01 October 2011

King Ludwig II's castles in Bavaria

From May-Oct 2011, Haus der Bayerischen Geschichte and the Bavarian Department of State-owned Palaces, Gardens and Lakes have established an exhibition that follows in the footsteps of King Ludwig II and his Bavaria. The event marks the 125th anniversary of the death of Bavaria’s most famous monarch. Herrenchiemsee New Palace, open to the public for the first time, will host the exhibition.

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.


Note that Ludwig visited Versailles in 1867 and was bowled over. This was before he started his building programme, but the influence remained in Ludwig's mind for 20 years.

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

Moving further to the east and set against the Alps is the largest Bavarian lake of all, Chiemsee. Ludwig was clearly besotted with Louis XIV of France, considering him the absolute embodiment of monarchy. So when Ludwig bought the entire island, he had a new Schloss Herrenchiemsee 1878-86 built in direct imitation of Versailles. See the vertical axis of the estate run straight into the fine lake, modelled directly on Versailles. See the fountains and the statues. Nothing is quite as regal and as splendid as these frescoed ceilings, sculpture, chandeliers and gilt decoration.

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

In this anniversary year, The Munich Residenz will exhibit "Ludwig II’s Conservatory in the Munich Residenz". Ludwig had a conservatory built on the roof of the Residenz where he had created a dream world of plants, animals and oriental buildings. This was his retreat when he visited Munich only once a year, to sign legislation. He did not like leaving his isolated mountain retreat and travelling to the city.

For fantastic photos of Ludwig's Bavaria, including the building and decorating of the castles, go to In Focus with Alan Taylor.


the foto fanatic said...

Stunning beauty in those castles.

I can't imagine the construction costs, but if it was his own money being used in this frenzy of castle construction, where was the harm?

Poor Ludwig.

Hels said...

foto fanatic,

this is a good story, isn't it? I think that King Ludwig was already leery about the running of his nation, before he came to power. He was expected to lead the army from in front AND run the day to day affairs of government, neither of which he could abide.

Which would have been fine, had he abdicated or handed over the controls of parliament to the Cabinet. But as it was, they had to drag him to Munich once a year, just to get legislation signed.

Castle building was of course hugely expensive. Desperate Ludwig tried borrowing personal money from Swedes, Norwegians, Turks etc etc. But even that was not enough. Ludwig was still planning two more castles - a HUGE Chinese Palace and a more modest Byzantine Palace.

Andrew said...

And no specific person mentioned who was a lover? I would have thought that a king not too interested in running his kingdom would be appreciated by the Cabinet. Haha, word verification is sedion, almost sedition.

WeTravel said...

We saw the concert hall in Bayreuth and Wagner's home in the same town. Loved them. Ludwig may have paid for them, as well.

Hermes said...

Nothing I can add I'm afraid - absolutely riveting.

Hels said...


I too wish I knew who Ludwig fancied. Wiki noted that as an adolescent, Ludwig became best friends with his aide de camp, Prince Paul of Bavaria's wealthy Thurn und Taxis family. Plus he had a succession of close friendships with men, including his chief equerry and Master of the Horse, a Hungarian theatre actor and a courtier Alfons Weber. But were these relationships consumated? Or did he just dream of what might have been?

Hels said...


fantastic places! Ludwig II had already planned to build a large opera house in Munich, specialising in Wagnerian opera. When that fell through, it was not difficult to shift to a very similar structure in Bayreuth. Along with the building, the early Wagner festivals were also paid for from Ludwig's finances.

Wagner's villa, Wahnfried, was built in Bayreuth under the "sponsorship" of King Ludwig. Does this mean Ludwig paid for all the costs? some of the costs? or did he go guarantor for the other funders?

Hels said...


I come back to this story often, often in connection to Wagner, or Oberammergau or Touring The Romantische Strasse. It never fails to move students.

jeronimus said...

I once saw a documentary which made out that Wagner was Bavaria's equivalent of Rasputin, eroding the viability the monarchy there, which ultimately lead to the rise of Greater Germany and the third Reich.

