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Margaret Queen of Scots 1045-1093.


The title of this piece is quite misleading, if not inaccurate. But, hey--if it gets folks attention! The title Queen of Scots is correctly applied to but one historical figure, the unfortunate Marie Stuart. As the only legitimate heir to the previous king, Mary was Queen Regnant in her own right. The illustrious Margaret was but the consort of the King of Scots, Malcolm III.

Across Canada several churches, one in north-central Toronto, are dedicated to her, for this queen became a saint. She herself, as a married woman and mother of eight, would in her lifetime have considered herself disqualified from sainthood in an era when celibates of both sexes were the preferred candidates for that status. Perhaps being royal helped--she was related to King St. Edward the Confessor of England. Certainly, as the wife of the Scottish monarch, Margaret was in a position to focus her life through practical Christianity, not merely on her own family but also on the extended family of the people of her adopted country.

I say "adopted;' for Margaret was not Scots-born, nor indeed could she boast any Scottish ancestry. She had a chequered career, both before and after marriage. Her father, Edward Atheling ,was a descendant of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England, closely related to the Confessor, the last of that line. Sidelined as a youth by the Danish interlopers, Knut (Canute) and Harthaknut, he went into exile in Europe, ending up in Hungary. While there, he contracted a marriage with the Lady Agatha, said by various sources to be either a daughter of King (St.) Stephen or a kinswoman of the German Emperor Henry II or III (the latter is more likely).(1) This union produced two daughters, Margaret and Christina, and a son, Edgar, who, after his father's untimely death, was recognised as the legitimate heir of England's Anglo-Saxon dynasty. At this point, the family had moved back to England on the Confessor's request, Margaret then being around 11 years old.(2) There she and her siblings continued their education which put a high emphasis on moral virtues and religious observance.

Margaret was a remarkably pious child whose earliest aspirations in life were in the direction of the cloister. When the family fell into reduced circumstances following the Norman Conquest of 1066, this seemed an appropriate 'career choice' for a young noblewoman who was now a less attractive 'catch' for the scions of Europe's princely houses. The callow young Edgar stood little chance of attaining the throne against the Saxon strongman, Harold Godwinson, and even less when Duke William, the Conqueror, invaded from Normandy. His feeble attempts to oppose the latter resulted in defeat, forcing him and his family to leave England with the intention of returning to Hungary. After a storm blew their ship off course, they ended up in Scotland. Seeing Edgar as a valuable pawn in his ongoing feud with the Conqueror, Malcolm III of Scotland took him in and later sealed the alliance by marrying Edgar's older sister, Margaret.

Malcolm III Canmore (Gaelic-Chean mohr or big head) was in life a man far removed from Shakespeare's gallant, but rather milquetoast, young prince, who, with some English help, had defeated King Macbeth in 1057. The late king still had many adherents in the north and west of the country, resulting in Malcolm, never very secure of his power or status in those regions, concentrating his rule in the south and east. He was a rough, tough, uncultured and barely civilized warrior who lived, and expected to die, by the sword. It is uncertain whether he could either read or write. Married before, a diplomatic union to a wife who "knew her place", he soon found more than he had bargained for in his new bride who turned out to be, a woman not only of piety, but of intelligence and determined character.

It is possible that, at first, Margaret was a reluctant bride. Even in an era when first wives were often "put away" in favour of more politically advantageous matches, she must have had her scruples when, shortly after the death of his first wife, the King of Scots proposed marriage to her, (scruples which were to come back to haunt her later in life). Eventually she got round to accepting him realising that such a union would benefit not only her family, but also the nation she had come among. Perceiving that being wife to such a man would not be easy, she put her trust in God to see her through and give her the necessary strength.

Margaret started as she meant to go on by distributing food to the poor at her wedding banquet. Throughout her marriage, her constant care was for the impoverished people of Scotland. There are many tales of her charity, such as her handing over her fur-lined cloak, a gift from Malcolm, to a destitute young mother and of her feeding with her own hands little orphan children each morning before breaking her own fast. Sometimes the King, bemused by his forceful young wife, found himself roped in to these charitable activities. Although he tended to regard scholars and "clerks" with scorn, he found pleasure in presenting her with books--an illuminated copy of the Gospels enclosed in a bejeweled silver case became one of her most treasured possessions. Another object of veneration for her was the Black Cross or Holy Rood, said to contain parts of the true cross of Christ, which she had brought with her from England. Set with jewels and kept in a silver-gilt case, it became after her death one of Scotland's national treasures, giving its name to the abbey and palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, where Pope Benedict XVI was recently received by Queen Elizabeth II (2010). The relic itself was eventually appropriated by the English and vanished during the Reformation.

