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Fairy Tale King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Mad or Murdered?

Updated on March 11, 2017

Portrait of Ludwig II

Source

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

Map showing the nineteenth century Kingdom of Bavaria.
Map showing the nineteenth century Kingdom of Bavaria. | Source

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.

Beginnings

Ludwig and his brother Otto as children

Source

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Accounts of his childhood suggest it was often an unhappy and withdrawn one.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.

The Castles

Schloss Neuschwanstein

Ludwig II was responsible for Neuschwanstein, widely believed to have inspired Walt Disney's depiction of Palaces. This is a photochrom print of the palace dating from between 1890 and 1905.
Ludwig II was responsible for Neuschwanstein, widely believed to have inspired Walt Disney's depiction of Palaces. This is a photochrom print of the palace dating from between 1890 and 1905. | Source

Herrenchiemsee Castle

1890-1905 Herrenchiemsee Castle - royal bedroom
1890-1905 Herrenchiemsee Castle - royal bedroom | Source

Linderhof Palace

Source

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
Famous for
Louis XIV
Absolute ruler who believed in the divine right of monarch to govern
The Palace of Versailles
Ludwig II
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

Ludwig's Hall of Mirrors in Schloss Linderhof was modeled on one of the most famous rooms in the Palace of Versailles.
Ludwig's Hall of Mirrors in Schloss Linderhof was modeled on one of the most famous rooms in the Palace of Versailles. | Source
The Original Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles
The Original Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles | Source

Fallout with the Bavarian Government

Inside Neuschwanstein Castle
Inside Neuschwanstein Castle | Source

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. The psychiatrict He was also homosexual at a time when not all people were accepting of such things. A King was also supposed to produce heirs. No doubt this contributed to the impression of insanity.

Inside Neuschwanstein
Inside Neuschwanstein | Source
Source

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

The text of this postcard translates to "Castle Berg: On evening of the 13 June 1886 (Last walk of King Ludwig II)
The text of this postcard translates to "Castle Berg: On evening of the 13 June 1886 (Last walk of King Ludwig II) | Source

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.

Death

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.

Memorial Cross

This memorial cross can be found at the site on Lake Stamberg where Ludwig's body was found
This memorial cross can be found at the site on Lake Stamberg where Ludwig's body was found | Source
Schloss Neuschwanstein, 1886 or 1887
Schloss Neuschwanstein, 1886 or 1887 | Source

How do you think King Ludwig II died?

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    • CarolynEmerick profile image

      Carolyn Emerick 3 years ago

      Oh geez, I just wrote an article on King Ludwig... and when I published it, HP linked me to yours... and I think I like yours better! :-)

    • daydreams profile image
      Author

      Marianne Sherret 3 years ago from Scotland, UK

      Thanks - glad you like it - he's an interesting person so bet there are thousands of articles about him around.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 5 months ago from San Diego California

      His palaces may be extravagant wastes of money, but they are lovely to look at and I would love to go to Bavaria and see them. Great hub.

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