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Ludwig II (August 25, 1845 – June 13, 1886) was King of Bavaria from 1864 until his death in 1886. He is sometimes called the Swan King or the Fairy Tale King. He also held the titles of Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, Duke of Franconia, and Duke in Swabia.

Early life

Born at Nymphenburg Palace (located in what is today part of central Munich), he was the elder son of Maximilian II of Bavaria and Marie of Prussia, Crown Prince and Princess of Bavaria, who became King and Queen in 1848 after the abdication of the former’s father, Ludwig I, during the German Revolution.

His mother, Marie of Prussia, was the daughter of Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, a younger brother of King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, and his wife, Landgravine Marie Anna of Hesse-Homburg.

In her youth, Marie was seriously considered as a wife for Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, (elder brother of Prince Albert , husband of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom) until her engagement to Maximilian was announced.

Ludwig II, King of Bavaria

His parents intended to name him Otto, but his grandfather insisted that his grandson be named after him, since their common birthday, August 25, is the feast day of Saint Louis IX of France, patron saint of Bavaria (with “Ludwig” being the German form of “Louis”). His full name was Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm. His younger brother, born three years later, was named Otto.

Like many young heirs in an age when kings governed most of Europe, Ludwig was continually reminded of his royal status. King Maximilian II wanted to instruct both of his sons in the burdens of royal duty from an early age. Ludwig was both extremely indulged and severely controlled by his tutors and subjected to a strict regimen of study and exercise. Some point to these stresses of growing up in a royal family as the causes for much of his odd behavior as an adult.

Ludwig was not close to either of his parents. King Maximilian’s advisers had suggested that on his daily walks he might like, at times, to be accompanied by his future successor. The King replied, “But what am I to say to him? After all, my son takes no interest in what other people tell him.” Later, Ludwig would refer to his mother as “my predecessor’s consort”. He was far closer to his grandfather, the deposed and notorious King Ludwig I.

Marie of Prussia, mother of Ludwig II, King of Bavaria

Ludwig ascended to the throne in 1864 at the age of 18. Two years later, Bavaria and Austria fought a war against Prussia lasting only a matter of weeks, which they lost. However, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Bavaria sided with Prussia in their successful war against France.

Despite Ludwig’s reluctance to support the Unification of Germany, Bavaria and 21 other monarchies became part of the new German Empire with Wilhelm I, the King of Prussia and Ludwig’s cousin, as the German Emperor. Bavaria retained a large degree of autonomy within the Empire under the new Imperial Constitution.

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 in Bavaria, his cousin and the youngest sister of his dear friend, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary.

Duchess Sophie in Bavaria was a daughter of Duke Maximilian Joseph in Bavaria and Princess Ludovika of Bavaria. The ninth of ten children born to her parents, she was known as Sopherl within the family.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his fiancé Duchess Sophie in Bavaria

Princess Ludovika of Bavaria was the sixth child of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria and his second wife, Caroline of Baden, and the mother of Empress Elisabeth of Austria.

Maximilian Joseph, Duke in Bavaria, was born at Bamberg, the only son of Duke Pius August in Bavaria (1786–1837) and his wife, Princess Amélie Louise of Arenberg (1789-1823).

Duke in Bavaria

After the Landshut War of Succession primogeniture was established in the House of Wittelsbach and therefore there could only be one Duke of Bavaria anymore, resulting in the actually quite unprecedented decision to create a title of Duke in Bavaria for the rest of the family, which all members of the House took for themselves, even the older Palatine branch – the other major Wittelsbach possession.

King Ludwig II and Duchess Sophie shared a deep interest in the works of Wagner. The engagement was announced on January 22, 1867; a few days earlier, Ludwig had written Sophie, “The main substance of our relationship has always been … Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny.” Ludwig repeatedly postponed the wedding date, and finally cancelled the engagement in October.

Duchess Sophie in Bavaria

After the engagement was broken off, Ludwig wrote to his former fiancée, “My beloved Elsa! Your cruel father has torn us apart. Eternally yours, Heinrich.” (The names Elsa and Heinrich came from characters in Wagner’s opera Lohengrin.) Sophie later married Prince Ferdinand, Duke of Alençon, grandson of French King Louis Philippe I, at Possenhofen Castle at which Ludwig II unexpectedly attended the reception.

Ludwig never married nor had any known mistresses. His diary, private letters, and other documents reveal his strong homosexual desires, which he struggled to suppress to remain true to the teachings of the Catholic Church. Homosexuality had not been punishable in Bavaria since 1813, but the unification of Germany under Prussian hegemony in 1871 instated Paragraph 175, which criminalized homosexual acts between males.

Throughout his reign, Ludwig had a succession of close friendships with men, including his aide-de-camp the Bavarian prince Paul von Thurn und Taxis, his chief equerry and master of the horse, Richard Hornig, the Hungarian theater actor Josef Kainz, and courtier Alfons Weber. Letters from Ludwig reveal that the quartermaster of the royal stables, Karl Hesselschwerdt, acted as his male procurer.

Ludwig’s original diaries from 1869 onward were lost during World War II, and all that remain today are copies of entries made during the 1886 plot to depose him. Some earlier diaries have survived in the Geheimes Hausarchiv (‘secret archives’) in Munich, and extracts starting in 1858 were published by Evers in 1986.

Linderhof Palace (my personal favorite)

Ludwig increasingly withdrew from day-to-day affairs of state in favour of extravagant artistic and architectural projects. He commissioned the construction of lavish palaces: Neuschwanstein Castle, Linderhof Palace and Herrenchiemsee. He was also a devoted patron of the composer Richard Wagner.

Ludwig spent all his own private royal revenues (although not state funds as is commonly thought) on these projects, borrowed extensively, and defied all attempts by his ministers to restrain him. This extravagance was used against him to declare him insane, an accusation that has since come under scrutiny.

Ludwig was taken into custody and effectively deposed on June 12, 1886, and he and his doctor were found dead on the following day. His death was ruled to be a suicide but this too has been disputed. Today, his architectural and artistic legacy includes many of Bavaria’s most important tourist attractions.