King Ludwig II of Bavaria was born in Nymphenburg Castle outside Munich in the early hours of August 25, 1845. He was the eldest son of King Maximillian II and Queen Marie, and was named after his grandfather, King Ludwig I.
As a boy, Ludwig was given a typical 19th cent. upbringing - an indifferent father and schooling which consisted of constant beatings. It is fairly obvious that he would have been miserable as a child. His favourite times of the year were the summer holidays the family spent at the Royal Castle Hohenschwangau which King Max had restored between 1832 and 1836 in a romantic medieval style. Hohenschwangau's position can only be called magnificent; it is situated beside a blue alpine lake, the Alpsee, and about 2 kilometres from the Austrian border and the Tyrolean Alps.
The Queen enjoyed taking Ludwig and his younger brother Otto on lengthy hikes in the nearby alps and it would have been on these occasions that Ludwig developed his love of the mountains and their solitude, as well as his lifelong devotion to the Schwangau region. He also loved to feed the wild swans that lived around the lake, and several drawings of swans that he made at this time survive today.
In 1858, when Ludwig was thirteen years old, his governess told him of the upcoming production of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin, the story of which centres around the heroic medieval Swan-knight Lohengrin. Since the walls of Hohenschwangau were covered in frescoes featuring Lohengrin, a curious Ludwig acquired a copy of the opera's libretto and he read it voraciously. It wasn't too long before the Prince had learnt the entire libretto off by heart, as well as the libretto of another Wagner opera, Tannhäuser. He was soon devouring every book written by Wagner, and on February 2nd, 1861, Ludwig heard a Wagner opera for the first time.
Appropriately it was Lohengrin and the experience left a profound impression on the Prince. In 1863 he acquired Wagner's recently published Ring Cycle, the preface of which contained a comment about the miserable state of the German theatre. In order for the Ring to be produced, Wagner wrote, a German Prince would need to be found to provide the required funds. To Ludwig, this was a direct message from the master. He would be that Prince.
On March 10th, 1864, King Max died at the age of 53. Ludwig assumed the throne at 18 years of age. Within days of his ascension, the young King ordered his ministers to track down Wagner and bring him to Munich. The task was not as easy as first thought, but eventually Wagner, running from his creditors, was located in Vienna and brought to the King. To the 51 year old composer Ludwig was a new Siegfried, come to rescue art. To the 18 year old King, Wagner was a god. Ludwig became Wagner's patron, settled his debts, and set him up comfortably in an Italianate-style villa. The two were inseparable, and Ludwig was soon planning the construction of a large festival theatre in Munich. On several occasions Wagner stayed with Ludwig at Schloss Berg, another mock-Gothic summer castle, as well as visits to Hohenschwangau.
Soon, however, Munich society was growing tired of Wagner's arrogance and jealous of his influence on their young King, and the ministers feared Wagner would try to influence Ludwig in political matters. It was only a matter of time before Wagner was forced to leave Bavaria. Eighteen months after his arrival, Wagner left Munich for Switzerland, and to a house rented by Ludwig for him. Ludwig fled to Hohenschwangau. The one thing that was giving him happiness had been taken from him.
The first few years of Ludwig's reign was a series of tragedies and disappointments. In 1866 war broke out between Austria and Prussia, the most powerful of the German states in what became known as the Seven Weeks War. Because of Bavaria's strong links with Austria, she too was drawn into the conflict on the Austrian side. Unfortunately for Bavaria, Prussia was victorious, and the country was thrown into gloom. In a secret treaty Ludwig placed the Bavarian army at the disposal of the Prussian General Staff. A part of Bavaria's independence was lost.
Soon after the end of the war, the Royal family began to notice how much time Ludwig was spending with Sophie, the youngest sister of the Austrian Empress. She was a delicate girl not quite twenty with long ash-blond hair. For Ludwig she had a major characteristic in her favour - she was a fellow Wagner enthusiast. They seemed a perfect couple. They would spend hours discussing the Master's works, and soon began addressing each other as Elsa and Heinrich (both characters from Lohengrin). Within a few months of their first meeting, Sophie's mother demanded Ludwig state his intentions, and through shrewd planning from her, the couple announced their engagement in January 1867. The nation was delighted with the news, and court balls, dinners and theatre performances were held in the couple's honour.
