A morganatic marriage is a type of marriage which can be contracted in certain countries, usually between people of unequal social rank, which prevents the passage of the husband’s titles and privileges to the wife and any children born of the marriage. It is also known as a left-handed marriage because in the wedding ceremony the groom holds his bride’s right hand with his left hand instead of his right.
Generally, this is a marriage between a male of high birth (such as from a royal or reigning house), and a woman of lesser status (such as from a non-royal or non-reigning house, or with a profession that is traditionally considered lower-status). Neither the bride nor any children of the marriage has any claim on the groom’s titles, rights, or entailed property. The children are considered legitimate on other counts and the prohibition of bigamy applies. Morganatic marriage was also practiced by the polygamous Mongols as to their non-principal wives.
It is possible for a woman to marry a man of lower rank morganatically, but this is extremely rare. In the past, women of high rank often did not have titles that they could pass to their children, and in most cases did not choose their own husbands.
Morganatic, already in use in English by 1727 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary), is derived from the medieval Latin morganaticus from the Late Latin phrase matrimonium ad morganaticam and refers to the gift given by the groom to the bride on the morning after the wedding, morning gift, i.e. dower. The Latin term, applied to a Germanic custom, was adopted from a Germanic term, *morgangeba (compare Early Englishmorgengifu, German Morgengabe, Danish and Norwegian Bokmål Morgengave, Norwegian Nynorsk Morgongåve and Swedish Morgongåva). The literal meaning is explained in a 16th century passage quoted by Du Cange: a marriage by which the wife and the children that may be born are gift.
Meyers Konversations-Lexikon of 1888 gives an etymology of the German term Morganitische Ehe as a combination of the ancient Gothic morgjan, to limit, to restrict, occasioned by the restricted gifts from the groom in such a marriage and the morning gift. Morgen is the German word for morning, while the Latin word is matutinus.
The morning gift has been a customary property arrangement for marriage present first in early medieval German cultures (such as Langobards) and also of ancient Germanic tribes, and the church drove its adoption into other countries in order to improve the wife’s security by this additional benefit. The bride received a settled property from the bridegroom’s clan — it was intended to ensure her livelihood in widowhood, and it was to be kept separate as the wife’s discrete possession. However, when a marriage contract is made wherein the bride and the children of the marriage will not receive anything else (than the dower) from the bridegroom or from his inheritance or clan, that sort of marriage was dubbed as “marriage with only the dower and no other inheritance”, i.e. matrimonium ad morganaticum.
The practice of morganatic marriage was most common in the German-speaking parts of Europe, where equality of birth between the spouses was considered an important principle among the reigning houses and high nobility. The German name was Ehe zur linken Hand (marriage by the left hand) and the husband gave his left hand during the wedding ceremony instead of the right.
Morganatic marriage is not, and has not been, possible in jurisdictions that do not allow for the required freedom of contracting with regard to the marriage contract, as it is an agreement containing a pre-emptive limitation to the inheritance and property rights of the spouse and the children.
Perhaps the most famous example in modern times was the marriage of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand, and Bohemian aristocrat Countess Sophie Chotek von Chotkowa. The marriage was initially resisted by Emperor Franz Joseph I, but after pressure from family members and other European rulers, he eventually relented in 1899 (but did not attend the wedding himself). The bride was madePrincess (later Duchess) of Hohenberg, their children took their mother’s name and rank, and were excluded from the imperial succession. The couple was assassinated in 1914 (an event that triggered the First World War).
Although the children, or issue, of morganatic marriages were ineligible ever to succeed to their families’ respective thrones, some children of morganatic marriages did go on to achieve dynastic success elsewhere in Europe. The marriage of Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine and German-Polish noblewoman Countess Julia von Hauke (created Princess of Battenberg), provided a sovereign prince of Bulgaria, and queen-consorts for Spain and Sweden, as well as (through female descent) the consort of the current Queen of the United Kingdom. Likewise, the marriage of Duke Alexander of Württemberg and Claudine Rhédey von Kis-Rhéde (created “Countess of Hohenstein”) resulted in the House of Teck. That family’s most famous member, Mary of Teck, married George V of the United Kingdom, and the present British Royal Family traces descent from her.
