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Sunday, 19 December 2010

Morganatic Marriages and Bloodlines

It is near impossible nowadays to understand the concept of a morganatic marriage – a marriage between people of different social ranks wherein the person of the lower social rank (almost invariably the wife) and any subsequent children are not eligible to share the titles or ranks of the person of higher rank. Usually the ‘inferior’ wife was given some other meaningless title, which accounts for so many obscure German and Russian titles – Princess of Battenberg, Princess von Hanau, Countess Carlow, etc. etc. The closest thing we have to it today is the title of Camilla, wife of the Prince of Wales, yet titled – for various reasons – Duchess of Cornwall. In Britain there have never been morganatic marriages – as Queen Victoria, who couldn’t understand the idea at all, wrote so simply, “Either people are married or they are not.”

The purpose of this bizarre state of affairs was to preserve the noble blood of great dynasties. I cannot imagine how anyone conceived the idea that royal blood is different from other blood and it would taint a dynasty to have a commoner’s blood thrown into the mix but the irony of the outcome of such ideas is so tragically apparent. It was a disease of the blood – the noble blood - haemophilia, which caused such havoc and agony in many royal houses; the attempt to preserve the bloodline in Austria led to so many marriages between double first cousins that the children suffered enormously, both physically and mentally; and there was also, throughout the 19th and early 20th century, a vast amount of royal blood spilled from the murder of Carlos of Portugal, through to the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
and the murder of the Russian Imperial Family. Royal blood flowed, too, on the battlefields of the First World War – the nephews of the Kaiser were killed alongside the cousin of George V of Britain and cousin of Tsar Nicholas II, and in the midst of battle it can hardly have been any less horrific for a prince than for an average ‘Tommy’.

I cannot imagine how stifling and how utterly nonsensical it must have felt to have been a prince or princess for whom the choice of a marriage partner was based primarily on dynastic considerations, with some strange idea that this would preserve some kind of superiority. I can imagine, though, how someone like the very intelligent Franz Ferdinand felt when the woman whom he loved devotedly was constantly humiliated because of her ‘inferior’ blood. He had seen Crown Prince Rudolf slide into a life of utter decadence due to the stifling of the Court; and had seen Rudolf’s mother drift deeper and deeper into depression for the same reason. Franz Ferdinand loved Sophie. In the Court and in the world at large he was seen as brusque and unsociable, but at home he loved his children, loved his wife deeply and it is small wonder that in such circumstances he despised the coterie of snobs who stood between him and his uncle, Emperor Franz Josef. Forty or so years earlier in England, Prince Albert wrote of the need to bring new, stronger blood into the dynasty. I think, perhaps, he and Franz Ferdinand (a man whom admire more, the more I learn about him – except for his mass-slaughter of animals) would have had some brilliant conversations had they been around at the same time, and between them might have brought about a great deal of good.

The whole notion of blood seems to go back to Biblical times when the Hebrews were wandering in the desert and discovered that the blood of certain animals made them ill or even earlier when Greek and Roman doctors believed blood was something mystical. There remained a superstitious view of it for so many years that even today we speak of ‘blue blood’ – a rather apt idea considering the presence of porphyria in some dynasties - and ‘full-bloodied’.

I am glad that, for all our faults, we never entertained the notion of morganatic marriages in Britain.

5 comments:

Matterhorn said...

I agree that one should not make a cult of "pure blood", but there could be other reasons why it might be desirable for princes to marry princesses, and so on. People raised for the royal function might be better prepared for it than others; it must be hard to have to adapt to such a demanding and restrictive role all at once. And then, of course, as we know, there are the political alliances that rulers sought to bring about through dynastic marriages.

Morganatic marriages actually do make sense to me. Just as a king is said to have "two bodies," natural and political, it makes sense to me that a prince or other high-ranking person could have two kinds of marriage- one as a private individual (morganatic) and one as a public figure (dynastic). Some people might actually prefer not to share the higher rank of their spouses--like Princess Lilian of Belgium, who did not want to be Queen, despite her enemies' claims to the contrary.

But I agree, the class prejudices and arranged marriages must have been a painful trial for many. It is nice that princes in the West today seem to have more of a free choice as to whom to marry. But that is a reflection of changing social and political conditions. The past was a different world.

Christina said...

Matterhorn, thank you for you comment and, before anything else, may I take this opportunity to thank you for all your comments and for your lovely blogs and wish you and all who are dear to you are very Joyful Christmas!

I agree with all you say about the suitability of marriage partners for princes and kings, and that some people are born to the role and raised in a way that prepares them for such responsibility. It wouldn’t do for some kings/princes to make queens of some of their mistresses, for example (imagine Queen Nell Gwyn or Queen Lola Montez!) but for most part, most royalties of the era mixed only with princesses or countesses or people were familiar with that way of life in the same way as villagers married villagers since they were the people they knew and with whom they had something in common. Where I think it went so badly wrong was when it became so intransigent about creating a list of suitable candidates and I think that in Austria this played itself out catastrophically because the list became narrower and narrower until, out of all the people in the world who might have been eminently suitable to the role, one was left with only about 25 families to choose from and most of them were relatives through one line or another. Sophie Chotek, I really believe, would have made a wonderful Austrian Empress. Refined, the daughter of a noble line herself, learned, intelligent, a wonderful mother and with a sense of devotion to duty, and able to calm her irascible husband...yet it was that narrowness of the bloodline that led so many less intelligent people (who happened to be ‘of the blood’) to treat her so disdainfully. I understand Franz Ferdinand’s anger about it. It’s interesting that Kaiser Wilhelm treated her with the utmost respect. It seems the Austrian Court at the time was so unbearably stifled by its own rules...small wonder, perhaps, that WW1 exploded out of Austria...

Christina said...

Matterhorn, thank you for you comment and, before anything else, may I take this opportunity to thank you for all your comments and for your lovely blogs and wish you and all who are dear to you are very Joyful Christmas!

I agree with all you say about the suitability of marriage partners for princes and kings, and that some people are born to the role and raised in a way that prepares them for such responsibility. It wouldn’t do for some kings/princes to make queens of some of their mistresses, for example (imagine Queen Nell Gwyn or Queen Lola Montez!) but for most part, most royalties of the era mixed only with princesses or countesses or people were familiar with that way of life in the same way as villagers married villagers since they were the people they knew and with whom they had something in common. Where I think it went so badly wrong was when it became so intransigent about creating a list of suitable candidates and I think that in Austria this played itself out catastrophically because the list became narrower and narrower until, out of all the people in the world who might have been eminently suitable to the role, one was left with only about 25 families to choose from and most of them were relatives through one line or another. Sophie Chotek, I really believe, would have made a wonderful Austrian Empress. Refined, the daughter of a noble line herself, learned, intelligent, a wonderful mother and with a sense of devotion to duty, and able to calm her irascible husband...yet it was that narrowness of the bloodline that led so many less intelligent people (who happened to be ‘of the blood’) to treat her so disdainfully. I understand Franz Ferdinand’s anger about it. It’s interesting that Kaiser Wilhelm treated her with the utmost respect. It seems the Austrian Court at the time was so unbearably stifled by its own rules...small wonder, perhaps, that WW1 exploded out of Austria...

Christina said...

(I don't know why my comment appears twice!)

Matterhorn said...

Thank you so much for your kind words and wishes; I also want to thank you for your beautiful blogs and thoughtful comments. Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones!