Postcard of the last walk of King Ludwig II

Born at Nymphenburg Palace, today located in suburban Munich, King Ludwig II was the elder son of The Crown Prince and Crown Princess of Bavaria, who became King and Queen in 1848 after the abdication of the former's father, Ludwig I, during the German Revolution. Ludwig's childhood years did have happy moments. He lived for much of the time at Castle Hohenschwangau, a fantasy castle his father had built near the Alpsee (Alp Lake) near Füssen. It was decorated in the Gothic Revival style with many frescoes depicting heroic German sagas. During his youth, Ludwig also initiated a lifelong friendship with his cousin Duchess Elisabeth in Bavaria, later Empress of Austria. 

Crown Prince Ludwig was 19 when his father died after a three-day illness, and he ascended the Bavarian throne. Although he was not prepared for high office, his youth and brooding good looks made him popular in Bavaria and elsewhere. He continued the state policies of his father and retained his ministers. His real interests were in art, music and architecture. 

King Ludwig II, 1864

The greatest stress of Ludwig's early reign was pressure to produce an heir. This issue came to the forefront in 1867. Ludwig became engaged to Duchess Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria, his cousin and the youngest sister of his dear friend, Empress Elisabeth of Austria. They shared a deep interest in the works of Wagner. The engagement was announced in January 1867. However, Ludwig repeatedly postponed the wedding date and finally cancelled the engagement in October. 

Ludwig never married nor had any known mistresses. It is known from his diary, private letters and other surviving personal documents that he had strong homosexual desires. He struggled all his life to suppress those desires and remain true to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Homosexuality had not been punishable in Bavaria since 1813, but the Unification of Germany in 1871 instated Paragraph 175 which criminalized homosexual acts between males under Prussian hegemony. In intensely Catholic and socially conservative 19th-century Bavaria, the scandal of a homosexual monarch would have been intolerable.

After 1871, Ludwig largely withdrew from politics and devoted himself to his personal creative projects, most famously his castles, for which he personally approved every detail of the architecture, decoration and furnishing.

Study in Neuschwanstein Castle

For details on his castles see our previous newsletter.


Although the king had paid for his pet projects out of his own funds and not the state coffers, that did not necessarily spare Bavaria from financial fallout. By 1885, the king was 14 million marks in debt, had borrowed heavily from his family, and rather than economizing, as his financial ministers advised him, he planned further opulent designs without pause. He demanded that loans be sought from all of Europe's royalty, and remained aloof from matters of state. Feeling harassed and irritated by his ministers, he considered dismissing the entire cabinet and replacing them with fresh faces. The cabinet decided to act first.

Seeking a cause to depose Ludwig by constitutional means, the rebelling ministers decided on the rationale that he was mentally ill, and unable to rule. They asked Ludwig's uncle, Prince Luitpold, to step into the royal vacancy once Ludwig was deposed. Luitpold agreed, on condition the conspirators produced reliable proof that the king was in fact helplessly insane. 

Prince Regent Luitpold, 1911

Between January and March 1886, the conspirators assembled a medical report, on Ludwig's fitness to rule. Most of the details in the report were compiled by Maximilian Count von Holstein, who was disillusioned with Ludwig and actively sought his downfall. Holstein used bribery and his high rank to extract a long list of complaints, accounts and gossip about Ludwig from among the king's servants. The litany of supposed bizarre behaviour included his pathological shyness, his avoidance of state business, his complex and expensive flights of fancy, dining out of doors in cold weather and wearing heavy overcoats in summer, sloppy and childish table manners; dispatching servants on lengthy and expensive voyages to research architectural details in foreign lands; and abusive, violent threats to his servants.

The degree to which these accusations were accurate may never be known. The conspirators approached Bismarck, who doubted the report's veracity, calling it 'rakings from the King's wastepaper-basket and cupboards.' Bismarck commented after reading the report that 'the Ministers wish to sacrifice the King, otherwise they have no chance of saving themselves.' He suggested that the matter be brought before the Bavarian Diet and discussed there, but did not stop the ministers from carrying out their plan. 

In early June, the report was finalized and signed by a panel of four psychiatrists: Dr Bernhard von Gudden, chief of the Munich Asylum; Dr Hubert von Grashey (who was Gudden's son-in-law); and their colleagues, Dr Friedrich Wilhelm Hagen and Dr Max Hubrich. The report declared in its final sentences that the king suffered from paranoia, and concluded, '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.' The men had never met the king, except for Gudden, only once, twelve years earlier, and none had ever examined him. Questions about the lack of medical diagnosis make the legality of the deposition controversial. Adding to the controversy are the mysterious circumstances under which King Ludwig died. Ludwig's younger only brother and successor, Otto, was considered insane, providing a convenient basis for the claim of hereditary insanity.

At 4 am on June 10, 1886, a government commission including Holstein and Gudden arrived at Neuschwanstein to deliver the document of deposition to the king formally and to place him in custody. Tipped off an hour or two earlier by a faithful servant, Ludwig ordered the local police to protect him, and the commissioners were turned back from the castle gate at gunpoint. In an infamous sideshow, the commissioners were attacked by the 47-year-old baroness Spera von Truchseß, out of loyalty to the king, who flailed at the men with her umbrella and then rushed to the king's apartments to identify the conspirators. Ludwig then had the commissioners arrested, but after holding them captive for several hours, released them. Prince Ludwig Ferdinand was the only member of the Bavarian Royal Family who always remained on friendly terms with his cousin (with the exception of Elisabeth, Empress of Austria), so Ludwig II wrote him a telegram; the latter immediately intended to follow this call, but was prevented from leaving Nymphenburg Palace by his uncle Luitpold who was about to take over government as the ruling Prince Regent.

That same day, the Government publicly proclaimed Luitpold as Prince Regent. The king's friends and allies urged him to flee or to show himself in Munich and thus regain the support of the people. Ludwig hesitated, instead issuing a statement, allegedly drafted by his aide-de-camp Count Alfred Dürckheim, which was published by a Bamberg newspaper on June 11: “The Prince Luitpold intends, against my will, to ascend to the Regency of my land, and my erstwhile ministry has, through false allegations regarding the state of my health, deceived my beloved people, and is preparing to commit acts of high treason. [...] I call upon every loyal Bavarian to rally around my loyal supporters to thwart the planned treason against the King and the fatherland.”

The government succeeded in suppressing the statement by seizing most copies of the newspaper and handbills. Anton Sailer's pictorial biography of the King contains a photograph of this rare document. The authenticity of the Royal Proclamation is doubted, however, as it is dated June 9, before the Commission arrived, it uses 'I' instead of the royal 'We' and there are orthographic errors. As the king dithered, his support waned. Peasants who rallied to his cause were dispersed, and the police who guarded his castle were replaced by a police detachment of 36 men who sealed off all entrances to the castle.

A. Sailer's pictorial biography of King Ludwig II

Eventually, the king decided he would try to escape, but it was too late. In the early hours of June 12, a second commission arrived. The King was seized just after midnight and at 4 am was taken to a waiting carriage. He asked Dr Gudden, 'How can you declare me insane? After all, you have never seen or examined me before,' only to be told that 'it was unnecessary; the documentary evidence is very copious and completely substantiated. It is overwhelming.' Ludwig was transported to Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starnberg, south of Munich.


On the afternoon of the next day, June 13, 1886, Dr Gudden accompanied Ludwig on a stroll in the grounds of Berg Castle. They were escorted by two attendants. On their return, Gudden expressed optimism to other doctors concerning the treatment of his royal patient. Following dinner, at around 6 pm, Ludwig asked Gudden to accompany him on a further walk, along the shore of Lake Starnberg. Gudden agreed; the walk may even have been his suggestion, and he told the aides not to join them. His words were ambiguous (“Es darf kein Pfleger mitgehen”, 'No attendant may come with [us]') and whether they were meant to follow at a discreet distance is not clear. The two men were last seen at about 6:30 pm; they were due back at 8pm but never returned. After searches were made by the entire castle staff in a gale with heavy rain, at 10:30 pm that night, the bodies of both the King and von Gudden were found, head and shoulders above the shallow water near the shore. The King's watch had stopped at 6:54 pm. Gendarmes patrolling the park had neither seen nor heard anything unusual. 

Ludwig's death was officially ruled a suicide by drowning, but the official autopsy report indicated that no water was found in his lungs. Ludwig was a very strong swimmer in his youth, the water was approximately waist-deep where his body was found, and he had not expressed suicidal feelings during the crisis. Gudden's body showed blows to the head and neck and signs of strangulation, leading to the suspicion that he was strangled, although there was no other evidence to prove this. 

There is speculation that Ludwig was murdered by his enemies while attempting to escape from Berg. One account suggests that the king was shot. The King's personal fisherman, Jakob Lidl, stated, 'Three years after the king's death I was made to swear an oath that I would never say certain things – not to my wife, not on my deathbed, and not to any priest… The state has undertaken to look after my family if anything should happen to me in either peacetime or war.' Lidl kept his oath, at least orally, but left behind notes which were found after his death. According to Lidl, he had hidden behind bushes with his boat, waiting to meet the king, in order to row him out into the lake, where loyalists were waiting to help him escape. 'As the king stepped up to his boat and put one foot in it, a shot rang out from the bank, apparently killing him on the spot, for the king fell across the bow of the boat.' However, the autopsy report indicates no scars or wounds found on the body of the dead king; on the other hand, many years later, Countess Josephine von Wrba-Kaunitz would show her afternoon tea guests a grey Loden coat with two bullet holes in the back, asserting it was the one Ludwig was wearing. Another theory suggests that Ludwig died of natural causes (such as a heart attack or stroke) brought on by the cool water (12°C) of the lake during an escape attempt.
After an elaborate funeral on June 19, 1886, Ludwig's remains were interred in the crypt of the Michaelskirche in Munich. HBavarian tradition called for the heart of the king to be placed in a silver urn and sent to the Gnadenkapelle (Chapel of Mercy) in Altötting, where it was placed beside those of his father and grandfather. Three years after his death, a small memorial chapel was built overlooking the site and a cross was erected in the lake. A remembrance ceremony is held there each year on June 13. 

Ludwig II Memorial Cross, Lake Starnberg

Though many considered Ludwig peculiar, the question of clinical insanity remains unresolved. The prominent German brain researcher Heinz Häfner has disagreed with the contention that there was clear evidence for Ludwig's insanity. Others believe he may have suffered from the effects of chloroform used in an effort to control chronic toothache rather than any psychological disorder. His cousin and friend, Empress Elisabeth held that 'The King was not mad; he was just an eccentric living in a world of dreams. They might have treated him more gently, and thus perhaps spared him so terrible an end.'
One of Ludwig's most quoted sayings was 'I wish to remain an eternal enigma to myself and to others.' 
Today visitors pay tribute to King Ludwig by visiting his grave as well as his castles. Ironically, the very castles which were causing the king's financial ruin have today become extremely profitable tourist attractions for the Bavarian state. The palaces, given to Bavaria by Ludwig III's son Crown Prince Rupprecht in 1923, have paid for themselves many times over and attract millions of tourists from all over the world to Germany each year.

Follow King Ludwig’s legacy of extravagant castles on Special Travel International’s tours: 
A German Passion (Sep 13–25, 2020)