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January 16, 2007

Royal Mailman

Most people who read the international and business news will have come across the name of an exotic sounding lady, Princess von Thurn und Taxis, but how many will know that she is a member of one of the oldest families in Europe, certainly in Germany. This family were responsible for the Emperor's mail services throughout the Holy Roman Empire, set up by Otto the Great. If my history is correct they go back at least to Charlemagne (Charles the Great in English, Karl der Grosse in German). Their family estates centred on Frankfurt which is also the seat of the Electoral College for the Emperors.

Some of us could be excused for thinking that the title of Kaiser is a fairly modern one, associated with the Hohenzollern family from Prussia, but it stretches back to Charlemagne and is the German term for Emperor. More correctly it is associated with the family we think of as the Austrian dynasty, the Hapsburgs. The Kaisers were 'elected' by the Kurfürsts (Electors), seven originally, and later extended to nine. They included the Great Elector, the Elector of Brandenburg, Hannover, the Palatinate, Aachen and one from France. The election of the Kaisers took place in the Chapel of the Electors which is built into the North side of Frankfurt am Main cathedral. The Kaiser was then proclaimed, seated on the Altar in the entrance to the Quire, and the famous "Golden Bull" sets out the process for the election, the manner of the proclamation and the procedure for the crowning.

Decorated tomb Covers Family von Thurn und Taxis.JPG
The elaborate 13th Century tomb stone from the grave of a member of the von Thurn und Taxis family now mounted in the wall of Frankfurt cathedral.

Frankfurt am Main is often seen as a place with not much of interest - thanks largely to the nightly visitations of Lancasters and the daily visits from B-17's - but you would be wrong. The historic core has been beautifully restored, with the ancient Römer Hall, where the newly crowned Kaiser dined attended by the Electors, and the Market Square are all worth the effort. So too are the museums - not least the display of the Golden Bull, probably the worlds first constitutional document. It certainly predates the English equivalent, Magna Carta.

But I digress, the Thurn und Taxis family are certainly a prime example of how those with great wealth and power seem able to hang onto it one way or another. They diversified long before accountants and economists dreamed up the term. Their wealth went into a huge variety of interests, from land, through trade and eventually into industry and commerce. Not bad for a family whose first enterprise was as the Postmaster to the Kaiser. In accepting responsibility for the delivery of the Kaiser's edicts, judgements and business correspondence between his various officials, vassal rulers and Ratshaus officials, they laid the foundations for one of the most enduring fortunes in Europe. It certainly made me think on the subject of "old money" versus "new money" as I looked at the monuments around the cathedral. As I have grown older I have come to recognise two important things about the upper echelons of industry and commerce, the judiciary, the civil service and the elected members of our various parliaments. There is definitely an element of "them and us" and I don't think it is altogether unhealthy - unless it gets to badly skewed one way or another.

Look around at the top people in all the examples I have just given and you find a certain commonality to it. Public school, blue brick university, entree to the step ladder to the board room all seem to be built in - and they are to an extent. If your parents have the money to ensure you have a place at Eton, Harrow, Winchester or Charterhouse to name but a few, you have already got several steps up the ladder. You are intouch with a network that runs on money, rather than position or background - although that certainly helps, a 'cor blimey' accent isn't going to get past the front door. Your parents too, by definition move in circles that give you a head start into the professions and the right pathways to the board room, entrances and pathways not exactly denied to those from the local comprehensive, but certainly a lot harder to crack from that perspective. Part of the problem for the rest of us is that these folk move among equals and the rest of us don't mix in the same category.

The right connections and the doors swing open, old money always survives mainly because they have had years of practice at surviving and making sure their assets are so diversified that you could never get a single hit to destroy them all. Examine the shareholdings of all the Blue Chip companies and you will see what I mean. These are not people who play penny-pinching on the Stock Markets, they own substantial blocks of shares in a wide variety of corporations - and they have solid assets as well to back those up. They don't bank with a bank, they own them, and not just one either, but several.

Standing in front of this tomb cover I could not help reflecting that the great Royal Houses are still with us, the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, they may live quietly and out of the public eye, but they are still a force to be reckoned with. Now they control the assets in multi-nationals, in industry and commerce. Those centuries of breeding taught them how to survive in politics - and international commerce is not that different.

Who says the leopard cannot change his spots? I suspect that if we really look at the "Old Money" families we will find a lineage that stretches back to Ancient Babylon, people who know when to move, to take their tents and their herds and move, before the invading barbarians overrun the place. That is how families like this survive, they adapt and change. Perhaps the rest of us should be a little less envious and a little more willing to adapt ourselves. Who knows, in a thousand or so years someone will look at a tomb stone and say, how have they survived this long and this wealthy, of one of us.

We live and dream I guess!

Posted by The Gray Monk at January 16, 2007 03:35 PM

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