Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria: Was His Death Suicide or Murder?

“I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.” — Ludwig II

Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Ludwig's masterpiece
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Ludwig’s masterpiece

I’ve always been fascinated by murder mysteries. If you throw royalty into the mix, it’s an even juicier story. I’ve previously written about Vincent Van Gogh (suicide or murder?) and England’s Richard III (did he kill the princes in the tower?).

This time I turn my gaze on the fascinating Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria. A famous castle builder in Germany, his death by drowning is fishy and may be one of Germany’s greatest secrets.

Ludwig was a famous royal personality in 19th century Europe. He was variously known as the Swan King, the Dream King, the Night King, the Moon King, and the Fairytale King.

Ludwig was tall, handsome, wildly eccentric, and a brooding romantic. He was the ultimate introvert. And just so … impractical. That was part of his charm and enduring mystique.

Ferdinand von Piloty, King Ludwig II in General's Uniform and Coronation Robe, 1865
Ferdinand von Piloty, King Ludwig II in General’s Uniform and Coronation Robe, 1865

Ludwig spent his life steeped in mythic operas, romanticism, and a frenzy of extravagant castle building. Ludwig paid attention to culture, but not government. Beloved by his people, he was despised by his ministers.

The world remembers Ludwig for his fairytale castle, Neuschwanstein Palace, immortalized by Walt Disney as the Sleeping Beauty Palace. But that wasn’t the only castle Ludwig built. He had a maniacal spending addiction, much like his muse Marie Antoinette.

Ludwig’s ministers were mad as hornets over it, worrying the country would be bankrupt. In a supernova of escalating conflict, Ludwig was declared insane and deposed. 24 hours later, he was found dead in a lake.

Was Ludwig’s suspicious death the result of despondency and suicide? Or was the “suicide” trumped up fake news, an assassination and coup by his own government?

Let’s assess.

the 17th century Schloss Nymphenburg outside Munich Germany
the 17th century Schloss Nymphenburg outside Munich Germany, where Ludwig II was born

Mad King Ludwig’s Childhood

On August 25, 1845, Ludwig was born in the swishy Nymphenburg Palace outside Munich. He was part of the royal House of Wittelsbach, which had ruled Bavaria since 1180. House Wittelsbach survives today under Franz Wittelsbach, who retains an apartment at Nymphenburg Palace.

Ludwig didn’t have an ideal childhood, at least by modern helicopter parenting standards. His parents were distant. Mostly, they couldn’t be bothered with him. Ludwig un-affectionately referred to his mother as “my predecessor’s consort.”

Little Prince Ludwig had a strict regimen of lessons, from dawn till dusk. He was groomed to be king and schooled in important monarchical fields of study. He became an excellent horseman and swimmer.

a young Prince Ludwig
a young Prince Ludwig
Prince Ludwig (left), his neglectful parents, and his schizophrenic brother Otto, who may have contracted syphillis as a child
Prince Ludwig (left), his neglectful parents, and his schizophrenic brother Otto, who may have contracted syphillis as a child

Left alone by aloof parents and without playmates, Ludwig was a solitary child. He mostly spent his childhood dreaming, lost in romantic medieval fantasies, a pattern that would continue into adulthood.

His entertainment of choice was the opera. His favorite character was Lohengrin, a chivalrous grail knight of German mythology who rescues a damsel in distress in a swan boat. The swan became Ludwig’s unofficial royal decorating motif. Ludwig even named his castles after swans.

The Reluctant Young King

In 1864, as destiny portended, Ludwig ascended to the Bavarian throne at age 18. When he appeared at this father’s funeral, he was virtually unknown to the public. His spectacular good looks and regal bearing made a deep impression on his subjects. The new king was instantly popular.

a young Ludwig, who liked to have his hair curled daily
a young Ludwig, who liked to have his wavy dark hair curled daily

However, Ludwig came to the throne at a bad time. In 1866, Bavaria was on the losing end of tussles between Prussia and Austria. Ludwig was eventually forced to sign the Kaiserbrief, ceding Bavaria’s independence to the new German empire. Afterward only a vassal king, Ludwig felt emasculated as a ruler.

