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Berenberg family

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Title: Berenberg family  
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Berenberg family

Coat of arms of the Barons of Berenberg-Gossler; the Berenberg bear (adopted in Belgium in the 16th century) and the Gossler goose foot (adopted in Hamburg in the 18th century)
Ethnicity Flemish
Current region Germany
Place of origin Gummersbach
Connected families Amsinck
Distinctions Hereditary Grand Burghers of Hamburg from 1684; senators and First Mayor of Hamburg; ennobled in Prussia in 1888; Baronial rank in 1910
Name origin and meaning Bear mountain
Coat of arms of the Berenberg family. Detail from a 1710 painting of Cornelius Berenberg (1634–1711)

The Berenberg family, and later its descendants in the Gossler and Seyler families, is a Hanseatic dynasty of merchants, bankers and senators based in Hamburg and with branches in Livorno and other European cities, and one of the world's oldest existing banking dynasties with a history spanning over 400 years. The family is descended from Flemish brothers Hans and Paul Berenberg ("Bear Mountain") from Antwerp (in modern Belgium), who fled persecution of Protestants in the Low Countries in 1585 and established the merchant house now known as Berenberg Bank in Hamburg in 1590. Berenberg Bank is Germany's oldest bank, the world's second oldest bank and also the world's oldest family owned bank. The Berenbergs were originally cloth merchants and have been merchant bankers and investment bankers since the 17th century. The family has had a close relationship to the Dutch-origined Amsinck merchant family over centuries and is also descended from the Welser banking family.

As Johann Berenberg died without male heirs, the bank was passed on to his daughter Elisabeth Berenberg (1749–1822) and her family. Elisabeth's husband Johann Hinrich Gossler was made co-owner and heir by his father in law in 1769, and Gossler made his own son in law Ludwig Erdwin Seyler a partner in 1788. From 1790, Elisabeth was a partner in her own right, before passing control to Seyler and her son Johann Heinrich Gossler alone in 1800. The latter's grandson Johann Gossler was granted the name Berenberg-Gossler by the Senate of Hamburg in 1880, subsequently ennobled by Prussia in 1888 and granted the title Baron in 1910. The bank is still owned by his descendants, the von Berenberg-Gossler family.

The Berenberg family and later the Gossler (Berenberg-Gossler) and Seyler families belonged to the ruling class of the city republic, known as Grand Burghers or Hanseaten, enjoying hereditary legal privileges (abolished 1918), and the Berenbergs were represented in the senate from 1735. From 1821, several Gosslers were also senators, and Hermann Gossler reached the highest position in Hamburg society as First Mayor and President of the Senate (i.e. head of state and head of government of the city republic and equal to the federal princes). Richard J. Evans describes the family as one of Hamburg's "great business families."[1] The Gossler Islands in Antarctica are named for the family.


The Berenbergs in Berg and Brabant

Antwerp in modern Belgium in 1572

The Berenberg family originates from the Bergisches Land region in the Duchy of Berg. Its earliest known ancestor, Thillmann Berenberg, was born on the Groß-Berenberg estate in 1465, and was a cloth merchant.

The growing linen industry of Brabant led Thillmann's son, Jan Berenberg (born 1490 in Gummersbach, died 1549 in Lier, Belgium), to take his family to Lier in Antwerp, where he became a burgher in 1515. He was married to Engele Segers, and they were the parents of Paul Berenberg (born ca. 1533 in Lier, died 1623 in Antwerp), who was a cloth merchant in Antwerp and who married Anna Kriekart from Everbroek. Paul Berenberg was the father of Hans (1561–1626) and Paul Berenberg (1566–1645). The two brothers married sisters Anna (1557–1635) and Francina Snellinck (1559–1642), daughters of the Antwerp merchant Andries Snellinck (1531–1606) and Françoise (Francina) de Rénialme (1539–1610).

The Berenbergs were one of 130 Dutch families that had become Lutheran during the Reformation. During the Eighty Years' War, the family fled Lier and settled in the nearby city of Antwerp (Stade). The family left Antwerp in 1585 as a result of the Fall of Antwerp, when the city was conquered by Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma. The strongly fortified city, Europe's leading commercial centre at the time, was defended with resolute determination and courage by its citizens, but ultimately fell, and around 60% of the city's pre-siege population fled the city, fearing Spanish massacres or forced conversion to Catholicism.

Grand burghers of Hamburg

Hamburg ca. 1600

Many Dutch refugees settled in Hamburg, among them the brothers Hans and Paul Berenberg. In 1590, they founded the merchant house now known as Berenberg Bank. They were originally cloth merchants and active in the import-export business. In Hamburg, the Berenbergs initially formed part of a Dutch colony and intermarried with the city's leading Hanseatic families, several of which were also of Dutch descent (e.g. Amsinck). While a number of Dutch refugees became Hamburg citizens, Hans and Paul Berenberg were not prepared to take that step. In 1605, the Hamburg council issued a decree that gave the Dutch merchants the same rights as the burghers of Hamburg.

Cornelius Berenberg (1634–1711)

Hans Berenberg's son was also named Hans Berenberg (1593–1640), and was married to Adelheid Ruhlant (1611–1684), daughter of the [2] Cornelius Berenberg was also the first Berenberg to take the oath as a Hamburg burgher in 1684; the family thus became part of Hamburg's ruling class of Grand Burghers.

