Thanks to the recent Royal Wedding, tiaras are much in the spotlight these days. This spectacular tiaraleft, is receiving even more press. Not only is it a spectacular (and rarely seen) Victorian concoction of diamonds and freshwater pearls, complete with a matching bracelet, but it's up for auction next month. Christie's expects it to bring at least a £1.5 million ($2,433,000), and likely more.
Yet the original owner of this tiara wasn't royalty, or even born into the British nobility. She was, however, from a family that often outshone those aristocrats. Hannah de Rothschild (1851-1890), right, was the only child of London banker Meyer de Rothschild. Hannah was raised on the vast estate of Mentmore Towers, insulated by the immense wealth and luxurious life of her close extended family. When her father died, she became at 24 the wealthiest heiress in Britain, with a fortune that included houses, property, and more than £2 million in sterling. The rest of the Rothschilds expected her to marry within the English Jewish community, preferably one of her Rothschild cousins. Her final choice was much more unexpected.
Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery (1847-1929), left, was a prize bachelor in his own right. At 28, he was considered handsome, intelligent, and fantastically wealthy in his own right, with an annual income of around £30,000. He had two great interests: liberal politics and horse-racing. Hannah soon became the third. Introduced to her by Lady Beaconsfield, the wife of Benjamin Disraeli, Rosebery was impressed. He told a friend that he found Hannah "very simple, very unspoilt, very clever, very warm-hearted and very shy...I never knew such a beautiful character." Hannah was equally attracted, and an engagement was hinted between the two in 1876.
But despite their mutual attraction, there were sizable obstacles. The Jewish world was appalled that she would abandon her faith for marriage; a British aristocracy that was openly anti-Semitic could not believe that a peer with so much promise would make such a match. Hannah was ridiculed for her appearance, her weight (she was plump even by Victorian standards), her demeanor, but most of all her family and her religion. But Hannah and Rosebery persevered, and were wed in 1878. All of Hannah's male Rothschild relatives boycotted the ceremony. Disraeli gave her away, and having the Prince of Wales among the guests must have eased the tensions. The tiara was made at the time of their wedding, an extravagant sign that Hannah was now proudly Countess of Rosebery.
To outsiders, their marriage appeared complicated. Hannah proved to be the perfect political wife, a skillful counterpoint to the more high-strung - some said childish - Rosebery, and with her behind the scenes his career blossomed. He relied on her judgement and ability to run their home and their family as well (they had four children), and though his tongue could be sharp there was no doubt that they cared deeply for one another. When Hannah died of typhoid fever at thirty-nine in 1890, Rosebery was distraught with grief, and mourned her for years. He never remarried. Though he became prime minister - a triumph that would have delighted Hannah - Rosebery no longer had the heart for politics, either. Without Hannah at his side, his life became murky with melancholia and sordid scandals, and in the end, his political career was considered a disappointment. Ahh, if only Hannah had lived to wear that splendid tiara a little longer....
Top: Tiara by R&S Garrard & Co., Haymarket, London, 1878 Above right: Hannah de Rothschild Primrose by Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton Lower left: Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, by John Everett Millais
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.