May 5, 2011

Royal wedding edition

I recently came across the term "morganatic marriage"--one that limits the inheritance rights of one of the spouses--and there's no hint in the press that William and Kate's is one such.

The suggestion is relevant because Prince William, heir to the British throne, has gotten away with marrying Catherine Middleton, a commoner. That is, she is not a member of the gentry, the nobility, or a royal house--but her half-common children will be in the direct line of succession. Marriage to commoners by men in the line of succession has been a troubled business: Prince Charles, the more immediate heir to the British throne, could not marry commoner Camilla Parker-Bowles until he had married and then divorced Lady Diana Spencer (who was the noble daughter of the eighth Earl Spencer).1 More seriously, King Edward VIII decided, in 1936, to abdicate after he expressed his desire to marry an American commoner, Mrs. Wallis Simpson. Simpson was divorced by the time of the abdication from two living husbands, Earl Spencer (plain, old Earl Spencer, not related to Lady Di's father) and Ernest Simpson. In 1936, the unmarried king's affair with a married woman, not to mention her series of divorces, could still raise moral hackles. Worse, it might prevent the marriage from being celebrated2 in a Church of England ceremony. The abdication was the culmination of Edward's unwillingness to give up the marriage in the face of the resistance of the Church, the parliamentary leadership, and the governments of the various imperial dominions.3

One of the suggestions made by the king's advisors was that the wedding be a "morganatic" one, whereby Mrs. Simpson would not become Queen of England (and instead would be just a princess-consort or something like that) and her children would not be in the line of succession. However, although there's a word "morganatic" in English, there's no morganatic marriage in English law--Parliament would have had to legislate one for the king, and that was not politically feasible.

Instead, "morganatic marriages" were celebrated primarily in German-speaking areas of Europe, and provided a convenient way for royalty, noblemen or other wealthy men to marry a woman of poverty or of a lower social class. Upon the husband's death, the wife and the children she bore would only inherit that which had been granted to her in the Morgengabe, the "morning gift" on the day of the wedding from bride to groom. The integrity of the groom's social class, or the bulk of the inheritance of the groom's children by a deceased or former wife, would be preserved.4

The word "morganatic" comes to us via the medieval Latin morganaticum, a bastardization of Morgengabe.

Some art historians have suggested, inconclusively, that the wedding in Jan van Eyck's famous "Arnolfini Wedding" double-portrait is a morganatic one, because the groom gives the bride his left hand--considered a traditional element of celebrating a morganatic, or "left-handed" marriage.5

1 "Fergie," Sarah Ferguson, is a commoner who married Charles' brother Andrew. 

2 If you can find it, a good source is Lord Beaverbrook, How the Duke of Windsor Lost his Throne, Saturday Evening Post, Jan. 29, 1966, pp. 38-51.

3 "To celebrate" is the American law term for undergoing the legal ceremony; the bride and groom are the "celebrants."

4 General information on morganatic marriage is in Max Radin, "Legal History of the Morganatic Marriage," University of Chicago Law Review 4: 597-617 (1937).

5 E.g., Lucy Freeman Sandler, "The Handclasp in the Arnolfini Wedding: A Manuscript Precedent," The Art Bulletin 66: 488-91 (1984).

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