Back in 1999 I was having a grand old time in life, having recently become addicted to the internet and the wonder of live chatting with random people all over the world. Long story short, hubby and I decided to take our first (and so far only) international trip and chose to go to Germany. He had an American-born cousin living there, and I'd become good friends online with someone else who lived there. When trying to come up with plans for what to do and see on this trip, my online friend mentioned Neuschwanstein, which I had never heard of. Turns out it is the castle that Disney modeled it's own very famous castle after. Huh, cool. Who knew? Once we were in Germany and kicking around ideas with hubby's cousin and her boyfriend, I mentioned this place and they were both like 'Oh yeah, that's very famous here but it's quite a big trip, quite a drive.' I was a little disappointed but since I didn't know anything about that place anyway, the idea of not going did not ruin my trip or anything. Imagine my surprise however, when a few days later the cousin and her boyfriend decided that yes, we could do this. They'd decided that since they'd never actually been there either, it was time to go. Awesome!
We were at the castle quite early in the day and it was very foggy. Whether some of that is usual morning mist in the mountains, I don't know, but it was foggy enough to keep the castle out of site until we were almost upon it. All of our pictures are disappointing because of that fog. And we weren't allowed to take any pictures once inside.
During our somewhat rushed guided tour of the castle I first learned about this 'mad' King Ludwig II. I only remembered a few little bits about him, like he was friends with composer Richard Wagner, he was questionably close to his cousin, and that he was possibly murdered by his own government.
As we trekked back down the mountain after our visit, we stopped to have lunch at a little tourist trap spot, and I began looking through this book that I'd bought in the castle gift shop. It was then that I realized Ludwig had lived, and this castle had been built in recent enough times that there were actual photographs of them. This bummed me out at first because I'd been thinking he was a proper medieval king. When we got back to hubby's cousin's place, they were telling us a bit more about this 'mad' king and that's when I really became interested. They said the people and the government had been unhappy because Ludwig was spending so much money building castles and not focusing on kingly duties. They told us his own government had him declared insane and that when the officials tried to come and get him, the peasant people from the village below the castle had blocked their way and saved him. They told us there is a scandalous debate to this day about whether he was murdered by the officials to remove the problem, or whether he killed himself. At that time, knowing very little back in 1999, I came away from it all thinking they'd totally murdered him.
Many years have gone by since then and I've always meant to learn more about King Ludwig II but just never made the effort. Until now.
I've had several Ludwig books on my Amazon wishlist for years. For whatever reason, last year my sister got me two of them for my birthday and Christmas. I read these two books while staying at my mom's after her surgery recently and oh my gosh, I am re-obsessed with the story of this confused and colorful ruler!
Ludwig was born in 1845, and became king of Bavaria at the age of 18 upon his father's sudden death. He was not ready to be king, and probably didn't even really want to be one. Being next in line for the throne, he'd been raised and prepared for it, with strict and isolated upbringing, military training, observing the political duties, and so on. He grew up arrogant, being primed to be king, and often flaunted it in his younger brother's face that HE would one day be king.
King Ludwig II, 1864, age 18 or 19
His reign lasted from March 1864 to June 1886, when he mysteriously died.
Early on, he tried to be a good king and perform the duties he was expected to, but he'd also, in his later teens, become obsessed with the operas of composer Richard Wagner and that is where his heart really was. He was in love with the arts, with the romance and beauty of old medieval hero tales. He could lose himself in that and be happy, and not have to deal with the real world and pressures put upon him. Also during the early years of his reign, there were a lot of territory squabbles around Germany, France, and Austria, and the young king was not aggressive or out for power. He often held back, trying to refuse the advice of his advisors, not wanting his people to go to war. Eventually they had to though, and they were not victorious.
As I was reading the first of the two books my sister had gotten me, I was bored with so much time being focused on the relationship with Richard Wagner. By the time I got to the second book though, I realized there can be no story of King Ludwig II without Wagner being included. Wagner had already been very successful but at the time King Ludwig II came along he was nearly in ruin. He had become unpopular and severely in debt. Ludwig loved him though, or his operas rather, and bailed him out and helped him on his way. Young Ludwig was this older man's biggest fan and was willing to do anything to help more of his stunning operas make it to the stage. There is a ton of scandal in their friendship, mostly from Wagner totally using and abusing the king's favor. He lived extravagantly, well beyond his means, and lived a shady life, including a long time affair with his conductor's wife. He tried to hide all this from Ludwig though, and continued to manipulate him for more money and more favors, knowing how much the king loved him. I came away from these two books with a total dislike of Richard Wagner.
Although he didn't really want to be king, Ludwig was very arrogant and proud when it came to his position. He would pull rank whenever it suited him, and demanded utmost respect. He longed for the old days of medieval kings who had absolute power and control. If he was in a bad mood, his temper would flare and there would be hell to pay. When one advisor tried to urgently counsel him on a critical matter, and said something about how the king "must" do something or other, Ludwig blew up with "A king must never 'must'!" One one guy raised his head and eyes before leaving the room the king was in, Ludwig ordered him punished. Even with Wagner, if the old man overstepped his bounds or tried to give political advice, Ludwig would switch from swooning fanboy to raging king.
