Get your lederhosen and your pilsners ready, because this month we are headed to my birthplace – Germany! More specifically, we are headed to Bavaria, home of the famous Oktoberfest where I was supposed to celebrate my 30th birthday until this thing called COVID-19 ruined it. Don’t worry, I’m not bitter – I still got my traditional German chocolate cake and the promise of a Bavarian pretzel someday in my future. But enough about me (for now) and more about the man of the hour – King Ludwig II. He is also known by other names: the Mad King of Bavaria, the Swan King or der Märchenkönig (the Fairy Tale King). Sadly, Ludwig’s life was anything BUT a fairy tale, and the ending to this story does not conclude with happily ever after.
Lola Is the Wurst
Believe it or not, the fun fact of my German birth three decades ago is actually relevant to this story, because the Germany we know today is only as old as I am (and that is quite youthful, thank you very much). When Ludwig was born in 1845, what we recognize today as Germany was made up of dozens of sovereign states, the largest of which were Prussia, Austria and Bavaria. On the Bavarian throne, centered in Munich, sat Ludwig’s grandfather King Ludwig I. He was a lover of the arts, a passion he passed to his grandson and namesake Ludwig II. He was also a great lover of women, in particular a woman by the name of Lola Montez, who, classically, was not his wife. Lola was a dancer and as far as royal mistresses go, Ludwig the elder could not have chosen a worse woman to shower with gifts and affection. She was universally disliked by the Bavarian people, so much so that her association with the king almost cost him the throne on several occasions. It was a pattern that his grandson would repeat several decades later. Unfortunately for Ludwig I, having an unpopular mistress and being at odds with his subjects in 1848 was not a recipe for a successful and long-lasting reign. That year a “series of republican revolts against European monarchies [broke out], beginning in Sicily and spreading to France, Germany, Italy, and the Austrian Empire” (Britannica). In March of 1848 the movement had found its way to Bavaria, but Ludwig I was not willing to capitulate to the will of the people. He abdicated the throne, making his eldest son Maximilian, and Ludwig II’s father, the new king of Bavaria.
You Can Run, You Can Hide, But You Can’t Escape His Love
Ludwig II was 3 years old at the time of his grandfather’s abdication, which made him the crown prince. Little Ludwig’s childhood consisted of many of the same elements of the heirs we have covered here at ULTC – rigorous studies and strict schedules, absent parents, and isolation from children his own age. But it seems that in this case, everything was turned up a notch. Ludwig’s days were so packed with studies and homework that he was often pushed to episodes of “nervous exhaustion” as a child, and he found no consolation from his parents who apparently found it impossible to show any semblance of love and empathy towards their children. He had no socialization with peers and as a result, formed close attachments to his governess and the tutors who raised him. And as the next in line to the Bavarian throne, Ludwig was constantly reminded throughout his youth of his exalted position and his divine right to rule. It was something that he would never forget and it would shape every facet of his life.
Something else that held great influence in Ludwig’s life was his love of literature and the arts, in particular the theatre and stories of legendary heroes. And maybe “love” is the wrong word – obsession is probably more like it. When the young prince was not being forced to study history, languages and military strategy, he was buried in fairy tales or the operas of his favorite composer Richard Wagner. It is why Ludwig was given the nickname the “Fairy Tale King”, because more often than not he preferred to live in a world of pretend than the reality around him. His strenuous academic curriculum, coupled with his virtual isolation and inflated sense of self, seems to have succeeded in forming a young man who could be emotional and intelligent but also “high strung and over-sensitive, frequently causing him to take offense at an innocent gesture or look, condemning the often unaware culprit for years” (King). One thing that everyone could agree on was that he looked every part the prince – tall and slender with beautiful facial features, he turned heads wherever he went.
