by Scott Mehl
King Ludwig II of Bavaria
King Ludwig II of Bavaria (Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm) was born on August 15, 1845 at Nymphenburg Palace in Munich. He was the elder of two sons of King Maximilian II of Bavaria and Princess Marie of Prussia. He was named after his grandfather, the reigning King Ludwig I of Bavaria as the two shared a birthday, which was also the feast day of Saint Louis IX of France, the patron saint of Bavaria. Ludwig’s younger brother, Otto (born in 1848) eventually succeeded him on the Bavarian throne.
Ludwig was raised primarily at Hohenschwangau Castle by servants and tutors. His education was very strict, and he showed a very early interest in art and literature. Neither Ludwig nor his brother were very close with their parents, and were much closer to their grandfather, King Ludwig I. At an early age, Ludwig developed a close friendship with Prince Paul of Thurn und Taxis who served as his aide de camp, as well as with his first cousin once removed, Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria (the future Empress Sisi of Austria), with whom he would remain very close for his entire life.
King Ludwig never married, but in January 1867, he became engaged to his first cousin once removed, Duchess Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria. Sophie was the younger sister of Ludwig’s close friend, Duchess Elisabeth. After postponing the marriage several times, Ludwig eventually broke off the engagement in October of the same year. Most historians believe that Ludwig was actually gay, although he struggled to suppress his desires due to his strong Catholic faith.
Ludwig was just 18 years old when he became king upon his father’s death on March 10, 1864. He continued with his father’s policies and retained his ministers, but his interests were not in ruling the country. His interests lay almost solely in the arts. Soon after becoming King, he established a new Court Theater (now the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz) and began what would become a lifelong project of constructing numerous palaces and castles. He strongly disliked public functions and formal social events, and by 1876 had largely withdrawn from public life. Despite this, and the tension it caused with his ministers, Ludwig remained very popular with the Bavarian people.
His reign saw Bavaria’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, having sided with Austria. After the war, Bavaria was forced to enter into a mutual defense treaty with Prussia. Four years later, the country was forced to side with Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War. In late 1870, Bavaria joined the North German Confederation, losing its status as an independent Kingdom, but retaining a much more privileged status than many of the other constituent states.
In December 1870, King Ludwig was coerced into endorsing the creation of the new German Empire. Despite his endorsement, the King was strongly opposed to it and refused to attend the proclamation ceremony held at the Palace of Versailles. In his place, he sent his brother Otto and his uncle Luitpold.
By 1871, Ludwig was spending most of his time pursuing his interests in the arts, music and architecture. At a very young age, he first saw an opera by famed composer Richard Wagner, and became enthralled with his work. Shortly after becoming King, he summed Wagner to court, and soon became his primary patron. Many credit King Ludwig, and his support, with establishing Wagner’s career and legacy. When Wagner was forced to leave Munich in 1865, the King considered abdicating in order to follow him into exile, but Wagner insisted that he remain. Ludwig provided Wagner with a home in Switzerland, and continued to support him from afar. Eventually, Wagner returned and the relationship between the two continued. Along with Wagner, King Ludwig supported many other artists, and saw over 200 private performances of plays ballets, and operas in the court theaters.
Along with his interest in the arts, King Ludwig is probably best known for his love of architecture. Using his personal funds, he built several magnificent palaces and castles, the most famous being Neuschwanstein Castle.
Neuschwanstein Castle was built near Hohenschwangau Castle where Ludwig spent much of his youth and was dedicated as a tribute to Richard Wagner. The cornerstone was laid in 1869 and construction went on for man years. It wasn’t until 1884 that King Ludwig was able to take up residence. Others projects included Linderhof Palace, Herrenchiemsee, and the royal apartment at the Munich Residenz.
By 1885, the king was millions of marks in debt due to his spending on his castles and palaces and had all but withdrawn from his duties as King. Several of his ministers began trying to find grounds to depose him, believing him to be mentally ill. The King’s uncle, Luitpold, agreed to become Regent, provided that the ministers could reliably prove that the King was unfit to rule. In early 1886, a medical report was drawn up, listing a string of bizarre behavior, the King’s unwillingness to deal with state business, and many other supposed examples of his mental instability. In June of 1886, the report was completed and signed by a number of psychiatrists, including Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, the chief of the Munich Asylum. None had met the king other than von Gudden who met him one time nearly 12 years earlier.
On the morning of June 10, 1886, von Gudden and several others arrived at Neuschwanstein to present the King with a document of deposition. However, the king had been made aware of the situation by a servant and had ordered the castle to be surrounded by the local police. That same day, Ludwig’s uncle Luitpold was proclaimed Prince Regent. The commission returned again on the morning of June 12, and King Ludwig was taken to Berg Castle on Lake Starnberg.
The following day, June 13, 1886, Ludwig went for a walk in the grounds of the castle, accompanied by Dr. von Gudden and several attendants. They went out again that evening, this time unaccompanied, but never returned. Several hours later, King Ludwig II’s body was found in the water of Lake Starnberg, along with that of Dr. von Gudden.
His death remains a mystery. It was ruled a suicide by drowning, but no water was found in his lungs during an autopsy. One belief is that the King was murdered while trying to escape; another is that he died of natural causes, possibly due to the extremely cold temperature of the water.
After laying in State in the royal chapel at the Munich Residenz, a grand funeral was held, and his remains were interred in the crypt of the Michaelskirche in Munich. In keeping with tradition, his heart was entombed at the Shrine of Our Lady of Altötting. He was succeeded as King by his brother, Otto. However, Otto had also been declared mentally ill – also by Dr. von Gudden – and so their uncle Luitpold remained Prince Regent.