For all his pride in being King though, he hated being in the public eye. He wasn't comfortable being gawked at, and didn't like attending functions like balls or military reviews. He loved going to the opera of course, but tried to do it discreetly and preferred attending dress rehearsals instead, because the crowds were much smaller. He was ill at ease with political people, other rulers, his own government. Yet he loved being among the common folk and the peasants in the little village near his castles.
As Ludwig got older and the relationship with Wagner eventually fell apart, he started to really withdraw into his own world and neglect his duties as King. His government would track him down when need be and have him sign things, but more and more as the years went on, Bavaria was run without him being involved. He was losing the good looks of his youth, gaining weight, acting more eccentric. He was not close to his younger brother or mother (sometimes referring to her as "the widow of my predecessor.") and began to trust no one. He started shifting his day and night around, sleeping all day and being awake all night. He would go on midnight rides around the castles and villages, whether on horseback or in sleigh or carriage. He became more and more obsessed with old time rulers, and fantasy heroes. And he was struggling against his own homosexuality.
Ludwig around 1872, about 27 years old
I used to prefer his younger pictures but the more I read, the more I started to like his pictures as he got older. There are some really corny looking ones from his younger days, and yeah, you really could argue that he was weird. lol
Ludwig around 1884, about 39 years old
And he started building castles.
There had always been the royal residence in Munich and the family castle, Howenschwangau, but now he started redoing other places and building brand new ones. By the time he died he had Neuschanstein, Linderhof, and Herrenchiemsee built, and had plans for at least two more. People say he was driving Bavaria to bankruptcy with his over the top building and decorating, but it was really his own money that was used. He did receive pay for being the king, and the Wittelsbach family wealth was tapped into as well. Towards the end though, the king himself was severely in debt and demanded some of his cabinet members find a way to get him more money. This was the wrong move that opened him up to what was to come. His financial affairs were personal as long as he used his own money and dealt with it himself, but when he involved the government it opened him up to all sorts of trouble.
Ludwig's own government started seeing a need to do something about their seemingly useless ruler. An uncle of Ludwig started seeing a need to do something to save the Wittelsbach family name and dynasty. They combined forces and the scandal began. They hired some shady doctors to gather questionable background information on Ludwig and compiled it into reports that declared him insane, thus unfit to rule. Ludwig was clueless to what was going on behind his back and when word finally got out, the night they tried to take him away, he refused to believe it.
In both books, the chapters about this betrayal and his death had me in tears. He was staying at Neuschwanstein castle at the time, and the officials first stopped at the smaller family castle below. A groom was preparing horses for Ludwig's midnight ride when the officials said there was no need, the king would be going with them. The groom pretended to be returning the horse to the stall, but really he raced up the mountain road to Ludwig's castle to warn him. Ludwig refused to believe anything was happening but others in the castle convinced him to close the gates and place extra guards, and to send word to a couple trusted people for help. When the officials eventually figured out they'd been betrayed, they demanded horses be prepared for their own carriages and headed up the mountain, only to find a growing crowd of peasants from the village were hindering their path and blocking the gates. Despite what people in the political world thought of 'mad' King Ludwig II, the common people still loved him.
There was a standoff at the gates of Neuschwanstein, and the officials were eventually taken prisoner. It was only after this that Ludwig began to believe something was really going on. One of the people in the officials party had gotten away though and managed to get word back to Munich. A larger party was then sent, and threats were made against the people who remained loyal to Ludwig, threats of court martial and treason. Most of his people left him during the night and next day. As the last of his loyal men was reluctantly about to leave, the officials used him as bait to trap Ludwig, and he was finally in custody and informed of what was going on. They spent part of that next day at Neuschwanstein, and Ludwig spent some time with that one last loyal man, going though personal things and destroying some private papers.
Ludwig asked the doctor at one point, how he could have declared him (Ludwig) insane without having personally examined him. The doctor blew it off as having compiled overwhelming evidence beforehand. Ludwig asked how testimony from people who hated him could be credible. The doctor was like 'Yeah yeah blah blah, crazy person.' So Ludwig knew he was in trouble, that he'd been betrayed and he was screwed.
He was taken back to Munich where his 'rehabilitation' was to begin. He spent one day there, being denied things he'd become accustomed to, like sleeping all day. He was locked in his room. There were guards on the grounds. He met with doctors. And then it all becomes fuzzy. It is said that he and a doctor went for a walk in the morning and because Ludwig did not cause any problems he would be allowed to go for a walk again that evening. For some reason, guards did not go with him and the doctor on that evening walk. (They had in the morning.) When they did not return by nightfall a party was sent to search for them and the bodies of Ludwig and the doctor who'd declared him insane were found dead in the lake near the castle.
The case has never been solved. The 'official' story was that Ludwig flew into a rage and killed the doctor, and then killed himself. But there are still many questions about this. Before reading the first book, I'd been of the angry opinion that these officials had killed him to eliminate their problem. But why would they have killed the doctor too? To tie up loose ends? As I read that first book though, I'd changed my mind and was now hoping that Ludwig had indeed killed the doctor and killed himself. He'd made suicidal comments while still trapped in Neuschwanstein, and it was his threat to throw himself from the castle tower that allowed the officials to trap him. He'd made comments about drowning in the lake, that his life was over if they took everything away from him. So I'd come to the opinion that he'd seen himself as the hero of his own story and killed himself before they could do it to him. But I kept wondering, how do you drown yourself?
As I read the second book my opinion of the murder-suicide grew stronger. The second book pointed out something I'd forgotten in the first book, that Ludwig had supposedly beaten one of his employees so bad that the man had eventually died. This is disputed, but if it's true, it makes me believe that he very well could have attacked the doctor and killed him. Ludwig was a big man, about 6'4" and over 200 pounds in his later years. But then this second book presented information about a theory that I'd never heard of before, a theory that he'd managed to contact his cousin across the lake and was actually swimming to be saved, not to kill himself. This was a very exciting theory to me, but questions about this remain too.
They say he'd managed to slip a letter to a man loyal to him that morning, a letter meant for his cousin. This would be the cousin he was closest to all his life, who happened to be at her family's castle across the lake. They say he'd been preoccupied with staring out his window the rest of the day and had been watching small boats going up and down the shore. He'd asked for a pair of opera glasses and watched the lake more closely. They say it had been rainy and stormy that day and he'd grown worried they wouldn't let him take that second walk. They say that as he and the doctor left the building, Ludwig had undone the buttons on his heavy overcoat and his suit jacket. They say he'd also asked an attendant to role up his umbrella. They say that later the umbrella was found on a bench at a spot that overlooked the lake, along with his overcoat and suit jacket, which appeared to have been hastily removed and tossed aside (the arms pulled inside out). They say the doctor had a lot of wounds on his face and hands, obvious signs of a beating. The theory is that Ludwig had bashed him with the umbrella and they'd scuffled, and when the doctor had perhaps collapsed, Ludwig had thrown the things on the bench and hurried to the water to try and swim to the boat that his cousin had sent. But then what??????
If there really was a boat, why hadn't they picked him up? Even if he'd been injured or drowned or whatever, why hadn't they picked him up? One theory is that he was shot as he'd tried to flee. Did the boat abandon him when shots rang out? Was there ever really a boat? He wasn't very far from the shore, and the water was only about four feet deep there. What the heck happened?! We'll never know, and it's driving me crazy. In recent years, science teams have wanted to reexamine Ludwig's body, mainly to see if there are indeed gunshot wounds. The Wittelsbach family won't allow it. Why? They say Ludwig is at rest now, just leave him alone. But don't they want to know? Maybe not, considering his own family supported the efforts to have him overthrown. Are they hiding what the officials covered up? These days, the science teams insist, they don't even need to disturb the king's body because they can do such high definition scans now that would be able to show things like gunshot wounds. I wish they'd consent to it!
The whole thing remains a mystery.
One of the saddest things though is that Ludwig twice in those final days begged his last loyal man, "Preserve these rooms as a sacred precinct, and let no curious eyes profane them!" His castles were his private havens and he wanted them to remain that way. Even more sad is that he died in mid June and the government opened his castles for public tours in August. That's rather sad and disgusting. Ironically, opening his castles to the public pulled his family and Bavaria out of debt, and they continue to be some of the biggest tourist attractions in Germany.
This is me on a very foggy day in November 1999 at Neuschwanstein castle. I am one of those people who has profaned his rooms. I have mixed emotions about it now. I'm weirdly sad to be guilty of that crime, yet I'm amazed that, there I am right outside the very gates that he was taken away through. I walked through the rooms and gawked. I spent money in the freakin' gift shop that has been set up at the end of the tour! Yet I'm still giddy at the thought that I was in the very same place King Ludwig II of Bavaria was.
Very young Casey and Ty with Howenschwangau in back.
And I'm kicking myself now for not paying more attention to Howenschwangau castle! At the time, knowing nothing about any of this, it was just a small boring castle that happened to be close to the big glorious castle. Now I know that this was the family home, the place Ludwig probably spent most of his time. I wish I'd taken more pics of it and known its sentimental worth then. We did not have time to see Linderhof that day, although hubby's cousin's boyfriend had wanted to and did try to figure out a way to sneak it in, and there had never been any mention of Herrenchiemsee. I didn't know anything about that place until I'd read these books. If I ever do go back to Germany, I will displease the king again and visit ALL of his castles.
So there you have a brief (brief?) history of King Ludwig II. I'm still obsessed and I think all things Ludwig or old time Bavarian will be on my birthday/Christmas list this year. I know there are some movies made about Ludwig's life that I'm desperate to get my hands on. And I'm even curious about Wagner's operas now.
Did you know anything about Ludwig before reading this post?
What do you think happened to him that evening by the lake?
I would love to natter endlessly about this but sadly, no one around me is interested enough to listen.