Poor Ludwig couldn’t be his idol, French King Louis XIV in real life, just in his imagination. After the demotion, Ludwig largely lost interest in affairs of the Bavarian state. Instead, he immersed himself in a romantic world of stories, myths, and legends.

Ludwig never married. At one point, under unrelenting court pressure, he was begrudingly engaged to Duchess Sophie Charlotte, the sister of his BFF Empress Elisabeth of Austria, nicknamed Sisi. But Ludwig postponed it repeatedly.

He eventually called it off, saying it had been forced upon him like “a hot-house plant.” He destroyed all the engagement china and memorabilia that had been created for the couple.

Ludwig and his ill-fated fiancee Duchess Sophie
Ludwig and his ill-fated fiancee Duchess Sophie

Based on Ludwig’s private diaries, Ludwig was gay when it wasn’t ok to be gay. As a devout Catholic, Ludwig’s sexual orientation tormented him. He had long periods of abstinence.

But they were punctuated with brief infatuations and trysts with cavalrymen or young countrymen he met on his horse rides. Near the end of his life, there were salacious rumors about “orchestrated” all night “horseplay.”

Ludwig’s Richard Wagner Man Crush

At the outset of his monarchy, Ludwig also had a serious case of hero worship. This time, it was even a real person. From his first night at the opera at age 15, where he saw Lohengrin, Ludwig was entranced by master composer Richard Wagner.

It may have been an unrequited erotic obsession as well. Ludwig called Wagner the “sole source of my delight from my tenderest youth onward, my friend who spoke to my heart as no other did.”

Wagner was a luxury loving spendthrift and terminally broke. When the purple clad Ludwig commanded his presence at court shortly after being crowned, it was a lifeline to Wagner, then 51. Ludwig became his patron and deep-pocketed fanboy.

composer Richard Wagner, the man and his dramatic operas were objects of Ludwig's infatuation
composer Richard Wagner, the man and his dramatic operas were objects of Ludwig’s infatuation

Ludwig paid off Wagner’s debts, gave him a salary, and ensconced him in Hohenschwangau Palace. He built him a grand theater in Munich for his operas. Wagner publicly acknowledged Ludwig’s patronage, saying that, without him, the Ring Series would have been impossible.

Virtually everyone at court hated Ludwig’s reckless spending on Wagner’s self-aggrandizing debts and lavish productions. And they feared his political influence over Ludwig.

They also hated Wagner himself, particularly his scandalous affair with Cosima von Bülow, wife of Franz Liszt. The affair was reminiscent of Ludwig’s grandfather’s affair with Lola Montez, a tryst that resulted in his abdication and sullied the reputation of the Wittelsbach family.

No more sullying would be tolerated. In 1865, Ludwig’s ministers forced him to banish Wagner from Munich. Ludwig then bought him a mansion in Switzerland on Lake Lucerne.

Ludwig and Wagner had a synergistic relationship, the product of which was historic. Neither man would have achieved artistic greatness without the other. Wagner could only create his art with Ludwig’s patronage and moral support. And what Wagner created was feverishly absorbed by Ludwig and reimagined in his castles.

Hohenschwangau Palace, where Ludwig grew up
Hohenschwangau Palace in the Bavarian Alps, where Ludwig grew up

Ludwig’s Castle Obsession

With the double whammy of loss of power and his friend Wagner, Ludwig was disillusioned and disgusted. He grew increasingly reclusive and adopted vampire- like waking hours, partly to avoid people. He fully dedicated himself to his one true passion: fairytale architecture from a different age, inspired by Louis XIV and reflecting Ludwig’s own desires and obsessions.

Ludwig had already redecorated his childhood home, Hohenschwangau. So he began building over the top castles that, at the time, no one but Ludwig wanted. The castles were essentially Ludwig’s version of a geographical cure. They allowed him to escape Munich and court politics.

In 1868, Ludwig began his most touted masterpiece, Neuschwanstein Palace, which means New Swan Stone Castle. It was inspired by the neo-Gothic Pierrefonds Castle outside Paris. Ludwig’s chosen architect wasn’t even an architect, but a set designer of Wagner’s.