Occasionally though, children of morganatic marriages would attempt to overcome their social origins, and succeed to their family’s estates. Leopold, Grand Duke of Baden succeeded to the throne of Baden despite being born of a morganatic marriage. The son of Karl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Baden by his second, common-born wife Luise Karoline, Freiin Geyer von Geyersberg, he only became a Prince in 1817 (aged 27), as part of a new law of succession. With Baden’s royal family without a male heir, Leopold was enfranchised and married to a Princess of Badenese descent, ascending the throne in 1830. His descendants ruled the Grand Duchy until the abolition of the monarchy in 1918.
This, however, was an exception. When the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg also found itself without a male heir at the beginning of the 20th century, the morganatic Counts of Merenberg proposed themselves as heirs.Grand Duke William IV, however, chose to alter the laws of succession to allow a female successor (his own daughter Marie-Adélaïde) instead. Duke Georg of Mecklenburg, Count of Carlow, morganatic son of Duke George Alexander of Mecklenburg and commoner Natalia Vanljarskaya, claimed the throne of the Grand Duchy of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as heir to his childless uncle, Duke Charles Michael. The abolition of the monarchies of Germany in 1918, however, meant the validity of this claim was never put to the test. Nevertheless, the Count of Carlow’s descendants still style themselves as the head of the Grand Ducal house of Mecklenburg.
Paul I of Russia promulgated a strict new house law for Russia in 1797. Based on the German Salic Law, the new rules established a clear requirement to marry persons with equal status of nobility at their births (Ger. Ebenburtigkeit). The issue of an unequal marriage would be excluded from the succession.
An early victim was Grand Duke Constantine Pavlovich, grandson of Catherine the Great, and viceroy of Poland. In 1820, his marriage to German Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld was annulled to allow him to marry Polish noblewoman Joanna Grudzińska. She was known as “Duchess of Łowicz” during her marriage, which produced no children.
One Tsar, Emperor Alexander II of Russia married morganatically in 1880. Princess Ekaterina Mihailovna Dolgorukova, Alexander’s second bride, had previously been his long-term mistress and mother of his illegitimate children (who received the titles Prince Yurievsky and Princess Yurievskaya). One of their daughters married a German descendant of a morganatic marriage, the Count of Merenberg.
Another victim of the new laws was Grand Duke Michael Mihailovich of Russia (October 4, 1861 – April 26, 1929), the third child of Grand Duke Michael Nicolaievich of Russia and his wife Olga Fedorovna (born Princess Cecilie of Baden). He attracted the displeasure of the Tsar by marrying another member of the morganatic Merenberg Dynasty. As a result, he was exiled from Russia, which ensured that his family avoided the Russian Revolution. His daughters married into the British Aristocracy. Less fortunate was Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich of Russia who went into exile in Paris to marry a commoner, Olga Valerianovna Karnovich. Paul returned to serve in the Russian army during the First World War, and Nicholas II rewarded the family by making Olga and her children Princes and Princesses Paley. Paul’s patriotism, however, had sealed his fate, and he died at the hands of Russia’s revolutionaries in 1917.
However, Nicholas II permitted his brother, Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia, to marry twice-divorced noblewoman Natalya Sergeyevna Wulfert (née Sheremetevskaya), making the bride Countess Brassova. The son of Michael and Natalya, George, took his mother’s name and rank. In the throes of the First World War, Nicholas II allowed his sister Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna of Russia to end her loveless marriage to her social equal, Duke Peter Alexandrovich of Oldenburg, to marry commoner Colonel Nikolai Alexandrovich Kulikovsky. Both Michael’s and Olga’s descendants from these marriages were excluded from the succession.