Margaret never completely 'tamed' Malcolm or cured him of his habit of invading England. She was aware that his power, as ruler of a 'have-not' kingdom was based on his ability to lead his people to where they could replenish their supply of basic material goods such as grain, cattle, and slaves. Most slaves brought to Scotland were Saxons and Margaret made a point of ransoming any that she came across. Northumbria, the earldom just south of the Scottish border, was the main focal point of these raids. Although he was not too interested in territorial expansion, Malcolm would have desired to annex it for reasons of security. In the end, Northumbria claimed his life; he died, it is said through treachery, at Alnwick in 1093.

In tandem with her devotion to her adopted country and its people, Margaret's personal piety and devotion to her faith are recounted in The life of St. Margaret, written shortly after her death by her former chaplain, the monk Turgot, later Bishop of St. Andrews. Apart from her charity towards the poor and enslaved--often at the expense of the royal exchequer--Turgot notes her prayerfulness and very strict observation of the periods of fasting and abstinence in the Church. The 40 days of Lent were not enough for her; Margaret also fasted throughout Advent. In later life this hard regime, combined with very little sleep, caused concern to her good confessor, who wrote, "By her too great abstinence, she brought upon herself a very serious infirmity."

In the 11th century Scotland of which Margaret found herself queen, Christianity had been the official religion for several centuries. Missionaries from England and Ireland, notably Saints Ninian and Columba had converted the native tribes of Britons and Picts from the 4th century A.D. onwards. (The Scotii tribes themselves had actually come over from Ireland!) However, this Celtic Church, far removed geographically from Rome, had developed its own brand of Christianity, with many different customs, mostly liturgical. Nor was it organized on the diocesan system with which Margaret was familiar, but around cashels or monasteries.

Indeed the Scots were not very much' into' church buildings; Sunday Mass was often celebrated in the open around a portable altar. To the Saxon Margaret, born and educated within the mainstream Roman Catholic cultures of Hungary and England, this kind of practice smacked of Scotland's old pagan culture and was a real shock to her system.

Turgot found much to praise in the changes Margaret brought about in the worship practices of the Scottish Church. Shortly after their marriage at Dunfermline in 1070, she persuaded Malcolm to begin the construction of a "great church" there, to be dedicated to the Holy Trinity. (Construction was still ongoing at the site when she was buried in front of the altar there in 1093.) For the glory of God, she adorned this church with sacred vessels and crucifixes of precious metal--some of which may have come from her husband's looting of monasteries over the border in England. Margaret made sure they were at least restored to God's service, even if not in the same location! She also donated many liturgical vestments of beautiful and costly fabrics, hand sewn by herself and her waiting ladies. These were but cosmetic changes.

Margaret was also interested in the forms of worship practised by the Celtic Church. Aberrations were found in the length of Lent, the date of Easter, reception of the Eucharist then and Sabbath observance. These and other differences were discussed at councils of the clergy which the Queen summoned. Margaret had astutely noted that, despite being doctrinally sound, Scotland was out of step with the rest of Christian Europe in its idiosyncratic worship practices. She worked hard to reach agreement on these points with prominent figures in the Celtic Church. By the end she was assured that her adopted land no longer stood out as a remnant of an earlier age and was ready to take its place in the mainstream community of Europe. Instead of the small, thatched-roofed windowless building, made of timber and wattle in which her marriage had been celebrated, her, 'great church' of stone and marble became a potent symbol of this change.