Now, obviously I am not a psychologist, but Ludwig’s absent parents and lack of confidants growing up, seems to have also shaped him into a man who was quick to form unhealthy attachments. He demanded absolute loyalty from anyone he deemed to be a friend, both male and female, and was often disappointed when his affections were not reciprocated whole-heartedly (honestly, same). And there was constant gossip surrounding the people he kept close. He was particularly fond of one of his female cousins, with whom he would share a special bond throughout his life. Inevitably, there were whispers that their friendship was more than that, but the relationship was never anything more than the close bond of family members who understood one another on a deep and personal level. The rumors that were more concerning for Ludwig were those surrounding the male companions he spent intimate and extended time with. Many of these friendships reached a level of obsession on Ludwig’s part that sadly always led to the demise of the relationship. As a young man, these emotions must have been overwhelmingly confusing for Ludwig, as he had not yet begun to disentangle the true source of his feelings for the men who were prominent in his life. For now his friendships remained intimate but never physical.
Unlucky In Love
In late 1863, when Ludwig was only 18 years old, his father, King Maximilian, fell seriously ill with a mystery ailment. After months of uncertainty, Maximilian passed away in March of 1864. As we have seen countless times before in our stories, the throne was immediately passed to Ludwig, and the Bavarian people, though sad over the loss of their king, were hopeful for the future. Those closer to Ludwig had mixed reactions to the new young owner of the Bavarian crown. One court secretary said “we now have an angel on the throne”, but Ludwig’s former tutor remarked that “Maximilian II’s death was the worst possible tragedy which could have befallen Bavaria” (King). Quite the spectrum of opinions we have here. So, who was right?
Most of Ludwig’s subjects saw a tall and handsome king, who looked the part and seemed to have a great interest in the running of the government and strengthening Bavaria’s standing among the German states. And that is certainly how it seems to have started out. Ludwig was not handed the best of circumstances when he inherited the throne, as alliances were beginning to form among the German states as powers like Prussia and Austria were battling for land and dominance. A certain well known man named Otto von Bismarck had burst onto the scene in Prussia and would bring Ludwig more than a little trouble over the coming years (we will get to that later).
In the meantime, as rumors began to swirl about the company Ludwig kept, from his female cousin to his close male companions, the people wondered when their king would marry and ensure the continuation of the Wittelsbach line. Although Ludwig was entranced by the love stories of his beloved fairy tales, he did not have any interest in marrying. And so it came as a shock to many when he proposed to his cousin Sophie in 1867. Grand preparations for the wedding were made and commemorative souvenirs were adorned with the couple’s faces. But while Sophie was busy planning for the day that she had undoubtedly dreamt of her whole life, Ludwig was regretting his choices. He was looking forward to his wedding day with about as much enthusiasm as I go into my yearly gynecology appointment. Eventually, the thought of marrying Sophie became too much for the king and he first delayed the wedding, then cancelled it altogether. Needless to say Sophie was crushed (don’t worry she was married for real by the same time next year), but Ludwig never regretted his choice not to go through with the marriage. In fact he wrote in his diary that he “longed to awake from [that] terrible nightmare” (King).
It was perhaps around this time that he was really beginning to understand the nature of his sexuality and that his feelings for Sophie were always purely that of friendship. Lord knows thousands of unhappy royal marriages were made out of convenience as opposed to love, usually ending in a partnership where each merely tolerated the other for as long as they had to be in the same room. This no doubt would have been the case for Ludwig and Sophie. So although it had been a mistake to propose in the first place, props to him for setting her free to live a potentially happy life with someone else.
