Moon King, lonely, homosexual and a little mad. Everybody believes they know something about King Ludwig II, but what is myth and what is true? What can we really be sure of? Here a factual overview of Ludwig’s life:
On the left stands Ludwig with his father Maximilian II, his mother and brother Otto.
Ludwig was born in 1845 at Nymphenburg Palace. As was customary at court in those times, he spent most of his time with his nurse. He maintained a good relationship with her throughout his entire life. His relationship to his parents was less harmonious. Ludwig II was already considered to be a dreamer at an early age and was consequently the exact opposite of his father, King Maximilian II, who was regarded as cool and rational. As a man, who had a passion for engineering and science, Maximilian II recognised and appreciated the upcoming age of industrialisation. Ludwig’s mother, a Prussian lady from the House of Hohenzollern, was a little more affectionate. But contrary to offspring from the Prussian dynasty, Ludwig was not educated with military drill, but liberally, Christian and almost a little antimilitaristic.
Engagement and private penchants
Ludwig II with his fiancée, Duchess Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria
A king had to marry and have children. That was simply one of the royal duties. After all, the dynasty had to be continued. But what if you didn’t really like women? At the age of 20, Ludwig II became engaged to Duchess Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria – a daughter from a branch line of the House of Wittelsbach and sister of Elisabeth, the famous Sissi, also a Munich girl, who had already caused a sensation when becoming Empress of Austria. The wedding to Sophie was announced, consent had been obtained from the Pope, everything was planned and ready, but at the last minute, Ludwig cancelled the wedding and the engagement. What the public did not know at the time: Sophie was already having an affair with another man. Ludwig remained unmarried. His sexual preference troubled him throughout his entire life. He could never openly admit to being homosexual. Homosexuality was classed as an illness. Passionate letters and friendships to men are documented, real amorous escapades, however, are not.
Ludwig and Richard Wagner
At the age of 17, Ludwig II heard his first Wagner opera and was enthralled. The fanatic awe he felt towards the composer lasted a lifetime. Ludwig II became Richard Wagner’s most important supporter and patron. He had people track down the deeply indebted composer and bring him to Munich. Ludwig paid Wagner’s debts and financed his next works. Wagner thanked him gushingly: “I send you tears of heavenly affection...” A few of Wagner’s works premiered in Munich, among them Tristan and Isolde. Ludwig loved to listen to Wagner’s operas, sometimes alone without an audience. “I can’t immerse myself into the illusion of theatre, when the people around me keep staring at me...” said Ludwig. Richard Wagner’s influence on King Ludwig II became so great that he even had an impact on political decisions. However, the ministers did not allow this and ordered Wagner to leave Munich again. Ludwig nonetheless kept paying Wagner is annual salary.
Ludwig and the American author
Edgar Allan Poe
Ludwig saw a veritable kindred spirit in one of the great American authors, in Edgar Allan Poe. Poe was already dead when Ludwig was born, but he was intimately familiar with his works. Poe is regarded as the pioneer of symbolism, but he was by no means a dreamy sentimentalist. On the contrary, he was an analytical author of crime and horror stories with a pinch of the fantastic. In February 1882, King Ludwig II confessed to the American journalist Lew Vanderpoole: “For me, Poe is one of the greatest human beings ever to have walked this earth.” Incidentally, Poe was not widely known in the German-speaking parts of the world in the 19th century. That only changed at the beginning of the 20th century.
Ludwig and politics
Otto von Bismarck
At the age of 18, after the death of his father Maximilian II, Ludwig was crowned King of Bavaria in 1864. At this time, Germany as a state did not yet exist. Bavaria was an independent kingdom and part of the loose German Confederation. He did not live in a democracy, nor was he an absolutist king. Ludwig reigned “by the grace of God”, but with a parliament and a constitution and had to do a lot of paperwork. Ludwig struggled with his bureaucratic duties, but he nonetheless fulfilled them diligently until his dying days. Until the end, he read weekly reports and countersigned them. But reigning and discussing with the ministers, the parliament and the parties was not one of Ludwig’s strengths. He withdrew more and more from Munich, a city he hated. As little as Ludwig II liked politics, one of the most important events of German history took place during his reign: the foundation of the German Reich. Ludwig II did not like Bismarck’s and mighty Prussia’s idea at all – this meant, after all, that he would lose his sovereignty. But in the end, he had to give in. Prussia was too dominant and Bavaria had to bow down. However, Ludwig demanded millions for his signature, a sum he invested in building castles.
