A morganatic marriage is a concept originating in medieval Germany, and current in parts of Europe. It allows a royal or noble to marry a person of lesser rank without making them an equal or giving any resulting children a title or status. Supposedly the husband's only obligation was "a morning gift, a present given after the consummation," and the name comes from an Gothic/Old High German word for "morning." (No wonder some sources call it "legalized concubinage.") They were also called "left-handed marriages" because in the part of the ceremony where the groom would normally extend his right hand to his bride, in morganatic marriage he was supposed to extend his left. (Although nearly all references assume that the groom is the royal or noble one, a few instances of a noblewoman marrying a commoner morganatically are known.)

Why bother? Well, a woman might wish to have the bond of some kind of marriage to feel that she was not committing a sin in having sex (since the Catholic church at least considers morganatic marriage "as valid and licit before the Church as any other lawful marriage"); a man might really wish to marry a woman whose status was not considered good enough for him. At times, for a prince and heir to a throne to marry someone who was merely, say, a countess, and make her a princess and mother of his heirs, was considered impossible because of the gap in rank. Frederick William III of Prussia had a morganatic second marriage because after the death of his first wife, he wanted to remarry without making the children he already had feel as if they had competition. On the other hand, morganatic marriages were not necessarily given wide approval; Tsar Nicholas II of Russia exiled his brother Michael from the country for two years after his morganatic marriage to a divorced commoner.

English law does not allow morganatic marriage, which has caused problems for its royalty. George IV while still Prince of Wales, is said to have viewed his marriage to the Catholic woman Maria Fitzherbert as morganatic, but to the Catholic church it was a normal, valid marriage and by the law of England it was completely invalid as royalty could not marry without the consent of the reigning monarch, George III. Edward VIII might have married Wallis Simpson in this way if it had been acceptable to the Church of England, who would not accept a divorced woman as queen. It has also been suggested that Prince Charles marry Camilla Parker-Bowles in this manner, but this isn't likely. Tiefling adds, "Perhaps it should be made clear also that *any* royal marriage is dynastic in the UK if it has the monarch's consent. (e.g.: George VI's marriage to Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon," the late Queen Mother)

Sources:
http://www.heraldica.org/topics/royalty/fw3-morg.htm
http://www.bootlegbooks.com/Reference/PhraseAndFable/data/859.html
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09699a.htm
http://www.logophilia.com/WordSpy/morganaticmarriage.asp
http://100.1911encyclopedia.org/M/MA/MARRIAGE.htm

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