Johann Berenberg (1718–1772), owner of Berenberg Bank

Cornelius Berenberg's son, Rudolf Berenberg (1680–1746), was elected a Senator in 1735. By the mid 18th century, investment banking and acceptance credits comprised a significant part of the firm's activities. Rudolf Berenberg was married to Anna Elisabeth Amsinck (1690–1748), the daughter of Paul Amsinck (1649–1706), a merchant of Hamburg and Lisbon, who was descended from the Welser family. They were the parents of Rudolf Berenberg (1712–61), a merchant in Hamburg, Cornelius Berenberg (1714–73), a merchant in Livorno, Senator Paul Berenberg (1716–1768) and of Johann Berenberg (1718–1772), a co-owner and later sole owner of the Berenberg company.

The Gossler and Seyler families

Elisabeth Berenberg (1749–1822), co-owner of Berenberg Bank and wife of Johann Hinrich Gossler. Upon her death, the Berenberg family became extinct in the male line.
The Berenberg family were merchants, bankers and senators in Hamburg for almost two centuries until the banking branch of the Berenberg family became extinct in the male line. However, Berenberg Bank was passed on to the descendants of Johann Berenberg (1718–1772) in the female line. After Senator Paul Berenberg died childless in 1768, his brother Johann Berenberg took on his son-in-law Johann Hinrich Gossler (1738–90) as a partner and eventually sole heir, as he was married to Johann Berenberg's only surviving child, Elisabeth Berenberg (1749–1822). The historian Percy Ernst Schramm describes their marriage as a marriage of convenience; she was not considered beautiful, but was intelligent, cultivated, kind, spoke many languages (including Latin) and became an exemplary wife and mother. She survived her husband by 32 years and after his death managed the firm together with her son-in-law.[3][4]
Johann Hinrich Gossler (1738–90), who married Elisabeth Berenberg (1749–1822)

In 1788, Johann Hinrich Gossler bought the Mortzenhaus palace in Alter Wandrahm 101 (later 21). Built in 1621 with a renaissance facade, it was one of the largest and most well known palaces in Hamburg. The building was owned by the Gossler family until the 1880s, when it was demolished to make room for the Speicherstadt.

Ludwig Erdwin Seyler (1758–1836), who married Anna Henriette Gossler (1771–1836), eldest daughter of Johann Hinrich Gossler and Elisabeth Berenberg

Johann Hinrich Gossler and Elisabeth Berenberg's eldest daughter, Anna Henriette Gossler, was married to Ludwig Erdwin Seyler, a son of the Swiss-born merchant turned theatre director Abel Seyler—the leading patron of German theatre in the late 18th century—and stepson of actress Friederike Sophie Seyler, the author of Hüon und Amande (that inspired The Magic Flute). Seyler was descended on his father's side from families of the Basel patriciate, notably Burckhardt, Merian and Faesch, while his mother's family were noted as court pharmacists and owners of the renowned Andreae & Co. pharmacy in Hanover. In 1788, Johann Hinrich Gossler took on his son-in-law as a partner in the firm, and after Gossler's death in 1790, Seyler became head of the firm (which he renamed Joh. Berenberg, Gossler & Co. in 1791) and also served as President of the Commerz-Deputation 1817–1818. During the Napoleonic War, Seyler temporarily moved the headquarters of the Berenberg company to the house of his son-in-law, Gerhard von Hosstrup.

Johann Heinrich Gossler (1775–1842), Hamburg senator and co-owner and head of Berenberg Bank.

Anna Henriette Gossler's younger brother Johann Heinrich Gossler became a partner in 1798, and was elected a senator of Hamburg in 1821. Several other family members also served as senators, with Hermann Gossler becoming First Mayor (a position equal to the federal princes, Bundesfürsten). In 1880, Johann Berenberg Gossler (who had Berenberg as a middle name) and his descendants were granted the name Berenberg-Gossler by the Hamburg Senate. The Berenberg-Gosslers were ennobled in the Kingdom of Prussia (which was technically a foreign country) in 1888 and raised to Baronial rank in 1910.[5] The Prussian ennoblement was somewhat controversial in the family and in Hamburg, as the grand burghers of Hamburg mostly considered the nobility inferior to Hanseatic families.[6] According to Richard J. Evans, "the wealthy of nineteenth-century Hamburg were for the most part stern republicans, abhorring titles, refusing to accord any deference to the Prussian nobility, and determinedly loyal to their urban background and mercantile heritage."[7] As Johann Berenberg-Gossler was ennobled, his sister Susanne, married Amsinck, exclaimed "Aber John, unser guter Name!"[6]

In the 19th century, the Berenberg-Gosslers were strongly involved in the industrialisation process in northern Germany and in the North American trade and its finance. In 1847, the Berenberg-Gosslers were the main founders of the Hamburg America Line (HAPAG) together with the merchant house H.J. Merck & Co., and in 1857 they were among the main founders of the Norddeutscher Lloyd. They also financed the ironworks of Ilseder Hütte. The houses of Berenberg-Gossler, H.J. Merck and Salomon Heine were also the main founders of the Norddeutsche Bank in 1856, the first joint-stock bank in northern Germany and one of the predecessors of Deutsche Bank.[8]

During the Nazi era, the Berenberg-Gossler family—themselves descended from religious refugees—especially Baron Cornelius von Berenberg-Gossler, were strongly involved in helping Jewish-origined friends and associates in Hamburg who faced persecution, securing the release of Fritz Warburg in 1939.[9]

Heinrich von Berenberg-Gossler was the last family member to serve as a personally liable partner (until 1979). While the family still owns 25% of Berenberg Bank, no family members are currently actively involved in the management of the bank. The last family member to work for the bank was Countess Jennifer von Bernstorff, a great-granddaughter of Cornelius von Berenberg-Gossler and a co-owner of the bank.

In Hamburg, the Gossler Park in Blankenese is named after the family.

In 18th and 19th century Hamburg, a marriage to a Berenberg/Gossler or the closely related Amsinck family could greatly advance one's social position, as was the case with Hamburg head of state Max Predöhl.[10][11]



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