After the murder of Nicholas II and his children, the Royal Family’s morganatic marriages restricted the number of possible heirs. Grand Duke Cyril Vladimirovich, Nicholas’s cousin, proclaimed himself as Emperor in exile. Controversy accompanied the marriage of his son Grand Duke Vladimir Cyrillovich to Leonida Georgievna Bagration-Mukhransky, a descendant of the Royal House of Georgia. Leonida’s family had sometimes been considered to be nobility in Imperial Russia, rather than Royalty, leading to claims that the marriage was unequal. As a result, some factions within Russia’s monarchist movement do not support the couple’s daughter Grand Duchess Maria, as the rightful heir to the Romanov dynasty (see Line of succession to the Russian throne for further details of the controversy).
Succession to the Danish throne followed the Salic Law until the Danish Act of Succession of 1953. Prominent morganatic marriages include the 1615 marriage of King Christian IV of Denmark and minor noblewoman Kirsten Munk. Kirsten was styled ‘Countess of Schleswig-Holstein’ and bore the King 12 children (all styled ‘Count/Countess of Schleswig-Holstein’). King Frederick VII of Denmark married the ballet dancer Louise Rasmussen, who was styled ‘Countess Danner’, in 1850. There were no children of this marriage.
The abolition of the Salic Law allowed members of the Danish Royal Family much greater freedom in their choice of spouses, and none of the children of Denmark’s present Queen have married a person of either Royal birth, or from the titled aristocracy. Members of the Royal Family may still lose their place in the line of succession for themselves and their descendants if they marry without the Monarch’s permission.
There has never been morganatic marriage in France and morganatic marriage never existed in French laws. Equality of birth is not so important in France because antiquity of nobility in the male line is only taken into account: a Frenchman should have cent ans de noblesse (100 years in the male line) to become a Knight of Malta. A German should have quatre quartiers de noblesse (all four grandparents being noble) for the same purpose.
There was, however, a French practice, somewhat different from morganatic marriage, sometimes used in situations of inequality between the spouses: an “openly secret” marriage – that is, the marriage ceremony took place in private (with only a priest, the bride and groom, and a few witnesses in attendance) and the marriage was never officially announced (although it might be widely known), and thus the woman never publicly shared in her husband’s titles and rank. Louis XIV married Madame de Maintenon, his second wife, this way. Madame de Maintenon was too old to bear children in this marriage. However, because of the similar definitions between a secret marriage and a morganatic marriage, this marriage is sometimes mistakenly included in an example list of morganatic marriages.
A rumour also exists about a secret marriage between Anne of Austria and Cardinal Mazarin, which is considered a morganatic marriage by those who accept this version.
The concept of morganatic marriage has never clearly existed in any part of the United Kingdom. All four of Elizabeth II’s children have married untitled commoners, with no effect on the order of succession. Wives of British princes are entitled to use the feminine form of their husbands’ peerage and hereditary titles. Camilla, second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, legally holds the title “Princess of Wales”, but at the time that the engagement was announced, it was declared that she would be known by the title “Duchess of Cornwall” (derived from one of the other titles her husband held as heir apparent) in deference, it has been reported, to public feelings about the title’s previous holder, the Prince’s first wife Diana. It was simultaneously stated that upon her husband’s accession to the throne, it is intended that she be known as “Princess Consort” rather than ‘Queen’, although as the King’s wife she would legally be Queen. The use of these lower titles does not denote a morganatic marriage.
It has been suggested that William, Prince of Orange, expected to have a strong claim to the throne of England after the Duke of York during the reign of Charles II. In fact, the Duke’s two daughters from his first marriage, Princess Mary and Princess Anne, were considered to have the stronger claim by the English establishment. William’s expectation was based on the continental practice of morganatic marriage, since the mother of both princesses, Anne Hyde, was a commoner and a lady-in-waiting to William’s mother, Princess Mary Stuart. It was by his mother, a sister of Charles II and the Duke of York, that William claimed the throne, because, to his mind, the son of a princess had a stronger claim than the daughter of a commoner. It was to shore up his own claim to the throne that he agreed to marry his first cousin, Princess Mary. When James II fled at the Glorious Revolution, William refused to accept the title of king consort (which Philip II of Spain had been granted under Queen Mary I in the 1550s) and insisted on being named King in his own right. The compromise solution involved naming both to the crown as the only joint rulers in the history of England.