Neuschwanstein Palace, picturesquely set in the isolated Bavarian Alps
Neuschwanstein Palace, picturesquely set in the isolated Bavarian Alps

Neuschwanstein’s interior reflects Ludwig’s internal life. He wouldn’t allow any art work or paintings in his home. No, his palaces were custom affairs. Ludwig hired artists to bring to life his personal operatic fantasies — damsels in distress, dragons, and knights in armor. He wasn’t an absolute king in real life, but he was in his private fiefdoms.

In 1870, Ludwig began work on his more petit private retreat, the lush neo-Rococo Linderhof Palace. This palace was directly inspired by Louis XIV’s court of Versailles. Linderhof was the man cave equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon. And a grand statue of Louis XIV stands in its vestibule.

In his Linderhof dining room, he installed a French device that functioned as a disappearing dumb waiter with pulleys. The table would go down to the kitchen and back up to Ludwig full of food.

The French used the device to ensure their amorous trysts were secret. Ludwig used it to avoid human contact. Instead, he conversed with imaginary friends at his table, including Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, and Madame de Pompadour.

Herrenchiemsee Palace, intended to be a bigger and better replica of Versailles
Herrenchiemsee Palace, intended to be a bigger and better replica of Versailles

But even Linderhof wasn’t Versailles enough for Ludwig. So he began building Herrenchiemsee Palace, a bigger and better gold leafed replica of Versailles that was never finished. No one but Ludwig and his servants were permitted inside.

Herrenchiemsee may have cost him his crown. And his life.

At the time of Ludwig’s death, he and his favored theater set designer Christian Jank planned construction of another ambitious castle, Falkenstein. It was intended to be a Gothic drama, set on an island at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet. It would have surpassed Neuschwanstein in every way. But alas.

Until his final days, Ludwig kept creating. It was build or die, apparently. He continued spending cash on fancy gilded sleighs for his nocturnal rides, now on display at Nymphenburg’s Martstallmuseum Museum. He even tried to build a royal barge.

early drafts of Ludwig's planned Gothic castle, Falkenstein
early drafts of Ludwig’s planned Gothic castle, Falkenstein

Ludwig’s Insanity Dossier: An Early Rendition of Fake News

Government officials were increasingly worried by Ludwig’s massive debt from castle building and his peculiar behavior. They secretly whispered about abdication and regency.

Ludwig threatened to fire the entire government, which was his right. The government could also make threats. They threatened to remove Ludwig if he didn’t make some lifestyle changes. If need be, the government could legally declare Ludwig insane or unfit for the crown.

Who would act first? The government did, after months of clandestine plotting.

The ministers hired psychiatric professor Bernhard von Gudden, Head of the Munich Asylum, to do the nefarious deed.

After all, he’d already declared Ludwig’s brother Otto insane. And mental illness wasn’t unusual in the inbred Wittelsbach family.

Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, the man who pronounced Ludwig II insane
Dr. Bernhard von Gudden, the man who pronounced Ludwig II insane and then died with him

But the esteemed psychiatrist botched his most famous case.

Gudden released a sham report, now in German archives, more political than psychiatric. To be sure, it wasn’t that hard to find some form of “evidence” against the eccentric Ludwig. His behavior was clearly disordered and his mind ill-tuned to matters of statecraft.

But the Gudden dossier was based solely on the testimony of government spies and ex-servants, who may have been bribed. It blithely ignored facts in the king’s favor. It even ignored the king himself. Gudden never spoke to or personally evaluated Ludwig.

King Ludwig II, Painting by Gabriel Schachinger
King Ludwig II, Painting by Gabriel Schachinger

In a neat trick of mind reading, Gudden claimed Ludwig was “teetering like a blind man without guidance on the verge of a precipice.”

Among other things, the good doctor based his opinion on: (1) Ludwig’s social phobia; (2) rumors of his latent homosexuality; (3) his imaginary friends; (4) the grandiosity of his palaces; (5) the fact that he wore a coat in summer and dined outside in winter; (6) his raging at his servants and threatening to behead them; (7) his apparently insatiable need for money.

Based on this compilation of facts, Gudden’s diagnosis was “Paranoia,” the 19th century equivalent of schizophrenia. He deemed it “incurable” and a condition that affected Ludwig’s ability to govern.

