Judging solely by his portraits he does look a little mad – those eyes. But according to his contemporaries he was handsome with beautiful eyes. Standing 6′ 4″ with an athletic build, he had pale skin, dark hair and blue eyes. He is often referred to as the mad king, but also sometimes as the fairy king or the swan king.
Ludwig was born on 25th August 1845 at Nymphenburg Palace in Munich, the eldest son of Maximilian II of Bavaria and his wife Marie of Prussia. Maximilian belonged to the house of Wittelsbach, notorious for the eccentricities of some its members. (This may be accounted for by the fact that the Wittelsbachs were much intermarried, which was common at the time. One of Ludwig’s relatives had married her own nephew. There are numerous examples of marriage between cousins.) Maximilian cannot be numbered among the eccentrics. He was given to cultural and intellectual pursuits, attended diligently to the duties of his office, and was in general an able and wise king.
As a father, however, he was austere and remote. Ludwig was close to neither of his parents. He, and his brother Otto, saw them only once or twice a day, usually at mealtimes. King Max believed harsh discipline was needed to build strength of character in his boys. He could not understand Ludwig’s sensitive and romantic nature. Queen Marie visited her sons for an hour every day when they were young. As if to compensate Ludwig had a close relationship with Otto, three years younger.
As he grew up, Ludwig developed an interest in the arts, music, and building, but little in politics and his royal duties as heir. His daily life was strictly controlled. Some of his happiest times were spent with his cousins at Possenhofen, where he formed a lifelong friendship with his cousin Elisabeth (Sisi) later Empress of Austria. Sisi was the Dove and Ludwig was the Eagle. They both enjoyed poetry, hiking in the mountains, and horseback riding.
Much of his youth was spent at Hohenschwangau (meaning high place of the swans) Castle in the Bavarian mountains. Perhaps, as he gazed out at the two lakes, his imagination was awakened by this lovely old castle where heroes of German history and folklore came to life in brilliant frescoes painted on the walls. There was Lohengrin, the legendary swan knight, and there the crusader Tannhauser. Knights, swans and water surrounded him and would inspire him for his entire life. He wished he could have lived in such heroic times. When he retreated into his own mind, he could. In imagination he became the swan knight.
When he became king at the age of eighteen, Ludwig was creative and introverted, a dreamer with a boundless imagination, but he preferred the denizens of his own mind to human company and was not prepared for the high office into which he had been thrust. In fact, he avoided participating in government and was happy to leave the business side of his office to his ministers, with whom he was not popular, while he indulged his creative side. Nor did he have any interest in the military.
One of his first acts as king was to summon to his court Richard Wagner. Three years earlier he had attended a performance of the opera Lohengrin that changed his life. What he saw was the murals on the walls of Hohenschwangau, the world he loved, come to life, accompanied by music passionate and sublime.
Each was ecstatic to meet the other, Ludwig because the composer had brought his dreams to life, Wagner because he saw in the king the end of his financial problems.
Ludwig was obsessed with Wagner and his music. Wagner became the Great Friend. It was, Ludwig often said, a friendship of the spirit.
It wasn’t long before Muncheners got a whiff of how far their king had fallen under the spell of Wagner, when the two proposed to build a vast new theatre especially designed for Wagner’s epic operas. Wagner provided the design, Ludwig was to foot the bill. The scheme came to nothing when treasury officials refused to pay. Throughout Wagner’s life Ludwig advanced him monumental sums with no thought of repayment to the growing consternation of his ministers and subject. Without Ludwig’s patronage it is doubtful if Wagner would have achieved the success he did.
So what, you might ask, was the nature of Ludwig’s eccentricity? Well, he did have made a dining room table that sank into the floor, and he did create a lamp with the moon and planets circling it. He dined out of doors when it was cold and wore heavy overcoats when it was warm. He was often abusive and threatening to his servants. Oh, and he became engaged to Princess Sophie, younger sister of Sisi, and then jilted her just before the wedding, which was a terrible thing to do to a young girl in those days. He never married. It’s possible he had homosexual tendencies. There were rumours to that effect, borne out by a succession of friendships with young men throughout his life. Still, nothing in all that to suggest insanity. There must be something… Wait! Neuschwanstein! That fairytale castle built high in the Bavarian mountains. If you are a romantic you will see in its soaring turreted towers the beauty of its designer’s fantastic vision. On the other hand if you are of a more pragmatic nature you will perhaps view it as an extravagant folly. Either way you must admit it is so Ludwigian! But a sign of madness..?
Neuschwanstein, and other building projects, were paid for out of Ludwig’s private funds. Nevertheless, his free-spending habits came close to bankrupting the country. His ministers tried to curb him but he would not be stopped. Instead he considered dismissing his entire cabinet and getting new men in. Well, perhaps that was a little mad.
The ministers decided to act first. Grounds for deposition were sought in his sometimes bizarre behaviour. His uncle, Prince Luitpold was asked to act as regent if the king was deposed. Luitpold agreed, on condition sufficient proof was provided that Ludwig was hopelessly insane. The ministers were not above bribing servants and those inimical to the king in order to get the necessary proof. A medical report was compiled by the ministers and furnished to a panel of four doctors. They concluded that the king suffered from paranoia, which made him unfit to rule. Only one of these men had met him, twelve years earlier, and none had examined him.
Poor Ludwig! It was enough to force his deposition.
Ironically, after his death, he was succeeded as king by his brother Otto, who had been diagnosed as mentally ill years earlier by one of the same doctors. Luitpold remained regent until his death in 1912, when he was succeeded by his son, also called Ludwig. Regent Ludwig deposed Otto, who was still held in confinement, and had himself crowned king as Ludwig III.
Sisi Empress of Austria is the subject of my upcoming book In a Gilded Cage.