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The Strange History of Neuschwanstein Castle is No Disney Fairy Tale

Neuschwanstein Castle
Neuschwanstein Castle stands in this aerial photo, taken in the early morning on June 11, 2015. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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You can thank a mad Bavarian king for the opening credits to every Disney movie.

Before he built Disneyland, Walt Disney and his wife Lillian toured Europe, including a stop at the magnificent Neuschwanstein Castle in the Bavarian Alps of Germany. Disney was so impressed with the skyscraping turrets and towers of the faux-Romanesque structure that he used it as the model for Sleeping Beauty's Castle, the centerpiece of Disneyland and now the ubiquitous logo of Walt Disney Pictures.

But if Disney had known the real story of Neuschwanstein (pronounced Noish-VAN-Stine) and its "fairy-tale king" — an eccentric opera fan who was declared a madman before dying under mysterious circumstances — he might have chosen a different castle.

Neuschwanstein Castle is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in Europe, welcoming more than 6,000 visitors on a busy summer day. But the man who dreamed up the fantastical castle never intended it to be open to the public. It began as an architectural love letter to the German composer Richard Wagner and devolved into a refuge for a reclusive king who slowly lost his grip on reality.

A Fantasy Kingdom

King Ludwig II never fit the mold of a stoic monarch. Born in 1845, he was raised in princely elegance in his father Maximilian II's Hohenschwangau (pronounced "ho-an-SHWAN-gow") castle, where the young royal "enjoyed dressing up... and took pleasure in play acting," according to his mother, Marie of Prussia. From an early age, Ludwig had a vivid imagination and a flair for the dramatic.

King Ludwig II of Bavaria
King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the owner and creator of Neuschwanstein Castle.

Hohenschwangau, built in 1832 in the Gothic style, was decorated with paintings drawn from medieval German legends and poetry, and young Ludwig particularly identified with Lohengrin, a legendary knight of the Holy Grail who traveled on a boat pulled by swans.

When Maximillian II died suddenly in 1864, Ludwig was thrust into power at only 18 years old. Unprepared for any serious political leadership, one of the first things Ludwig did as king was to invite his musical idol Wagner to come to Munich for an opera festival. Wagner was also obsessed with German medieval legends and even wrote an opera version of the Lohengrin story in 1850.

Wagner, who was in dire financial straits, eagerly accepted Ludwig's invitation, and the young king became one of the composer's chief patrons. When they met, Wagner didn't know what to make of the otherworldly Ludwig.

"... Today I was brought to him. He is unfortunately so beautiful and wise, soulful and lordly, that I fear his life must fade away like a divine dream in this base world," wrote the composer. "You cannot imagine the magic of his regard: if he remains alive it will be a great miracle!"

Wagner couldn't have predicted it, but just two years later in 1866, Bavaria and Austria suffered a humiliating defeat to Prussia in the Seven Weeks' War and Ludwig was stripped of all real power. It was then, historians believe, that Ludwig decided to retreat into a fantasy kingdom in the Alps dedicated to Wagner, an alternate reality in which he could play out his operatic daydreams full of Christian knights and magical swans.

Ludwig already had the perfect location picked out, a rocky promontory near his childhood castle with 360-degree views of pristine Alpine lakes, lush valleys and towering peaks. He wrote a letter to Wagner, describing his plans to build a far more ambitious version of his father's Hohenschwangau:

"[T]he location is one of the most beautiful to be found, holy and unapproachable, a worthy temple for the divine friend who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world."

To bring his vision to life, Ludwig enlisted a theatrical set designer and scene painter from Munich named Christian Jank to make some appropriately dramatic drawings of "the New Hohenschwangau," as Ludwig called it. It was meant to be an idealized version of a medieval castle, inspired by a visit to the legitimately medieval Wartburg Palas, but cranked up to an 11.

Ludwig wanted 200 well-appointed rooms, a cavernous "Singers' Hall" for opera performances, ornate walled gardens and even a "knights' bath" akin to the ritual baths used by the Knights of the Holy Grail. But rather than being a complete throwback, the castle was to include the latest technological comforts, including electric lighting, flush toilets, central heating and an electric buzzer system for summoning servants.

The study at Neuschwanstein Castle..
An interior view of Neuschwanstein Castle.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The first stone of Ludwig's dream castle was laid in 1869. He had written to Wagner that he hoped to move in in three years, but construction was still ongoing when Ludwig finally moved into the first completed section 15 years later. By that point, the scale of the castle had been pared down significantly, and the project had taken on a distinctly Quixotic feel.

Was King Ludwig Really Mad?

Ludwig, a deeply pious Christian, had begun to identify himself more and more with the Arthurian hero Parzival, another knight in quest of the Holy Grail. In the castle, a space originally planned as an audience room for receiving guests was turned into a high-domed Throne Room without a throne. Instead, its gilt walls and murals would serve as a "Hall of the Holy Grail."

Ludwig grew increasingly reclusive. He slept during the day and wandered the castle at night. He'd hire musicians and actors for private concerts and operas. And during Bavaria's snowy winters, he'd journey out for nighttime sleigh rides in an elaborate, custom-made sleigh, sometimes in medieval costume.

By 1885, the still unfinished castle had gone wildly over budget, and Ludwig had tried the patience of his foreign creditors. When he couldn't repay his debts, the foreign banks seized the property and threatened to bankrupt the state of Bavaria. Ludwig's ministers, largely to protect state assets, accused the king of insanity and removed him from the throne.

Ludwig had clearly shown some borderline delusional behavior and his obsession with building his New Hohenschwangau — plus four other lavish personal palaces and homes — was all-consuming. Whether or not he was truly a madman is still being debated.

Ludwig's ultimate fate is also shrouded in mystery. Days after Ludwig was deemed insane by the state-appointed psychiatrist and locked up in a drab castle, he was found dead, apparently drowned in waist-deep water. Ludwig's death at only 40 years old would have been ruled a suicide if not for one gruesome detail — his psychiatrist was floating dead next to him. No one knows exactly what went down.

The castle was renamed Neuschwanstein (German for "New Swan Stone") after Ludwig's death as an homage to the tragic and eccentric figure known as the "fairy-tale king." Ironically, the debt-ridden castle, opened to the public just seven weeks after Ludwig's death in 1886, has paid for itself many times over, thanks to the 1.4 million tourists who visit each year.

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