Edward VIII was not the first heir to a throne who was not up to the task. King Ludwig II, who reigned in Bavaria from 1864 to 1886, was another of those unfortunate kings. To distract himself from the daunting or unsavoury decisions before him, he built castles. I was to see two of them in the Bavarian countryside today. (No photos permitted inside.) One of them, Neuschwanstein, was the inspiration for the Disneyland Castle and resulted in the King’s nickname, the Faerie Tale King. To see Neuschwanstein was one of the reasons I came to Munich.
But the tour started nearby at his palace at Linderhof. I was stunned by the many similarities between his Baroque/Rococo palace Linderhof and that of Frederick the Great’s, Sansoucci. There were parallels in their personalities as well. They were about a century apart, but surely Ludwig had read about Frederick the Great’s life and/or visited Sansoucci.
First, Linderhof was built far outside of Munich; the location ensured the privacy Ludwig, like Frederick, craved. It was a small palace but the few rooms were exquisite. One room had mauve upholstery, where Frederick’s had pink. Frescoes on the ceiling came alive with wood-carved legs falling out of the painted bodies. Gold scrolls, trills and frills embroidered every surface. Outside, there were gold fountains and a grotto which showcased a Venus statue.
Similar to Frederick, Ludwig never married. He was close to one woman, as a friend, his cousin “Sisi”, Queen Elizabeth of Austria. He became engaged to her sister, Sophie, but he called the wedding off two days before it was to take place. He wrote Sophie, saying that really, the only thing they had in common was their devotion to Richard Wagner, the opera composer. He never had children. His interests were artistic – interior design, style and music. He was a good friend and patron of opera composer Richard Wagner, and it is said that without Ludwig II’s patronage, the Ring Cycle would never have been written.
Neuschwanstein, however, was Ludwig’s monolithic project. He funded it out of his own personal fortune but he spent all his own money and racked up debt as well, which his family repaid after his death. He designed this enormous castle himself atop a very steep, very high mountaintop. He had seen this mountaintop as a child from his father’s palace and had wanted to put a castle there all of his life. He had grand designs and finished about 25% of the rooms before he died. The palace only became habitable in his last two years of life, and in that period he stayed there for a total of about six months. On his death, construction was immediately halted and was never completed.
This castle was completely different from anything I’ve seen (and atmospherically foggy when I was there). It was built as a fantasy, in medieval style. Ludwig built the castle in honour of Wagner, so there are no depictions of Ludwig himself. The walls of the finished rooms were covered with frescoes depicting scenes from Wagner’s very dramatic operas. Ludwig’s bedroom was based on Tristan and Isolde, an opera Wagner premiered in Munich in 1865. Wagner based the opera to some extent on the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer. This is complicated but I’ll give it a shot: Day represents the societal expectations which require us to act in conflict with our true desires and Night (or death) is where true desires would be fulfilled. (That Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to discuss homosexuality since the ancient Greeks may also be relevant.)
In other palaces he built,Ludwig imitated Versailles and was a devotee of Louis Quatorze, who was known as the “sun-king.” Ludwig became known as the “shadow-king” or “moon-king.” It was rumoured that as he aged, he slept more during the day and rose at night. This may be why he has been associated with werewolves in video games.
Ludwig’s bedroom was Gothic but like nothing you’ve ever seen before. I’ve taken a photograph from a book to show you especially the canopy over his bed, because any description I could give would understate the reality.
Ludwig and Frederick were similar in that they disliked politics and disliked the people they were forced to deal with. Although he was well-loved by his people, Ludwig was often forced by politicians to make laws he didn’t agree with. Unlike Frederick, Ludwig was not a warrior and was reticent to commit his country to war even when political alliances required their support. In particular, in 1870 when France declared war on Prussia, Prussia expected the support of Bavarian troops, and ultimately Ludwig was forced to sign the order putting his troops at the disposal of Prussia.
Later, the Senate was highly critical of the King’s spending. He also seemed to have lost touch with changing times, in that Ludwig had an inflated perception of the role of a king; kingship was no longer an absolute monarchy as he liked to think. (For example, he idolized Louis XIV who was pre-French Revolution.) Eventually, the Senate declared the King was insane and produced three medical reports supporting the accusation of madness, but none of the doctors had ever met or examined him and based their diagnoses solely on what the senators told them. They had the King deposed and replaced by his uncle as Regent.
The Senate attempted to arrest the King but failed initially. He was advised to flee but he did not. He went to another palace, “Berg,” under the supervision of Dr. van Gudden, the head doctor who had declared him insane. That night, he went for a walk with Dr. van Gudden and the pair never came back. The next day, both were found drowned in the shallows of the lake. Only Dr. van Gudden showed signs of struggle, with scratch marks on his face and arms. How these deaths occurred has never been solved.
“I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others,” he is quoted as saying to his governess. Was this a self-fulfilled prophecy? Not likely.
Neuschwanstein and Ludwig’s other construction projects hired hundreds of workers for 10 years. Virtually the whole town around the castle was hired to maintain it. More recently, the existence of these palaces has supported all of Bavaria for the tourism they attract. It is sad that, like Frederick the Great, Ludwig II was loved by his people but could not work with the people who surrounded him. Both men may have been homosexual, but in any event both withdrew from society, never married, never had children, and both died lonely men.
Ludwig met Richard Wagner on many occasions, the two were friends. Wagner knew about the King’s project, but sadly, he died two years before the castle was inhabitable and he never saw the palace. Now, a huge theatre has been built by the lake, and a summer festival which includes Ludwig II’s story and Wagner’s operas draw thousands of visitors every year to Bavaria.