Mountains and solitude
His mother passed on her love of the mountains to Ludwig. She already took him to the Alps when he was still a child. The older Ludwig II grew, the more he loved the solitude the mountains offered. “On Sunday, I will once again escape into the holy tranquillity of nature, the pure air of the mountains ... up there in the blissful solitude, high in the mountains, I will find the rest I so desperately need.” he wrote in 1865 at the age of just 19. Incidentally, romanticising the Alps only became fashionable in the 19th century. A monarch of the 18th century would have found the idea ludicrous. He would have seen the mountains as a menacing force of nature.
Ludwig and engineering
King Ludwig II lived in the age of industrialisation, i.e. a time of great change. Glowing steel and steaming machines characterised this era, but also a new and invisible force: electricity. Engineers and inventors from Munich and Bavaria also played an important role in this development. The first fridge was, for example, developed by Karl Linde in Munich. For Ludwig II, all this progress meant that he could realise his grand visions and ideas. Most impressively so at the Venus Grotto at Linderhof Palace. The magical blue light in the Grotto was created by an electric lighting system which was powered by dynamo machines, which are regarded as Bavaria’s first electric power station.
The King of Majorca
Ludwig II as Ludwig XIV
Ludwig II already had trouble sharing his power with his parliament and ministers. But he deeply disliked the fact that Prussia was in charge after the foundation of the German Reich in 1871, which meant that he was merely an insignificant, heteronomous regent. So, two years after Prussia had proclaimed its German Reich at Versailles, he had people look for an island, where he could be sole king and sovereign once again. Maps of the whole world were searched. After several islands and archipelagos were declared unsuitable, they finally agreed on Majorca. One idea was, to buy the island off Spain to found an independent kingdom there. However, it soon became clear that the whole project would be too costly and too complicated, and so it remained a dream.
The King and good food
The king loved good food and he loved to eat a lot of it. Understandable, but also unhealthy. French cuisine was his favourite. But one of his favourite dishes was simply boiled meat, which was very popular in Munich at the time. In Vienna, the dish is called Tafelspitz. King Ludwig liked Tafelspitz so much that he had his chefs cook it almost on a daily basis. Ludwig also liked to have the table laid for additional people, who only attended in his imagination, e.g. notable characters from the 18th century such as Marie Antoinette or the French king Louis XIV. As he grew older, Ludwig II became fatter and fatter, and his clothes became more and more opulent. A little like Elvis Presley. Due to the limited medical possibilities of his time, Ludwig had rotting teeth, constant toothache and bad breath.
Ludwig, popular with the farmers
As much as Ludwig hated Munich and its inhabitants, he felt at home with the peasants. On his travels, he often stopped to chat with farmers. He also liked to attend church in plain chapels in the countryside or in the mountains. Such stories got around quickly and increased the king’s popularity in the rural areas.
The scene of the tragedy in Lake Starnberg
On 8 June 1886, at the instigation of the Bavarian government, Ludwig II was declared “disturbed in the mind” and “incurable” by several doctors and consequently incapacitated. The king’s extravagance, his rising mountain of debt due to building one palace after another and his increasing voluntary isolation were the government’s trigger for this move. King Ludwig was taken into custody at Neuschwanstein Castle on 12 June and from there taken to Berg Castle on Lake Starnberg. On the following day, he took a walk in the castle gardens and along the lake together with Doctor Bernhard von Gudden. When both men had not returned by 8.00pm, people were sent out to search for them with lamps and torches. At around 10.00pm the king and von Gudden were found, 25 paces from the shore, drifting in the shallow water. The official story is that von Gudden wanted to prevent Ludwig from committing suicide and was killed in the attempt. No one knows what really happened back then. It remains part of the myth.