Skip to main content

"Mad" King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Regicide or Suicide?

King Ludwig II of Bavaria may have been eccentric but was he mad and unfit to rule? Was his death regicide or suicide?

"The Swan King" King Ludwig II of Bavaria:  eccentric, artistic, deposed . . . and murdered?

"The Swan King" King Ludwig II of Bavaria: eccentric, artistic, deposed . . . and murdered?

Bavaria's Romantic "Swan King"

The future King Ludwig II of Bavaria, “Swan King” and “Fairy Tale King”, was officially born on the 25 August 1845 to Prince Maximilian II of Bavaria and his wife Princess Marie of Prussia. He actually arrived on the 24th but the 25th was used so that he shared his birthday with his grandfather King Ludwig I of Bavaria.

The 25th of August was also Saint Louis IX of France's day and he was the patron saint of Bavaria. Louis is Ludwig in German.

Ludwig’s only sibling Otto was born in April 1848.

The family lived at the medieval Hohenshwangau Castle in the southwest of the kingdom. Ludwig and Otto were raised very strictly and were closer to their grandfather than their parents. Young Ludwig developed a passion for nature, art and literature. He was a romantic.

Ludwig II of Bavaria, his mother Marie of Prussia and younger brother Otto.

Ludwig II of Bavaria, his mother Marie of Prussia and younger brother Otto.

Ludwig's Sexuality and Faith

He was close to his cousin Elisabeth "Sisi" who married Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria in April 1854. Prince Paul of Thurn and Taxis was his confidante and his aide de camp. Their friendship may well have been a love story but the two men fell out when Paul married Elise Kreuger in 1866.

Ludwig was gay but was a committed Catholic. The faith's non acceptance caused him inner turmoil so he suppressed his sexuality and did not act on his emotions physically. He had close friendships with men throughout his life. In 1867 Ludwig was betrothed to Duchess Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria, Elisabeth’s sister, but after postponements Ludwig called off the union and he never married.

Ludwig ascended the Bavarian throne on 10 March 1864 when his father died. He was content to pursue Maximilian's policies and it soon became noticeable to his ministers that King Ludwig II of Bavaria was not a natural born ruler. He was far more interested in the arts and architecture than he ever pretended to be about matters of state.

King Ludwig II's Love of Architecture

His building projects became a source of increasing concern to his ministers and to his mother Marie. The spiraling costs left him besieged by debts and, although fees were said to be met privately by Ludwig, the money was provided through loans which he could not repay.

Each construction, among them Linderhof Palace, the breathtaking Neuschwanstein Castle (New Swan Stone in English) and his tribute to Versailles, Herrenchiemsee Castle, was a feat of engineering, immaculately designed and exceptionally ornate. Ludwig checked and approved every detail as projects progressed.

His ministers lost patience with him as he failed to appear at social and state events and within three years of becoming the Bavarian ruler he was living a reclusive life, captivated by nature, mesmerized by the arts and evading the mundane business of being a king.

Always happy to chat to the local people, he retained the public's goodwill even after defeat in the brief 1866 Austro-Prussian War. Bavaria, an ally of Austria’s, met with Prussian displeasure and strength of will so when the 1870-1 Franco-Prussian War was declared Bavaria fought alongside Prussia.

Prussian victory led to the creation of the North German Confederation and Bavaria lost its status as a kingdom. Ludwig was given little choice but to endorse the new German Empire that he privately detested. He sent his brother Otto and uncle Luitpold to the Palace of Versailles, Paris in his place when the empire was officially proclaimed.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1882. Little did he realise that four years later he would die in suspicious circumstances.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria in 1882. Little did he realise that four years later he would die in suspicious circumstances.

Composer Richard Wagner and King Ludwig

Ludwig was fascinated, perhaps obsessed, by composer Richard Wagner’s music and the man himself. Wagner was glad to have such a generous patron and feigned affection for Ludwig.

When the composer was forced into exile by Ludwig after an indiscreet affair with Cosima, the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt and his mistress Marie, Comtesse d’Agoult, Ludwig supplied him with a home in Switzerland and expressed his wish to abdicate and live with him but Wagner dissuaded him from such a rash move.

Wagner and Cosima married. Ludwig and Richard Wagner never stopped communicating with one another. The king dedicated the spectacular Neuschwanstein Castle to Wagner.

Mad, Bad or in Danger?

In 1885, Ludwig asked his ministers for a loan to fulfill more construction work but they refused and sought a way to be rid of the king. Several ministers believed, or at least declared, that Ludwig was mentally ill and unfit to rule. Ludwig’s uncle Luitpold agreed to act as regent if his nephew was incapacitated.

An 1886 medical report listed several of Ludwig’s intriguing characteristics and actions that gave the group of psychiatrists who assessed him, but not in person, the opinion that he could rule no longer. Only one of these people had ever met the king, Dr. von Gudden, and that had been 12 years prior to the report’s completion.

The ministers were delighted, if not already expecting via fair means or foul, that the psychiatrists thought the king was insane.

Ludwig's uncle Luitpold who acted as regent of Bavaria between 1886 and 1912.

Ludwig's uncle Luitpold who acted as regent of Bavaria between 1886 and 1912.

Regicide/Suicide at Lake Starnberg, Bavaria

On the 10th of June 1886, a group of ministers and Dr. von Gudden arrived at Neuschwanstein to inform the king that he was relieved of duties. Ludwig was forewarned by a servant and had police officers positioned around the property’s exterior so that they couldn’t reach him. The government proclaimed Luitpold the regent.

Two days later, the party attempted to gain access and succeeded. Ludwig was taken to Berg Castle on the banks of Lake Starnberg. The following morning Ludwig took a walk with Dr. von Gudden and that evening they went for another one. They did not return to the castle. Dr. von Gudden and Ludwig’s lifeless bodies were found floating in the lake.

Ludwig II's memorial cross in Lake Starnberg, Berg Castle.

Ludwig II's memorial cross in Lake Starnberg, Berg Castle.

Rewriting History

The death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria was conveniently declared to be a suicide by drowning after he had probably murdered the physician. Ludwig had been a strong swimmer, however, and the water was only waist deep when a man stood. More damning, if Ludwig had drowned, his lungs would have been full of water. They were not.

Conspiracy theories included that the king was trying to escape from the doctor and fell or was pushed, that the cold air and water caused his death or that he was shot or hit prior to landing in the lake.

Ludwig II was given a splendid state funeral and was buried in the family crypt at Michaelskirche in Munich. His heart was buried at the Shrine of Our Lady of Altotting as tradition dictated.

Otto, Ludwig’s younger brother, had been declared insane by Dr. von Gudden in 1872 so Luitpold continued as regent until his own death in 1912.


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.

© 2021 Joanne Hayle