The House of
Review by Cheryl Bolen
The House of Rothschild:
Money’s Prophets 1798-1848
By Niall Ferguson
Niall Ferguson’s work is not for the casual reader interested in
the Rothschild’s astounding half-a-century climb from Frankfurt’s
Jewish ghetto to spectacular wealth and power in European capitals from
London to Vienna. The House of Rothschild is a complex work on
the mechanism of European economy during the years he chronicles. Absent
are the details that humanize most biographies. This comprehensive book
— larger than an average-size book — has 112 pages of notes in type
so small the average adult cannot read.
For the writing of the book, Ferguson took a five-year leave of
absence from his position on the Modern History Faculty at Oxford
Much information presented here is new, some of it becoming
available after the Soviet government (which received it from Nazis who
had confiscated Rothschild financial records in World War II) released
it in 1990 following the end of the Cold War.
Earliest records of the Rothschild family were written in Judendeutsch,
German written in Hebrew characters. Many of these business
Though he never lived outside of Frankfurt’s Jewish slum, coin
merchant Mayer Amschel Rothschild (1744-1812), groomed his five sons to
disperse to European capitals and amass the largest fortune in the
world. Son Amschel (born in 1773) stayed in Germany. Solomon (born in
1774) went to Vienna. Nathan (born in 1777) became an English citizen.
Carl (born in 1788) was dispatched to Naples. And James (1792) would
become one of the most powerful men in France.
After their father’s death during the Napoleonic wars, Nathan
emerged as the most powerful brother. Indeed, he was the Bill Gates of
his era — only richer! At his death in 1835, Nathan was worth .62
percent of the United Kingdom’s gross domestic product, or 3.5 million
pounds. (Bill Gates’ wealth is .49 percent of the U.S. GDP.) Nathan
had accumulated 160,000 times the per capita national income. Had he
followed the English custom of leaving his fortune to the eldest of his
four sons, that son (Lionel) would have been the richest man in England,
but the wealth was distributed among all four sons. When their uncle
James (of the French branch of the family) died in 1868, he was the
richest man in Europe.
During the years treated in this book, the Rothschild family
business was solely owned by the Rothschild brothers and could only be
passed down through the male branch of the family, a practice that
continued until the 1960s. Amschel’s five daughters and their husbands
were forbidden to hold ownership in the business. (Nevertheless, they
all lived extremely comfortably.) Amschel’s will is quite clear on
this matter: "I hereby decree and therefore wish that my daughters
and sons-in-law and their heirs have no share in the capital of the firm
‘Mayer Amschel Rothschild & Sons’ and even less that they are
able or are permitted to make a claim against it for whatever reason.
Rather, the said firm shall exclusively belong to and be owned by my
According to Ferguson, three factors contributed to the Rothschild
financial success: closeness to the center of political life, the speed
with which news or events throughout Europe could be transmitted, and
the ability to manipulate that news to other investors.
By cultivating men in high government positions, Amschel
(liberally dispersing bribes, which were not prohibited as they are now)
rose from being a coin merchant to a money broker. Each of his sons
followed suit in their adopted countries, with Nathan forming a
profitable bond with John Charles Harries, the English
Nathan had come to England in 1799 and settled in Manchester as a
textile importer. Though he could speak nothing but German, he quickly
multiplied his initial investment by reaching agreements with textile
manufacturers from Manchester to Scotland. He found that by being
willing to pay cash he could sometimes strike deals at 15 to 20 percent
below the market price. He also traveled to France, Brussels, and the
Netherlands selling his cloth cheaper than his competitors. Ten years
later he had moved to London and was brokering (and smuggling) gold
bullion. The scale of Nathan’s gold purchases must have caught Harries’
attention because in 1814 Nathan was called upon to finance Wellington’s
Ferguson also debunks the Rothschild’s "Waterloo
Myth." For nearly two centuries the source of the Rothschild wealth
has been attributed to the fact Nathan was the first man in England to
learn of the English victory at Waterloo (because of the Rothschild’s
superior courier service) and was therefore able to make a fortune when
the stock market opened the following day. However, according to
Ferguson, Nathan’s profit on the stock trading could not have exceeded
7,000 pounds. Nevertheless, between 1815 (the year of Waterloo) and
1818, the Rothschild capital nearly quadrupled — to an estimated
"England is our bread basket," said Solomon, the second
eldest brother. He also said, "My brother in London (Nathan) is the
commanding general." Indeed, Nathan had an infinite capacity for
taking risks, much to his elder brothers’ shattered nerves. "You
really want to go out in the rain without getting wet," Nathan
scolded his brothers. He also had an infinite capacity for work. "I
do not read books, I do not play cards, I do not go to the theatre. My
only pleasure is my business," Nathan said.
While many wealthy Jews in England (like Benjamin Disraeli)
converted to Christianity, the Rothschilds held firmly to their faith.
Another Rothschild family precedent began during the era covered
in this book: The only person good enough to wed a Rothschild is another
Rothschild. Therefore, in 1824 32-year-old James wed Solomon’s
daughter, Betty, who was nineteen.
All five brothers were named Austrian barons in 1822, but Nathan
chose not to use the title. When Queen Victoria raised Nathan’s
grandson to a baron 63 years later, he broke with English tradition,
insisting upon retaining the family name of Rothschild.
— Reviewed by Cheryl Bolen, whose hero of her October book, One
Golden Ring, was inspired by the Rothschilds.
This review first appeared in Quizzing Glass in