In a recent post I charted the history of the 1519 election for the office of Holy Roman Emperor and how Charles V bribed his way to the imperial throne. Space precluded mentioning the role that the immensely wealthy banker Jakob Fugger played in that election so let me make amends and introduce you the richest commoner ever to have lived…

Jakob Fugger was born in Augsburg in 1459. His family were known as the 'Fuggers of the Lily', after their heraldic badge, to distinguish them from the 'Fuggers of the Deer' who were the senior, but less successful, branch of the dynasty.

Deer or Lily, the family fortune was based on cloth. Back in the 14th Century the Fuggers had been humble weavers but they’d made a fortune trading in oriental rugs imported through Venice and selling clothes to the Holy Roman Emperors.

The profits from the Fuggers’ ventures were so vast they began offering banking services to the crowned heads of Europe. Two of Jakob’s older brothers, Markus (a priest) and Georg, handled the huge amounts of cash generated by the sale of indulgences on behalf of the pope. The Fuggers also lent vast sums to the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperors, Frederick III and Maximilian I, and their spendthrift cousin Sigismund Archduke of Austria.

As security for these loans the Fuggers were granted the right to manage Sigismund’s lucrative silver and copper mines and it was Jakob, the youngest brother, who turned this right into an obscenely profitable monopoly.

At the age of 14 Jakob had been sent to Venice to learn the family business and by the early 1500s he’d replaced his ageing brothers as the head of the Fuggers’ empire. Now, like many newly wealthy businessman, he set about climbing the social ladder.

An astute marriage had won Jakob a seat on Augsburg’s city council, he was made a minor noble in 1511 and an Imperial Count in 1514. In return for these favours Jakob funded the marriages that would eventually give the Hapsburgs control of Bohemia and Hungary but his greatest coup came in 1519 when he bought the imperial throne for his Hapsburg patrons.

When Maximilian’s grandson Charles stood for election against the French and English kings, Jakob raised 850,000 florins to finance Charles’ campaign of bribery. To put this sum into perspective, 850,000 florins contained 104,914 ounces of pure gold, at today’s bullion prices that works out at $134,879,200 (£107,851,592) and most of this came out Jakob’s own pocket.

Though Charles was already King of Spain he could not have raised such a colossal sum without Jakob’s help and Charles rivals were swept away by an avalanche of Fugger gold. Charles was elected unanimously and the Fuggers also profited from the deal. To take just one example, in 1523, a bill was put before the imperial diet (parliament) that attempted to restrict the activities of wealthy merchants like the Fuggers. At this, Jakob declared:

“It is known that your imperial majesty could not have claimed the Roman crown without my help,..."

Not surprisingly the bill was quietly dropped and two years later Jakob was dead.

At the time of his death in 1525 Jakob’s net personal fortune was valued at 2,032,652 guilders; today that sum would be worth an unimaginable $400 BILLION. To put it another way, Jakob’s private wealth was the equivalent of 2% of GDP for the WHOLE of Western Europe in 1525, yet even this insane amount of money couldn’t buy ‘Jakob the Rich’ the one thing he wanted – an heir.

Jakob’s businesses passed to his nephews Raymond and Anton Fugger who continued to grow the family businesses. Incredibly, their descendants still run a bank based in Augsburg but perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Fuggers is the city’s collection of alms-houses known as 'Fuggerei'.

Built in 1516 by Jakob Fugger this unique example of renaissance social housing has survived the Thirty Years War, Napoleon, the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire and two World Wars. Today the Fuggerei has around 150 inhabitants and each person pays a token 1 guilder (0.88 euro) in rent provided they say three daily prayers for the soul of Jakob the Rich and his descendants.

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