Meet the Wittelsbachs

The Wittelsbachs were a family who produced rulers of Bavaria from the 12th century to the beginning of the 20th, as well as spreading their tentacles into other German states and such faraway places Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Hungary, and Greece. They also provided 2 Holy Roman Emperors and reigned as kings of Bavaria until 1918.

Inevitably, they were much intermarried among royal relatives. Today we know the dangers of intermarriage, so it is no surprise that they produced some… oddities. There were some scientists and soldiers and patrons of the arts, but there was also one lady who believed she had swallowed a glass piano; and of course Ludwig II, the subject of my last two posts who, mad or not, was distinctly odd; and his brother Otto, who was certainly mad; and their grandfather Ludwig I, whose passion for an Irish dancer resulted in his abdication. The list goes on… But when Wittelsbach married Wittelsbach, they passed on to their children dangerous genes.



Such a marriage was arranged for Ludovika, one of seven daughters of King Maximilian I of Bavaria. Every one of Ludovika’s sisters married into a royal house, and she was quite distraught to be given to her second cousin, Maximilian Josef, Duke in Bavaria, a mere nobleman who belonged to a junior branch of the Wittelsbachs. Rumour has it that on their wedding night she pushed her new husband into a cupboard and locked the door. If true, it was not a very auspicious beginning.


With adequate means, but no responsibilities, Max lived as he wished, which is to say gaily and irresponsibly. Surrounding himself with artists and writers, generally men of humble birth, he frequented the local taverns, playing his zither and singing bawdy songs. He also promoted folk music, wrote plays, poems and anonymous political articles for the liberal press. Above all, he adored the circus, and invited the Renz circus to perform every year at his palace in Munich. When the mood took him he would go off hunting in Styria or Silesia, or to the South of France or Greece, usually accompanied by a young mistress. His peccadillos  provided much gossip for the bored aristocrats of Munich. In spite of these flaws, he had great charm and his children adored him.

Not so his wife. She never could forgive him for being a mere duke. In spite of their differences, they managed to produce eight healthy children, one of whom was Empress Elizabeth (Sisi), the subject of my soon-to-be-released book. Whatever Wittelsbach genes Sisi inherited from her parents were compounded when she married her first cousin, Emperor Franz Josef of Austria.

All the children of Max and Ludovika were highly-strung, nervous, at times merry and excited and then falling into moods of dark despair or rages or passionate tears. Many seemed to suffer from migraines, as Ludovika did.

I will introduce some of these children in the next weeks.

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A royal mystery

In my last post I introduced you to Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig’s death is steeped in mystery. What we know is this. On June 10th 1886, he was officially deposed. Two days later he was placed in custody and conveyed to Berg Castle, his summer home on Lake Starnberg. At 6:30 p.m. on the evening of June 13th, he went for a walk along the lake side path without any aides in attendance, only Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, one of the doctors who had pronounced him insane without examining him. It was Dr. Gudden who decided they were not to be accompanied. Both wore overcoats and carried umbrellas. When they did not return by eight p.m. as expected, a search was made. Several boats were seen traveling southwards down the lake but nothing was seen of the two men. Everyone in the castle was called to the search. By this time it was dark, windy and raining heavily.

At about ten p.m. one of the searchers found something floating  near the edge of the bank. It was the king’s jacket and overcoat, with the sleeves of the jacket inside those of the overcoat, as if they had been shed in a hurry. The two umbrellas were found nearby on the bank. The two hats were discovered on the shore line as if they had been washed up by the waves. The searchers concentrated on the area. Soon the king’s body was found floating face down. Gudden’s body was found a few paces away. Both were in shallow water near the shore.

Artificial respiration failed; they had both been dead for some time. Ludwig’s watch had stopped at 6:54 p.m., the doctor’s at 8:00. It was observed by those present that Ludwig’s body showed no sign of injury, while Gudden’s had scratch marks on forehead and nose and a bruise over the right eye. Also, the nail of his right finger was half torn off. Gudden’s death is recorded as being by drowning. Ludwig’s cause of death was left blank.


What on earth happened out there? It’s a mystery to me. There are three theories: Ludwig was murdered, committed suicide, or was felled by something like a heart attack. But what about the doctor?

If Ludwig had a heart attack or some kind of physical collapse, did he take his coat off first or afterwards? Why would he wander into the lake? Why did the doctor drown? This is a very unlikely scenario.

Was he murdered? He had been deposed, so it is possible that his supporters might have organized a rebellion and caused civil war. So the king was drowned and Doctor Gudden had to die also and got his injuries while trying to defend either himself or the king. There are a couple of things wrong with this theory, as there is with the others. First, Ludwig was aged 41, a big man at 6′ 4″, although he was getting fat. He would have put up a fiercer struggle than the diminutive Gudden. Yet there were no injuries on his body. Also, official examiners looked carefully at the lake bed in order to determine what happened. Only the 2 sets of footprints were visible.

Conspiracy theorists claim that his coat had two bullet holes in it. That suggests that someone shot him and then took off his coat and jacket and hauled him out into the lake and then drowned Gudden without leaving any footprints behind. Clever! The coat has since perished in a fire. Also, I have read that there was no water in his lungs at autopsy, that he was seen with blood leaking from the corner of his mouth, that two fishermen heard gunshots on the fateful night etc.

Did he commit suicide? He had certainly threatened to do so. The examiners determined that Ludwig went out into the lake first, followed by Gudden. After 20 or 30 paces, the churned up mud showed that a struggle had taken place there. Then Ludwig continued on into deeper water alone. There he drowned. His body then drifted back toward the shore as evidenced by the marks left by his dragging feet on the lake bed.

Here is my theory, although it doesn’t answer all the questions. After his deposition Ludwig knew he was going to be a virtual prisoner for the rest of his life. The windows of his apartment in Berg Castle had been fitted with bars. The door had been fixed so that it could only be opened from the outside and peepholes had been drilled in it so that he would always be under observation – unbearable for a recluse. I believe he wanted to commit suicide. He went out into the lake. Gudden followed him in order to prevent the tragedy. There was a struggle and Ludwig struck the doctor in the face, possibly knocking him unconscious, before continuing on into deep water. It is also possible that the doctor, facing ruin because he had lost his illustrious patient, chose suicide also. This doesn’t explain the discrepancy in the stopped watches – unless the doctor thought about his dilemma for a full hour before deciding to act. Nor does it explain why Ludwig took his coat off.

Like the murder of the Princes in the Tower, the debate will go on. There are few things more compelling than a historical mystery.



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