In that age, as now, pilgrimages to the shrines of saints were an expression of popular piety. However, back then, before public transportation was available, it must have taken a tremendous effort to visit shrines even in one's own country, far less abroad. Lowland Scotland's most popular shrine was of the nation's patron, St. Andrew, adjoining the town now of this name. To encourage visits there, Margaret set up a system of free ferry rides across the river Forth, south of the shrine, as well as hospices where poor pilgrims could find food and lodging overnight. A ferryboat was still in operation here until 1964, while the small towns of North and South Queensferry keep the memory of Margaret's charity alive today.

With all this, Margaret certainly did not neglect her duties as a wife and queen consort .She must have had an extraordinarily strong constitution for not only did she bear Malcolm six sons and two daughters with no apparent ill-effects but, almost uniquely in that age, all the children survived infancy. She was a loving, but not doting mother. Above all her children were taught to love God, their parents, their country and its people. Margaret supervised their education, not only in religion but in all those subjects required of an educated person of the 11th century. She had no time for nonsense from them, permitting the lively young princes' tutors to, if necessary, correct them "with threats or the rod." With but one exception, they thrived under this regime and grew up to be solid citizens. Three sons later ascended the throne of Scotland; the youngest, David I (1124-1153) followed so faithfully in his mother's footsteps that his subjects gave him the rueful nickname "a sair sankt for the Croon"

Margaret the Queen, exhausted and debilitated from her self-imposed austerities and penances, died on Nov. 16, 1093, not in the royal palace of Dunfermline, but in the unfinished castle of Edinburgh, once a mere hillfort. Her end may have been precipitated by the news of the deaths in Northumbria of both her husband and her oldest son, Edward, who had been wounded in the same affray. This was a raid of which she had had a deep sense of foreboding when the army set off. Although Edinburgh was under attack by rebels at the time, her body was able to be transported safely to Dunfermline for burial. Dunfermline Abbey (3), of course, suffered the usual fate of most Catholic churches and institutions at the time of the Reformation. It is claimed that the bodies of Margaret and Malcolm (who was re-interred there during David's reign) were safely removed from the destroying hands of the followers of John Knox, but, although various claims have been made, their present whereabouts cannot be known for certain. Margaret was canonised in 1250 shortly after the consecration of the Abbey. Her feast-day is November 16.

What was Margaret's legacy? Certainly, her name lives on, sometimes in secular institutions of which she may well not have approved, in Scotland and in other parts of the world settled by the Scottish diaspora. She is also remembered in Hungary, the land of her birth. Much of the work she did in Scotland was eradicated in the conflagration of the Scottish Reformation. There are those who claim the Reformers were but reverting to the simplicity of the old Columban Church, which begs the question: why not revert to the old "cashel" monastery system, as on Iona? But Columba's headquarters, as well as the later monastic foundations of King David's day, went up in flames. John Knox's supporters reserved their full virulence for bishops, who were appointed by and loyal to the Pope in Rome. A full Scottish diocesan system, independent of England, was something Margaret would have wished to implement; she laid its foundations, but it was not completely established until her son's reign. It is the basis of the Catholic Church system in Scotland to this day.


(1.) Scottish historian Alan J. Wilson (St. Margaret: Queen of Scotland, revised edition 2001, pub. John Donald [Edinburgh] ... reckons Agatha would have been the niece of emperor Henry III and the grandniece of Henry II.

(2.) Edward Atheling was recalled to England by Edward the Confessor in early 1057, but died, apparently of natural causes in April that year. That Agatha and her children stayed on is attributed to "the religious atmosphere of the court of the Confessor ... an ideal place to raise children ... born in a nation filled with the spirit of St Stephen." (Wilson) All that changed with 1066 and the Norman Conquest of England.

(3.) Dunfermline Abbey was built over the original site of the church of the Holy Trinity. Its foundation stone was laid by David I in 1128 with construction completed around 1145. The first abbot came from Canterbury, a Benedictine as were his monks and successors. Although the church was sacked in 1560, the nave was somehow spared and repaired in 1570 after which it served as a Presbyterian parish church. It was again rebuilt in 1821 and remains in use by the Church of Scotland. Parts of the original abbey such as a beautiful arched Norman doorway can still be seen today.

Kate Daffern is Scottish born and educated. She now resides in Canada and writes from Scarborough, Ontario. She is a volunteer proof-reader for this magazine.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE; Saint Margaret of Scotland
Author:Daffern, Kate
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUS
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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