King Ludwig II

Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886), King of Bavaria, 1864-1886

He is known by many nicknames: the Swan King, the Mad King of Bavaria, the Dream King, and Mad Ludwig. Was “Mad King Ludwig” mad? This is only one of many mysteries that surround the former Bavarian regent to this day. Ludwig II (Ludwig Friedrich Wilhelm) has become one of the most legendary figures in Bavarian and German history, a history full of legendary figures.

Portrait of King Ludwig II

1865: Ludwig II of Bavaria in coronation regalia. From a painting by Ferdinand von Piloty. Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

Other mysteries include the enigma of Ludwig’s death by drowning in Lake Starnberg (der Starnberger See) south of Munich. Did he commit suicide or was he “helped”? Ludwig died under mysterious circumstances just three days after being declared legally insane. Today Ludwig’s extravagances such as his fairy-tale (and anachronistic) Neuschwanstein castle and his other castles have become a huge tourist draw and a vital source of income for the state of Bavaria. Ludwig’s latent homosexuality and his patronage of the composer Richard Wagner have also contributed to the Mad Ludwig legend.

The man who would become the king of Bavaria (Bayern, then a sovereign kingdom separate from Prussia and the other German states) was born in Nymphenburg Palace, the Wittelsbach dynasty’s summer residence just outside Munich, on August 25, 1845. (But see the box on the right for more about Ludwig’s actual birthday.) His parents were the 36-year-old Catholic Maximilian II of Bavaria and the 19-year-old Protestant Princess Marie of Prussia (who happened also to be her husband’s cousin). Unfortunately, Ludwig’s parents were neither very close to each other nor to their first son. Ludwig (whose only brother, Otto, would be born almost exactly three years later) would grow up in a spartan and sheltered environment. By any measure, he turned out to be a somewhat odd young man who had problems relating to women and people in general.

The boy who would later be known as the “Swan King” spent much of his youth in a castle named Hohenschwangau (“high region of the swan”). His father Max had bought the ancient castle known as Schwanstein in 1832 and remodeled it as a royal residence set in the Bavarian Alps. Ludwig grew up there among swan images and icons, and the nearby Schwansee, or Swan Lake, featured the real thing. As a 12-year-old boy Ludwig had already developed a fascination with Wagner’s Lohengrin and its Swan Knight.

Ludwig, not yet 19 years old, ascended the Bavarian throne upon the death of his father in 1864. In faraway America a long, bitter Civil War was approaching its end. (Only two years later, Bavaria would be involved in its own war, fighting on the losing Austrian side in the Seven Weeks War against Prussia.) The German Karl Marx was in London working on volume one of Das Kapital, forming the First International, and starving.

Porcelain swan

This life-size porcelain swan inside Neuschwanstein Castle reflects the swan motif favored by the Swan King. Numerous swan icons are present throughout the castle. Starting as a boy, Ludwig had a life-long love of swans and their regal beauty. PHOTO © Hyde Flippo

Ludwig’s first year as king did not go well, and the already shy young king soon withdrew even more, away from Munich and into his beloved mountains in the Bavarian Alps — where he would build several castles and related structures. In May of that same year Ludwig had his first meeting with his music idol Richard Wagner.

King Ludwig’s Real Birthday

Even though Ludwig’s official birthday is still August 25, we now know that Ludwig II was actually born on August 24, 1845, at approximately a half hour before midnight. Why the discrepancy? It was a family conspiracy to honor the devout wishes of Ludwig’s grandfather, Ludwig I, to have his grandson born on the same day that he was. Since Ludwig I was present in the palace at the time of his grandson’s birth, it was decided to delay the announcement of the royal child’s arrival for an hour, and to enter August 25, 12:28 a.m. as the official date and time of birth. To this day, that is still what the official church records state.

As their copious correspondence shows, Ludwig and Wagner became very close, if stormy, friends until the famous composer’s death. On several occasions Wagner was the beneficiary of Ludwig’s patronage and support, but the relationship had its highs and lows. Ludwig was attracted to Wagner’s music and talents, but the composer’s libertine, independent ways put strains on the friendship between the two. Though the naive Ludwig long refused to believe the rumors of Wagner’s daliances with Cosima von Bülow (the wife of Wagner’s concertmaster, and the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt), in December 1865 Ludwig was compelled to banish Wagner from Bavaria. While Wagner was living in Switzerland, he and Ludwig continued to exchange letters, but it would be many years before they would meet again. When they did, Wagner managed to get Ludwig to help him finance the building of his new Festspielhaus concert hall in Bayreuth, completed in 1876. Despite their disagreements, Wagner’s death in 1883 affected the King of Bavaria deeply.

In 1868 Ludwig began his own building campaign. Much of the Bavarian king’s fame is associated with his castles: Neuschwanstein, Linderhof, and Herrenchiemsee. (A fourth castle, Falkenstein, was planned but never built.). Ludwig took a special interest in the building of all his palaces, sometimes to the extreme irritation of his architects and craftsmen.

Ludwig drew much of his inspiration for his castles from Wagnerian opera (particularly Lohengrin and Tannhäuser) — although he insisted on the original Germanic mythology rather than Wagner’s operatic revisions.

Recommended Reading
Book: Land of Ludwig
BOOK: The Land of Ludwig II: The Royal Castles and Residences in Upper Bavaria and Swabia (Bavaria’s Castles, Palaces, Gardens, and Lakes)
By Peter Kruckmann
The best sights in southern Bavaria, including Neuschwanstein. An illustrated guide to the Mad King’s castles.
BOOK: Ludwig II of Bavaria – The Swan King by Christopher McIntosh. (Paperback, from Amazon.com)
eBOOK: Ludwig II of Bavaria – The Swan King by Christopher McIntosh. (Kindle, from Amazon.com)
BOOK: Not So Happily Ever After: The Life of King Ludwig II – A Ludwig bio by Susan Barnett Brown. (Paperback, from Amazon.com)
eBOOK: Not So Happily Ever After: The Life of King Ludwig II – A Ludwig bio by Susan Barnett Brown. (Kindle, from Amazon.com)

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