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Coaching Inns – a dense network of staging posts and services

By Geneviève Lacroix

The imperial Innsbruck-Mechelen route celebrates its 500 years!

Information is power. But how did people communicate over long distances before computers? And come to that, before electricity? It has become difficult for us to imagine the complications experienced by our ancestors in delivering messages prior to telecommunications which are such a part of today’s landscape. Intohistory takes you back into the early years of the postal service and its coaching inns for the 500th anniversary of the creation, by Charles V, of an imperial Innsbruck-Mechelen-Brussels courier service via the North of Luxembourg. Just don your ‘Seven-League Boots’!

Relais postaux et leur histoire

The Asselborn Post House, on the old postal route Innsbruck-Mechelen-Brussels, has now returned to its initial function as a hotel for travellers © intoHistory

Communication, whatever the cost

Philippides

The Marathon soldier expires after running 42 km to announce victory over the Persians, Jean-Pierre Cortot, Musée du Louvre

An interesting first example of communications goes back to Ancient Greece. To transmit a secret document to one of his generals, a sovereign had the message tattooed on the shaven head of a messenger, who was only able to set out when his hair had re-grown. A practical method? Worth emulating?
Then there’s the story of the messenger Phidippides, who, in the 5th century B.C., according to the Greek historian Herodotus, ran from Athens, threatened by the Persian fleet in Marathon, to the town of Sparta, some 220 kilometres away, to request urgent assistance. This impressive exploit was later confused with a comparable course to proclaim the Greek victory in Marathon to the Athenians, but ‘only’ covering a distance of forty-two kilometres. This is the direct inspiration behind today’s popular sporting marathon, created at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

The Courier runner

Roman couriers often kept the same mount, as they did not know whether they would find one at the next staging post; this slowed down the service (given animal fatigue) © The Art Archive/Alamy

Roman couriers often kept the same mount, as they did not know whether they would find one at the next staging post; this slowed down the service (given animal fatigue) © The Art Archive/Alamy

The carrying of valuable but risky information, could only be guaranteed using trustworthy messengers. The runners of antiquity were followed – but not replaced – by horses as soon as a extensive, State-organised structure had been put in place. Under the Emperor Augustus, the Roman Empire was already vast in scope, centralised, multi-lingual and complex to manage. A « cursus publicus », a network of relays where messengers then vehicles were based, was set up at regular distances along the principal routes of the Empire, and was one of the most efficient instruments of Pax romana, ensuring the stability of the Empire for several centuries. The staging posts were inns, hostelries, countryside blacksmith forges and stables. Passing through were soldiers, travelling officials, tax collectors and huge amounts of information and correspondence between the capital’s adminstration, provincial agents and frontier legions. This was an official, State-run service and could only be used by private individuals under exceptional circumstances.

Before the postal system came the ‘staging post’, where stabling for horses was provided

Every institution and administration needed such a network, inspired by the Roman system. So it was that the Pope and sovereigns of the Middle Ages also possessed numerous messengers. Some private initiatives saw the light of day, such as the University of Paris’s own network in the 12th century. Then at the end of the 13th century, a man from Bergamo called Omedeo Tasso, organised a courier system in Lombardy. Efficient healthy horses were essential. They were put in stables, each with its own “posta”, the Italian word for a stall , which is what we call them today.

Always ready to go

The postilion's boots, specially reinforced to protect his legs in the event of a fall, were fixed directly on the stirrups on the horse's flanks © author unknown

The postilion’s boots, specially reinforced to protect his legs in the event of a fall, were fixed directly on the stirrups on the horse’s flanks © author unknown

The King of France Louis XI, a great negotiator who centralised his State, created a royal postal system throughout his territory in 1477. Staging “posts” were set up at regular intervals, with horses and postilions ‘posted’ there to await a mission, a document or parcel needing delivery to the following ‘stage’. These were spaced 4 to 7 leagues apart (about 4 kilometres), a distance well known to a certain Puss-in-Boots (Chat botté) and his legendary ‘Seven-Leagues Boots’, according to Charles Perrault’s story.

The (Thurn und) Taxis family, entrepreneurs in the service of the Emperor

relais postaux histoire

Francesco Tasso, appointed ‘Postmaster’ by the King of Castile, organised the first European postal service © Museo dei Tasso e della storia postale

The family of Omedeo Tasso became very wealthy following the creation of the first courier service in Lombardy. In 1490, his descendant, Francesco Tasso, based in Innsbruck in the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, was entrusted by the Emperor Maximilian I of Habsburg, Archduke of Austria then Holy Roman Emperor, with the task of setting up an imperial postal service. The territory of the Empire at that time encompassed none other than the equivalent of Austria, Germany, Burgundy, the Benelux and North Italy. There were regular communications outside the Empire with Rome, Naples, France and Spain.
Francesco Tasso was appointed ‘Postmaster’ by the King of Castile and Leon, Philip the Handsome, son of Maximilian, at the very beginning of the 16th century. His position enabled him to check what transited through his staging posts and censure if necessary, thereby avoiding private competition.

The network continued to expand and given the imperial monopoly which it enjoyed, it had considerable growth potential. Little by little, private correspondence was accepted because it was profitable.

intoHistory
At that time, it was usually the recipients who paid the tax to the Imperial postal service.

Francesco Tasso was ultimately knighted by the Emperor, who was very keen to confer these sensitive and vital responsibilities, pertaining to the administration and diplomacy of the Empire, to this great administrator. The family took on the more German-sounding name of Thurn und Taxis. Francesco de Taxis became a Brussels citizen and settled down right at the Sablon, which was a chic and up and coming district at the time.

Commemorative plaque on the former residence of Francesco de Taxis, in the Sablon district, in the heart of Brussels © Jean Houben

Commemorative plaque on the former residence of Francesco de Taxis, in the Sablon district, in the heart of Brussels © Jean Houben

 

Just a stone’s throw from the Brussels canal, were vast meadows where horses could graze and rest between two missions. Gradually, warehouses, postal and customs buildings began to encroach on these meadows, but the site is still called ‘Tour et Taxis.

The Royal Mail

England was the first country to issue a postage stamp back in 1840: the “Penny Black”, depicted the effigy of Queen Victoria.

England was the first country to issue a postage stamp back in 1840: the “Penny Black”, depicted the effigy of Queen Victoria.

The 16th century was a propitious time for the development of vast communications, huge States and burgeoning Empires.
In 1516, the King of England Henry VIII, created the function of ‘Master of the Posts’, cornerstone of the future Royal Mail.
King Charles I opened the royal postal service to private correspondence in 1635.

From coach to mail coach

Increasing numbers of travellers also used the postal routes so they could follow the postilions and take advantage of the fresh mounts they hired from the post houses. In the 17th century, Lamoral de Tassi, a descendant of Francesco Tasso, created the first ‘stage coaches’ which transported letters, parcels and passengers. Gradually, the coaching inns began to provide accommodation and meals to their overnight guests (see our article on the History of Inns)

Stagecoaches, which were in general use in the 19th century, were considerably more comfortable than the old coaches, as visitors to the Château de Saint-Fargeau can see for themselves. © Château de Saint-Fargeau

Stagecoaches, which were in general use in the 19th century, were considerably more comfortable than the old coaches, as visitors to the Château de Saint-Fargeau can see for themselves. © Château de Saint-Fargeau

 

The profession of postilion and Postmaster

Postilions were attached to a coaching inn. Every day they would journey to the next staging post  (+/- 28 km), and then return to base, bringing the courier travelling in the opposite direction. Consequently, messages were carried on from one staging post to the next, with hardly any delay, and using fresh mounts. The postilions were kitted out appropriately to cope with bad weather conditions. They were frequently armed as the contents of their mail coach were often a source of temptation. As well as diplomatic and military missives, there were also invoices, commercial items and other certificates of deposit…

Respecting the timetable was so important that the Church even exempted postilions from attending Sunday Mass, so the flow of mail would not be held up. © Town of Saumur

Respecting the timetable was so important that the Church even exempted postilions from attending Sunday Mass, so the flow of mail would not be held up. © Town of Saumur

At each stage the postmaster dispatched the (sealed) postbags and organised the postilions’ schedule. In addition, he was responsible for seeing to the well-being of the horses and later for welcoming guests. His official function was put out to public tender. Postmasters played an important role in the community. They possessed lands and privileges. Some even became mayors.

