Thurn und Taxis, the family that controlled Europe’s postal mail until the 18th century


When we call a taxi we are not only asking for a transport service; implicitly, we evoke the surname of an illustrious aristocratic family of German origin that received the privilege of exploiting in monopoly the postal services of the Holy Roman Empire at the end of 1489. At least that is what the popular version says about the origin of the word, because there is another one as we shall see, but the fact is that this lineage dealt with the mail of half of Europe during centuries.

Etymologically, I said, there’s a second theory about the provenance of the term taxi. It would date back to a more recent year, 1907, and would not be linked to a surname but to the concept of tax, which in the ancient Germanic language was called taxanom that, in turn, derived from the medieval Latin taxa (tax, charge). This explanation would be closer to the real function, since it would not have to do with the transport of messages but with that of people; however, it is obvious that Francesco de Tassis created the first service of post wagons, at the request of Emperor Maximilian, at the end of the 15th century.

In Victorian and Edwardian England the word would have been adapted as taxicab to refer to convertible horse-drawn carriages used as urban transport and then would have crossed the Atlantic to reach the United States. There, in the year cited, Harry Nathaniel Allen founded a company called The New York Taxicab Company with a fleet of half a thousand gas vehicles that users called taxis for simplicity. The classic yellow and black colors of New York taxis also evoke those of their heraldry.

Whatever the correct version, here we will take a look at the history of the Fürstenhaus Thurn und Taxis. Fürstenhaus is the German expression for Prince’s House, which is already an indication of the rancid pedigree of the family. Of course, they came from Italy, since the family was originally from Lombardy; to be exact from Camerata Cornello, Bergamo, where they lived in the 12th century with the surname Della Torre e Tasso; tasso means badger, in allusion to that mustilide, which was the icon of their coat of arms.

In reality, they were not even from there because they settled there from Almenno, in the valley of Val Brembana, from where they had to flee in the context of the wars between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, who in Almenno embodied the Colleoni and Suardi respectively. Less than a century later Bergamo was conquered by the powerful Milan of the Visconti, who held power until the middle of the 15th century. But before the Sforza imposed their dominion, Omodeo Tasso made his lineage enter History by something more than blue blood.

Coat of arms of the Della Torre e Tasso family / Image: Massimop in Wikimedia Commons

Around 1290, he gathered some thirty relatives and founded the Compagnia dei Corrieri. It is easy to translate: the Post Office, in charge of messaging communications between the Milanese territories and the other great Italian powers, Rome and Venice. It worked with a system of riders called bergamaschi who galloped the distances between cities carrying letters, analogous to what would be the Pony Express in the nineteenth American Far West and announced their arrival by playing a horn (which would be adopted as a postal logo). So effective were they that they had the patronage of princes and the Pope himself.

We have seen that the wars between Guelphs and Ghibellines determined the future of the family. They had begun in 1154 (earlier if you count the civil war for the imperial throne), when Frederick Barbarossa, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, considered that he had a right to the northern Italian territories, which the Holy See claimed as its own. Imperial supporters were called gibhellini (a term derived from Waiblingen Castle, owned by the Hohenstaufen of Swabia) and papals guelfi (from the House of Welf, Bavaria).

Battle between Guelphs and Ghibellines / Imagen: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The conflict lasted for two centuries and in 1443, nearly a hundred years after it was finally forgotten, Emperor Frederick III of Habsburg (known as the Pacific as opposed to his father, who was the Iron) incorporated Ruggiero de Tassis to his court. Ruggiero was the one who reorganized the company, opening new lines of communication in the territories of the Empire. Thus, in 1450 he linked Bergamo and Vienna; in 1460, Italy with Innsbruck and Styria; and in 1480, Vienna with Brussels. The success of the service was such that he was named knight and gentleman of the Chamber. Nine years later Jannetto de Tassis assumed the leadership in Innsbruck of the so-called Kaiserliche Reichspost, receiving the privilege of exploiting in monopoly regime the service in all the Holy Empire.

Shortly afterwards, in 1502, his brother Francesco was put in charge of the postal system of Philip the Beautiful, the son of Emperor Maximilian I and Duke of Burgundy who, thanks to his marriage to Joan of Trastámara, would ascend to the throne of Castile. Then he also named him Correo Mayor in Spain, where several swindles were opened that linked with Brussels: fifteen days from Granada, twelve from Toledo and seven from Burgos. However, relations between Francesco and Felipe were stormy due to the late payments and Francesco decided to open the service to the public, instead of limiting it to the rulers.

Francesco de Tassis receives a letter from Emperor Frederick III / Image: Karmakolle in Wikimedia Commons

In 1516, he settled with his family in the Duchy of Brabant, continuing his work for the Habsburgs. This meant attending not only the Holy Empire but also Flanders and the Spanish domains, connecting Brussels, Spain and Naples. The original route was through Namur, Bastogne, Lieser, Wöllstein, Rheinhausen and Augsburg to Innsbruck and Trento but, in a way, Francesco was the forerunner of the future Spanish Path (the itinerary used by the Tercios in their marches) in seeking an alternative to communicate the Netherlands with Genoa through the Alps when French hostility prevented crossing their territory.

