The founder of Rothschild’s dies in Frankfurt

Mayer Amschel Rothschild died on September 19th 1812.

Mayer Amschel Rothschild
Mayer Amschel Rothschild

Mayer Amschel Rothschild was born in the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt am Main in Germany in the 1740s. His ancestors had been in the city for at least two centuries and their surname came from the house where they lived and did business in the ghetto, at the sign of the red shield (zum roten schild). They dealt in cloth and other goods, and later also in money-changing. Mayer Amschel was about 12 when his father died in 1755 and he was sent as an apprentice to a Jewish firm in Hanover.

Returning to Frankfurt in 1764, he started dealing in rare coins and medals, moving on to antiques. This brought him in touch with rich patrons and in the 1790s he turned his operations into a banking business. His most notable patron was the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, who made money from hiring out Hessian mercenaries. Mayer Amschel became the Landgrave’s financier and by 1800 he was one of the richest Jews in Frankfurt.

In 1770 Mayer Amschel had married 16-year-old Gutle Schnapper. Their ten surviving children (of 19), included five sons, all of whom went into their father’s business. The eldest son, Amschel Mayer, stayed in Frankfurt and succeeded his father there. The other four were sent off to different European countries by their father and told always to keep in close touch and never to seem too greedy.

The second son, Salomon Mayer, went to Austria and built up close ties with the Habsburgs and Prince von Metternich. Nathan Mayer, the brilliant, combative third son, went to England to deal in textiles, but created a merchant banking operation in London and became a formidable figure on the Stock Exchange. The fourth, Carl, went to Naples and the youngest, Jakob or James, established operations in Paris.

The five sons effectively formed a multinational bank. The French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars were a great help to them. They organised loans to warring regimes and traded in cotton, arms and wheat in defiance of Napoleon’s ban on British exports. It was the Rothschilds who financed Wellington’s armies in the Peninsular War and the Rothschild courier network was so efficient that the first news of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 reached London from Nathan Mayer Rothschild, who had word from Brussels. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert relied on Rothschild couriers for communication with the Continent.

Mayer Amschel died in his late sixties and was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt, where his grave can still be seen. In his will he laid down that only his sons should own the Rothschild business. His daughters and their husbands and children were excluded.

After the wars were over the Rothschilds dealt in government securities for the English, French and other European regimes, while also profiting from the Industrial Revolution. They invested in industry, railways and coal-mining. They became leading figures in both the economies and the politics of the countries they had settled in, where they made themselves useful to rulers and leading politicians. Their wealth and shrewdness, combined with a gift for blending in, carried them up the social ladder into the aristocracy. They acquired ‘von’ and ‘de’ as aristocratic prefixes to Rothschild. Contemporaries called them ‘Kings of the Jews’ and among themselves they referred to ‘our royal family’.

In his book on the Rothschilds, The World’s Banker, Niall Ferguson compared them to the Medici in Renaissance Florence and pointed out that their drive and zest did not fade away after a generation or two, as in so many rich families. Besides keeping their businesses flourishing, they lived in palatial houses, created magnificent gardens, as well as a leading vineyard and notable art and scientific collections, and they gave generously to good causes. The English branch included scientists and Derby-winning racehorse owners. Nathan Mayer Rothschild was in close touch with the prime minister Lord Liverpool in the early 1820s and a key financial adviser to the Duke of Wellington a decade later. His son and successor, Lionel, was the first Jewish member of parliament. His son in turn, Nathaniel, was the first Lord Rothschild. The family’s heraldic badge of five arrows, standing for the five original Rothschild sons, can still be seen outside the offices in St Swithin’s Lane in the City of London, where N.M. Rothschild & Sons has been established ever since 1809.

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