King Ludwig II of Bavaria (1845-1886) is remembered for his fairy-tale castles and his patronage of the composer Richard Wagner. Like many of his forefathers, Ludwig had a wildly eccentric temperament, was artistically talented and at times overwhelmed by a melancholia that gradually turned him into a recluse. As a result of his neglecting the affairs of state, he was declared insane in a plot to depose him. Soon afterwards he and his warden were found death in circumstances that remain a mystery to this day.
Ludwig II "the Swan King" of Bavaria was the eldest son of King Maximilian II of Bavaria (1811-1864)
and his wife, Marie of Prussia (1825-1889). After a miscarriage in 1843, Marie was pregnant again in 1845.
Possibly as a result of her very small pelvis, she went through approximately 20 hours of labour before Ludwig was born on August 25, 1845 at 12.30 a.m. at castle Nymphenburg.
For the first few days, the boy was called Otto; then his grandfather, King Ludwig I (1786-1868), asked for a change of name, because the boy
was born on his birthday. After 8 months, Ludwig's wet-nurse died of typhoid fever. Ludwig
had to be suddenly weaned and became ill, causing great anxiety about his life.
At the age of 3, Ludwig became Crown Prince of Bavaria, when his grandfather was forced to abdicate as a result of his liaison with the scandalous Lola Montez. From then on Ludwig was manoeuvred into a position of prominence, restriction, extreme isolation and loneliness. Servants now had to bow in reverence for Ludwig and he was styled "Royal Highness". The child had a touchy pride in his high position; he had to come first, whether it was in games with his younger brother Otto (1848-1916) or the order of precedence when entering a room in company. Once he stole a purse from a shop and when he was reprimanded by his governess, Sibylle Mailhaus, Ludwig maintained that, as a future King of Bavaria, "everything in Bavaria belonged to him". Later, Ludwig's pet tortoise was taken from him because it was thought that he was becoming too attached to it. At the age of 6, Ludwig already loved building with toy bricks, while his brother Otto drilled his tin soldiers. Ludwig never let Otto forget he was the Crown Prince and on one occasion Ludwig tied his younger brother up and threatened to behead him, a fate from which Otto was saved by the timely arrival of a court official.
Usually, when Ludwig was reported by one of his tutors, his father gave him a beating. Otto, who was a merry and witty boy, was his parents' favourite. King Maximilian had a taste for intellectual pursuits and could understand neither Ludwig's melancholy gloom nor his romantic dreams. Ludwig's mother had no great intellect or force of character and hardly any interest in politics. Once she said: "I never open a book; I simply can't understand how people can spend all their time reading." King Maximilian and Queen Marie felt hopelessly awkward in their children's presence*: they knew nothing of their children's interests and could never make more than the most shallow conversation with them. In turn, Ludwig and Otto were both shy and responded with acute discomfort. Neither side knew how to overcome the embarrassing silence that usually followed any attempt to communicate.
The only person who Ludwig did not fear was probably his governess, Sybille Meilhaus. She was replaced by Theodor Basselet de la Rosée, when Ludwig was 9 years old, but Ludwig always kept in touch with his former governess until her death in 1881. De La Rosée was a strict, old-fashioned, narrowly conventional and militaristic man. He tried to break his pupil's will. Ludwig's moodiness, pride and sensitivity were ruthlessly suppressed. This way Ludwig learned that secrecy and deceit were the only effective weapons he possessed with which to preserve his inner life. In the summer the Royal family lived at Nymphenburg, but they often went to castle Hohenschwangau, which was being renovated by King Maximilian and decorated with the legends of the Grail and the mythological Swan Knight Lohengrin. Here Ludwig acquired his love for the German legends and the solitude of the Alps. He turned to daydreaming as a flight from depressing reality.
Ludwig was said to have been quite good in French language, history and mathematics. His German teacher was Michael Klass, who influenced his pupil with his absolutist view of society as a kind of divinely organised hierarchy with the King as God's regent. Ludwig read all great German classics such as the Nibelungenlied, Tristan and Parsival. Later Schiller became his favourite German dramatist. Early 1855 a military instructor, Baron Emil von Wülffen, was appointed. From 1856 Ludwig and Otto studied separately. On a climbing expedition with their mother, Ludwig and Otto witnessed how the epileptic Baron Wülffen, who had pleaded in vain to be left behind, was forced to climb a steep rock in order to pick some edelweiss for the Queen causing him to fall, seriously injuring himself. Soon after this accident 14-year-old Ludwig suffered from mild hallucinations; he heard imaginary voices addressing him. Otto too, had felt "compulsive urges" almost from infancy on.
At 18 Ludwig officially came of age and he was given a personal adjutant and two aides-de-camp. He wrote: "Before leaving Munich I went for a walk in the town, for the first time quite alone, as I am now of age." Ludwig had grown to be very handsome and impressively tall and he knew how to make an imposing appearance in public. In 1863 Prince Kraft of Hohenlohe was much taken with Ludwig and observed "his brilliance, his physical skill and courage", his elegant manner on horseback and his knowledge of the arts. Ludwig had come into very little contact with the outside world and he had practically no opportunity to gain an insight into the political happenings at the court of his father. In addition, he had not completed a college study. Then, on March 10, 1864, Maximilian II died and Ludwig became King of Bavaria. Because of his youth and lack of experience, many Bavarian politicians expected Ludwig to be pliable and easily impressed. Instead, the proud Ludwig soon proved determined to have his own way in all matters. Ludwig dutifully began his days quite early, met with the cabinet secretary and attended the usual round of ceremonies, but he used to speak in such a pompous manner that he frequently left his listeners confused as to his real meaning. The Minister of Justice, Eduard von Bomhard, wrote in his memoirs: "He was mentally gifted in the highest degree, but the contents of his mind were stored in a totally disordered fashion" and " I was struck by the way in which every now and then, just when his expression and whole demeanour seemed to show contentment, he would suddenly straighten up and - looking around him with a serious, even stern, expression - would reveal something dark in himself that was in complete contrast to the youthful charm of a moment ago." In July 1865 Ludwig wrote from castle Hohenswangau to his mother: "More than anything I like to be alone, occupy myself, and think of you, and of father whom I imagine I see everywhere here. I am glad about this because every tree reminds me of him."
Copyright © 1998-2000 by J.N.W. Bos. All rights reserved.
To be continued.
*Greg King describes beautifully how awkward the relation between Ludwig and his parents was.