Sometimes we get so caught up in the beauty of Europe’s castles that we forget their just-as-captivating histories. Obsession, intrigue, passion and death – these castles manifest the dramatic twists in the lives of their famous residents.
On 13 June, 1886, King Ludwig II of Bavaria was found floating in Lake Stamberg, just south of Munich. He was dead, aged just 41. A day earlier, he had been taken from Neuschwanstein Castle and deposed on the grounds that he was believed to be mad. His death is still shrouded in mystery, but his great legacy is the beautiful castle he built in the Bavarian mountains, where he spent his final days.
Neuschwanstein is one of the most photographed castles in the world. Nestled amidst the snowy peaks surrounding the Bavarian village of Hohenschwangau, it is a fairy tale castle built, in Ludwig’s own words, “in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles… the location is the most beautiful one could find, holy and unapproachable.”
Ludwig was described by his cousin the Empress Elisabeth as “an eccentric living in a world of dreams”, and his vision for Neuschwanstein certainly illustrates his fantastical ideals. Not only is the exterior epically romantic, but the interior, too, was a testament to Ludwig’s creativeness and eccentricity. His passion for Wagner – stemming from a love of his music and a deeply affecting friendship with the composer – led Ludwig to commission artists to paint immense, vivid depictions of Wagner’s work throughout the interior of the castle and even to build a Singer’s Hall where Wagner works could be staged.
Although designed to look gothic and medieval, the castle was built in the 1880s and was fitted with modern conveniences such as heating pipes, electricity and modern water systems. It was also lavishly decorated with gem-encrusted chandeliers, gold leaf, ornately carved wooden paneling and beautifully crafted, opulent furniture.
However, in spite of the staggering amount of work Ludwig and his craftsmen put into the castle, he only spent 11 nights sleeping there. After his death, construction continued for eight further years before finally ceasing, leaving the castle interior only one third complete to this day.
Neuschwanstein was used as the inspiration for the Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle and has been used in films such as The Great Escape and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Today it is visited by over 1.3 million people annually, despite its location in the depths of the Bavarian countryside. It is open all year around, and while crowds of up to 6,000 arrive at the castle in the summer, there is something truly enchanting about visiting in the winter, riding to the castle gates at the top of a snow-covered mountain, huddled beneath a blanket in an open top horse-drawn carriage.
Built in the final days of the Muslim rule of Spain, in the 14th century, the Alhambra clearly reflects the influence of its Islamic architects and craftsmen. Once known as Al-Andalus, it is designed in the Moorish tradition, with ornately decorated columns, arabesques and muqarnas.
As Christian Spain began to recapture Granada, the Alhambra became a refuge for Muslim artists and intellectuals. In 1492, Granada and the Alhambra finally fell to the forces of the formidable King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile.
That same year Ferdinand and Isabella also sent Christopher Columbus on a mission to East Asia. The expedition went awry and ended up landing in the Americas – the first Europeans to do so. Ferdinand also set up the Spanish Inquisition, expelling Jews and Muslims from Spain or torturing them until they converted to Christianity.
Three years later, Isabella gave birth to a daughter, Catherine of Aragon, who later married Henry VIII. It was Henry’s desire to divorce Catherine in 1525 which lead to the English Crown breaking with Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and the foundation of the Church of England.
After the Christian conquest of the Alhambra, parts of the palace were destroyed, painted over or removed. Later, when Charles V took up residence, he rebuilt sections of the palace in the Renaissance style.
Today the castle is still an imposing figure over modern Granada. Much of the Moorish design remains, providing a beautiful and captivating example of the art and architecture of the last days of the Sultans of Granada.
On the banks of the Tiber in the city of Rome, parts of the Castel Sant’Angelo have stood since 135AD, when it was originally built as a mausoleum for the Emporer Hadrian. Three hundred years later the mausoleum was turned into a fortress, which was captured by the Visigoths as they sacked Rome. They wreaked havoc on the tomb and scattered the urns and ashes. A century after that, the armies of the Goths besieged Rome, and the mausoleum, once again.
In the 14th century the popes converted what was left of Hadrian’s tomb into a castle, with Pope Nicholas III ordering the construction of an underground fortified tunnel to connect the castle to St Peter’s Basilica.
Many years later Sant’Angelo was turned into a prison, as depicted in Puccini’s Tosca – with the heroine plunging to her death from the castle walls.
The Castel has also featured as a secret lair in Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons. It is now a museum and a popular attraction for tourists in Rome.
In July, 1189, King Henry II lay dying in Chinon Castle. His sons Geoffrey and Richard (the Lionheart) had repeatedly rebelled against him. However, as he convalesced, weak and sickly, it was the message that his favourite and most trusted son John had also joined the rebellion that is said to have finally broken his father’s heart. He died on the 6th July, and was buried in nearby Fontevraud Abbey.
Although the first fortified building appeared on the site in 954AD, Henry II built a majority of the huge chateau and made Chinon his seat of power in the Kingdom of Anjou.
His wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and his son Richard were also buried in nearby Fontevraud Abbey, and their tombs can be seen there to this day.
The castle was also a prison for Knights Templar during their brutal suppression in the early 1300s. They engraved symbols on the walls – hearts, Stars of David, geometric patterns – and it unknown whether they were just random symbols or a mysterious Templar code.
The castle became the residence of the Dauphin, Charles VII in the early 15th century, and it was here that a young Joan of Arc arrived to convince the royal court of her visions of leading an army to liberate France from the English. She is said to have picked the Dauphin out from a group of courtiers to prove that she heard the voice of God.
The castle still towers over the medieval town of Chinon, which nestles on the banks of the Vienne river, in the Loire valley.
- The view from Chinon Castle