Beloved by the people of Bavaria to
this day, Ludwig II was born on August 25, 1845 at Nymphenburg, a
summer palace near Munich.
A History of the House of Wittelsbach.Ludwig I was known in Europe as the most cultivated monarch. At age 24 he had married Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen, one of the most beautiful princesses in all Europe. His father Maxilian was the first King of Bavaria, who owed his crown to Napoleon. His ambitious minister Montgelas had arranged the french alliance as a counter-balance to Prussia and Austria. The new King was forced to consent to the marriage of his daughter Augusta to Napoleon’s step-son Eugene de Beauharnais.( Son of Josephine’s first marriage ) Although the marriage had been arranged for political purposes, it turned out to be a most happy union. In 1818 King Maximilian I granted Bavaria a constitution, and he reigned as a constitutional monarch. His son and successor Ludwig I disliked and feared french political connections. Like most of the Wittelsbach’s he was a patron of the arts. He was also devoted to architecture, education and science. In the fall of 1846 the famous Spanish dancer Lola Montez appeared in Munich. The King became enchanted with Lola Montez, while Queen Therese looked the other way. The dancer became soon the official mistress of the King. He bought a residence for her, gave her an allowance and created her first Baroness Rosenthal and later Countess of Landsfeld. The Church and the people were outraged and riots broke out in Munich. King Ludwig I had lost the love and trust of his people, and abdicated in favor of his eldest son in March 1848, who became Maximilian II.
Crown Prince LudwigBecause of his grandfather’s infatuation with this dancer Lola Montez, Ludwig became Crown Prince of Bavaria at age 3. Five weeks later, on April 27, his brother Otto was born. Both children grew up together and shared the same governess and both were shy and introverted. Their father was a strict disciplinarian. He was unable to provide the Crown Prince with the guidance that may have offset his high-strung nature. His mother was gentle and loving, but there never really developed a close bond between them. The governess, Frl. Meilhaus, treated him with sincere affection and tried not to spoil him. It was a great misfortune that the education of the Crown Prince was entrusted to tutors who were totally unsuitable to develop Ludwig’s high potentials. His intellectual gifts were literally squandered away by incompetent tutors. A new governor to the two Princes was appointed in May 1854, and Ludwig was very upset and grieved to be parted from Frl. Meilhaus, but he remained her devoted and grateful friend. The new governor was strict and militaristic, and soon Ludwig began to fear him. A year later the Princes were given a new military instructor, a younger man of 27. From 1857 on Ludwig had to study alone without his brother.
The plans for the Crown Prince’s education was much the same Prince Albert had devised for his son the Prince of Wales, who was only four years older than Ludwig. However, a high official of the Bavarian Court and a general submitted plans for the education of the Crown Prince, whereby eight years of high school had to be completed by the Prince in only five. Ludwig had to get up at 5:30 in the morning and worked until 8 in the evening. The governor wanted Ludwig to have a strong will, subordinate to his own, and he insisted on obedience. Holidays were spent in several places: Hohenschwangau, Fuerstenried, Schloss Berg and Berchtesgaden, to name a few. A strange incident took place in Berchtesgaden in the fall of 1857. Ludwig nearly choked his brother to death, by twisting a handkerchief around his neck. It was discovered in time and Ludwig received a thrashing from his father.
The esteemed author Desmond Chapman-Huston tells us that the French revolution drove Germans to delve in their own forest of dark Gods, peerless knights and hideous dragons. Anglo-Saxons in general find it almost impossible to understand the fascination with this eerie Walpurgisland, but it obsessed Ludwig all his life. In the theatre and opera he always put seeing before hearing. In May 1861 Ludwig saw Wagner’s opera Lohengrin for the first time. From this moment on Lohengrin, as the peerless knights of the Swan became for Ludwig the personification of his own inner fight against sin. Three years later he verbally re-created this great moment of his life for the composer himself. And he was a young boy of not yet 16 years of age. Ludwig was eighteen years old when his father became ill and died after a short illness on March 10th 1864.
Ludwig’s Accession to the Throne of BavariaWhile his father’s body lay in state, the new King was installed in a ceremony in the throne room. The people saw their young King during the funeral procession through the packed city of Munich, dressed in the uniform of a colonel of his infantry regiment, as he walked behind the coffin with his brother Otto. Rarely had Ludwig been seen as crown prince, and when the people saw him now, they went raving mad about him. The young man had such regal bearing that it captured the hearts all of who saw him. Three days after the funeral he wrote a letter to his former governess, Frau von Leonrod, nee Meilhaus, giving us a glimpse of his feelings " he had only to stay in bed one day before he died. I carry my heart to the throne, a heart which beats for my people and which glows for their welfare, all Bavarians may be assured of that. I will do anything in my power to make my people happy; their welfare, their peace are the conditions of my own happiness. In faithful love, I remain, ever your grateful friend, Ludwig, King of Bavaria." All those who came in contact with him, dignitaries and officials shared the favorable impression he made during his early reign.
The Advent of Richard WagnerTo study the King’s life one finds it completely intertwined with the life of the composer Richard Wagner. Almost before he had taken the oath to the constitution, Ludwig had made up his mind to summon the composer of Lohengrin to his side. To Wagner King Ludwig II became the embodiment of his fondest dreams. The King saw in Wagner a man who somehow managed to turn his fantasies into reality. About one month after his accession, Ludwig invited Wagner to live at his expense in Munich, where, with his extremely generous support Wagner’s operas were staged at the Court theatre. The King bought a house for the composer in Munich, and later provided the funds for the building of the Bayreuth Festival theatre, as well as for Wagner’s estate Haus Wahnfried in Bayreuth. The King wrote to Wagner in 1865 " now that the royal purple enfolds me, I will use it to sweeten your life." These are the words of someone completely engrossed in passion for opera and who hero-worshiped the creator of such works. The most precious gift Wagner could give the King was his completed operas.
Ever since his governess Sibylle Meilhaus had inspired him with tales of Lohengrin, his enthusiasm for Wagner had grown steadily. Through Wagner he experienced "heavenly joy amidst earthly pain." Wagner, always in debt, took full advantage of Ludwig’s kindness and generosity. As time passed and the young King showed no interest in any young ladies, Wagner gained the reputation as being an active homosexual. Richard Wagner was a brilliant composer, but he was also a user and exploiter. His own personal life was morally corroded, having left his first wife Minna, he entangled himself in several female alliances. He broke up the marriage of his friend Hans von Buelow and finally married Cosima von Buelow, the daughter of Franz Liszt. In August 1865, under veiled threats to depart, he proposed to the King that his arrangement with the crown be amended. " And now, my friend " he began " we must set my personal situation in order." He was determined to secure a stable financial position for life. The King was reluctant to hand over large sums, as he had learned that more money inspired Wagner only to get deeper in debt. Wagner even sent Cosima to plead for funds.
Despite opposition from the royal family, led by the Queen Mother and old King Ludwig I, the composer was firmly entrenched in the King’s orbit. Reports of self-indulgence spread throughout Munich and indignation against the composer’s support by the Royal treasury increased daily. The citizens of Bavaria still remembered the influence of Lola Montez on Ludwig’s grandfather. The government watched in silence as Wagner began to advise the King to make changes in his cabinet. As the whole capital of Bavaria was seething with the Wagner affair, the King decided that it would be best if the composer would leave the kingdom for awhile. Ludwig still believed in Wagner’s sincerity, if not his prudence. The King’s love had not been lost, nor had the King’s financial support and Wagner departed for Switzerland.
The King’s EngagementOn New Year’s day 1867 all Bavaria was delighted to hear the announcement of the King’s engagement to Princess Sophie, a native Duchess and sister to the Empress of Austria. The wedding was arranged to take place on Ludwig’s 22nd birthday, August 25th. Suddenly an official announcement postponed the nuptials until October 12th. However, a week before the postponed wedding ceremony Ludwig broke off the engagement. In a long letter to Princess Sophie he stated that the wedding as well as the engagement was forced upon him " like a hot-house plant." He loved the Princess like a sister and hoped to remain her friend.
A Second Richard in the King’s LifeThree months before the planned wedding to Princess Sophie, Ludwig met Richard Hornig, a groom at the stables at Berg castle. A blond, blue-eyed Prussian, five years older than the King, he was to become an important figure in Ludwig’s life. Richard Hornig was a superb horseman and mutual love of horses can be a strong bond. Hornig saw the King constantly and intimately, and their friendship seems to have been sincere and lasting. He saw to the comfort and well-being of his Sovereign. He soon occupied the office of Crown Esquerry and Master of the Horse. He controlled all horse transport, coaches and carriages, stabling, purchase, breeding and training of the Royal horses, which numbered around 500. The King and Hornig often visited the remote castles, chalets and mountain huts, mostly in a four-horse carriage and sometimes in an illuminated sleigh in the moonlight. Hornig soon acted as go-between the King and his ministers, much as Queen Victoria’s John Brown, which caused much criticism. The King and Hornig also set out on a journey through Germany and to France, with the King travelling incognito as Count von Berg. The esteemed late author Major Desmond Chapman-Huston had little doubt that the appearance of Richard Hornig in May led to the break with Sophie. Perhaps it convinced Ludwig that for him a normal love for any woman was not possible.
The Years 1868-1870The King’s grandfather Ludwig I died on February 29th in Nice. He was taken to his beloved Munich and buried in the Basilica of St. Boniface. Although Lola Montez had been 23 years younger than the late King, she already been eight years in her grave in Greenwood cemetery in New York. On June 21st 1868 the first performance of Wagner’s " Die Meistersinger " was staged in Munich, which was attended by many dignitaries and people from all over Europe. The opera was another great success, and the Ludwig asked Wagner to join him in the Royal Box. Standing there, Wagner bowed to an appreciative audience, which was considered against etiquette by members of the aristocracy, and some journalists made the most of it. Although his latest opera was hailed as a success, Wagner decided to leave Munich for Triebschen, a charming villa on Lake Lucerne. The King did not see Wagner for the next eight years, although they kept in touch. The composer concentrated on his musical creations and finally married Cosima in 1870, after her divorce from Hans von Buelow. Ludwig sent his good wishes by telegram, although he had been shocked by the whole sordid affair. On September 28th of that year Princess Sophie married the Duc’d Alencon, a grandson of King Louis Philippe of France, which of course made Ludwig feel a lot less guilty and very happy for the new couple.
The Birth of the EmpireLudwig settled down to some to the task of serious governing. During the following years the King led his country skillfully through the events of the Franco-Prussian war and the unification of Germany. In his personal letters he showed some concern about the autonomy of Bavaria and the future of his kingship. Ludwig was at his newest castle Linderhof when his court secretary made him aware of the gravity of the situation; war between France and Prussia seemed avoidable. He paced the floor at Linderhof until the early morning hours, being totally against the war, he made the decision to enter the war on Prussia’s side and ordered mobilization. Most of his people had no great love for Prussia, but against France they were foremost Germans and supported their King. With the German army approaching Paris, the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck finally came out and declared that Prussia should take over the leadership of a united Germany. Representatives from German states were called to Versailles to discuss the forming of the Empire. After some hurried communications between Ludwig, his cabinet and Bismarck, Ludwig gave his consent. In January 1871 Wilhelm I of Prussia was proclaimed Emperor at Versailles. Bismarck admitted freely that without Ludwig’s consent this event would not have happened. Ludwig’s brother Prince Otto represented Bavaria at the ceremony at Versailles; it turned out to be Otto’s last public official act.
Ludwig’s Brother Prince OttoThere had been rumors that Ludwig thought of abdicating in favor of his brother. If true, there could have been several reasons: a) In Ludwig’s mind Otto could provide an heir, b) he was upset with the whole political situation, c) he could devote the rest of his life to the building of the Royal castles as well as collaborating with Wagner on the creation of future operas.
Early in 1871, Ludwig started to worry about his brother’s strange behavior. He wrote to his beloved childhood governess " Otto did not take his boots off for eight weeks, he behaves like a mad man, makes terrible faces and barks like a dog. At times he says the most indecorous things; and then again he is quite normal for awhile. Gietl and Solbrig examined him and if he does not follow their advice, soon it will be forever too late." Otto’s mental health was rapidly deteriorating. Ludwig wrote to his mother " fortunately I found Otto less excitable than expected. He still does not go outside and pretends to have boils on his feet." The Queen Mother made this entry in her journal at the end of the year " Otto ill during the winter. Upon advice from the Doctors, and Dr. Solbrig, he was removed to Nymphenburg on February 26th, where we rarely see him. Dr. Solbrig died on May 31st of this year and Dr. von Gudden took over the medical care."
The Royal family spent the summer of 1873 at Hohenschwangau, where Otto joined them. It was here that the Queen Mother was confronted with the horrible realization that one of her sons was hopelessly insane, and the other distinctly abnormal. Otto was moved to Fuerstenried where he and Ludwig had spent many happy childhood days. There he lived for the rest of his life under supervision until his death in 1916.
The Years from 1876 to 1883In the spring of 1876 the King resided for a time in Munich, held Court ceremonies and received family members, foreign Royalty and member of his Cabinet. These few weeks Ludwig seemed to have escaped his loneliness and depression with which he had been plagued since it became apparent that his brother would never make a full recovery. He had long dreaded that he too was going mad, but tried hard to keep everything on an even keel. Ludwig too was deeply in debt, having overextended himself greatly with his extensive building projects. He tried to secure more and more loans, which caused him more and more worry and anxiety. Even Richard Hornig wrote letters to friends in which he mentioned his concern about the King. On August 5/6, 1876 Wagner’s Bayreuth Theater opened, attended by Kaiser Wilhem I, Ludwig and many members of Europe’s nobility. On the occasion of the opening the opera " Der Ring des Nibelungen" was performed. It was the first time it was staged in its entirety. Ludwig stayed at the Ermitage in Bayreuth, the beautiful baroque-style palace which Frederick the Great had built for his favorite sister Wilhelmina, who had married the Markgraf of Bayreuth.