Ludwig In Wonderland
Although Ludwig did not find happiness with his cousin Sophie, there was one person in his life who was his greatest source of joy (and at times his greatest source of misery). That person was the composer Richard Wagner. Today he is famous for operas like Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Tristan und Isolde, and is still much celebrated in Europe. If you are uncultured like me, all this does is bring back traumatizing memories of the 2006 James Franco movie Tristan and Isolde (couldn’t tell you what it’s about, I just know it was enough to keep 16 year old me up at night). Ludwig had been enraptured by Wagner’s work since he was a boy, and when he became king he used his resources and influence to bring Wagner to Bavaria and began a decades-long partnership where Ludwig supplied the cash for Wagner to produce and stage his performances. Seems innocent enough, except for the fact that this “partnership” was more like obsessive admiration and devotion on Ludwig’s part. In addition to the endless amount of money the king dished out to make Wagner’s operas a reality, Ludwig also rented him a home and paid off an astounding amount of the composer’s debt. For the sensitive king, this was the world in which he felt he belonged: a world of costume and music and heroic love stories – not the sad world of King of Bavaria where he was forced to go to war with his German neighbors and attend to hours of legal documents and correspondence.
Ludwig did not make much of an effort to hide his disinterest in his position as king, and he definitely did not make any attempt to downplay his passion for the arts, often choosing meetings with Wagner and private concerts over his royal duties. And it didn’t help that Wagner was widely viewed as a money grabber who was having an affair with the wife of his fellow composer, which resulted in two illegitimate children. It was not long before Ludwig’s government ministers were calling for Ludwig to kick Wagner out of Bavaria and wipe his hands clean of his beloved friend. Just as Ludwig’s grandfather almost lost his throne over his association with Lola Montez, Ludwig’s relationship with Richard Wagner was so unpopular that it became a national issue. Eventually Ludwig did cave and sent Wagner to live in Switzerland, but he set him up in a nice house and continued to stay in touch. When word reached him of the composer’s death in 1883, Ludwig was distraught. It is widely accepted that without Ludwig’s patronage, many of Wagner’s works would never have graced the stage.
If You Build It, They Will Come
In addition to the government minister’s unhappiness with Ludwig’s funding of his art projects (even though the money came out of his own allowance), they were equally unhappy with the vast amount of money he spent on building and updating his homes at the expense of the country. And by homes, I mean spectacular castles. The most famous of Ludwig’s architectural projects is Neuschwanstein Castle, a project that took so long that it was sadly not completed during Ludwig’s lifetime. But luckily for us, it was eventually finished and today is a popular tourist destination. It was also Walt Disney’s inspiration for Cinderella’s castle that appears before every beloved Disney movie. Riley and I had the fortune to visit it (since our mom accidentally recorded the floor instead of the interior when she visited back in the 1980s) and walk the several miles from the village below to the castle above and let me just tell you – it was a feat of architectural brilliance that human beings were able to build something that size on top of a mountain.
While we may love and appreciate this enchanted castle, when Ludwig was alive it was just another example to his subjects of his propensity for spending large quantities of money and just how odd he was. Many of the rooms reflected the king’s eccentricities and his quirkiness was often mistaken for signs of mental imbalance. He would often dress up and reenact his favorite Wagner works, his favorite character being the Swan Knight from Lohengrin (hence his nickname, the Swan King). At one point Ludwig also became totally nocturnal, waking up in the early evening to start his day and staying up through the entire night, often taking sleigh rides around his estates while his poor staff who were forced to keep his unusual schedule. Ludwig was definitely a strange dude. If he went to high school with you, he would probably be the theatre geek who wore a paper crown to class and didn’t have many social skills. But eccentricity does not equal insanity, so how was it that at the age of 40, King Ludwig II was deemed mentally insane and forcibly removed from the throne. And how did it come to pass that Ludwig’s lifeless body was found floating in the lake of one of his beloved estates? That’s a secret I’ll never tell. XOXO Stefanie…….
Just kidding, check back NEXT week for the answer!
Katz, Jamie. “The Brilliant, Troubled Legacy of Richard Wagner.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 23 July 2013, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-brilliant-troubled-legacy-of-richard-wagner-16686821/.
King, Greg. The Mad King: the Life and Times of Ludwig II of Bavaria. Aurum Press, 1997.
“The Revolutions of 1848–49.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., http://www.britannica.com/place/Germany/The-revolutions-of-1848-49.