Morganatic marriage

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 held his bride's right hand with his left hand instead of his right.

Often, this is a marriage between a male from a royal or reigning house, often a historical German state, and a woman of lesser status (a non-royal or non-reigning house, or a woman 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.

It is also possible for a woman to marry a man of lower rank morganatically. This is extremely rare as women of high rank traditionally did not have titles to pass on, and in most cases did not choose their own husbands, but 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. Another case was that of 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.


Morganatic, not used in English until 1727 (OED), 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 English morgengifu and German Morgengabe). 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.

German-speaking Europe

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 that 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 made Princess (later Duchess) of Hohenberg, their children took their mother's name and rank, and were excluded from the imperial succession. The couple were assassinated in 1914.

Although the issue of morganatic marriages were ineligible to ever succeed to their families' respective thrones, some morganauts did go on to achieve dynastic success elsewhere in Europe. The marriage of Prince Alexander of Hesse and by Rhine, the son of the Grand Duke of Hesse and the 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 current prince consort 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, morganauts 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. 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, voided his claim.


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 equals. The issue of an unequal marriage would be excluded from the succession.

Despite this, 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 title Prince Yurievsky and Princess Yurievskaya). One of their daughters married a German morganaut, 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 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 and Olga's descendants from these marriages were excluded from the succession.

After the assassination 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).


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 to morgantic marriage, sometimes used in situations of inequality between the spouses: a (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.

The United Kingdom

Marriages have never been considered morganatic in any part of the United Kingdom. The present British monarch, Elizabeth II, is herself the daughter of a King (George VI) and a commoner (Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, who automatically became Queen-consort on her husband's accession to the throne). All four of Elizabeth II's children have married commoners, with no effect on the order of succession. Wives of British princes hold titles derived from those of their husbands. Camilla, second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, legally holds the title H.R.H. Camilla, Princess of Wales, but chooses to style herself Duchess of Cornwall (derived from one of her husband's other titles) in deference to public feelings about the title's previous holder, the Prince's first wife Diana. It has also been suggested that upon her husband's accession to the throne, the Duchess might take the title "Princess Consort", although as the King's wife she would legally be "Queen Camilla". The use of these lower titles does not denote a morganatic marriage, and are styles only.

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 (b. 1662) 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 (b. 1631). 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 all of his titles for himself and successors when he abdicated, and was created Duke of Windsor. When they married, his wife became Duchess, and any male children would not have inherited the title. The style H.R.H. (Her Royal Highness) is in the sovereign's gift, though it is normally conferred as a matter of course. But it was specifically not granted to Wallis Simpson. As it happened, they had no children.

The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 made it illegal for any member of the British royal family to marry without the permission of the sovereign. From that point on, a marriage by a member of the Royal family 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. (See the article on The Royal Marriages Act for more information)


Examples of morganatic marriage:

See also

Other Sources

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