Thurn and Taxis was a noble family and princely house which dominated the delivery of post in Europe from the late 15th to 18th centuries. They came to control swathes of the continent’s mail after being pronounced the imperial postmasters of the Holy Roman Empire in 1489.
The family’s postal service was eventually nationalised by the Prussian government in the mid-19th century, but it left behind a legacy of efficient, reliable mail services across Europe. Thurn and Taxis’ iconic symbol of a coiled horn, as well as its black and yellow colour scheme, are still replicated by postal services around the globe today.
Here’s the story of how one family dominated Europe’s post for more than three centuries.
The story of Thurn and Taxis’ association with Europe’s post is thought to begin in the late 13th century. At that point, the family name was Tassis or Tasso, and it was known to operate courier deliveries in Italy from around 1290.
It was Omodeo or Amadeo Tasso who established this business, setting up the Compagnia dei Corrieri (‘company of couriers’), running post between Rome, Venice and Milan. This is thought to have been Europe’s first modern postal service.
In the 15th century, Roger (or Ruggero) de Tassis followed in his ancestor Omodeo’s footsteps and established a new postal service in Italy. Under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire, this system would grow to dominate postal services across Europe. In 1650, the family Germanised its name to ‘Thurn und Taxis’, or Thurn and Taxis.
Holy Roman Empire
Franz von Taxis, as head of an effective courier service in Italy, was appointed the official postal courier of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Maximilian I in 1489. In 1504, von Taxis was also appointed postmaster to Philip I of Spain.
With this imperial backing, von Taxis oversaw the international expansion of the family’s postal service. Von Taxis’ couriers served both the imperial governments and private citizens, and the business grew exponentially.
The Taxis family would remain the official postmaster of the Holy Roman Empire until its breakup in 1806, after which point the business survived in a private capacity.
How it worked
Stations were set up across the Holy Roman Empire where riders could rest and change weary horses for rested ones. Couriers would often ride through the night to deliver the mail as fast as possible, setting a new gold standard for the delivery of post.
Mail was carried in satchels typically cased in iron, to protect the contents. These were known as ‘felleisen’, and would sit behind each rider on the horse.
As the couriers approached a settlement or station, they would sound a horn. This signal would ready the station, possibly even opening city gates and clearing toll paths to grant the rider rapid access.
In the late 18th century, Thurn and taxis could deliver post from Brussels to Paris in just 36 hours and from Brussels to Naples in a fortnight.
As of 1852, the family adopted the use of postage stamps.
As of 1516, the Taxis postal service was extended to Brussels, meaning it stretched from Spain, Italy and Prague in southern Europe up to France, Germany and the Low Countries.
Despite various upheavals in the 16th and 17th centuries, Thurn and Taxis retained control of much of west and central Europe’s post.
The family’s position of imperial postmaster of the Holy Roman Empire was made a hereditary right in 1615, meaning it could be passed down through the family’s male heirs. In 1624, the family was granted the status of ‘imperial count’, and this was elevated to ‘imperial prince’ in 1695.
After the Holy Roman Empire
The Holy Roman Empire was falling into decline towards the end of the 18th century. As such, European states began launching their own postal services. This of course threatened Thurn and Taxis’ monopoly, which by that point had some 20,000 riders across the continent.
As governmental postal services rose in prevalence, the Holy Roman Empire broke up in 1806. This put Thurn and Taxis, now a private postal service without imperial backing, in competition with localised postal services.
The company survived into the 19th century primarily as a private post service operating across Germany. But the Seven Weeks’ War of 1866 saw Prussia seize the Rhineland, and with it, Thurn and Taxis’ company headquarters. In response, the family sold the business to the Prussian government, which nationalised the postal service.
To this day, a key symbol of the Thurn and Taxis family crest can be seen on the logos of many European postal services in the form of a coiled horn. Similarly, the family colours of black and yellow still inform the colour schemes of many postal services around the globe.
The Thurn and Taxis family remains one of the wealthiest noble families in Germany.