Disraeli and the Rothschilds provide a study in the power of political patronage

The diaries of Charlotte de Rothschild show, through her relationship with Mary Anne Disraeli, the complex emotional ties between politicians and their financiers.

The Palace of Westminster, London in the nineteenth century. Credit: Classic Image / Alamy Stock Photo

The wife of a banker who provided financial support to a Tory Member of Parliament went to the station to collect her husband, who she was expecting to return from a business trip to Paris. When she got there, she was given a message that his return would be delayed by 24 hours. In her husband’s absence, she had received a letter addressed to him from that Tory MP. Given the delay, she decided instead to visit the MP’s wife, who was a close friend of hers, to discuss it. This is her account:

I went to see Mrs. Disraeli, believing she was angry with us, showed her the outside of a small note which her husband had sent to mine, and asked her to explain to Mr. Disraeli why my husband had not yet answered the letter. The good woman asked me to break the seal, asserting that the letter could not contain any secrets for either her or for me, and perhaps required an answer which I might be able to give. I unsealed the epistle, read it, and then made to put it back in my pocket, but Mrs. Disraeli hastily snatched the note out of my hands, crying that I was hiding something important from her and in this way found out what she shouldn’t have known, namely that her husband is still deeply in debt and persecuted by the usury in the most violent way, begging mine for help and support! I promised to give my husband the opened letter as soon as he arrived, and to give good Mrs. Disraeli an answer as soon as possible.

This incident occurred on 8 May 1848. The narrator was Charlotte de Rothschild (1819-1884), wife of Lionel de Rothschild (1808-1879), head of the London Banking house of NM Rothschild & Sons. She had been born in Germany as Baroness Charlotte von Rothschild and was Lionel’s first cousin; they were married for 43 years and had five children. They lived at 148 Piccadilly, and Charlotte developed a reputation as a socialite and patron of the arts. She chronicled her life in London in diaries written in the old German Schrift. They show how private lives, politics and money blurred, and how a politician’s reliance on friends and business contacts for the financing of their ambitions affected those friends. Although the Rothschilds were an established fixture of the UK’s banking system, the diaries repeatedly note the connection in Charlotte’s eyes between their wealth and the way they were treated, particularly at a time when Jewish emancipation in the UK had not been settled. These insights show how Britain’s dynamic financial services industry, and a welcoming attitude to overseas capital created then – as today – an awkwardness where ability to invest was traded (to a greater or lesser extent consciously) for social acceptance and status.

In 1848 Disraeli was still at the beginning of his political career, but of course he was to go on to become Chancellor of the Exchequer three times (1852, 1858-9, 1866-68) and Prime Minister twice (1868, and 1874-80). He is held by some to be the man whose philosophy defined the modern Conservative party. To others, he was an opportunist and a charlatan. This is not a biography of Disraeli, but there is no question that he started his political career in debt, having already lost money gambling on the stock exchange and in other ventures, and was an habitual borrower of funds. As Jonathan Parry has written, during the 1830s and 40s Disraeli ‘saw himself as a leader-in waiting, an artist prophet whose insights were needed in order to save the country from its foolish and humdrum opinions.’ Yet the impression given by Charlotte Rothschild’s diary is of a man whose personal finances were chaotic, and who frequently relied on friends to maintain his public position. ‘Mrs. Disraeli rushed into my room one day at eleven o’clock in the morning, she was upset and said her husband had expected mine in vain; I asked her to ask her husband to visit us the following Saturday. Lionel is determined to lend him only £1000, so the poet, writer and speaker is certainly not satisfied,’ wrote Charlotte 18 May 1848.

Charlotte saw a lot of Disraeli’s wife, Mary Anne, who had married Disraeli in 1839. He was her second husband; she was the widow of Wyndham Lewis, who had loaned Disraeli money for election expenses at the start of his political career when he stood for a seat in Maidstone in 1837 but who died in 1838. She was twelve years Disraeli’s senior, had an income of £5,000 per year and her fortune enabled him to purchase the estate of Hughenden in Buckinghamshire. She had a lively and uninhibited manner and famously is said to have said: ‘Dizzy married me for my money. But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.’ Her money didn’t last very long.

The two men were united by their interest in politics (although different parties), and by their Jewish heritage. In 1847 Lionel stood for election to parliament as a Liberal candidate in the City of London; his principal concern was that Jewish emancipation should be included into the Liberal campaign for civil and religious liberty. He was successfully elected, but could not be admitted to the House of Commons without the altering of the requirement to take his oath on the Bible, something which was strongly resisted by the Conservatives. Lionel therefore became a central figure on the question of Jewish emancipation, and the then Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, introduced a ‘Jewish Disabilities Bill’ in an attempt to resolve the issue. Disraeli’s support became critical to the Rothschilds: he supported the Bill, they hoped he would be able to swing round his party. He and Lionel met frequently to discuss the passage of the Bill. Although the Bill was passed in the House of Commons in February 1848, it was defeated in the House of Lords in May 1848 by 165 votes against and only 120 for. The Conservative peers in the House of Lords had done for it, and Disraeli had not been able to turn it around. Charlotte felt the failure keenly and personally: ‘When the result of the vote was known, a loud, enthusiastic cheer rang out from coral lips throughout the house. We really didn’t deserve so much hatred,’ she wrote. ‘I fell asleep at 5am & woke up at 6am; during that time I had dreamed a great vampire sipped and schlurped my blood out.’

