“An eternal riddle I shall remain to myself and others (…)” wrote King Ludwig II of Bavaria to the actress Marie Dahn-Hausmann in 1876. To this day, King Ludwig II is known far beyond the borders of Bavaria and keeps numerous historical researchers busy. It was not without reason that Ludwig II was given the nickname Fairytale King: in Ludwig’s time, the power of the Bavarian monarch had already waned. The Bavarian constitution of 1818 had turned the Kingdom of Bavaria into a constitutional monarchy.

“The monarch’s claim to political leadership (…) became more and more a fiction during Ludwig’s reign.”

Oliver Hilmes writes this in his biography of Ludwig. 

Creator of Bavarian and German culture

The dwindling political influence of the monarch required compensation: Ludwig II entrusted the running of the Kingdom of Bavaria to the executive officials of his cabinet and concentrated all the more on the “beautiful” aspects of life: culture, in all its forms.
Ludwig II not only corresponded regularly with cultural figures such as the actress Marie Dahn-Hausmann, he himself contributed to the creation and further development of Bavarian and German culture. 

Some of the most important aspects of his enthusiasm for culture have been preserved to this day: his castles. 

Richard Wagner

Five weeks after his accession to the throne on March 10, 1864, Ludwig II met Richard Wagner: The composer had to flee Vienna, heavily in debt, and his whereabouts were now unknown. Ludwig II asked an envoy to track down the composer. With the help of royal funds, Ludwig II paid off all of Wagner’s debts and enabled the composer to enjoy an aristocratic lifestyle. King Ludwig’s goal was to “put the Munich audience in a more sophisticated mood (…) through performances of serious, important works (…) and thus prepare them for the wonders of [Richard Wagner’s] works (…).” 

Richard Wagner in Paris in 1861, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Lost sovereignty

Between 1864 and 1883, Richard Wagner and Ludwig II exchanged almost 600 letters, dispatches and poems. In one of these letters, Ludwig outlined his plans for a new castle in 1868, which was to become his preferred seat of power: it was Neuschwanstein Castle.
After Prussia’s victory in the Prussian-Austrian War of 1866, the Bavarian plenipotentiaries concluded a treaty with Prussia that did not explicitly guarantee the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Bavaria. This was against Ludwig’s instructions – for him, sovereignty came first. For Bavaria, which fought on the side of Austria, it was thus a double defeat. 

Neuschwanstein Castle

Ludwig II’s sovereignty was threatened: As compensation, King Ludwig commissioned the construction of Neuschwanstein Castle in 1868. Neuschwanstein is the reconstruction of two medieval castles. The castle contains allusions to Richard Wagner’s stage designs – including designs from Tannhäuser and Lohengrin. He inherited his fascination for medieval buildings from his father Maximilian II: in 1832, Maximilian II had Hohenschwangau Castle, not far from Neuschwanstein, restored – Ludwig spent some time in Hohenschwangau and developed his penchant for medieval buildings there. 

Ludwig II himself designed the interior of the throne room in Neuschwanstein.
Today, Neuschwanstein Castle is one of the most famous castles in the world: people travel from all over the world to visit it. 

Castle Neuschwanstein in 2013, © Kidora, Wikimedia Commons

The secret behind Neuschwanstein castle

Why is Neuschwanstein Castle so attractive to this day? On the one hand, it is the location of the castle. Located in the southeastern Bavarian Allgäu, it offers a view of the Alps to the south and a view of the Upper Bavarian Plain to the north. It is the contrast between these two landscapes that Neuschwanstein thrives on. It is also the reverberation of a time long past that the Bavarian castle flourishes on. Ludwig II was the last great representative of a monarchical form of government – monarchies, whether past or present, arouse the fascination of many people. Despite his powerlessness in political matters, Ludwig II was still given the opportunity to show his potential as a builder. 

Herrenchiemsee Castle

Ludwig’s talents as a builder were also expressed in the construction of Herrenchiemsee Castle on Herreninsel in Lake Chiemsee. Similar to Neuschwanstein, there were also remnants of a medieval fortification here.
But it was not Ludwig’s intention to build Herrenchiemsee in the medieval style: Versailles Palace served as the model for the construction of the New Palace, as Herrenchiemsee was also referred to. There were two rooms that were built on Herreninsel at the beginning: The Parade Bedroom and the Mirror Gallery – Herrenchiemsee Palace was built on the basis of these two rooms. At almost 100 meters in length, the Mirror Gallery is larger than that of its model in Versailles. 

“And even if we are both long gone, our work will still serve as a shining example that shall delight the centuries to come, and hearts will glow with enthusiasm for art, (…) the eternal living art!”

These words were addressed by Ludwig II to Richard Wagner in 1865. His prediction was true: Richard Wagner’s works are still influential in the world of theater and opera today. Ludwig II went down in history as the Fairytale King whose castles are still an essential part of the myth surrounding his legendary person. 

Simon von Ludwig

Main sources: Rall, Hans & Petzet, Michael: “King Ludwig II – Truth and mystery”, 2005 Schnell & Steiner publishing house & Hilmes, Oliver: “Ludwig II – A king out of his time”, 2013 Siedler publishing house (German versions)

Cover picture: Ludwig II of Bavaria in General Field Marshals Uniform and Coronation Robe, © Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

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