Histoire des Relais postaux

The Gasthaus Zur Post in Ladbergen in Germany is an important coaching inn on the Munster-Osnabruck route in the 17th century. It is now a hotel and restaurant. © Gasthaus Zur Post

Why is a horn the emblem of the postal service?

The Tasso family initial coat of arms (“tasso” is a badger in Italian), whose helmet is topped with a horn on a yellow background.

The Tasso family initial coat of arms (“tasso” is a badger in Italian), whose helmet is topped with a horn on a yellow background.

In the 12th century, the fraternity of butchers in various Germanic states, the «Metzger», set up a postal service whose messengers were in the habit of announcing themselves by blowing an animal horn. When the horn was blown, the city gates were opened, passers-by cleared a way and the next postilion was poised to take over. This habit gained credence in the following centuries, as can be seen in the coat of arms of the Tasso family. Most national postal services, right up to the present day, have chosen a horn as the emblem of their function and historic origins, serving as a guarantee of their prestigious heritage.

Why are taxis yellow?

Postilions, then stage coaches naturally bore the Holy Roman Empire’s coat of arms and colours following the basic visual logic of the period, at a time when illiteracy was widespread. The Thurn und Taxis family’s coat of arms are predominantly yellow too, a rare colour in the value system of the Ancien Régime, which stood out and was easily recognisable. In most countries, cars with drivers which can be hired for short distances are still called taxis and are generally yellow, whether this is the major colour or not.

In Switzerland, yellow postal vans often form the only regular public link between small mountain villages. They transport the mail but are also generally used by travellers and hikers.

In Switzerland, yellow postal vans often form the only regular public link between small mountain villages. They transport the mail but are also generally used by travellers and hikers.

Postal routes change and impact the economic life of the small towns they go through

Networks are evolving all the time. The great axes enabled the important towns to be linked, but wars, economic crises and the decline or growth of cities, forced the relay network to be constantly modified. So it was that the route where the Post House of Asselborn is located, to the north of what is now the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, was gradually abandoned at the end of the 17th century in favour of a new itinerary passing through the fortified town of Luxembourg.

Asselborn_postal_inn_hotel_welcome_travellers

The post house of Asselborn, recently saved from ruin, offers nicely restored bedrooms and a delightful restaurant, decorated with postal memorabilia. An Inkstands Museum completes this magical site, waiting to be discovered by communication buffs. © Asselborn Post House

What remains of the postal coaching inns today?

Their history has always been at the heart of numerous adventures … before they lost their preponderant role in the movement of people and mail. Some inns have continued providing some activities, becoming restaurants, such as the old Spijtigen Duivel, which is said to have welcomed the Emperor Charles V and likes to claim it was Brussels’s oldest “estaminet”,on the route linking Brussels to Alsemberg.
Others have been converted into hotels in their own right like the Gasthaus Zur Post in Ladbergen (Germany), the Hostellerie de la Poste in Avallon or the coaching inn in Robertville (Belgium), built in 1738.

relais postaux histoire

Hostellerie de la poste in Avallon (Burgundy – France), is a fine example of 18th century coaching inn, still assigned to welcoming passengers today. © Hostellerie de la Poste

Recommended reading

‘Masters of the Post: The Authorized History of the Royal Mail’post history, by Duncan Campbell-Smith
When the family of Thurn and Taxis sets up the international courier service in the Holy Roman Empire, Great Britain also instigates a network of post houses at the initiative of King Henry VIII. This book relates the founding years and the development of the Royal Mail up to the days when it became the first employer in the country. An extremely well documented story, thanks to unpublished archives.

Recommended visits

The Tour and Taxis family chapel in Notre Dame du Sablon in Brussels

The Museo dei Tasso e dell storia postale in Camerata Cornello, in the Lombardy region in Italy

The Musée des Postes restantes, in Hermalle-sous-Huy in Belgium.

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