If you’re looking for real-life fairytale castles, look no further than Germany. There are more than 20,000 of them! But you can’t talk about these fairytale castles without first mentioning the Mad King. And no, this isn’t Game of Thrones we’re talking about. Also known as Schwanenkönig (Swan King) and Märchenkönig (Fairytale King), the state legally declared King Ludwig II of Bavaria insane just 3 days before his mysterious death.
When King Ludwig II built his magnificent palaces in the 1800s, he had only his personal retreat in mind. Imagine his horror if he had known they would turn into some of the biggest tourist attractions in the world! Since his death, over 61 million people (1.3 million per year, up to 6,000 a day during the summer) have journeyed to see his fairytales brought to life. Proceeds from his palaces have paid his debts (close to 14 million marks at his death) over several times. Let’s dive into the history of one of Germany’s most legendary leaders and his fabled castles.
Early Life of Crown Prince Ludwig
Prince Ludwig was born in Munich in 1845 to King Maximilian II and Marie of Prussia. His parents brought up both Ludwig and his younger brother Otto with a heavy sense of duty and not much emotional connection. They “never really knew what to say” to their kids. As a result, neither brother particularly cared for their parents. Ludwig was introverted and shy, much preferring his own company to that of others. His mother once said,
“Ludwig enjoyed dressing up … took pleasure in play acting, loved pictures and the like … and liked … making presents of his property, money and other possessions.”
When you consider where a young Prince Ludwig grew up, it is easy to imagine how this early love of the arts and fairytales worked its way into many aspects of the eccentric king’s later life.
Above the village of Hohenschwangau (“Upper Swan County”) sat three medieval castle ruins. The fortresses Vorderhohenschwangau (vorder meaning “in front”) and Hinterhohenschwangau (hinter meaning “behind”) sat on a hill overlooking Schloss Schwanstein (“Swan Stone Castle”). King Maximillian II purchased the ruins of Schloss Schwanstein and began reconstruction in 1833.
Upon completion of the Neo-Gothic style castle in 1837, King Maximillian II renamed it Schloss Hohenschwangau. He decorated it to match the castle’s rich history of the medieval Knights of Schwangau. This became the childhood summer home of young Prince Ludwig and fueled his enchantment with the romantic stories of medieval Germany.
In the golden ages of sovereign kings and brave knights, one such story was that of Lohengrin, a knight of the Holy Grail known for his boat pulled by swans. Later in life, King Ludwig would befriend composer Richard Wagner who adapted this tale into the opera Lohengrin (the most famous piece being “Here Comes the Bride”).
Ludwig determined that one day he would build a castle of his own on the adjacent hilltop where the Schwangau fortress laid in ruins. He would make this castle greater and more extravagant than that of his parents.
King Ludwig II of Bavaria
In 1864, his father suddenly died of sepsis which thrust Ludwig into kingship at the age of 18. Later in life, he reflected that he “became king much too young.” Two years later, in 1866, he suffered a crushing blow to his reign.
He had aligned himself with Austria in the Austro-Prussian War, also known as the Seven Weeks War. Prussia won the war quickly, annexing Bavaria. Afterward, King Ludwig became no more than a vassal king under his Prussian uncle (of the house Hohenzollern). He longed now more than ever for medieval times when a king’s sovereignty was inherent and went unquestioned. This might help explain the obsession of the Mad King with building such lavish palaces worthy of a fairytale king. If he couldn’t be one, he could build a fantasy world in which he was.
As a child, Ludwig had visited Königshäuschen, his King father’s hunting lodge tucked away in the Bavarian Alps. Five years into his reign, in 1869, King Ludwig began expansion into what he called Schloss Linderhof. The Linder family tended to the farm (in German “hof“) housed on this land centuries before. It was to be the smallest of his palaces – and the only one of which he lived to see completed. It has only 10 rooms, 4 of which were to house servants. Built for one person, it truly was his retreat from the hustle and bustle of royal life.
He had been a long-time admirer of the French monarchy and their absolute power – something that had always eluded him. He had little freedom to do as he pleased and more duty as head of state than he would have wished. His inspiration for Schloss Linderhof came from the “Sun King” King Louis XIV which is clearly seen in his extensive use of the sun motif throughout the castle and grounds. Stylistically though, there is more influence from the Rococo style of Louis XV.
Further evidence for King Ludwig’s fascination with the French monarchy is seen in his Schloss Herrenchiemsee, or “New Palace.” This was built as a partial replica of Versailles. He purchased the property in 1873 and, after visiting Versailles in 1874, started construction in 1878. The largest of King Ludwig’s palaces (at 8,363 square feet), it was still significantly smaller than Versailles (721,2016 square feet). This is just ONE percent of the total size of Versailles. Built almost two centuries later, it had many modern amenities that Versailles did not. These included plenty of toilets, water, central heating, and a large heated bathtub. King Ludwig’s own Hall of Mirrors is 90 feet longer than the original.
In total, King Ludwig spent more building this opulent palace than he did on his two others COMBINED. It remains yet unfinished today; of the 70 planned rooms, only 20 are complete. Upon his death in 1886, one finished wing was torn down to preserve the palace’s current symmetry. The palace was then opened for public viewing just a few short weeks after his death.
King Ludwig’s swan song (see what I did there?!) was the epitome of a fairytale castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein. It was a Romanesque Revival style castle with towers and turrets set precariously upon a hillside. Ludwig wanted this castle to idealize a German medieval castle. The castle became the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty castles.
The Swan King started construction on the castle, which he called “Neu Hohenschwangau,” in 1869 while living in his childhood home. He hired theater set designers rather than architects to complete the project. The woodwork in his bedchamber alone took more than four years to complete. Depictions of the deeds of kings and saints cover the walls and ceilings of the Throne Room. A white marble staircase stands at one end of the room, meant to lead to a throne that was never installed. King Ludwig included innovative technology not yet available elsewhere, such as running water on every floor, flushing toilets, an electric bell system to summon servants, and even telephones!
The castle was never intended to host state affairs. It was built solely for himself, in which he enjoyed private concerts and operas. King Ludwig became more and more reclusive during this time. The Mad King began sleeping during the day, effectively becoming (insert another Game of Thrones reference here) the “Night King.” Of the 200 planned rooms of the castle, only 14 were ever completed. King Ludwig only ever spent 172 days (even fewer nights – only 11!) in the castle prior to his death.
It wasn’t until after the king’s untimely death that the name was changed to Neuschwanstein. This, confusingly enough, meant the castles had swapped names with the original castles. Hohenschwangau replaced Schwanstein Castle and Neuschwanstein succeeded the Schwangau Fortresses. Seven weeks later, his private palace was opened to the public.
Ludwig Living in a Fairytale World
Ludwig never used state money to finance his projects, contrary to popular belief. He instead spent all of his family’s accumulated wealth and then some. By 1885, Neuschwanstein and Herrenchiemsee were still unfinished and he was already in debt to foreign creditors by 14 million marks. When he could not repay his debts, his creditors threatened to seize his property and bankrupt Bavaria. His response was to threaten suicide.
In large part due to his extravagant spending and lack of attention to state matters and other royal duties, his advisors grew worried about the path of their king. He had many more projects planned and no intention of curbing his spending. When they tried to address these matters with the king, he threatened to dismiss them all. It became clear to them that the Mad King was beyond reason and they would have to take drastic measures before the state was ruined.
Mad King Ludwig Deposed
Under Bavarian law, the constitution did not allow for a monarch to be forcibly removed unless he was ruled incompetent. His advisors, along with Ludwig’s uncle Luitpold (who would become regent), hatched a conspiracy in which they would make this a reality.
A panel of four state psychiatrists declared that Ludwig suffered from paranoia and was unfit to rule, despite the king having no previous diagnosis of any mental illness.
“Suffering from such a disorder, freedom of action can no longer be allowed and Your Majesty is declared incapable of ruling, which incapacity will be not only for a year’s duration, but for the length of Your Majesty’s life.”
From the conclusion of the report on Ludwig II’s mental competency
Today, there are major doubts on the legitimacy of this report, most certainly due to the fact that none of these four psychiatrists ever actually examined Ludwig. One of the doctors, Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, was also treating Ludwig’s younger brother, Otto, and seemingly did little to help him. Historians now think that Prince Otto suffered from schizophrenia induced by syphilis.
They used Prince Otto’s diagnosis of severe mental illness to claim that Ludwig’s insanity was hereditary. Doctors now surmise that King Ludwig II probably suffered from a Schizotypal personality disorder.
Also of note, Ludwig’s uncle Luitpold and Dr. Gudden were known supporters of the Prussian empire – which both Ludwig and Otto were directly opposed to. Was this actually a veiled attempt to further advance the Prussian empire?
No Fairytale Ending for the Mad King
They then forced Ludwig out of Neuschwanstein and held him under close watch at Schloss Berg, near Lake Stamberg. Ludwig went for a walk with one of his psychiatrists, Dr. Gudden, around 5:30 pm three days after his deposition. They were expected to arrive back at the castle around 8 pm. They never returned.
The ensuing search ended around 10 pm the same night upon the discovery of both Ludwig and Gudden’s bodies in the lake. They found Ludwig, a known strong swimmer, in waist-deep water. The autopsy, however, showed no water in his lungs. Dr. Gudden was found with blows to the head and neck, and signs of strangulation.
Theories of what actually happened still run rampant. A fisherman hiding nearby the lake to help King Ludwig escape claims he heard a gunshot. A countess once presented her afternoon tea guests with the supposed jacket worn by Ludwig that night with two bullet holes in it. No evidence of any gunshots was ever reported in the autopsy.
Other theories presume that Ludwig may have suffered a heart attack or stroke triggered by the cold water. It may have been June, but the lake was only 12°C (or 54°F).
The death of the Mad King Ludwig II remains shrouded in mystery. Was it murder? Suicide? A state assassination? Unfortunately, it seems destined that this question remains unanswered. At the very least, he gave us some incredible castles to admire!