When you think of fairy tale castles you are naturally drawn to Disney but what if I was to tell you there is a real-life fairy tale castle out there? Neuschwanstein Castle in southwest Bavaria is the place in question and as I approached it last summer, I felt as excited as when I first went there almost twenty years ago, although at that time the scenery was tinged with snow. It was and is a truly magical place. But constructing a castle like this with CGI is one thing, how does it end up being built for real and why?
As with any good fairy story, our tale starts a long, long time ago in a place far, far away – well, an area called Schwangau in fact, where local legends told of menacing forest spirits, of battles against mighty dragons, and of heroes who leap across deep abysses with giant bounds. And then, around the time of Charlemagne (747 – 814AD), a knight called Driant appeared on the Alpsee lake, his boat drawn by a swan, and his descendants became the Knights of Schwangau who were to build four castles in the vicinity. By the fourteenth century however, these estates had fallen into decline because of feuds and family quarrels, disputed inheritances, and the general waning of the age of chivalry. In 1535, one of the castles, Schwanstein, was acquired by a wealthy merchant, Hans Paumgartner, who built a new castle on the walls of the old complex. When he died in 1549 his two sons soon squandered their inheritance and the castle, now known as Hohenschwangau, was seized by creditors, and eventually purchased by Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria.
More difficult times were to follow however as the castle’s position close to the border with Austria left it exposed to destruction, pillaging and occupation during the succession of wars which marked the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Following makeshift repairs in the early nineteenth century, it was eventually acquired by the Crown Prince Maximilian, although more for the area than the ruins of the castle: ‘I was attracted by the silence of the forest; I was searching for the silence of nature untouched by man.’ Maximilian was in fact looking for a retreat away from the Residence in Munich, the royal palace of his father, King Ludwig I, who was a renowned disciplinarian with no tolerance of individual freedom. He was also intrigued by the local tales of old and he was keen to surround himself and his guests with visual reminders, especially as many of the historical figures would have been his ancestors, and so it was that Hohenschwangau was reconstructed between 1833 and 1837 to this effect. Alterations were made in 1842 when he married Princess Marie of Prussia and again in 1848 when Maximilian became King of Bavaria following the abdication of his father. The works were substantially completed by 1855 when the royal couple’s two sons, Ludwig and Otto, moved in.
Imagine growing up in such a picturesque spot, in a castle that echoed with local history and myth, tales of the derring-do of forebears in an age of bravery, it is unsurprising that it would influence a child starved of normal relationships due to the very nature of his birth and isolated from the normal things in life. When Maximilian died in 1868, the newly crowned Ludwig II, who was only 18 years of age, set about to build a New Hohenschwangau Castle, high up on the site of one of the earlier castles, Vorderhohenschwangau, although what was left of that truly medieval building was to be removed to make way for the new one.
Ludwig II was great friends with the composer Richard Wagner and much influenced by his music which romanticised all things medieval which sat consistently with Ludwig II’s upbringing. Wagner’s 1850 opera Lohengrin, which recounts the story of a grail knight, resonated with Ludwig II who saw himself as a real knight of Schwangau, descended from Driant, who like Lohengrin was drawn forth by a swan on the lake below. With further influence from another Wagner opera, Tannhäuser, which focuses on the struggles and redemption of love, Ludwig II was even clearer on what authentic and romantic combination he was looking for and went to the opera’s set designer, Christian Jank, to draw up his plans, before engaging an architect to convert these into construction plans. The irony is that Jank’s ideas were not a copy of any existing building from the period but in fact a characteristic example of historicism, in which architectural motifs from existing castles are combined with those of medieval book illustrations to produce a fairy-tale effect. But historicism didn’t just involve copying earlier styles but also on perfecting them with the latest craft skills and technical means so that the Romanesque-style castle of Neuschwanstein also had a very modern kitchen, hot air heating, and large tight-fitting windows with frames made of industrial steel.
Ludwig II’s attention was particularly focused on the interiors which were to be a monument to the culture and concept of monarchy prevailing in the Middle Ages which he wished to honour and recreate. Whilst the motifs he chose for the castle were almost exclusively related to Wagner’s works, he consulted with literary historians and specialists in medieval iconography to ensure that the murals would reflect the original legends rather than any Wagnerian interpretation. The throne room, more a temple to kingship, captures Ludwig II’s view of the world, in which the Parsifal grail saga is intermingled with Byzantine stylings from the Munich Residence to embrace and commemorate the dynasty of the ruling king of Bavaria.
Work on the new castle began in 1868 with the Gateway building completed and ready for occupation by the end of 1873. Building of the Palas got underway from 1872 with construction completed by 1880 and the decoration and fittings of the interior partly completed by 1884. Simplified versions of the Bower and the Square Tower were completed in 1892. Ludwig II however was never to see anything other than a building site. He spent all his royal revenues (not state funds) on the project as well as borrowing extensively and when foreign creditor banks finally brought him to heel, he was declared insane by ministers in 1886 and removed to Berg Castle on the shores of Lake Starmberg, south of Munich. Unable to cope with being king in a constitutional monarchy, the man who had created an alternative world in which he could live as the absolutist or medieval king of Bavaria, was found dead in the shallow waters of the lake.
Although his death was ruled a suicide, there was no evidence of water in his lungs and he was known as a strong swimmer in his youth which led to many rumours that continue to this day. It is more likely that he had a heart attack in the cold of the water whilst trying to escape. An elaborate funeral was held with his remains interred in the crypt of Michaelskirche in Munich. Three years after his death, a small memorial chapel was built overlooking the site and a cross was erected in the lake. A remembrance ceremony is held there each year on 13th June. Despite being the cause of his financial ruin, Ludwig II’s legacy has been his castles which were handed to the state of Bavaria in 1923 and have gone on to become extremely profitable tourist attractions. It was only after Ludwig II’s death that New Hohenschwangau Castle was renamed Neuschwanstein – New Swanstone – and went on to become the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle.