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The Swan King of Bavaria

All right, we are going to take a break from our regular programming so I can fill you in on some details about Bavaria and the royal house of Wittelsbach. This will give me the chance to then discuss a Bavarian monarch I became fascinated by, King Ludwig II, who reigned from 1864-1886. Ludwig was known (and self-styled himself) as “the Fairytale King,” “the Swan King,” “the Moon King,” and, least flatteringly by his political enemies, “the Mad King.” He is shown below in his official coronation portrait.

Bavaria as we presently know it became a state of Germany in 1946. But the course to a unified German state did not run smooth, as the 20th century can well attest. I’m going to give a LeahsNotes version of the history of Bavaria, and I’ll start with our old friend, Henry the Lion—Duke of Bavaria and Saxony, founder of Munich, and vandal of toll bridges. In 1180 he was deposed by his cousin, Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor. Bavaria was awarded as a fief to the Wittelsbach family, and they would rule it for 738 years. (Spoiler: that’s until the momentous year of 1918).

Let’s skip through the times of the Holy Roman Empire as that is a big subject I am not quite ready to tackle. (We’ll save that for Nuremberg). I’ll just note that leaders in Bavaria during this period would be known as Electors, as Bavaria could place a vote for the role of Holy Roman Emperor. Napoleon abolished the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, and Bavaria became a Kingdom. In May 1808, the King, Maximilian I, passed Bavaria’s first constitution. A second version of the constitution in 1818 established a Parliament with a House of Lords and House of Commons. Maximilian I ruled until 1825. He was succeeded by King Ludwig I, who reigned from 1825 until 1848. Ludwig’s wedding to Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810 ultimately gave us Oktoberfest. Ludwig I was forced to abdicate in 1848 in favour of his son, Maximilian II, who then ruled from 1848-1864. Then we get to Maximilian’s son and the star of my story, Ludwig II.

In the 19th century, the nation-states of Prussia and Austria were competing heavyweights. Bavaria kept its independence by allying with one, and then the other. Bavaria’s alliance with Austria meant it was on the losing side of the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. It stayed out of the North-German Federation that existed from 1867-1870. When France declared war on Prussia in 1870, Bavaria, as well as a few other southern states, allied with Prussia. Austria stayed out of it. This new union of nation-states became the German Empire. Bavaria continued as a monarchy at this time, and retained some special privileges within the federation such as its own army, railways, and postal service.

As you can see, the political climate of the last half of the nineteenth century in this area of Europe was volatile. What began as a romantic celebration of German art, history, and language would soon become a raging flood of German nationalism. In addition, the industrial revolution continued to greatly transform society. This is where we find Ludwig II, a man who could have been a half-decent Renaissance-era King but, unfortunately, was unfit for the modern time he was born in. All he wanted was to build pretty castles, go on moonlit sleigh rides through the mountains, and stage operas. But at this time in history Germany wasn’t interested in Swan Kings and fairytales, it wanted progress and war.

Ludwig II was born at Nymphenburg Palace on August 25, 1845. He was named after his grandfather, King Ludwig I. Both men shared a birthday, as well as an enthusiasm for art, and they both had eccentric personalities. Ludwig was creative, introverted almost to the point of being reclusive, and loved to daydream.

Ludwig spent a large part of his childhood living at Schloss Hohenschwangau (shown below), a “fantasy castle” that his father, Maximilian II, built in southwest Bavaria, near the Austrian border. Schwangau is the name of the local region, and translates as “Swan’s district.” The castle was built in a Neo-Gothic style and featured more than ninety beautiful murals that depicted local history as well as medieval German romances. This fanciful environment would have provided a fertile ground for Ludwig’s developing imagination.

Below is a romantic drawing of Hohenschwangau castle by Frederik Hansen Sødring, done in 1843.

Maximilian II was the source of his son’s later obsession with swans. Swans were the historic heraldic animal of the knights of Schwangau, and Maximilian saw himself as their successor. He adopted the bird into his coat of arms and as a decorative motif.

The Swan Knight was one of the characters that decorated the halls of Hohenschwangau. In this German tale Lohengrin is a knight of the Holy Grail who comes to the rescue of a princess named Elsa after her father, the King of Brabant, passes away without leaving a male heir. On his deathbed, the King made people swear to be true to Elsa and accept her as their ruler. But the evil Count Telramunde will not do so, and says that he promised the old King that he would marry Elsa and become King himself. That’s when Lohengrin enters stage left on a boat being drawn by a silver swan (shown below), his armour gleaming. He defends Elsa’s rights in a duel with Count Telramunde. Of course, Lohengrin wins and marries Princess Elsa.

German composer Richard Wagner also used the medieval German romance as the source for his opera Lohengrin. Ludwig, who already identified himself with the Swan Knight, was captivated when he saw Wagner’s show at the age of fifteen.

Ludwig’s childhood wasn’t all swans and fairytale castles. He described his childhood as a “series of humiliating torments.” His day started at 5:30 am and was spent with a series of strict tutors studying Greek, Latin, mathematics, and religion until 7:00 pm. The expectations and responsibilities of being Crown Prince were impressed upon him from a young age, and his romantic nature discouraged. His parents were distant. He even referred to his mother, Queen Therese, as “my predecessor’s consort.” Ouch!