Hels said...


good question. My feeling is that Wagner's relationship with Cosimo was an embarrassment only for the Bavarians. And in Bavarian court circles, they were offended by Wagner's extravagant lifestyle and arrogance. He was seen as a potentially evil influence upon the young King. Outside Bavaria, people didn't know or didn't care.

But the strategies Wagner used in setting up his Bayreuth festival did try to link Wagner's music with the unification of Germany. Wagner saw himself as the Bismarck of music, the composer who had sacrificed his life to the German cause. German nationalism was far broader than tiny Bavaria.

jeronimus said...

I don;t know much about this period, but the doco seemed to be saying that though Bavaria was a small power, it was crucially poised between the conflicting powers of Prussia and Austria, due to marriage alliances. Perhaps if Ludwig had married his Austrian fiance rather than indulging his obsession with Wagner's fantasy world, Austria would have been obliged to protect Bavaria. Domino theories of geopolitics tend to be wrong, but not always.
Ludwig borrowed heavily for the construction of the castles but they have payed for themselves many times over through tourism.

jeronimus said...

Thanks for the post by the way. I visited Neuschwanstein, and two of the other castles, at a very impressionable and pivotal age of 12, and it was good to revisit the experience.

Hels said...


my pleasure! I visited Linderhof and Neuschwanstein and loved the experience also.

Perhaps if Ludwig had married his Austrian fiancee, Austria _might_ have been obliged to protect Bavaria. But it was never going to stop German unification.

How ironic is it that the castles have ideed paid for themselves many times over through tourism. However we need to note two things.

a] Ludwig hardly had a chance to enjoy any of his magnificent castles before he died.

b] Even had Ludwig lived to a decent age, he would have been horrified to see people coming up the mountain path to his private, isolated space. He wouldn't even allow the servants to be in the same room that he was in.

Heather on her travels said...

I had in my mind that Ludwig was married to the beautiful and celebrated Sissi - or perhaps they were just related

Hels said...


Sissi and Ludwig II were close cousins. Sissi was a Bavarian princess who went on to become Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837–1898), spouse of Emperor Franz Joseph I.

Ludwig (1845-1886)'s lifetime overlapped Sissi's exactly and may explain why he was close to these particular cousins. He was even engaged to Sissi's sister, Duchess Sophie of Bavaria - briefly!

Hels said...


I had added a reference from the blog Gay Influence which is very helpful. I had already mentioned that Ludwig became best friends with his aide de camp, Prince Paul von Thurn und Taxis family.

The blog also discusses was a reason for the postponement and ultimate cancellation. During the summer Ludwig had met Richard Hornig, a superb horseman who was employed as a groom at one of his stables. Hornig soon became Crown Equerry and Master of the Horse, controlling all carriages, stabling, purchase, breeding and training of the Royal horses.

Philippa Grafton said...

Ludwig didn't like his parents but he shared a strong connection with his grandfather, the eccentric Ludwig I, king of Bavaria from 1825-48. Most of his childhood was spent in his father's castle, Hohenschwangau, a modest but fantastical building near the Austrian border. It was decorated with Germanic sagas. It was from Hohenschwangau that Ludwig first laid eyes on the ruinous fort where he was to build Neuschwangstein.

King Ludwig I abdicated in 1848 in favour of his eldest son, Maximilian, but it wasn't until 1868 that grandfather died and left his wealth to his grandson. The same year, Ludwig II commissioned concept art from Wagner's stage designer for Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee. One year later, the foundation of Neuschwanstein was laid, with the previous ruins that stood on the spot demolished.

Philippa Grafton
Explore History, #005

Hels said...


many thanks. One question still bothers me. If Ludwig II spent all his time in dad's Hohenschwangau and loved it but found it too modest, why didn't he simply expand and re-decorate Hohenschwangau? It still would have cost him heaps of money, but not nearly as much as a brand new Neuschwanstein cost. AND he would have had plenty of years to love his dream creation.