Fairy Tale King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Mad or Murdered?
Portrait of Ludwig II
King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) was found dead in a lake on 13 June 1886. The death was officially declared a suicide, yet many believe that Ludwig was murdered, most likely on the orders of the Bavarian government which had declared that Ludwig was mad and incapable of ruling only three days earlier.
This is the story of the life of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, one of the most intriguing, eccentric, infamous and tragic nineteenth-century kings.
Kingdom of Bavaria map
Where is Bavaria?
Bavaria is the English name for Bayern, one of the states that makes up modern day Germany. Bavaria used to be an independent kingdom. It joined with other German speaking kingdoms, duchies and principalities to form Germany in 1871, although Bavaria had its own kings until 1918, and retains its own sense of identity.
Ludwig and his brother Otto as children
Ludwig was born near Munich on 25 August 1845, the oldest son of Prince Maximilian II of Bavaria and Princess Marie of Prussia. His grandfather was King Ludwig I of Bavaria.
Accounts of his childhood suggest it was often an unhappy and withdrawn one. He was often reminded of his royal position, and educated through a strict regime of exercise and study. He is thought to have spent his happiest times at Schloss Hohenschwangau near Füssen, a castle his father had built amongst the stunningly beautiful scenery of Southern Bavaria.
In 1864 Ludwig's father Maximilian I died, and the eighteen year old Ludwig became King of Bavaria.
The Fairy Tale King
The Fairy Tale King
Ludwig II became known as der Märchenkonig or in English, the fairy tale king. Throughout his reign he embarked on a programme of building over the top ornate castles, inspired by fairy tales, ancient Germanic sagas, and the works of the composer Richard Wagner who he greatly admired.
These castles include:
- Schloss Neuschwanstein, which was built near Castle Hohenschwangau his childhood home
- Schloss Herrenchiemsee, modeled on the famous Palace of Versailles near Paris
- Schloss Linderhof, an ornate palace in Rococco style with its own grotto
He also extended the royal apartment in Residenz Palace in Munich including a conservatory with an ornamental lake, and funded the construction of an opera house (Festspielhaus) in the town of Bayreuth.
Sun King versus Moon King
"He is unfortunately so beautiful and wise, soulful and lordly, that I fear his life must fade away like a divine dream in this base world."
—How Richard Wagner described Ludwig II in 1864
Ludwig II saw himself as a "moon king", a shadow of King Louis XIV of France (1638-1715) who was famously known as the Sun King.
Louis XIV was an absolute monarch who believed in the divine rights of monarchs to govern with unrestricted powers over government and state. One of his most famous legacies is the great Palace of Versailles, just outside of Paris.
In contrast King Ludwig II of Bavaria was a constitutional monarch, meaning there were constraints on his powers, and in terms of wealth and power he did not come close to reaching that which had been held by Louis XIV in France.
Ludwig II does not seem to have desired the political power of a divine ruler like Louis XIV. He was not particularly interested in government affairs, and avoided official functions as much as possible. He tended to ignore government and focused his attentions on building extremely grand opulent and expensive castles.
In castle building Ludwig certainly took some inspiration from Louis XIV. His famous Palace of Versailles inspired Ludwig, for example Ludwig built his own "Hall of Mirrors" in Schloss Linderhof, copying Louis XIV's famous version.
Ludwig vs Louis
Type of ruler
Absolute ruler who believed in the divine right of monarch to govern
The Palace of Versailles
Constitutional monarch whose powers were constrained by parliament
Lavish fairy tale castles, some which were influenced by Versailles
Ludwig and Louis's Halls of Mirrors
Fallout with the Bavarian Government
Loss of Bavarian Independence
In the early years of his reign Ludwig II played some part in politics. During the Seven Weeks War, Bavaria, joined the side of Austria along with other German speaking states, including Saxony, Wurttemburg, Hanover, Hesse-Darmstadt against Prussia and its allies. This war was settled by a peace treaty agreeing that Bavaria would support Prussia. This meant that Bavaria became involved in the Franco Prussian war, and was eventually to lead to the creation of a new German state. In 1870, in return for financial concessions Ludwig II was forced to sign a letter declaring that Bavaria was no longer an independent state and now part of the German empire that was just forming. Ludwig's uncle Wilhelm I was declared German emperor.
Expensive castle building
From this period onwards Ludwig II's attention was increasingly focused on castle building, the arts and theatre, and away from government. The problem with this focus was that castle building was expensive, and led to Ludwig borrowing a great deal of money to finance his plans. He used his personal money initially then turned to borrowing more and more from his family. Despite using personal money and borrowing, this was a problem for the Bavarian government as having a King in debt to a significant proportion of the royal families in Europe was not helpful. By the time of his death he was 14 million marks in debt, and busy drawing up more plans for lavish castles. He had no intention of stopping.
In 1885 displeased by the government's unwillingness to assist in his castle building plans, he threatened to sack the whole cabinet. The government reacted by moving to declare him insane.
Was he insane?
Whether he was insane is still hotly debated. He certainly was eccentric, reclusive, and perhaps not really in touch with reality, but this does not mean he was medically insane. He was also homosexual at a time when not all people were accepting of such things. This was a particular problem as a King was supposed to produce heirs. No doubt this contributed to the impression of insanity.
Circumstances of Death
Timeline Leading to Death
10 June 1886
Ludwig was declared incapable of rule by the Bavarian government and overthrown
12 June 1886
Ludwig was seized by the Bavarian government and taken to Castle Berg by Lake Schwanstein
13 June 1886
Ludwig went for a walk at 6pm round the lake. His body was then found.
Last Walk of the King Before His Mysterious Death
Declaration of Insanity
On 10 June 1886 the government had had enough and declared that Ludwig's uncle Luitpold was the Prince Regent with Ludwig II incapable of rule.
Ludwig II was popular with the Bavarian people. Some suggest if he had acted quicker he may have got them to rally in his support. However he dithered for a couple of days, until on 12 June the Bavarian government seized him and took him to Castle Berg, near Lake Starnberg. The castle had been redesigned in neo-gothic style by Ludwig's father Maximilian I, and Ludwig II had stayed there some summers.
On 13 June at 6pm, Ludwig II asked to go for a walk around the lake. He set off along with one of the psychiatrists who had declared him insane, Dr Bernard Van Gudden. The men never returned, and were eventually found dead. Ludwig's death was officially declared to be suicide by drowning, yet there are inconsistencies in the story. The autopsy said that there was no water in Ludwig's lungs making drowning as a cause of death seem unlikely. There was also evidence that Dr Van Gudden had been strangled and hit on the head. Notes found on the death bed of a local fisherman who died in 1933 claimed that Ludwig had been shot. The fisherman, Jacob Lidl said he had witnessed this while hiding behind a bush waiting to help Ludwig II escape, and that he had been forced to sign a statement swearing he would never tell this to anyone.
What is the truth?
Is this true? Despite all the speculation no one really knows. Perhaps Ludwig II murdered Dr Van Gudden in an attempt to escape, then died himself of natural causes? Or was the party followed by a government hitman sent to dispose of Ludwig II?
Whatever the case, it is a fascinating and intriguing story, and anyone who visits Bavaria should make sure they go and see some of his castles. Despite almost bankrupting Bavaria at the time, the magnificent palaces now bring many tourists to Bavaria.