Charles V continued what was initiated by his father and grandfather and appointed Giovanni Battista de Tassis, son of Jannetto, to direct the Kaiserliche Reichspost in 1520. In the Iberian Peninsula he named him Cartero Mayor de Castilla y del Reino, ordering that horses and food be provided at reasonable prices, although the Castilians demanded in the Cortes of 1514 that “no offices or benefits or dignitaries or governments or letters of nature be given to foreigners”; there was also opposition in Aragon and Andalusia but the Crown settled all the lawsuits threatening with strong sanctions to those who practiced the trade without the permission of the beneficiaries.

Charles of Habsburg before becoming King of Spain, around 1515 (Bernard van Orley) / Imagen: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The Tassis thanked this trust with their loyalty, embodied in the Perpetua fide motto. Of course it helped they were paid eleven thousand gold ducats a year (six thousand in Spain, four thousand in Naples and one thousand in Flanders), but with time they became Spanish: when he was absent, Francesco delegated in his nephew Baptist and his brothers Mateo and Simón, to whom citizenship was granted; with time, the members of the family were born fully Spanish, being the first Juan de Tassis and Acuña, Count of Villamediana. His son, Juan de Tassis y Peralta, was the one who opened swindles all over the peninsula, including Portugal.

At the end of the 16th century Rudolph II confirmed the monopoly, which from 1615 became hereditary and thus remained in the hands of the family for centuries, overcoming the wars and conflicts that devastated the continent or the progressive disintegration of the Holy Empire, which made the Protestant states create their own postal services. Rudolph’s successor, his brother Matthias, ordered the opening of a second route from Cologne to Bohemia through Frankfurt, Aschaffenburg and Nuremberg (later extended to Leipzig and Hamburg). They came to have a staff of twenty thousand people, making a letter between Brussels and Paris take only thirty-six hours to deliver, or that a message could be sent from the Flemish city to Naples in less than two weeks.

Tassis Palace in Brussels, 1686 / Imagen: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

As can be seen, the area of activity of Compagnia dei Corrieri was moving towards Central Europe, progressively moving the Tassis away from their Italian roots. The concession in 1624 of the category of grafen (counts) meant the definitive transformation. Thus, in 1650 they changed their surname to Germanize it, becoming the Thurn und Taxis (Thurn came from the Tour branch, which had been established in France). It was the emperor Leopold I who elevated them even more distinguishing them as Fürstenhaus (remember, Prince’s House) in 1695.

But the entry into the 18th century changed things. It was the end of the Modern Age and the beginning of the Contemporary Age, the illustrated ideas spread and the Habsburgs lost their European primacy against the Bourbons in parallel to the displacement of Spain by France. The Old Regime still lasted until the end of the century but the structures of government changed: the services were centralized by the State and, in this way, the family had to say goodbye to its business, acquired by the new dynasty installed in the Spanish throne. They even moved the headquarters from Brussels to Frankfurt.

The castle of St. Emmeram, former abbey / Imagen: Dr. Bernd Gross in Wikimedia Commons

Taxis, on the other hand, were also endorsed in Austria in 1746, after the war of succession unleashed by the death of Charles VII. Although they supported the other candidate, in the end Francisco I of Lorraine prevailed, who considered that postal service indispensable and gave them back their monopoly. They kept it in the German territories with headquarters in Regensburg (there they had their private fiefdom, the castle of San Emmeram) until Francis II dissolved the Holy Empire to prevent the unstoppable Napoleon (who had just defeated his army) from keeping the crown, making Prince Karl Alexander von Thurn und Taxis the last postal director.

That was 1806. The Napoleonic wars had caused the family to lose the enormous accumulated wealth and they only kept the company in Frankfurt, renamed Thurn-und-Taxis Post. From there, with the support of the Congress of Vienna, they offered a private postal service in the states of Bavaria, Baden, Lower Saxony, Hesse, Rhineland and Württemberg in which, from 1849, they began to use that successful English invention appeared nine years earlier, the stamp. This period lasted until 1866, when the company was bought by Prussia after the fall of the Free City of Frankfurt. The Thurn und Taxis returned to their castle in St. Emmeram and began a new life unrelated to their ancestral enterprise.

Coat of arms of the Princely House Thurn und Taxis / Imagen: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

They remained in the spotlight for other reasons. For example, the Princess of Hohenlohe, Marie of Thurn and Taxis, hosted the writer Rainer Maria Rilke, who dedicated her his work Elegies of Duino, a book of poems that owes its title to the castle where she housed him between 1911 and 1912 to help him recover from depression. In addition, several members of the clan, who gradually recovered their fortune and renown, joined the Order of Malta. And it should be noted that they had an important brewery until it was sold to the Paulaner Group in 1996, although a brand Thurn und Taxis is still produced.

In the seventies of the twentieth century the surname was a regular in the tabloids because it was part of what was called the jet set. Prince Johannes married Countess Mariae Gloria of Schönburg-Glauchau and both had a life of parties and fun that earned her the nickname Princess TNT. Those were other times, of course.

Sources: Prefilatelia de Murcia. Historia postal del Reino de Murcia desde 1569 hasta 1861/Historia del taxi y del carburante GLP en España (Gonzalo Fortes Iglesias)/The House of Thurn und Taxis (Gloria von Thurn und Taxis)/Ayuntamiento de Barcelona/Thurn und Taxis/Wikipedia