Innocent romantic, egotistical spendthrift or creative genius – opinions are varied and extreme when it comes to “Mad” King Ludwig II Of Bavaria. his manic compulsion to build fairytale castles, almost bankrupt the nation and brought about his downfall, but today generates millions of dollars in tourist revenue for Germany.
Known variously as King Charming, Mad King Ludwig, The Swan King and The Fairy King, Ludwig II Of Bavaria was an enigmatic figure about whom opinion remains divided. Some regard him as a greedy opportunist who bled Bavaria dry, while others prefer to view him as the victim: a fragile character, hounded into an early grave. It’s probable the truth lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Ludwig was the product of a horribly mismanaged upbringing and was thrust into a position he was totally unsuited for, but hisown vanity and selfishness also contributed to his downfall.
Born in 1845 to frosty, Catholic parents, Ludwig had an unhappy childhood. His strange behaviour began early, dressing as a nun from a young age. His tutors thought it prudent to remove his pet tortoise as he was becoming “too fond of it”. In his teens he began to complain of strange voices in his head. The doctors assured his mother they would go away. They did not.
Miniature portrait of Ludwig II on a gold snuff box he presented to his cousin Sissi, later Empress of Austria
Banished to the nursery and starved of affection, he later admitted to dreaming of pulling his father out of his coffin and stamping on his mother’s breasts. He was extremely intelligent but his leaning towards the arts was totally ignored in favour of a rigid system of education focused on science and politics, subjects the young prince abhorred.
His tutors’ attempts to shoehorn him into the mould required of a future King only served to confuse and frustrate him.
When he was just 12, he exhibited something of his intelligent, enquiring mind when he confided in his diary, “Vanity can also be the consequence of flattery. If one is, from one’s youth, surrounded by people who do nothing but flatter, one very easily becomes vain and when one grows older it is very hard to give it up. Very often vanity is the cause of egotism, which is very bad for men because one thinks only of oneself and forgets one’s neighbours. The vain man might be said to have a poisonous snake gnawing at his heart.”
When he came to power in 1864, 18-year- old Ludwig was love-starved, haughty, shy, superstitious and generally ill-equipped for affairs of state. It was rumoured that he considered offering the throne to his brother Otto. But obsessive compulsive Otto was too busy washing his hands, obsessed with cleanliness. He spent most of his life and his entire reign (1886 to 1913) locked up. According to Karl Shaw in his book Royal Babylon, “Otto’s illness manifested itself in the relatively anonymous pursuits of barking like a dog, pulling faces, shouting abuse and occasionally taking potshots at people with a rifle through his bedroom window.”
The Minister for Justice, Eduard von Bomhard, was the first to hint that Ludwig might not be of sound mind, noting he was “mentally gifted in the highest degree, but the contents of his mind are stored in a totally disordered fashion”. While Ludwig was beginning to show signs of mental instability, he had yet to reveal his homosexuality.
Ludwig in his coronation robes. the Wittelsbach clan was infamously unbalanced – his aunt was convinced she had swallowed a grand piano made of glass.
In the early years, it’s doubtful whether Ludwig realised he was gay, or what being gay actually meant. History is full of closet cases, either suppressing their homosexuality altogether or indulging in the forbidden fruit discreetly. In later life, Ludwig wasn’t cautious or straight acting. He once exclaimed, “If I didn’t have my hair curled every day, I couldn’t enjoy my food.” During military exercises he carried an umbrella rather than a weapon, and refused to wear a helmet for fear of ruining his coiffure.
Bavarians began to gossip about their curious monarch, but Ludwig didn’t care. He hid from the public whenever possible; he rarely gave audiences and when he did, steeled himself with alcohol or feigned headaches and left early. The only company he did enjoy was that of young men. Prince Paul Von Thurn Und Taxis (his “beloved angel”), appointed
as an aide-de-camp to Ludwig, became the King’s first close companion. It’s unclear whether the relationship was sexual but it gave Ludwig an intimate camaraderie he had not hitherto enjoyed. There followed an infatuation with a much older man – Richard Wagner. On ascending the throne, Ludwig heard the German composer was being chased by creditors, so he settled his considerable debts and brought him to Munich.
Wagner’s operas, a magical world of medieval fantasy set to music, appealed to Ludwig’s dreamy imagination. He was particularly fond of Lohengrin and Tristan Und Isolde. He often dressed up like the characters and re-enacted his favourite scenes. Ludwig’s sexuality inevitably raises questions about the relationship between the two men but Wagner was a notorious womaniser. The surviving correspondence between the two men is schmaltzy and romantic and could easily be mistaken for love letters, but most scholars agree that Wagner’s interests in Ludwig were somewhat other than romantic. He was merely indulging the young King to secure his lucrative patronage. Wagner received jewellery, clothes and houses; his annual salary exceeded that of the highest government officials.
Wagner was intensely unpopular, loathed almost universally, except by the king. The Bavarian government soon cottoned on to Wagner’s scam and forced Ludwig to banish him to Switzerland or lose his crown. The young king was devastated. Since childhood, he’d shunned reality and sought solace in a land of make-believe. Wagner had set this fantasy world to music, creating a form of escapism for Ludwig; the only place he could exist as a gay man. After Wagner’s expulsion Ludwig said, “I feel so forsaken and lonely on this earth… where I shall always feel a stranger.”
Meanwhile, pressure from the Bavarian Court was increasing regarding nuptials. The country wanted a queen consort and an heir. Ludwig dutifully followed the marital prodding of his mother and proposed to his cousin Sophie, sister of his close friend the Empress Elisabeth Of Austria. It was a disaster: he postponed the engagement twice and then broke it permanently, abandoning marriage altogether. From now on, he wouldn’t even pretend to enjoy the company of women. He became fiercely misogynistic and eventually banned women from court altogether.
