In the context of European royalty, a morganatic marriage is a marriage 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 practised 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 English morgengifu, 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 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 made Princess (later Duchess) of Hohenberg, their children took their mother's name and rank, and were excluded from the imperial succession. The Sarajevo Assassination in 1914, during which the couple was killed, 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. The present Spanish Royal Family and members of the British Royal Family, including the current Prince of Wales trace descent from her. 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, Baroness 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. Ebenbürtigkeit). 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 (which no longer existed), 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).