! How can I find words to describe to you the magic of this hour? . . . I am in your angelic arms.”
King of the Castles
A second distraction for Ludwig was his extravagant building projects. The fairy-tale palace of Neuschwanstein (New Swan Stone Castle in English) is his most famous creation.
Resting on a rocky Bavarian hill, the castle was inspired by the character of the Swan Knight in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. Josh Ferry Woodward writes that “Ludwig built the castle to live out a fantasy life as the self-professed ‘Swan King.’ ”
Work began on the castle in 1868 in the shadow of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. The conflict effectively ended Bavaria’s autonomy and largely stripped Ludwig of his powers.
Neuschwanstein was to be a place where he could hide away from the pesky realities of daily life in his imagined world. However, the king only spent 11 nights in the castle which was not completed during his lifetime.
Another of Ludwig’s other projects was the Linderhof Palace, a scaled down version of Louis XIV’s Versailles Palace. This was homage to the divine right of kings to rule.
The Herrenchiemsee New Palace was another knock off of Versailles.
These construction projects cost vast amounts of money; money that King Ludwig did not have. The borrowing caused bankruptcy and the removal of Ludwig from his monarch’s perch.
In June 1886, Ludwig was arrested at Neuschwanstein, declared insane, and ousted from his throne. A few days later, Ludwig’s body was found in Lake Starnberg. A verdict of suicide was returned but it’s more likely the king was murdered.
Was King Ludwig Insane?
The conventional wisdom is that Ludwig II came by his moniker “mad” for good reasons, with the signs pointing towards schizophrenia. More recently, that diagnosis has been called into question.
The psychiatrist who declared Ludwig insane, Bernhard von Gudden, said of him that “He is teetering like a blind man without guidance on the verge of a precipice.” His behaviour gave ample cause to think him unhinged.
However, von Gudden never examined the king, relying instead on interviews with people on his staff who were biased against him. Psychiatry late in the 19th century was in its infancy and the protocols that are today required to confirm a diagnosis mostly did not exist.
So, psychiatrist Heinz Häfner and colleagues, studied what evidence they could find and have questioned the validity of the claim that Ludwig was insane. Der Spiegel reported in January 2014 that “Their findings, recently published in the journal History of Psychiatry, contradict the conclusions reached by Gudden. Häfner says that at no time did the king’s behavior ‘provide reliable evidence of his purported mental illness.’ ”
King Ludwig’s behaviour was certainly odd and eccentric, but Dr. Häfner said the monarch probably suffered from nothing more severe than a personality disorder.
- Ludwig was eventually replaced by his younger brother Otto, who already had suffered bouts of anxiety and depression. His mental health continued to decline and, despite being placed under medical supervision, succeeded his brother. His reign was in name only, as King Otto was sequestered away from public view until his death in 1916.
- While Ludwig’s profligate spending bankrupted him, the Bavarian state is now reaping rewards. Neuschwanstein alone receives about two million visitors a year, each paying $18.00 for access.
- Bezier Games published its board game Castles of Mad King Ludwig in 2014. It involves players building outrageous castles.
- “How Forbidden Love Benefited Opera.” Dr. Christopher J. Ferguson, Psychology Today, September 27, 2019.
- “The Eccentric Architecture of ‘Mad’ King Ludwig.” Josh Ferry Woodard, Reader’s Digest, undated.
- “Study Claims Bavarian Monarch Was Sane.” Frank Thadeusz, Der Spiegel, January 31, 2014.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on November 13, 2020:
Very interesting Rupert. Ludwig loved poetry and art so he couldn’t have been too mad. I like his taste in castles too.