As I write, the news has just been announced that Prince Charles is to marry his long-term lover Camilla Parker Bowles in a civil ceremony on 8 April 2005. The news reports focus on the unique arrangements that have been worked out to make this marriage possible within the legal and religious constraints on the heir to the British throne marrying a divorcée. Notably, the description Princess Consort has had to be invented for her (modelled on the term Prince Consort created for Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria) so that she doesn’t have to be called Queen when Charles succeeds to the throne.
One phrase that has appeared in almost every article written in recent years about the possible union of Charles and Camilla is morganatic marriage, many putting it forward as a possible solution to the difficulties. However, it is now clear this idea was ruled out from the start. It’s a sensitive term in British royal circles, since in November 1936 King Edward VIII proposed a morganatic marriage to Mrs Simpson as a way of getting around the fact that she, too, was a divorcée. However, it was rejected out of hand on the grounds that British law and tradition don’t permit such royal marriages and he ended up abdicating instead.
Morganatic marriage was originally and mainly a German custom. It was marriage between a high-ranking man and a woman of lower rank (rarely the other way round) in which the woman keeps her former status and in which any children of the marriage are not allowed to inherit the property of their father or his rank or titles (his dignities, in the jargon of this esoteric legal field). It has its roots in an idea common in medieval Germany that people who entered into a variety of transactions, not just marriage, were expected to be of similar social standing. The most celebrated such marriage in modern times was that between Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Sophie Chotek, both of whom died in the assassination at Sarajevo in 1914 that triggered the First World War.
Another name for it was left-handed marriage, because the custom was that at the altar the husband extended his left hand to the bride, not his right, as a mark of their unconventional union. It’s unfortunate that in English this phrase could also at one time refer to a coupling that wasn’t a marriage, either an adulterous relationship or one in which the couple hadn’t bothered with the formalities. A left-handed wife was a mistress.
The word morganatic deeply puzzled etymologists at one time and some believed that it derived from the marriage of the fairy Morgana (also known as Morgan le Fey, from the Arthurian legends) to a mortal. This would link it to the idea of the fata morgana, a type of mirage seen in the Strait of Messina between Sicily and Italy. However, this has long since been disproved.
Oddly, the source of morganatic turns out to be a German one meaning “morning gift”, which sounds like a contradiction (the medieval Latin term was matrimonium ad morganaticam, based on the sixth-century German morganegiba for which the modern German equivalent is Morgengabe). But the term morning gift refers to an old custom in which the husband would give a present to his wife the morning after the marriage was consummated. In a morganatic marriage that’s all the wife got.