Ludwig's gilded sleighs, which he used for his nocturnal outings  in the Nymphenburg Palace museum
Ludwig’s gilded sleighs, which he used for his nocturnal outings in the Nymphenburg Palace museum

But does this constitute reliable evidence of abject insanity? I think not. Being wildly eccentric or hypersensitive isn’t quite the same as being insane now, is it? And doesn’t everyone lose their temper on occasion? I also have a personal peeve about the stigmatization of nights owls and insomniacs.

Indeed, throughout history, there’ve been plenty of weird royals with peculiar habits. Nymphomaniac Catherine the Great, for example. They usually weren’t thrown off the throne.

This turn of events was a naked power grab, hidden behind a fake dossier.

On July 12, 1886, Ludwig was formally arrested, after a brief showdown, at Neuschwanstein Palace. He was dragged off in a locked carriage to Berg Palace. Berg was pre-prepared as a royal insane asylum with locked doors, barred windows, spy holes drilled in the doors, and door handles removed.

The king became a prisoner in his own house.

Berg Palace, Ludwig's royal prison and insane asylum
Berg Palace, Ludwig’s royal prison and insane asylum. It was severely damaged during WWII and the towers were removed.

Ludwig didn’t go meekly. When arrested, Ludwig challenged Gudden, exclaiming “How dare you declare me insane? You’ve never examined me before!” This single fact alone makes the Gudden report per se invalid and psychiatric malpractice.

In fact, Ludwig’s correspondence paints a picture of an extremely lucid king who was conducting state business, just on vampire time. His ally, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, was shocked at the “diagnosis.” Even Ludwig’s last letter, published in 2016, makes him appear quite sane.

Predictably, Ludwig’s uncle Prince Luitpold stepped in as regent of Bavaria. He ruled for 26 years.

Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, where Ludwig II's body was found in waist deep water
Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, where Ludwig II’s body was found in waist deep water

Ludwig’s Death: the Assassination of the King of Fairytale King

24 hours after the bogus insanity certification, Ludwig was found dead at age 40. And so was the offending shrink.

The pair were found floating, waist deep, in shallow water in Lake Starnberg. Apparently, Ludwig had asked Gudden to take a stroll around the lake. Some think the stroll was a jailbreak to whisk away Ludwig.

Without any investigation, Ludwig’s death was promptly ruled a suicide. The theory advanced was that crazy Ludwig had, willy nilly, run into the shallow lake in despair while Gudden tried to restrain him.

Almost immediately, a cross was raised on a pedestal in the lake where Ludwig “drowned.” Ludwig was buried in St. Michael’s Church in Munich. His palaces were confiscated by the Bavarian state.

memorial cross on Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, the site of Ludwig's supposed drowning death
memorial cross on Lake Starnberg in Bavaria, the site of Ludwig’s supposed drowning death

Whodunit? Murder or Suicide?

The suicide theory seems patently contrived. It doesn’t add up. In fact, nowadays, many people think Ludwig was assassinated by his own government in a coup. The assassins either simultaneously got rid of Gudden or the doctor was in on the conspiracy.

It makes perfect sense that Ludwig was murdered. Government officials had multiple motives.

They were embarrassed and overwhelmed by Ludwig’s seemingly pathological spending. They’d lost patience. Scoldings hadn’t stopped Ludwig. To the Wittelsbachs, he was a millstone around their necks.

The government also didn’t want Ludwig to become a lightning rod for protest. A jailed king can still fire off missives to faithful allies, possibly igniting a civil war. Or try to escape or otherwise get in their way.

Deposing Ludwig on lunacy grounds wasn’t a clean solution. They wanted a permanent solution. Besides, Ludwig was expendable. As a gay man, he had no heirs. What good is a spendthrift king without heirs?

Ludwig II lying in state at his funeral
Ludwig II lying in state at his funeral, now overweight and nearly toothless because of his fear of dentists

Along with motive, there’s plenty of probative evidence, some newly discovered, to reject the suicide theory:

1. Ludwig was a strong swimmer, so wouldn’t have drown in waist deep water.

2. There was no water in Ludwig’s lungs, almost a prerequisite for a drowning. That’s why he was floating and not on the bottom of the lake.

3. Ludwig’s personal fisherman, Jakob Lidl, may have recruited to help Ludwig escape. In his diary, Lidl wrote that Ludwig was shot in the back while climbing into his boat. Lidl also confessed that he swore an oath that he didn’t hear shots, in return for his family’s financial security. A Ludwig researcher, Albert Widemann, copied a page from Lidl’s diary and had it authenticated. But the diary itself mysteriously disappeared.

4. Ludwig’s personal physician, Dr. Schleiss von Lowenstein, publicly doubted Gudden’s certification. In response, he received death threats.

5. Lowenstein left a diary, purchased by historian Siegfried Wichmann. On the night of Ludwig’s death, and fearing for Ludwig’s safety, Lowenstein sought out Ludwig and discovered him shot in the back. Lowenstein claimed that Gudden rushed at him with a syringe. In defense, he killed him. The presence of the syringe would tend to suggest that Gudden was in on the suicide conspiracy.

A plaster death mask of King Ludwig II, viewed in Herrenchiemsee Castle, as part of an exhibition called "Gotterdaemmerung.
A plaster death mask of King Ludwig II, viewed in Herrenchiemsee Castle, as part of an exhibition called “Gotterdaemmerung”

6. Lowenstein was accompanied by the artist Hermann Kaulbach. He sketched what he saw that tragic night. Kaulbach’s sketch, which has been authenticated, depicts Ludwig dead with blood dropping from his mouth, consistent with a gunshot injury.

7. The doctor who performed the “autopsy” confessed on his deathbed that it was falsified.

8. Ludwig’s mangled umbrella was found on the lake shore, suggesting a struggle.

9. Willy Beyhl testified that his father, a royal servant, had burned Ludwig’s bullet ridden coat.

10. Some of Ludwig’s Wittelsbach relatives have stated publicly that Ludwig was shot. The Countess Wrbna-Kaunitz said she showed friends Ludwig’s bullet ridden coat at a tea party. Others claim to have seen the coat at her house. It supposedly disappeared in a house fire.

Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria

Suicide Debunked

None of this is definitive, of course. But it all helps debunk the suicide narrative. There have been public calls for a modern autopsy. However, the Wittelsbachs have rebuffed murder claims. They won’t let Ludwig’s bones be touched.

If Ludwig’s body was exhumed, or even imaging tomography conducted, it could easily be determined whether there was a bullet hole in his back. But the Wittelsbach Duchy steadfastly refuses, effectively endorsing the suicide theory.

Why? Well, the Wittelsbach may not want a public uproar. Or, even worse, it’s possible the family itself was complicit in Ludwig’s assassination.

It’s all very unsatisfying — an unresolved mystery that could potentially be easily resolved. The same thing’s happened in England where Westminster Abbey has refused to disinter the supposed bones of the princes to determine whether their DNA matches King Richard III‘s bones. Harumph.

I hope it doesn’t remain a cold case for eternity.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria
another coronation portrait, this time Ludwig’s in swishy white furs

Mad King Ludwig’s Legacy

In the final analysis, the aesthetic and idealistic Ludwig is now a beloved cult-like figure.

A legend in his lifetime, the mysterious circumstances surrounding his murdery death only further engraved his memory on the collective psyche. There’s even a secret society in Germany, The Guglmänner, who defend Ludwig’s reputation and cry “murder.”

The lonely king left an impressive legacy. He was the patron of Wagner and the builder of magnificent Bavarian castles in the Alps. He was mostly what he most desired to be — the Sun King of the 19th Century. A man who, according to Walt Disney, “made fairy tales come true.”

St. Michaels Church in Munich, where Ludwig II is buried
St. Michaels Church in Munich, where Ludwig II is buried

In fact, just 7 weeks after Ludwig’s death, his castles in Bavaria were opened to the public. Visitors flooded in to see the Mad King’s creative output. Quite ironically, Ludwig’s castles became incredible money making machines for Germany.

In his life, they were the source of Ludwig’s debt and undoing. In death, the castles more than paid for themselves and cemented his legacy.

In the end, Ludwig got his wish. Without an examination of his body, we’ll never know whether his death was murder or suicide. Though murder doesn’t seem like much of a conspiracy theory to me. Ludwig will remain an “eternal enigma to himself and to others.”

You may enjoy these Germany travel guides and resources:

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