And it wasn’t just women he couldn’t stand, Ludwig had a profound antipathy to ugliness. Unattractive servants were ordered to avoid the King, turn their offending visage to the wall or if particularly hideous, wear a black canvas hood. The King eventually solved the problem by firing the repellent staff and replacing them with hired help of a more pleasing countenance. Servants were forbidden from coughing or clearing their throats and towards the end of his reign were even forced to kowtow to him on all fours. On occasion, the king would lash out at an unfortunate retainer. His orders to execute problematic staff were ignored, as was his request to kidnap the Crown Prince Of Prussia and hold him captive, chained in a cave.
Ludwig aged 22 in 1867. “The vain man might be said to have a poisonous snake gnawing at his heart.”
As he matured, Ludwig became increasingly emotional and nervous. He could only attend state functions after drinking 10 or more glasses of champagne; only then would he mount the “scaffold”. He was so terrified of appearing in public that he would hide behind a screen of flowers.
In 1869, Ludwig started a diary documenting his turmoil about being gay; it consumed him. He was so appalled by his homosexual longings that he documented every kiss and caress – a sort of written confession. He was torn between his sexual yearnings and his role as a defender of the Catholic faith. And so he withdrew, from family, friends and the court. He threw himself into his building projects, which became more grandiose and fantastical as his grip on reality lessened. His never-ending pursuit of creating a sanctuary where he could be himself almost bankrupted the state of Bavaria. According to Shaw, “Unlike other famous builders, Ludwig didn’t put up monuments forpersonal aggrandizement: he built for sheer escapism and the personal satisfaction of seeing his irrational whims become reality. These castles came to be known as his ‘sick children’.” It was no coincidence that Ludwig looked to theatrical scene-painter and master of make-believe Christopher Jank, rather than an experienced architect to design the picture-postcard-cliché that is Neuschwanstein Castle. It became the model for the Disneyland version of Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
But even the building of fairytale castles couldn’t distract Ludwig from his sensual longings. The dalliances continued, with a slew of stable boys and young army officers. Each receiving special privileges and presents in return for giving Ludwig “sexual kisses” and “sensual passions”. Munich was abuzz with tales of midnight sleigh rides, naked youths dancing around camp fires and howling at the moon, doused in champagne and wrapped in furs by their attentive monarch. The Bavarian Court became staffed almost exclusively by handsome young men with little regard for rank or experience. One court official observed a lowly servant wearing one of the King’s diamond rings after a “private royal audience”.
At least outwardly, any reservations the king might have had about acting on his homosexual urges dissipated as time went
on. No man in his court was “safe”. There was Richard Hornig, “beloved of my soul,” and Joseph Kainz, a Hungarian actor.
“Really, there are times when I wouldn’t swear that you are not mad.”
There were the usual letters, gifts and trips abroad, but like history repeating, Ludwig would tire; quarrelling would begin in earnest and the relationship would end. Ludwig’s descent into madness and his struggle with homosexuality became more acute as he matured. Once, feeling particularly antisocial, he dined alone with his favourite horse, a grey mare. He quietly supped while the confused animal tore apart the royal dining room. On another occasion, he was seen staring into a mirror, shaking his head and muttering, “Really, there are times when I wouldn’t swear that you are not mad.”
Ludwig and his fiancé, Duchess Sophie In Bavaria, in 1867. He later cancelled the engagement and never married.
Feeling isolated, Ludwig retreated even further. In the last 11 years of his reign, he didn’t make a single public appearance. He preferred the company of mountain peasants to courtiers and he continued building castle after castle at great expense. When he ran out of money, he decided to sell the entire state of Bavaria and build a “New Bavaria” on an island in the Mediterranean.
Neuschwanstein Castle, completed in 1886 and opened to the public only seven weeks after the king’s death.
Soon Ludwig was bankrupt and Bavaria was teetering on the edge of international scandal. The total of Ludwig’s building projects came to about 31 million marks. Of this, 7.5 million marks were his personal debt. He had bled
the coffers of Bavaria dry. At this point, logic seems to have abandoned Ludwig altogether. His solution to his fiscal woes? Recruit thieves to rob Europe’s largest banks.
“Ludwig didn’t put up monuments for personal aggrandizement: he built for the satisfaction of seeing his irrational whims become reality.”
Ruled by an unstable king whose behaviour was becoming increasingly erratic, the Bavarian government had had enough; it
was time to act. There were few options for the peaceful dethroning of a king. However, one possible solution was insanity. Four psychiatrists had little trouble in finding evidence of the king’s madness and the 40-year-old monarch was removed with
little resistance and placed under house arrest. Three days later his body was found floating in a lake. He had drowned along with one of his physicians. Evidence at the scene suggests it was unlikely that the king was murdered.
Theories abound: some plausible and others less believable. What’s almost certain is that the two men struggled before their deaths. It’s thought most likely that the King attempted suicide or tried to swim across the lake to freedom; the doctor tried to prevent him and was drowned. Finally, the king, exhausted succumbed to the freezing water or suffered a heart attack.
Peace in death: Ludwig in 1886
Was Ludwig insane? Possibly. Was he eccentric, enigmatic, confused and frustrated? Certainly. Ludwig’s friend Empress Elisabeth Of Austria provides one theory, “The King wasn’t mad: he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently and spared him so terrible an end.” But perhaps the most appropriate epitaph for Ludwig came from his own mouth, “Ein ewiges Rätsel will ich bleiben mir und anderen.” (I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.
Scaffolding surrounds the walls of Neuschwanstein Castle under construction, about 1875.