The marriage of King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson was not to be morganatic, although Edward had proposed this expediency to Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who rejected the idea after consultations with the governments of the Dominions. Ultimately, Edward renounced the throne for himself and his descendants, which was given effect by His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936, and he was created Duke of Windsor on 8 March 1937.
Another marriage which might arguably be regarded as morganatic was between John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford. When they married after co-habiting for several years all children born previously were subsequently legitimated by Act of Parliament, but King Henry IV later declared that they could not inherit the crown, but it is not clear that he had the right to do this. This marriage was important, as King Henry VIIwas descended from it, but Parliament declared that he was king by “right of conquest”, so some issues remained unresolved.
The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 made it illegal for all persons born into the British royal family to marry without the permission of the Sovereign, and any marriage contracted without the Sovereign’s consent was considered illegal and invalid. This led to several prominent cases of British princes who had gone through marriage ceremonies, and who cohabited with their partners as if married, but whose relationships were not legally recognised. As a result, their partners and children (the latter considered illegitimate) held no titles, and had no succession rights. This differs from morganatic marriages, which are considered legally valid.
In the erstwhile princely state of Travancore, in India, the male members of the Travancore Royal Family were, under the existing matrilineal Marumakkathayam system of inheritance and family, permitted to contract marriages with women of the relatively inferior Nair caste only. These were morganatic marriages called Sambandhams wherein the children gained their mother’s caste and family name, due toMarumakkathayam. While due to reasons of caste and the nature of the marriage they could not inherit the throne, they did indeed receive the royal title of Thampi and were members of the Ammaveedus which ensured a comfortable living and all royal luxuries for them.
Royal men who married morganatically:
- King Erik XIV of Sweden married the servant Karin Månsdotter morganatically in 1567, and later secondly, but this time not morganatically, in 1568.
- Ludwig Wilhelm, Duke in Bavaria and (actress) Henriette Mendel. She was created Freifrau von Wallersee, and their daughter, Marie Louise, Countess Larisch von Moennich, was a confidante of EmpressElisabeth (“Sissi”) of Austria.
- Archduke Ferdinand II of Austria, ruler of the Tirol married firstly Philippine Welser, a bourgeois girl though very wealthy. Their children were given a separate title and the issue of Ferdinand’s second (and equal) marriage were preferred.
- Victor Emmanuel II of Italy in 1869 married morganatically his principal mistress Rosa Teresa Vercellana Guerrieri (3 June 1833–26 December 1885). Popularly known in Piedmontese as “Bela Rosin”, she was born a commoner but made Countess of Mirafiori and Fontanafredda in 1858.
- Late in his life, the widowed ex-king Fernando II of Portugal married the opera singer Elisa Hendler, who was created countess of Edla.
- A list of Morganatic branches of the Russian Imperial Family
- Genghis Khan followed the contemporary tradition by taking several morganatic wives in addition to his principal wife, whose property passed to their youngest son, also following tradition.
- Prince Felipe of Spain married a commoner,Letizia Ortiz in 2004.
Royal women who married morganatically:
- Marie Louise, Duchess of Parma (by birth an Archduchess of the Imperial House of Habsburg, and by her first marriage an Empress of France) contracted a morganatic second marriage with a count after the death of her first husband Napoleon I.
- Queen Maria Christina of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, regent of Spain after her husband’s (Ferdinand VII) death while their daughter, the future Isabella II was a minor. She married one of her guards in a secret marriage.
- Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, the widow of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria, married Count Elemér Lónyay de Nagy-Lónya et Vásáros-Namény after the death of her first husband, to the disgust of her family. In 1917, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria, Stéphanie’s former father-in-law, elevated Lónyay to the rank of Fürst (Prince).