The date for the wedding was first set for August, 1867. Shortly after it was changed to October 12th, the date both Ludwig I and Max II had married. But it was beginning to be obvious that not everything was well. Ludwig and Sophie were seen occupying separate boxes at the theatre, and people remarked that the couple seemed to be lacking a glow. Further evidence of this happened when Ludwig left court balls early and alone in order to catch the final act of plays. The truth was that Ludwig was desperately worried about the wedding. He stated to the Court Secretary that he would rather drown himself in the Alpsee than to marry. As the wedding date dew nearer Ludwig was more agitated and miserable. He wrote to Wagner
"Oh, if only I could be carried on a magic carpet to you . . . at dear, peaceful Tribschen* - even for an hour or two. What I would give to be able to do that!"
But Sophie was just as miserable. She knew that the King didn't love her. Finally she sent a letter offering Ludwig his freedom. But rather than except it, yet another postponement was made, to December. Meanwhile, wild rumours were circulating through Munich, the most absurd being that Sophie had broken Ludwig's heart by having an affair with a local photographer. (This rumour still persists to this day.) In the end it was Sophie's father who ended the affair. He sent word to Ludwig in early October demanding that he set a definite date at the end of November, or withdraw his proposal. Ludwig took the latter option. That night he wrote in his diary,
"Sophie is finished with. The gloomy picture vanishes. I longed for freedom, I thirsted for freedom, to wake from this horrible nightmare."
Ludwig fled to his beloved Alps, and hid there in his dreams. He wrote to Wagner from Hohenschwangau on 21 November, 1867.
"I write these lines sitting in my cosy gothic bow-window, by the light of my lonely lamp, while outside the blizzard rages. It is so peaceful here, this silence is stimulating, whereas in the clamour of the world I feel absolutely miserable.
"Thank God I am alone at last. My mother is far away, as is my former bride, who would have made me unspeakably unhappy. Before me stands a bust of the one, true Friend whom I shall love until death. . . If only I had the opportunity to die for you." The following year Sophie married Prince Ferdinand d'Orleans, a grandson of King Louis-Phillipe of France. In 1897 she died in a fire during a charity bazaar in Paris.
It was from this time onwards in his life that Ludwig began planning and building monstrously huge castles. The task of being king was far too great for a young man in his early 20's. This is possibly the most important fact that we must keep in mind when dealing with Ludwig. At the age of 20 he signed the order for mobilizing the army and joining the Seven Weeks War, and thereby ordering thousands into battle. The traumatic episode of his failed engagement occurred when he was 21. But tragedy was still about to descend on the young King. Two years after his broken marriage plans, Prussia went to war with France, and since Prussia now effectively controlled Bavaria's army, Ludwig ordered his troops into battle once again into what became known as the Franco-Prussian War. During this war Ludwig withdrew from the real world and into a world of make-believe. The plans for both Neuschwanstein and Linderhof date from this period, and the foundation stone for Neuschwanstein was laid now. (In 1869.)
Ludwig was quickly changing in both mind and body. Photographs show how his appearance changed from a slender youth to a huge man in just a few years. He began to spend all his time in the mountains, at Hohenschwangau and Linderhof when it was ready to move in to, and his small mock-Gothic castle at Berg, beside Lake Starnberg. He refused to see his ministers and preferred the company of the mountain people. In fact, the only time he stayted in Munich was the annual investiture and banquet given in the Residenz for the Knights of the Order of St. George, Bavaria's highest Order of Chivalry Ludwig was the Grand Master of this Order. From paintings of these dinners, we can see Ludwig enjoyed himself immensely.
The famous "Private Performances" also date from around this time. Sitting alone in the Residenz Theatre or the Court Theatre in Munich, the King would attend plays, concerts and operas put on for him alone. Plays were commissioned by the King to take place in settings designated by him. These settings were invariably exotic; the Himalayas; the court of Louis XIV; Tibet, Imperial China etc.
The final trauma for Ludwig occurred shortly after Prussia's victory in the Franco-Prussian War. Bismark requested Ludwig's approval for Bavaria to enter a unified German Empire with Prussia as leader. After several days procrastinating, Ludwig agreed and wrote a letter inviting Wilhelm II to become Emperor of a united Germany. Bavarian sovereignty became an idea rather than a reality, and Ludwig a figurehead in a constitutional monarchy.
These incidences, then, were responsible for his reclusive existence, and his alleged "madness". The world had never been kind to him, and he withdrew from it into a world of his own making. This was the reason for his castles.
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