Below: King Ludwig II in 1864, in uniform.

Ludwig was only eighteen when his father died after a short and unexpected illness, and he ascended to the throne in 1864. One of the first things Ludwig did was to summon Richard Wagner to the royal court. His support of the German composer was crucial to Wagner’s later success, as Wagner had been dodging creditors and living in exile prior to Ludwig’s generous patronage. After meeting Ludwig for the first time, Wagner wrote, of the King: “He is unfortunately so beautiful and wise, soulful and lordly, that I fear his life must fade away like a divine dream in this base world… You cannot imagine the magic of his regard: if he remains alive it will be a great miracle!”

The new King did not adjust easily to his new responsibilities. He hated large public functions and eschewed social events whenever possible. He avoided Munich and participation in government affairs by all means possible. He preferred being left alone to pursue his real passions in art, music, and architecture. He slept during the day and lived at night. “He is repulsed by his family and the entire court, hates the army and soldiers, finds the nobility ridiculous and despises the masses,” an acquaintance said of him. He found court dinners tedious, and intentionally had loud music played in order to hinder conversation.

Below: A picture of King Ludwig II on one of his infamous moonlit sleigh rides. Sometimes he rode out in historic costume.

The humiliating Bavarian loss in the Austro-Prussian War happened only two years into his rule, and the Franco-Prussian War four years after that. Ludwig chafed at the loss of power that came when Bavaria joined with the German Empire in 1870. He subscribed to the medieval notion of the divine right of kings, but he was stuck being a constitutional monarch in an increasingly parliamentary system. He buried himself in plans to build dreamy, romantic castles where he could, at least through design and imagination, exercise the control he longed to have in reality.

In 1867, Ludwig visited France. Although he had to return home before visiting the Palace of Versailles, impressions of the grand building weighed heavily on him. He was full of admiration for the way in which France glorified its culture through beautiful pieces of art, music, and architecture. He felt Bavaria suffered in comparison, and wanted to recreate some of that French glamour in his own projects.

Below: The dreamiest castle of them all, Schloss Neuschwanstein.

Schloss Neuschwanstein (“New-Swan-on-the-Rock Castle”) was built on a hill that neighboured Schloss Hohenschwangau. As a child, Ludwig had explored the ruins of two earlier castles that had adorned the same hill, and made note of the stunning view. The design for his new castle was based on the stage directions for the second act of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohingren, which Ludwig had admired so much as a young man. He planned for Neuschwanstein to be a “worthy temple to the divine friend”, meaning Wagner.

Below: Neuschwanstein project drawing by Christian Jank, 1869.

In 1869, the ruins of the two former castles were demolished. The foundation stone for the new palace was laid in 1869. In 1884 the palace was still unfinished, but enough of it was complete that Ludwig was able to move in. The palace did not have the space necessary to house the royal court; it was only ever meant to house the King and his servants. The palace was dedicated to the life and works of Richard Wagner but, unfortunately, the composer died in 1883 before he was ever able to visit it.

Neuschwanstein is also famous for being the inspiration for the castle in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

Below: Schloss Linderhof.

The Petit Trianon is a small château located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Louis XV had it built  for his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, between 1762-1768. In 1774, Louis XVI gave the Petit Trianon to his young queen, Marie Antoinette, for her private use. Ludwig II was inspired by this idea and sought to recreate his own version with Schloss Linderhof. Construction took place between 1869 and 1886.

Linderhof is also where Ludwig recreated a scene from the tale of the Swan Knight, Lohengrin. He had an underground lake, the Venus Grotto, constructed so he could be rowed in a golden shell-shaped boat (see below). Electricity, which was still a novelty at the time, was used to light up the lake with green, blue, and red effects.

Seem familiar?

Below: Schloss Herrenchiemsee.

Ludwig greatly admired Louis XVI, and planned to pay homage to the “Sun King’s” Palace of Versailles by building a bigger and grander version of it. Ludwig fashioned himself as a romantic shadow of the French monarch as the “Moon King” or the “Night King.” Construction began in 1878, but the central section was the only piece that was ever finished. However, Herrenchiemsee’s Mirror Gallery is slightly longer than the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.

A grand winter garden was also added to the roof of the Munich Residenz (more on that in my next post!).

Of course, Ludwig’s avoidance of political responsibility and flagrant spending didn’t earn him any friends within the government. Ludwig paid for his projects out of his own funds but he still ended up deeply in debt. He borrowed heavily from his family and, instead of cutting back as his finance ministers recommended, continued to press forward with more grand plans and expenditures. He wanted the government to seek loans from other European royalty to bankroll his projects. Then, feeling harangued by the complaints of these ministers, he considered replacing all of them. They decided to take him down first.

The ministers conspired to depose Ludwig by claiming he was mentally ill. Ludwig’s uncle, Prince Luitpold, agreed to take Ludwig’s place if the ministers could prove that his nephew was insane. Now, I’m not a fan of monarchy playing an active, influential role in political matters. I’m fine with monarchs being pretty figureheads who earn their keep through working with charitable organizations. But to get from the first role to the latter requires a major shift in power, the kind that isn’t always welcome. Ludwig was a King who enjoyed the privileges that came with the position, but didn’t want to do any of the dirty work. Worse, he wanted and had the power to purge the members of Parliament who disagreed with him and find more suitable (to him) replacements. Having said all that, I don’t think the report that was drawn up on Ludwig’s mental stability was done in the most balanced manner. A little bribery, some servant gossip, a slight exaggeration here or there, a panel of psychiatrists who never actually met, let alone examined, him… the results were a foregone conclusion.

The final report claimed that the King suffered from paranoia, that he was incapable of ruling, that “freedom of action [could] no longer be allowed”, and that his incapacity would be a term equal to the rest of his life. His younger brother, Otto, was also declared insane. On June 10, 1886 at four in the morning, government commissioners showed up at Schloss Neuschwanstein to deliver the deposition and to place Ludwig in custody. There was a standoff at gunpoint, which also included the delightful scene of 47-year old baronness Spera von Truchseß, a friend of the King, attacking the commissioners with her umbrella.

I’ll mention at this point that while Ludwig didn’t have the support of the government, he was wildly popular with the citizens of Bavaria. While traveling through the countryside he enjoyed meeting and chatting with the locals. He bestowed lavish gifts upon people who showed him hospitality. He is still referred to as “Unser Kini” (“our cherished King” in the Bavarian dialect). People still leave flowers at his tomb in the Wittelsbach crypt beneath St. Michaelskirche. He is definitely the type to inspire devotion and the brandishing of a lethal umbrella.

But the wheel of fortune grinds on. Luitpold was declared Prince Regent, and a second commission arrived at Schloss Neuschwanstein on June 12. Ludwig was taken into a carriage where one of his condemning psychiatrists, Dr. Bernhard von Gudden (chief of the Munich asylum), was waiting. Ludwig was taken to Berg Castle, located south of Munich and on the shore of Lake Starnberg.

Below: A postcard of Schloss Berg in a postcard from 1901.

In the afternoon of June 13, Dr. von Gudden and Ludwig took a walk around the grounds of Berg Castle. They had two attendants escorting them. Later that evening, around 6:00 pm, Ludwig and Dr. von Gudden went for another stroll, this time around the lake. It’s not clear who invited whom, but Dr. von Gudden told the escorts not to follow. The men were last seen at 6:30 pm. They were expected back at 8:00 pm, but didn’t turn up. The entire castle staff searched for the men for two hours during a heavy storm. They found Ludwig’s and Dr. von Gudden’s bodies around 10:30 pm, “head and shoulders above the shallow water near the shore.” The King’s watch had stopped at 6:54 pm.

The cause of death was officially ruled a suicide, but the autopsy reported that there was no water in his lungs. Additionally, Ludwig was known to be a strong swimmer, had been in only waist-deep water, and he had not expressed any suicidal feelings. Dr. von Gudden’s body showed physical signs of assault including blows to the head and neck, as well as marks of strangulation.

What happened? Murderer, or murdered? There are many theories, but it remains a mystery. One suggests that the King was shot while trying to escape, but the autopsy showed no scars or wounds on his dead body. However, a Countess would later show off a jacket with two bullet holes to her friends at afternoon tea many years later and claim it was the same jacket Ludwig had been wearing. The King’s personal fisherman said that he was made to swear an oath of silence about what he witnessed that day and that, in return, “the state” would look after his family. Another theory is that while making an escape attempt Ludwig died of natural causes; the cold water of the lake may have provoked a heart attack or stroke.

“I want to remain an eternal mystery to myself and others,” Ludwig once told his governess. In that, Ludwig certainly got his wish. In 1889, a memorial cross was erected at the location on Lake Starnberg where the bodies were found, and a memorial chapel was built overlooking the site. An annual commemoration ceremony is held there on June 13.

After Ludwig’s death, his younger brother Otto became King. However, Luitpold continued as Prince Regent because Otto had also been “diagnosed” as insane by Dr. von Gudden. Luitpold’s regency lasted until his death in 1912. His son, Ludwig III, took over the regency in 1913 and, in 1914, he officially deposed Otto (still alive but institutionalized) and became King. His reign continued until the end of World War I in 1918, when monarchy in all of Germany was abolished.

What a crazy story, right? It’s certainly worthy of an opera written by Ludwig’s friend, Richard Wagner. In fact, it’s been suggested that Ludwig’s “Swan King” title might have inspired the famous Russian opera Swan Lake.

Ironically, the expensive palaces that Ludwig built that drew the ire of the government ministers have since become some of Bavaria’s most popular tourist attractions. Millions of people come from all over the world to see them, and they have more than paid for themselves.

Although Neil and I have not yet made it to Hohenschwangau, nearby Neuschwanstein, Linderhoff, or Herrenchiemsee, we did get to see Nymphenberg Palace. I also spent time at the Munich Residenz and Treasury. Those posts are coming up next!


Note: Pictures were taken from Pixabay, the official website for each royal palace, and Wikipedia.

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