I recently did a silly, off-the-cuff tweet that actually got some traction: I asked people what their favourite castles were.
I got some obvious ones, like the castle from Beauty and the Beast and the Disney castle. And a few conventionally awesome ones, like Leeds and Warwick castles, both of which are stunning.
But the one mentioned the most was one I hadn’t anticipated at all… Neuschwanstein castle, Bavaria. I should have known it was coming: Neuschwanstein is pretty famous on the internet, appearing in listicles and YouTube videos all over the place. It has a crazy story, and it’s a magnificent building.
But is it a castle?
What is a castle anyway?
Castle is an unfortunately ambiguous word. We can’t seem to agree on an exact definition.
Merriam-Webster defines it as: a large fortified building or set or buildings, or a massive and imposing house.
I’m not a fan of the second part of that definition. By those standards, we could call the White House a castle.
Lexico.com, the online dictionary of Oxford University Press, uses: a large building, typically of the Medieval period, fortified against attack with thick walls, battlements, towers, and in many cases a moat, or a magnificent and imposing old mansion.
I don’t like this one at all. The first is way too specific and would disqualify many actual castles, while the second part is too vague and emotive.
My favourite is Cambridge Dictionary’s definition: a large strong building, built in the past by a ruler or important person to protect the people inside from attack.
It’s not perfect, but it captures the essence of the castle: it was a fortified dwelling, usually built for one individual and/or their family (but not always), and its main purpose was to be easy to defend. For the most part, castles were not comfortable places, and most people who owned a castle also owned a manor somewhere else, a non-fortified dwelling which would be more comfortable. A castle was effectively a manor which traded some luxury for some protection.
Of course, as time went on, castles began to be used less for defence and more as places to live in, as well as marks of prestige to intimidate or awe any who saw them. But they maintained that core function: in the event of attack, they had to be defensible.
Time for some history. Stick with me, some of these names are a bit long.
There’s a village in Bavaria called Hohenschwangau (‘Upper Schwangau’). It’s a very mountainous place on the border with Austria. In medieval times, there were two castles here: the first was Schwangau castle, first mentioned in the 1100s. It stood on a high hill and was fairly small by castle standards. By 1397 the second castle had been built, Schwanstein castle, lower down the valley on a smaller hill by the lake. Both were fairly conventional medieval castles, though Schwanstein appears to have been the larger of the two. In 1549, Schwanstein was sold to the Elector of Bavaria. For centuries after, the Bavarian royals used the valley as a hunting retreat, but both castles slowly slipped into ruin. In 1820, King Maximilian I sold Schwanstein.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Maximilian’s grandson, also confusingly called Maximilian, visited the area in 1829 and was struck by its natural beauty. He bought back Schwanstein castle and decided to make it a proper residence, having it rebuilt entirely between 1832 and 1837. It was built in the neogothic style that was becoming increasingly popular at the time.
It was renamed Hohenschwangau castle.
It was a place the king could get away from the pressures of royal life. His children were raised there, including the future king, Ludwig II. Yes, that Ludwig.
When Maximilian died, Ludwig inherited the throne. He had fond memories of his childhood at Hohenschwangau, and it probably inspired much of his later obsession with everything medieval – a craze that swept through the nobility of Europe in the 1800s.
There’s a reason Ludwig is known to history as ‘Mad King Ludwig’. In 1868, Ludwig voiced his plans to build a new home for himself on the site of the old Schwangau castle – the one on the hill above his childhood home.
It is my intention to rebuild the old castle ruin of Hohenschwangau near the Pöllat Gorge in the authentic style of the old German knights’ castles, and I must confess to you that I am looking forward very much to living there one day…Part of a letter from Ludwig II to his friend, Richard Wagner
So, he wanted to build it in the authentic style of the old German knight’s castles. This desire was part of an architectural (and cultural) movement in the 1800s known in Germany as Burgenromantik, or castle romanticism. The Victorian nobility became obsessed with the gothic and romanesque architectural styles of the Middle Ages. It was part of a wider cultural phenomenon of obsession with Medieval history. Suddenly, everyone wanted Medieval-style palaces.
The thing is, though, they were still palaces. They wanted Medieval style, but not necessarily the practicality of Medieval castles themselves. So we get castles like Hohenschwangau and Ludwig’s creation (which he called New Hohenschwangau but was named Neuschwanstein after his death), which would be entirely useless defensively. Take another look at those photos: look at the size of the windows! An attacker could easily shoot through those or use them to climb in. And the battlements: though they look the part, they’re just for decoration. The walls are much thinner than the ones of actual castles, too.
Is it a castle?
It’s difficult. On the one hand, it is built in a defensive spot on the site of an old castle.
On the other hand… come on, it was built in 1886. Electricity existed and cars were just around the corner. Neuschwanstein is the same age as Coca-Cola. It is most definitely not Medieval: it is almost post-Victorian.
Original plans tried to incorporate the Medieval ruin, but as Ludwig demanded increasingly bigger and more ambitious designs, they decided to destroy it utterly.
Let’s return to those earlier definitions of what castles actually are.
It’s certainly a massive and imposing house. And it’s certainly a magnificent and imposing old mansion. But as I said before, so are many buildings that aren’t castles.
It certainly does not pass Lexico’s test. It’s not Medieval, and it’s not fortified against attack with towers, battlements and the like, just decorated with them. They aren’t usable, so it’s not fortified.
How about Cambridge’s?
It’s close. It’s definitely large, and you could argue it’s strong. It was built in the past by an important person. But was it built to defend against attack?
No, it was built as a home, a palace away from the royal court where Ludwig could find peace.