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An aerial view of Neuschwanstein Castle, near Füssen, Bavaria, seen on July 1, 2007. The castle was completed in 1886, and was opened to the public only seven weeks after the death of King Ludwig II. Ludwig himself was only able to live in the castle for a total of 172 days. Joerg Koch/AFP/Getty Images

‘Mad’ King Ludwig II

He was gay, wildly eccentric and built fairytale castles that today rate as Germany’s leading tourist attractions – but more than a century ago “Mad King” Ludwig II of Bavaria was declared insane, deposed and three days later his corpse was found floating in a lake south of Munich.

Even before he died, the king had already become something of a legend. “I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others,” Ludwig once told his governess, and it is this mysterious element that still fascinates people today.

People have long believed that Bavarian King Ludwig II, the man responsible for building the famous castle of Neuschwanstein, was mentally ill. Indeed, he was dethroned for that very reason. But a recent study casts doubt on that diagnosis.

‘Mad’ King Ludwig II of Bavaria is an alluring and enigmatic figure. This crazed king was responsible for building some of the most impressive castles in Europe.

The reason that the ‘Fairytale King’ is so interesting is as he’s surrounded in real mystery. There are so many unanswered questions about the life of King Ludwig.

  • Was he murdered, or did he commit suicide?
  • Why was he obsessed with Medieval fantasy and fairytales?
  • What was his relationship with Wagner?
  • What inspired his phenomenal array of fairytale castles (including Neuschwanstein)?
  • Finally (and perhaps most importantly!) was ‘Mad’ King Ludwig actually insane – or was he merely eccentric, and branded ‘mad’ by those who wished to bring him down?

Dreamers and idealists exist in every profession and strata of society. With their heads in the clouds and their feet only occasionally on the ground, these people look at the world not as it is, but see it as it never was. Sometimes their idyllic ways are harmless, but other times they can lead to great trouble for both themselves and people who depend on them.

A hundred thirty-one ago, Bavaria’s “Maerchenkoenig” (or “Fairy-tale King”) Ludwig II died under very mysterious circumstances at the age of 40, his body found floating in Lake Starnberg, south of Munich. Today, Ludwig remains famous for the castles he built and attempted to build, most notably Neuschwanstein Castle, perched high in the Alpine foothills. The king was a romantic, a friend and supporter of composer Richard Wagner, and he hired theatrical set designers rather than architects to design his castles.

More absorbed in his personal world than state affairs, Ludwig spent most of his time on his own projects — emptying his personal coffers — and left his ministers frustrated by his inattention. When his cabinet accused him of insanity, he was placed in custody after a brief showdown at Neuschwanstein Castle, and was taken to a castle next to Lake Starnberg. The following day, while out for a walk, Ludwig disappeared, his lifeless body discovered hours later. The death was declared a suicide, but many have rejected that ruling, and the demise of this popular king remains a mystery to this day.

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria was constructed by King Ludwig II

Neuschwanstein Castle, perched on a rugged hill in front of the Alpine foothills near Füssen, in southwest Bavaria, Germany, viewed on July 31, 2007. Neuschwanstein was commissioned by Bavaria’s King Ludwig II and designed by Christian Jank, a stage designer from Munich. Construction began in 1869, but it was only partially completed, with 185 interior rooms of a planned 200 left unfinished. Photo AP

King Ludwig II believed in the ideals of a bygone age, where benevolent kings ruled over their subjects by the Grace of God. A romantic in every sense of the word, Ludwig found the world he lived in so far different from what he believed it should be that he renounced it and built a world of his own. His idealism would lead his country to deem him mad, and strip him of his throne.

Ludwig was born back in 1845. Ironically enough, his birth was clouded in mystery – although he was technically born on August 24th, his birth certificate was made out for August 25th – the same day on which his Grandfather had been born. Sadly enough, Ludwig and brother Otto were brought up by King Maximilian of Bavaria, and Princess Marie of Prussia – two individuals who didn’t particularly care for each other, or for their children. Ludwig grew up detached and a loner, left to live in his own imagination.

The prince was born on the name day of the canonized Louis IX, King of France and founder of the House of Bourbon. His grandfather and godfather Ludwig I of Bavaria, had Louis XVI of France as his godfather. This relationship with the House of Bourbon had an important influence on the way the prince saw himself throughout his life.

Ludwig and his brother Otto were strictly brought up with an emphasis on duty. Their parents Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia kept themselves at a distance. They were strict with their boys, emphasizing duty above all else.

“Ludwig enjoyed dressing up … took pleasure in play acting, loved pictures and the like … and liked … making presents of his property, money and other possessions”, said his mother. This was not to change. His vivid imagination, his tendency to isolate himself, and his pronounced sense of sovereignty were also already evident when Ludwig was a child.

As a little prince, Ludwig spent much of his life staying at Hohenschwangau Castle – a modern, mock-castle, built by his father King Maximilian. It meant that, quite literally, he was a real little prince growing up in a real little castle.

When this was mixed in with his excitable imagination, it formed his obsession with Medieval chivalry, Medieval legend and fairytale castles. And this obsession was to last all his life.

In 1864, Ludwig II was crowned king at the tender age of 18, yanked out of his idyllic life into the rough and tumble life of politics. The unprepared boy king two years later found himself embroiled in the German War with his uncle, the King of Prussia, who promptly conquered both Bavaria and Austria. The king had gone from sovereign to vassal within two years.

But even as this was going on, Ludwig II was seemingly more engrossed in his fantasy world than the harsh realities of life at the head of a constitutional monarchy. He became fascinated by the works of Richard Wagner, a composer whose operas and music presented an idealized vision of ancient Germany and brought to life the ancient stories of his homeland. When he became king, Ludwig became Wagner’s friend and patron, helping the composer to reach new heights of fame.

King Ludwig II never felt like he was a “real” king. Kingship in the 19th century was far different than kingship in the medieval era Ludwig idolized. Bavaria was a constitutional monarchy, with many legal restrictions placed upon monarchical power. Ludwig was frustrated by these constrictions on what he felt was the divine rule of a king. In his mind, he envisioned an ideal holy kingdom, much like that of King Arthur and his knights, which far from being a story for Ludwig was a historical fact and the blueprint for what a kingdom should be. Since reality was far from this ideal, Ludwig isolated himself more and more in a world of his own creation.

He began grand construction projects of so-called “fairy tale” castles, magnificent structures built to evoke romantic feelings of a bygone era of chivalry.  He began in 1875 to sleep during the day and to wake at night. He receded more and more into his dream land of chivalric ideals, identifying with one of King Arthur’s knights, a man named Parzival (also spelled Percival) who was so pious and faithful that he became the Grail King.

A pious man himself, Ludwig deeply identified with his fictional counterpart’s struggles with sin and sensuality. Particularly, Ludwig struggled with homosexual urges. He had been engaged to his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, in 1867. He repeatedly pushed back the date of the marriage, but eventually broke it off completely. He never married and remained, so far as anyone knows, a celibate bachelor the rest of his life. Driven by his struggles and piety, Ludwig went as far to remodel his own castle, Neuschwanstein, to make it into the Castle of the Holy Grail, bringing his fantasy of being Parzival into the real world.

Ludwig II was possessed by the idea of a holy kingdom by the Grace of God. In reality he was a constitutional monarch, a head of state with rights and duties and little freedom of action. For this reason he built a fantasy world around him in which – far removed from reality – he could feel he was a real king. From 1875 on he lived at night and slept during the day.

Idealized designs by scene painters for a “New Hohenschwangau Castle” high above the tranquil Hohenschwangau of Ludwig II’s father, a “Byzantine Palace” and a copy of Versailles were already in existence by 1868. From the beginning, Ludwig’s fantasy world embraced several different epochs. The “New Castle” (subsequently Neuschwanstein), was based on Christian kingship in the Middle Ages, and the new Versailles, built from 1878 on the Herreninsel, recalls the baroque absolutism of the Bourbon King of France. Linderhof in the Graswangtal, built from 1869, imitates a variety of styles, with the help of the latest technology.

The latest technology was also used for the highly elaborate coaches and sleighs in which the king travelled at night, sometimes in historic costume.

Ludwig spent more and more time in the mountains and correspondingly less time in Munich. His fantasy world was further maintained by “private performances” in the Hoftheater: operas and plays performed for the king alone.

Ludwig II increasingly identified himself with Parzival, the legendary medieval figure who became Grail King through his purity and faith and thereby redeemed his sinladen uncle. The inner battle for freedom from sin and purity is distressingly evident in the diaries of the extremely pious king. This particular legend is the subject of Richard Wagner’s last work “Parsifal”, which he began in 1877. Wagner and his circle privately referred to the king as “Parsifal”, and his problems were incorporated into the drama of the Grail. Neuschwanstein, originally a monument to the minnesingers of medieval times, was reinterpreted as the Castle of the Holy Grail and the Throne Room was redesigned as the Hall of the Holy Grail – dedicated to the mystery of salvation for the world.

The “ideal monarchical poetic solitude” which the king chose for himself was not in the long run compatible with his duties as a head of state. The new settings he was constantly devising for himself were equally beyond the private means of a king. Ludwig failed through his desire to anchor his illusions and dreams in reality.

However hard the king tried to isolate himself from the world, he could not escape the hard realities. The king had squandered his fortune on the castles and the other trappings of his fairy-tale world, and was squandering the state coffers as well.  The Bavarian government intervened in 1885.

From 1885 on foreign banks threatened to seize his property. The king’s refusal to react rationally led the government to declare him insane and depose him in 1886 – a procedure not provided for in the Bavarian constitution.

An aerial view of Herrenchiemsee Castle, built on an island in the middle of Bavaria’s largest lake, the Chiemsee. Ludwig commissioned this castle as a tribute to one of his idols, the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, and his elaborate Palace of Versailles. Herrenchiemsee Castle was only partially completed, and Ludwig was only able to spend a few days there in September of 1885. Photo: Hansueli Krapf/CC BY SA

Hohenschwangau Castle, Ludwig’s family home, near Füssen, southern Germany, viewed from Neuschwanstein Castle on August 10, 2010. Photo: Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

When the fate of the king of Bavaria was placed into his hands, Bernhard von Gudden was a highly regarded figure in medical circles. Not only had the doctor perfected a machine that could cut human brains into fine slices for research purposes. But he had also made a name for himself in the area of psychiatry, which was still in its infancy at the time, with a pioneering proposition. Gudden argued that so-called “moral treatment,” which often involved inflicting violence on mental health patients, wasn’t perhaps the best curative regimen.

Still, the psychiatrist thoroughly botched his most famous case. The doctor, together with several colleagues, provided the following diagnosis: “He is teetering like a blind man without guidance on the verge of a precipice.” Gudden et. al. declared Ludwig II unfit to conduct government business. The diagnosis led to Ludwig’s being dethroned on June 10, 1886. Three days later he — and, mysteriously, Gudden — drowned in what is now called Lake Starnberg, located just south of Munich.

Published in the journal History of Psychiatry, contradict the conclusions reached by Gudden. Mannheim-based psychiatrist Heinz Häfner.says that at no time did the king’s behaviour “provide reliable evidence of his purported mental illness.”

Many historians have refrained from questioning the conclusion that the king from the House of Wittelsbach was mentally ill. After all, Ludwig gave his contemporaries ample reasons to question his sanity. He plunged his kingdom into massive debt with his megalomaniac construction projects. And he countered warnings that he wouldn’t be permitted to complete ongoing construction projects by threatening to commit suicide.

Furthermore, he threatened one ill-mannered servant with deportation to America. He wanted to forbid another underling from putting milk in his coffee. He even confounded members of his family with his enervating behavior. But did that warrant his being declared insane?

The hill that would hold up Neuschwanstein Castle, seen around 1860. The ruins of two medieval-era castles, Vorderhohenschwangau and Hinterhohenschwangau are visible among the trees. Shortly after he came to power in 1864, Ludwig II made plans to build a new, grand castle in this location, replacing the smaller. older ruins. Photo Joseph Albert

Scaffolding surrounds the walls of Neuschwanstein Castle as it is being constructed, seen about 1875. In 1868, Ludwig had written to his friend and inspiration, composer Richard Wagner: “It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day.” Photo Joseph Albert

A view of the upper courtyard of Neuschwanstein Castle, still under construction, as it appeared in 1886 — the year of Ludwig’s death. Photo Joseph Albert

Well known for his eccentric behaviour and a passion for spending money that left him deep in debt, King Ludwig II was dethroned in 1886 after a team of experts led by psychiatrist Bernhard von Gudden declared him unfit to rule.

The experts took issue with aspects of the Bavarian monarch’s apparently peculiar behaviour such as insisting on dining outdoors in all weathers, and lavishing vast sums of money on grandiose castles despite the pleadings of his financial advisors.

Taking this as evidence of mental illness Von Gudden and his associates decreed that “Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling”.

But a new review of Ludwig’s case published in the respected journal History of Psychiatry has cast doubts over Von Gudden’s conclusions.

Led by Doctor Heinz Hafner, a leading German psychiatrist, the team behind the review ploughed through the archive material on Ludwig’s alleged insanity and concluded “the psychiatric assessment was incorrect in form and substance.”

The study will add to the mystery surrounding the demise of King Ludwig as it puts its weight behind the conspiracy theory that the king was the victim of a carefully orchestrated coup, organised by family members hungry for power and embarrassed by Ludwig’s debts and rampant rumours of his alleged homosexuality.

“They had decided that the king had to be removed from power so they looked around for a psychiatrist to help them, and so asked Von Gudden,” said Doctor Hafner.

Photographer Joseph Albert, posing with his equipment in front of Hohenschwangau Castle, near the present site of Neuschwanstein Castle, around 1857. At this time, Ludwig was a 12-year-old Crown Prince, living with his family, headed by his father, King Maximilian II. Ludwig spent much of his youth in living in Hohenschwangau, exploring the surrounding lakes and Alpine foothills. Photo: Joseph Albert

King Ludwig II, age 22, in 1867, only three years after he ascended the Bavarian throne following his father’s death. Though he was young and inexperienced, Ludwig was a popular king among Bavarians. Photo: Joseph Albert

Ludwig II and his fiance, Duchess Sophie in Bavaria in 1867. Though the two were engaged throughout most of 1867, Ludwig later canceled the engagement, and never married. Studies of his diaries suggest the King, a devout Roman Catholic, struggled with his sexual orientation throughout his adult life. Photo Joseph Albert

Heinz Häfner found out that Ludwig was hard-working, contrary to his reputation. Each year, his majesty reviewed 800 documents pertaining solely to domestic Bavarian affairs. A few days before he was dethroned, the king had worked his way through a pile of papers which he signed and sent to the relevant ministries. Ludwig conducted government business far more quickly than his predecessor Maximilian II, Häfner remarked.

If anything, Gudden’s diagnosis of paranoia and insanity casts a dim light on the doctor’s own decidedly odd methods. Instead of examining the king himself, he based his report on interviews with a few of his aides in secret night-time meetings.

“To begin with Von Gudden never formally met the king during his investigation,” Häfner continued “The only time they ever met was 12 years before. Von Gudden never asked people who could give an objective opinion of the king. Only biased evidence was accepted. His opinion was based on reports from servants such as couple of people who worked in the stables, and a waiter in the palace.

“A secretary who collected written evidence that the king was capable of ruling was ignored.”

While the research into King Ludwig may relieve him of the stigma of madness it is unlikely to clear up perhaps the most enduring mystery surrounding King Ludwig: how he died.

Historians don’t know for sure how ‘Mad’ King Ludwig died. His body was found floating in Lake Starnberg – alongside the body of his psychiatrist, Dr Gudden. His death occurred just days after he was decreed to be ‘mad’, and was deposed from the throne.

On June 13, 1886, just three days after he had been deposed, Ludwig and Von Gudden went for a walk on the banks of a lake in a palace garden. Neither was seen alive again. Their bodies were retrieved from the shallows of the lake a few hours later, with Von Gudden’s showing signs of being attacked.

Ludwig II was interned in Berg Palace. Castle Berg, on Lake Starnberg, in a photograph taken in 1886, the year Ludwig II died — his body found floating in Lake Starnberg. Ludwig had been accused of insanity by his cabinet of ministers, was arrested at Neuschwanstein Castle on June 12, 1886, and transported here, to Castle Berg. On June 13, 1886, around 6:00 pm, Ludwig and a psychiatrist named Dr. Bernhard von Gudden left the castle for a walk around Lake Starnberg — that was the last time anyone saw either man alive. Both of their bodies were found late that night, Ludwig was floating face-down in waist-deep water. Ludwig’s mysterious death was officially ruled a suicide, but theories have existed since that day that the death was an assassination. Photo Joseph Albert

One of the official theories was that Ludwig had killed his psychiatrist (there were marks of struggle on Gudden’s body), and Ludwig had then either committed suicide, or drowned accidentally within the lake after the struggle.

A lot of things don’t entirely add up from this version of events. King Ludwig had never before displayed any violent tendencies; and, although he had mentioned suicide to his psychiatrist, it didn’t appear that he was particularly inclined to take his own life (and, even if he had, it’s not clear how he would have actually killed himself).

Ludwig’s death was attributed to drowning although no water was found in his lungs and he was a strong swimmer.

One persistent theory is that Ludwig was murdered. There’re two modern pieces of ‘evidence’ which may point to this conclusion: Siegfried Wichmann, a modern art-historian, has discovered what he claims to be an authentic image of Ludwig’s body, painted just after his death, which shows blood dripping from the side of his mouth.

If this were a true picture of King Ludwig’s corpse, it would suggest that he died of violence or trauma: not of drowning.

Supposed image of Ludwig’s corpse. The portrait shows what Mr Wichmann says is blood oozing from the corner of Ludwig’s mouth. “King Ludwig cannot have drowned. This is blood from the lungs and there is no water in it.

The final photograph of King Ludwig II, as his body laid in state in the royal chapel at the Munich Residence Palace in June of 1886. In his right hand he held a posy of white jasmine picked for him by his cousin the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Photo Joseph Albert

The most intriguing new material to support the murder theory has come from a 60-year-old Munich banker called Detlev Utermöhle. In a sworn affidavit Mr Utermöhle recalled a scene from his childhood which he insists he remembers vividly.

As a 10-year-old, he and his mother were invited for afternoon coffee and cakes by a Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz, who looked after some of the Wittelsbach family’s assets. Mr Utermöhle recalled how the countess gathered her guests, telling them in a hushed tone: “Now you will find out the truth about Ludwig’s death without his family knowing. I will show you all the coat he wore on the day he died.” The countess opened a chest and pulled out a grey Loden coat. Mr Utermöhle insists in his statement that he saw “two bullet holes in its back” and says his mother, who has since died, left him a written account of what they saw.

The tea-party was absolutely stunned. Unfortunately for Mr Utermöhle, the king’s coat was lost after a fire at Countess Wrba-Kaunitz’s home in 1973 in which both she and her husband perished. However his claims were supported Siegfried Wichmann, a Bavarian art historian and specialist in 19th-century painting, who published a hitherto unseen photograph of a portrait of the king painted only hours after his death.

Murder theorists counter with recent medical evidence which suggests that the king was, in fact, suffering from a form of meningitis and was far from insane. They say fishermen reported hearing shots at the time of Ludwig’s death and claim that his opponents in the Bavarian government hired assassins to kill him as he was trying to flee across the lake. They say that Von Gudden, who was also found dead in the lake, was shot because he was a witness.

In the 21st century, some want to exhume the king’s body and use modern technology to examine him, the House of Wittelsbach, his family, refuses and claims the murder allegations are false. Unless and until they relent, the mystery of who killed the Mad King Ludwig II will remain unsolved.

The latest attempt to persuade them to change their minds comes from the Berlin historian and author, Peter Glowasz, who wants to employ Swiss scientists to examine the corpse by giving it a computer tomography. He insists that while the procedure would not touch the body, it would show up any gunshot wounds.

What was the real story behind Ludwig II’s death? The truth is, we’ll probably never know entirely. Unless his corpse is exhumed – we’ll never have an accurate post-mortem to answer these key questions about King Ludwig’s life.

Bavaria’s ‘Mad King’ Ludwig may not have been so mad after all …

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Study Finds King Ludwig II May Not Have Been Crazy – SPIEGEL …

Murder mystery of mad King Ludwig | The Independent

King Ludwig II – Schloss Neuschwanstein

King Ludwig II of Bavaria – Wikipedia

The Castles of Mad King Ludwig II by Rick Steves

Death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria: Was it Murder?

Bavaria southern Germany Famous Bavarian people King Ludwig II

The youth of Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886)

The Strange Life and Mysterious Death of the Mad King, Ludwig II of …

Bavarian Palace Department | Herrenchiemsee Palace and Park …

 


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