Two weeks later he returned to Bayreuth incognito to visit Wagner at his new estate Haus Wahnfried. Sometime during this period Hornig had married and Ludwig felt betrayed. We see here that the King entered into several relationships which somewhat eased his loneliness. But none are of great significance. In January 1881 the King and Wagner saw the opera "Lohengrin" together. They dined together and it was the last time that the friends saw each other. The King made several entries in his diary, which shows his increasing mental instability. Some of his writing made a little sense.
The Death of Richard WagnerWagner had gone with Cosima to live in Venice. He had not been well for some time. Sitting at his desk in his apartment at the Palazzo Vendramin-Calenzi on the Grand Canal, he suddenly died of a heart attack on February 13th, 1883. His wife was deeply grieved and when the news reached the King, Ludwig too was overwhelmed with grief. The coffin was taken from Italy to Bayreuth. After a grand funeral Ludwig went secretly to Bayreuth, where he stood alone by the grave in the garden of House Wahnfried and made his farewell to his friend.
The Last YearsLack of money prevented Ludwig from continuing to build therefore, somewhere money had to be found. Everything was sacrificed to his maniacal obsession for his buildings. We find an entry he made " I must build or die." That all funds for the buildings had come from Ludwig’s private income was ignored. The financial aid to Wagner too came from Ludwig’s Privy Purse, as there had been no grant for such purposes from the government. In any case his officials turned against him. They accused him of being incapable to carry out his functions as King, and soon the government of Bavaria was discussing abdication and Regency. No one knew exactly how this should be done. Not once did anyone consider the beautiful castles Bavaria now possessed.
On June 7th, 1886 the plot against the King was relentlessly developed in Munich. The next day four Doctors considered Dr. von Gudden’s report for three hours. The government released a proclamation that King Ludwig was unfit to govern and that a Regency under Prince Luitpold had been established. It was posted in Munich, and a meeting of the Lower House was called for June 15th. Ludwig was at Neuschwanstein and was advised to escape across the border to Austria. He refused to leave his kingdom. A party arrived at the castle on June 11th, Ludwig’s valet Mayr told the Doctors to go to the King at once, as he was threatening suicide. Guards were posted at the windows and balcony doors. Ludwig said to Dr. Gudden " Without examining me, how can you pronounce my state of health?" Gudden shortly replied that an examination is unnecessary. After Gudden harassed the King for three hours, Ludwig finally agreed to go quietly the Berg. At 4 in the morning Ludwig entered his coach alone. The door handles of the carriage had been removed that it could not be opened from the inside. A male nurse rode besides the coachman and a groom rode alongside. When they arrived at Berg, Gudden, who had followed the King, advised him to eat something and then go to bed. Under supervision he slept for hours and then grew restless.
King Ludwig’s Mysterious DeathOn June 13th at 10 in the morning Gudden suggested that he and the King should go for a walk. It was raining a little and Ludwig took his overcoat and umbrella. In front of them walked a policeman and behind them walked two keepers. Ludwig was uneasy about the policeman and asked if there was any danger. He was reassured and they went back to Castle Berg. Gudden arranged for another walk in the afternoon, but without the policeman, as his presence had excited the King. Ludwig dined alone and then sent one of the keepers to find Gudden to go out again. Gudden decided to go alone with Ludwig and told the keeper they would be back by eight o’clock. When they failed to return by that time, the keeper sent two policemen to look for them. At 10:30 in the evening they found Ludwig’s hat, jacket, overcoat and umbrella on the shore of nearby Lake Starnberg. Then, a steward from castle Berg saw the two bodies lying a short distance from each other in fairly shallow water. The bodies were taken the Berg and placed in different rooms. The Buergermeister of Starnberg and other officials were called to examine the bodies, and afterwards Ludwig’s body was taken to Munich. There the King lay in state at the Residenz in an open bier covered with his ermine robe of state, surrounded by flowers and candles. On June 17th, 1886 he was laid to rest in the Court Church of St. Michael. The streets were crowded with mourners, bewildered by the death of their King. His cousin Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary, who later shot himself and his lover, as well as his mother Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who was later murdered in Geneva, were among the chief mourners. Ludwig’s mother survived him less than three years.
To this day it remains a mystery what really happened that fateful day when the King went with his Doctor for a walk. There are of course many theories, but no one will ever know for sure. And much has been written about Ludwig’s mental instability. But, could a man who gave the world such beautiful treasures, visited by millions each year from around the world, really have been mentally so disturbed, as his detractors want us to believe?
ReferencesLudwig II, the Mad King of Bavaria, by Desmond Chapman-Houston, Dorset Press New York, 1990.
Ludwig II of Bavaria, The Swan King, by Christopher McIntosh, Barnes & Noble Books, New York 1997.
*Both of the above esteemed authors give us a comprehensive understanding of King Ludwig’s life. Their work is gratefully acknowledged.
Richard Wagner, The Man, His Mind, and His Music, by Robert W. Gutman, Time Incorporated, New York 1968.