June 13, 1886: what happened? Ludwig II King of Bavaria, son of Crown Prince Maximilian and grandson of Ludwig I, died mysteriously that summer day in Lake Starnberg, Bavaria. If he was mad, he was our kind of mad. But he was also a threat, and this is why his ‘death by drowning’ has serious questions hanging over it – he was found floating, with his asylum doctor (also dead) near the shore, in shallow water, no water in the lungs, and he was a strong swimmer. As accidental drownings go, it has as much cogency as the water commissioner’s in Chinatown.
He was born in 1845, on his grandfather’s birthday (25 August), though it may have actually been earlier, and came to the throne (12 March 1864, two days after his father died) with all the zest of a gastronome at a hot dog eating contest.
He was beloved of the people but his rule was neither wise nor lucky, getting pasted by Prussia and spending public money like Marie Antoinette.
His monuments were also fruits of profligacy: First, the fairy castles Neuschwanstein, Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee. Second, his patronage of a broke-and-on-the-run Richard Wagner.
When aged 16, Ludwig had seen a performance of Lohengrin at Munich. Entranced by the symbolism more than the music, swanlike, he demanded more scraps and within a month of his coronation, sent his cabinet secretary to find Wagner and provide a sumptuous haven for him in Bavaria.
In My Life, Wagner wrote of the Royal Summons “I was never again to feel the weight of the everyday hardships of existence under the protection of my exalted friend.”
Before the Master was run out of town as part of the budget cuts imposed in reaction to the reckless spending and idiosyncratic rule, he had completed and staged (June 1865) one undeniable masterpiece: Tristan and Isolde
In addition, under Ludwig’s imperial auspices, Meistersingers, Rheingold and Valkyrie had their premieres in Munich.
And the first golden coins for the Festival Theatre at Bayreuth were put into Wagner’s purse by Ludwig. A decade after the departure from Munich, Ludwig put up a massive amount (100,000 thalers) towards the grand edifice.
And Ludwig also gave the time to complete The Ring, of course. We perhaps tend to forget that art patronage is almost as old as art (perhaps older, if the Head of the Cave commissioned that horse in Southern France?)
With the King’s key advisors clamouring for Wagner’s head, and the King disturbed by apparent proof of something going on between the Master and Cosima von Bülow, the wife of his chief conductor, Ludwig was prevailed upon to issue the marching order. But pathetically, he explained in his note to his idol: “I must shew my dear people that their confidence and love mean more to me than anything else.”
Ludwig continued to stalk his graven image and he quietly slipped into Bayreuth for the dress rehearsal of the first Ring. Then he slipped away again. When the Great Man had his death in Venice in 1883, Ludwig declared Wagner the artist “saved from the world by me.”
13 June 1886. No one knows what happened. 5 days before, a panel of tame alienists declared Ludwig as clinically paranoid. The King was arrested and taken to Berg Castle on Lake Starnberg. By the night of the following day, his dead body, along with that of his supervising doctor, Gudden, floated in the lake, very close to shore.
There are as many theories as the Dallas regicide – one ‘eyewitness’ was paid for silence and suggests a shot from the bulrushes (as opposed to a grassy knoll). But there is no hard evidence. No living person knows what happened.
Ludwig achieved what he set for himself: “I want to remain an eternal enigma both to myself and others.”