1848 was also a year of tremendous ideological ferment and revolution in Europe, and for the Rothschilds in Paris, Frankfurt and Vienna a time of great financial uncertainty. The ruling families of Europe were running to the banks for help, but the great banking families had their own difficulties and, in many cases, no longer had money to lend them. The exchanges in Charlotte’s diaries show how she perceived the transactional nature of the financial relationship coming to the fore. On 12 April Charlotte wrote: ‘The Rothschilds, whose assets exceeded the treasures of the Bank of England two months ago, have lost the largest part of their assets and are only pulling themselves out of the terrible crisis with great difficulty. The Paris house was swaying, the Frankfurt house was not doing much better.’ On April 16 she commented: ‘My husband was not particularly amused at Lady Palmerston’s, he thought he perceived that people had been less polite since we lost our money. He may be right, because the greatness of a merchant is based on his wealth and credit, and money plays an immense role in the 19th century.’

Charlotte describes how Metternich’s secret agent had come to London to look for a house for Metternich and went straight to the Rothschilds. When she and her husband met Metternich and his wife: ‘The prince said, “I left Vienna as quickly as possible, but your uncle had time to have a letter of credit prepared for me; have you received it?”.’ Three months later she reported that: ‘Lionel says Prince Metternich is angry with him; it hurts my soul; if he were still the great chancellor, I wouldn’t care. But now he has fallen from his throne, and I should like to give him evidence of sympathy on behalf of the House of Rothschild. Of course, Lionel is right that it is not in our power to advance money to everyone.  The Frankfurt house could have given the prince a few thousand pounds. It’s not my fault and neither is Lionel’s.’

There is some kind of quid pro quo in almost any relationship but the repeated references to finance in Charlotte’s comments about her friends show how aware she was that her money was at least a part of the basis for those friendships. After the defeat of ‘Our Bill’, Charlotte and Lionel went to visit the Disraelis on May 28. Emotions must have been high on all sides, and Charlotte’s tone has notably changed: ‘while Lionel and his brother were talking to the husband in his study, I had a conversation with the wife, who babbled on about a lot of great stuff and let me know in the most unfriendly, noncommittal way that her husband had sacrificed himself for us and our just cause during five years of his life and only ingratitude was given to him for the great efforts of his mind, his pen and his lips. I was angry, and therefore could not keep silent, telling her Mr. Disraeli had lost nothing and forfeited nothing.’ The falling out continued the following week: ‘On Monday (June 5) there was a repetition of last week’s scene with Mrs. Disraeli. She said a lot of hard, bitter things, undeserved things, also some sizeable things and not a little ridiculous. I regret having to refer to the same issue with the good woman again.’

Shortly afterwards, Charlotte noted that there had been a reconciliation between Disraeli and Lionel, but still the relationship was changed and her commentary is notably more critical and tense. On 1 August 1848 they had dinner with Disraeli who ‘was sullen and barely deigned to speak. But when he spoke, he seemed to mock everything and everyone, and not smiling and joking, not con amore but bitter, biting and at the same time despising and disdainful, as if he, the great writer, the famous politician, the ardent, unsurpassable speaker, had the right to make fun of everything and everyone.’ At a dinner later that month her only comment about Anne Marie is: ‘The good Mrs Disraeli was horrible,’ and as for Disraeli: ‘He notices the smallest, most insignificant, petty things, every word, every look is brought back to his wife, every praise, every expression he said and what one replies to him. Every compliment, every flattery.’

These insights from Charlotte’s diary in 1848 are only an interlude over one clearly miserable summer. They are nothing more than tantalising fragments, which offer tiny glimpses into the actual financial relationship between Lionel de Rothschild and Disraeli, but they serve an important purpose by helping to show the human side of being a lender and a borrower in politics. The issue of the Jewish Bill was finally resolved in 1858 and Lionel took his seat as an MP. His financial relationship with Disraeli continued throughout their political lives. In 1875 Lionel, through NM Rothschild & Sons, advanced to his friend and now Prime Minister Disraeli (authorised by his Cabinet and acting for the British Government) a loan of £4 million for the purchase of shares in the Suez Canal which had formerly belonged to the Khedive of Egypt. Since parliament was not sitting this loan was transacted on a gentleman’s agreement, with no documentation and as such it was technically unsecured. The funds were repaid within five months but the issue became a hot political topic: Gladstone accused Disraeli of undermining Britain’s constitutional system, the Liberals saying it was unprecedented for a Ministry to negotiate with a private firm when it ought to have sought the funding from the Bank of England. Rothschilds ran the risk of losing the capital if parliament had refused to ratify the purchase. The precise details remain obscure and debated by historians. But Disraeli was able to report triumphantly to the Queen the success of an act of daring.

The lifelong relationship between Lionel Rothschild and Disraeli falls within a wider tradition of wealthy communities coming to Britain and looking for acceptance and influence through finance and credit. This pattern continued through American dynasties like the Gettys and Astors to Russian oligarchs. The tension created in this complex equation of citizenship, finance and politics will always require management, but as we see from Charlotte’s diaries, at the heart is always a very human story.


Suzanne Raine