Born in Nymphenburg Castle Munich, Ludwig (1845-1886) was a member of the Wittelsbach dynasty. Ludwig’s mother Queen Marie enjoyed taking her two sons on vigorous rural hikes and this was where Ludwig developed his love of the peaceful Schwangau mountains.
He became king of Bavaria in 1864 at 18, but alas for the Bavarians, Ludwig had no interest in politics. Despite being a handsome teenager with a trim body that made women breathe heavily, he became a lonely, isolated man, with no wife and no friends. Ludwig II and his fiancee, Duchess Sophie were engaged throughout most of 1867, but Ludwig cancelled the engagement as soon as he decently could, and never married. Studies of his diaries suggest the King, a devout Roman Catholic, struggled with his sexual orientation throughout his adult life.
Prince Paul von Thurn und Taxis and Ludwig shared a passion for composer Richard Wagner and for the theatre. Paul was gifted with a beautiful voice and sang for the king many times. When Paul and Ludwig visited Wagner’s home, the lads shared a cosy little room. Wagner rehearsed Prince Paul in a portion of his opera Lohengrin, which was performed for the king's 20th birthday in August 1865, at the Alpsee in Hohenschwangau, where Ludwig’s family had a castle. It was magnificently staged with Paul dressed as the hero Lohengrin, wearing silver armour, drawn over the lake by an artificial swan in illuminated scenery. The King sat enraptured as his intimate friend sang his favourite music.
It is safe to say that Ludwig had only two great manias in life: castle building and Richard Wagner's (1813-83) music. He did more than just listen to Wagner's music. He financed almost all the older composer's projects, had Wagner stay in his castles and bailed Wagner out when he was in debt. Wagner was fortunate and he knew it. Especially when Ludwig requested the presence of the conductor and piano virtuoso Hans von Bülow and his wife Cosima, who was in fact Franz Liszt's illegitimate daughter born to the Countess mistress of Liszt. The idea was that the pair would help Wagner in all his musical activities. Both were keen admirers of Wagner's music, but alas Cosima and Wagner fell in love. Wagner and Cosima’s relationship caused much hostility in court circles.
Wagner was soon forced to leave Munich for Switzerland, to a house rented by Ludwig for him. Ludwig retired to the castle Hohenschwangau. The one thing that was giving the king happiness, Wagner’s music, had been taken from him. He was inconsolable.
Originally Ludwig had intended to surround his kingdom with five castles, although only 3 of them got started. In the south of the country is the castle Neuschwanstein, started in 1869 on top of a craggy, isolated mountain. This was the last castle Ludwig tried to build, but when he died in 1886 all construction stopped with most of the rooms unfinished. This was his fantasy castle, including with white towers, grey turrets and pinnacles.
Inside the bedroom is neo-gothic timber carving, completed by 14 sculptors in four years. Tristan and Isolde scenes dominate the walls. The rooms that were finished had a common theme in their decoration, Wagner’s operas, with scenes in sequence around the walls.
The great Singer's Hall on an upper floor has walls covered with heroic scenes from Lohengrin and Parsifal; internal halls are lined with fine oak timber and added marble. This isolated king arranged private performances in his castles or in Munich at fabulous cost, and appointed an official poet to his household.
The huge Throne Room of Neuschwanstein resembled a Byzantine church. Ludwig’s instructions were that it was to be based on Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Ludwig saw his throne room as a holy of holies, where he could realise his fantasies. The balcony, which is accessible from the Throne Room, has a magnificent view of the surroundings.
Linderhof Castle, just a few ks west of Oberammergau, was one of Ludwig's rococo palaces that was completed. It was built in the early 1870s, and had exquisitely decorated rooms that specifically tried to rival Versailles. As did a number of his buildings.
Built for a king who preferred not to meet people, the palace and its lovely grounds were isolated among the quiet hills and valleys several ks from town. Linderhof palace only contains ten rooms, and of the ten, four of them were waiting-rooms for the servants. Of course because of the King's reclusiveness, most of the amenities were designed to be enjoyed by the King alone. The dining room table is built for only one person and was lowered into the kitchen to be set so no servant had to enter the dining room. The gardens and pavilions were even more amazing.
Schloss Herrenchiemsee Hall of Mirrors, looking remarkably like Versailles
By 1885, it was clear to the Bavarian Cabinet that Ludwig's building programme was not going to stop. By then the King had 3 building projects well under way, and was spending huge amounts of money. Although Ludwig paid for the castles and private performances out of his own pocket, it was still diverting his focus away from the affairs of state. So his grandiose building scheme, combined with Ludwig's disinterest in the Affairs of State, and his refusing to see his ministers, lead to a fraught situation.
In 1886, Ludwig began investigating the possibility of replacing his Cabinet. Cabinet got wind of his plan, and in order to protect the government, they had to get in first and get rid of their King. Speed and secrecy were important. If Ludwig heard of their scheme, he would have dissolved the Cabinet immediately. As it happened, three eminent psychiatrists (who had never met the king face to face) ruled that the king was permanently insane, so Ludwig could be safely declared unfit to rule.
In June 1886, it was officially announced that Prince Otto was to rule as permanent Regent in place of the ill King. Ludwig was imprisoned in a palace near Munich. Soon after, the body of this devout Catholic was mysteriously found in the lake. He drowned but was it suicide, murder or accident? He was only 41.
King Ludwig II
For fantastic photos of Ludwig's Bavaria, including the building and decorating of the castles, go to In Focus with Alan Taylor.