Ludwig the Second, born Ludwig Otto Friedrich Wilhelm von Wittelsbach was king of Bavaria from 1863 to 1885, and the last king to rule it as an independent state. Despite his rule occurring during the time of Otto von Bismarck most people who aren't experts on Bavarian history wouldn't be able to name any major political decision of Ludwig II, but he is still the best known Bavarian king and many people have strong opinions on the King's taste in art and architecture, his private life and his mental health.
He was famously eccentric and built many of the most beautiful castles in Bavaria, the most famous of which is Neuschwanstein. He enjoyed myths and legends and Wagnerian opera, which earned him the nickname "Märchenkönig" ("fairy-tale king"). This was certainly a bit odd, but not that odd, given the times - his contemporary Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia for example called himself "the Romantic on the Throne" and (despite himself being Protestant and leading the Protestant church in Prussia) was an enthusiastic backer of the efforts to finish construction of Cologne Cathedral - something which Heinrich Heine considered to be absolute lunacy. While the practical use-value of Ludwig's medieval inspired fortresses was nigh-nill at the time, it was not unusual for rulers to order the construction of massive representative residences for foreign policy bragging rights - in France shortly before the French Revolution there was even the theory of "Useful Splendor" - spend like there's no tomorrow to convince creditors that the household wasn't in unsustainable debt. It didn't work.
What was unusual however, was that Ludwig had his castles built in the middle of nowhere, making using them to host foreign visitors awkward (and indeed Ludwig had them built to be alone - or as alone as someone with thousands of servants can ever be), but that again echoes the era of Romanticism, if one for example looks at the images of Caspar David Friedrich, the quintessential German painter of Romanticism whose paintings usually feature impressive landscapes and tiny humans all alone almost disappearing in the landscape. For what it's worth, Richard Wagner got to build his Festspielhaus (literally: Festival House - a purpose built opera that has played essentially the same stuff for almost a century and a half now) in Bayreuth with the King's money because the King was such a fan. It was, in fact, largely Ludwig's patronage that allowed Wagner to create his famous operas, detached from financial concerns. However, the king's well-known eccentricity also brought him the less flattering nicknames "the crazy king" or "Mad King Ludwig". Ludwig never married and died childless and there are those who say he may have been gay, but there is nothing but circumstantial evidence either way.
Ludwig's journal is an extremely strange document which makes it clear that the man was at the very least a fantasist with a weak grasp on reality. He was given to obsessive romantic friendships with various men, some of which may have had a sexual element either overt or covert. But others, like his relationship with Wagner, certainly were not sexual in any sense. His diaries speak of 'kisses' and repeated resolutions against a 'sin' that could have been homosexual encounters or masturbation or something completely different. His longest lasting relationships were with Richard Wagner and Richard Hornig who served as his stable master and confidant. Ludwig wrote of being worthy of Richard's (Hornig) love in his diary and happy times alone with him. Hornig was married and Ludwig was fond of his (Hornig's) wife and children as well. There are also conspiracy theories that he fathered a illegitimate son (not that it would've mattered, as bastards generally were excluded from royal inheritance unless explicitly legitimized) based on basically no evidence whatsoever.
Ludwig's behavior was always odd and towards the end of his life it was becoming genuinely alarming to his family, his government and his few real friends. Ludwig himself seems to have been aware his mental state was deteriorating. His brother Otto was undoubtedly mentally ill, possibly schizophrenic, and Ludwig was not irrationally terrified of going the same way. That given Ludwig was almost certainly not insane in the modern medical sense but he was definitely something worse than merely 'eccentric'.
Ultimately it was decided to remove the King from office on the grounds of insanity (a judgment still controversial among the general public as well as psychiatrists) and he would be placed in internal exile near what is today Lake Starnberg where he would die a few days later under mysterious circumstances. He and his personal physician were found dead, floating in a lake after failing to return from a walk by the banks
Many hints point toward suicide, but there are still those who argue for accidental drowning or even foul play. His deposition and the fact that his official successor Otto never got to actually rule (due to his aformentioned mental illness) led to a long period of Bavaria being ruled by a regent (or "Prinzregent" in German) - first Luitpold, then Ludwig, before Ludwig decided to end the charade in 1913 (three years before the death of Otto) and had himself declared King in name as well as fact. Due to the fact that many cities under Bavarian rule were rapidly growing in that era, many cities today have a Prinzregentenstraße or Luitpoldstraße named after that era.
Bavarian monarchism is not a politically relevant force in the 21st century, but there is a folkloric attachment to his rule and the House Wittelsbach likes to point out that Ludwig II bankrupted his personal fortune, not the state treasury and the family later paid it all back. However, where exactly is the line between "personal property" of a ruling monarch and "state funds" to be drawn?
Ludwig ordered his troops to participate in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 and when victory was achieved, Bismarck convinced Ludwig to sign a letter offering the Prussian King to become German emperor, giving Ludwig a handsome sum of money funneled through Swiss banks in exchange. While it is debatable how much influence that letter really had, during the Revolutions of 1848 the then Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV was offered the crown of a "German Empire" but refused on the grounds that it was "tainted" by being offered by a popular assembly drafting a constitution and not a fellow crowned head of equal rank. Wilhelm I was reluctant to become German Emperor, even being quoted as calling his coronation "the saddest day in his life" as he deemed it was "the Death of Prussia", but it was Bismarck and not Ludwig who did most of the convincing needed to get Whilhelm I to sign off on the new German Reich.
Works that feature Ludwig II of Bavaria:
- Ludwig II (1922)
- Ludwig (1973) - The Luchino Visconti film, which saw Romy Schneider reprising her role of Elisabeth of Bavaria from the Sissi films.
- Ludwig - Requiem for a Virgin King, another 1972 film.
- Ludwig 1881 (1993)
- Ludwig der Zweite, König von Bayern (1993)
- Ludwig II: Glanz und Ende eines Königs (Splendor and End of a King, 1995)
- My Letters from Ludwig: A Novel about King Ludwig II of Bavaria
- Ludwig II by You Higuri.
- Elisabeth mention him during "Am Deck der sinkenden Welt"/"Alle Fragen sind geställt (Reprise)" as one of Elisabeth's family members who met with a tragic end.
- Ludwig II
- Ludwig 2: The New Musical
- Tanz Der Vampire has him as a vampire in the ensemble, being flirted at by Herbert.
- Castle Falkenstein features a saner version of him as a Big Good, leading Bavaria against the efforts of Von Bismarck to take over Europa.
- The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
- In Civilization V, Neuschwanstein Castle can be built as one of the world wonders of the modern era.
- In Civilization VI, he's one of the leaders being added as part of the Great Builders pack of the upcoming Leader Pass.
- Jackie Chan Adventures: In the pilot episode, "The Dark Hand", the first of the 12 talismans to be uncovered is the rooster talisman, embedded onto a shield in one of King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria.