The Mad King And His Fairy Tale Castle: Neuschwanstein

CULTURE | December 9, 2019

Neuschwanstein Castle. Source: (Photo by DEA / M.SANTINI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

In the south of Bavaria near the foothills of the Alps sits a castle that may very well have come out of the mind of Walt Disney. But it is this castle that inspired the creator of Fantasia and Sleeping Beauty. Neuschwanstein Castle is one of the most photographed attractions in Germany.  Its allure is not just in its famed, fairy tale beauty, but also in the story of the man who built it, King Ludwig II of Bavaria, also called the “Mad.”

Ludwig II after his coronation. Source: (Wikipedia)

The dashing and darkly handsome Ludwig was born on August 25, 1845, and crowned King of Bavaria in 1864 after the sudden death of his father, Maximilian II. The young monarch had entered into power at a time of great change. The Kingdom of Prussia, headed by Otto von Bismarck, was pushing to create a unified German nation. In 1866 Bavaria and Austria went to war with Prussia and lost. This resulted in Ludwig being forced to sign a treaty with Prussia which essentially handed control of the Bavarian army over to Bismarck. Bavaria had become an inferior and unwilling partner in Prussia’s drive for German unification. In 1871 Ludwig was essentially forced to elect Wilhelm I as Emperor of Germany.

Richard Wagner circa 1860. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

After the 1866 defeat, Ludwig withdrew from politics.  He sought solace in fantasy, enclosing himself in the aesthetics, art, and architecture of his greatest love: the works of German composer Richard Wagner. The composer’s operas were based on German romantic mythology which all enraptured King Ludwig. In fact, King Ludwig was quite in love with Wagner and had little interest in women or producing an heir. Ludwig's passion, however, was something the composer would never return.  Still, it must be said that Wagner did indeed lead the King on, at least to help resolve his heavy debts.

Neuschwanstein Castle. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

If Ludwig could not be a real king with real power, then he could at least build palaces fit to enact his romantic fantasies. Inspired by Wagner’s works, Ludwig became best known for constructing gorgeous palaces such as Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee, but he is best known for Neuschwanstein Castle. The name, which it was never called during Ludwig’s life, means “New Swan Stone” derived from the Wagner’s Swan Knight character. Although the castle was never fully completed, what is there is inspired by Wagner’s -- Tannhäuser, Tristan, Lohengrin, Parsifal, and Der Ring des Nibelungen. This was complemented with a stunning Alpine backdrop — it was the ultimate escape from reality for Ludwig II.  

The castle under construction. Source: (Wikipedia)

In 1868, the ruins Hohenschwangau Castle, where Ludwig spent his childhood, were demolished and work began on a new structure which was designed by Christian Jank and architect Eduard Riedel. Foundations were laid in 1869, and it was complete enough by 1882 to allow furniture to be installed. Ludwig wrote to Wagner, excited to describe how his new castle honored his work — it was in effect an act of love from Ludwig to Wagner. Wagner who died in 1883, never set foot in the castle.

Throne Hall. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The exterior of Neuschwanstein is magnificent, but its interior is just as awe-inspiring even though only 14 rooms were finished. Each completed room is marvelous in its level of detail. Of specific note is the Throne Hall which while lacking a throne features detailed images of flora and fauna on the stonework. 

The Grotto. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Another curious room is the grotto which connects the castle’s salon and study. This artificial cave was inspired by the Hörselberg in the Tannhäuser saga. It is probably the most unique room in the castle.

The ornateness of these rooms on the lower floors does not extend to the private rooms on the upper floors which were more sparse and sensible. This might be because Ludwig never intended them to be part of his own romantic vision.

The Hall of Singers. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

Ludwig’s building programs were expensive. While he never used public money for the castles, he put himself deeply into debt, continually opening lines of credit. By 1886 he was over 14 million marks in debt and his own cabinet refused to extend him any more credit.

A more detailed view of the exterior of Neuschwanstein Castle. Source: (Wikimedia Commons)

The Bavarian government, incensed at his spending habits, eccentricities, and his sexuality united with the King’s uncle Luitpold. On June 11, 1886, King Ludwig II was deposed and declared “Mad.” Two days after, he was found drowned with his physician in a lake. It was probably murder -- Ludwig was a good swimmer. The King only spent eleven nights in his fantasy castle. While he was often called Ludwig the Mad, a kinder and probably truer epithet for him is Ludwig the Fairy Tale King.

Source: (Photo by DEA / M.SANTINI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

While Ludwig never intended to have the castle open to visitors, his uncle Luitpold, now the king, thought differently and opened it to the paying public. It became one of the largest revenue earners for the Bavarian kings. The castle remained so and eventually was taken over by the government after World War I. During World War II, Neuschwanstein was used as a depot for stolen art taken by the Nazis and was almost blown up by them to hide the crimes. However, it was spared destruction and its popularity has increased. It inspired the castle in Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.” It is an icon to the popular imagination of the fairy tale world.

Today, Neuschwanstein Castle sees about 1.5 million visitors per year. Since 2015 it has been on the tentative list as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Tags: castle | Neuschwanstein

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Joseph A. Williams


Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History.