St. Margaret Queen of Scotland

C. 1047-1093
By Lucy Menzies

QUEEN MARGARET of Scotland, born in southern Hungary, in the village of Mecseknadas, probably in Castle Reka, was the granddaughter of the English king, Edmund Ironside. When Edmund died and the English people chose Cnut to be their king, Edmund's infant sons were sent abroad to the protection of King Stephen of Hungary. One of the twins died young; but the other, Edward Atheling, was brought up as a protege of Stephen's Queen, Gisela, and regarded in that foreign Court as the heir to the Anglo-Saxon throne. He married Agatha, and "God blessing that marriage gave them one son Edgar, and two daughters, Christian, and Margaret."

Much has been written about the significance of that name. It came originally from the Greek, margaron, a pearl, and came to prominence in Christendom through the martyrdom of St. Margaret of Antioch. Our Margaret, sometimes called The Pearl of Scotland, may have been named after her, and she became the most famous bearer of the name in Europe. "Many have got their name from a quality of their mind," wrote Turgot, her biographer, "the same was true of this virtuous woman, for the fairness preshadowed in her name was eclipsed in the surpassing of her soul."

St. Margaret's Chapel
When Cnut died in 1035, his sons Harold and Harthacnut reigned for seven years. Then the English determined they must have a king of their own blood, and Edward, afterwards the Confessor, son of Aethelred and Emma of Normandy, was chosen. He, too, was an exile, brought up in Normandy under Benedictine influences. He had never been attracted by worldly things; his palace was monastery rather than court, he himself "a lover of peace who protected his kingdom by peace rather than by arms." The ruling of an earthly kingdom did not interest him; his ideal and inspiration was the life of Christ. And having vowed to live in virginity, his Witan resolved in 1054 to bring Edward the Exile and his family back from Hungary in order to secure the succession to the throne of England.

Edward, with his wife and three children, set out from Hungary, but whether from natural or sinister causes, Edward died immediately on landing, and his widow and three children found themselves again living in dependence at court; now, however, in a position of importance, Edgar being the heir to the throne. He was a weakling, in body, mind, and character, but his sisters made up for that. They lived a strict life under the Mistress of Maidens; they were both naturally contemplative, and the change of country made little difference in their upbringing; for in England, as in Hungary, Benedictines trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of the ordered life of prayer and work.

Margaret was about ten years old when she arrived in England. The impression seems to have been that she was a tall handsome girl of Saxon type, but the early chronicles were so busy describing the beauty of her nature that they say little about her appearance. We know that she read the Scriptures in Latin, and it is almost certain that she was brought up on the teachings of Cassian and knew the writings of St. Augustine. She and her sister and brother would learn French at that half-Norman Court. And they were trained in needlework for which English women were so famous at that time that the solid gold embroidery used for Church work was called Opus Anglicum.

For some years another prince enjoyed the hospitality of the Confessor; when his father Duncan was murdered by Macbeth, Malcolm III of Scotland was sent for safety to the English Court. There he may have met Margaret, his future Queen.

When Edward the Confessor died and was buried in the West Minster he had built and which had been his chief preoccupation for the last fourteen years of his reign, the only direct heirs to the throne of England were his nephew and his nieces, Edgar, Margaret, and Christian. But according to the law of the land, Edgar had no constitutional claim, not having been born in England and not being the son of the crowned king. Besides all that, he was a weakling. And a princess was not then eligible to reign in her own right. The people unanimously chose Harold, son of Earl Godwine, to be their king.

But his Norman rival across the water only bided his time till all his preparations were made. Then, at the Battle of Hastings, Harold was killed; Edgar was half-heartedly chosen king, but he was never crowned. England was divided: Edgar's supporters soon saw they had no chance against the well-equipped and trained Norman forces, and so Edgar and the leaders of Church and State waited on the Conqueror at Berkhampstead and did homage. Then, seeing the affairs of the English disturbed on every side, Edgar was advised to return with his family to Hungary.

St. Margaret's Chapel
They took ship, but a fierce gale drove them northwards and their vessel was forced to seek harbour, possibly at Wearmouth, where for a time they may have been the guests of the Bishop of Durham. When they resumed their journey, the royal travellers sailed up the coast and landed in a sheltered bay on the Fife coast in the Firth of Forth, since called St. Margaret's Hope, where Malcolm, "attended by a gallant train," hastened to welcome the friends he may have known in England.

Margaret was now about twenty years old. She would find a primitive style of life at Dunfermline (Dun-flar-linne, the Tower by the Crooked Stream); but Dunfermline nevertheless was now the burying place of the Scottish kings, and the royal residence, Iona having become too dangerous because of Scandinavian pirates.

Malcolm was then about forty, and without the companionship of a wife. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us that "he soon began to yearn for Edgar's sister as his wife." But Margaret's inclination and upbringing had prepared her for the cloister rather than the crown, and Malcolm, though he had many great and manly virtues, was a tempestuous monarch. It was only after long consideration, "yielding rather to the will of her friends rather than her own," that in 1070 Margaret was married to the King of Scotland, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells the story: "The Creator knew beforehand what he would have made of her. For she was to increase God's praise in the land and direct the king from the erring path and bend him to a better way and his people with him ... Then the king received her though it was against her will. And her customs pleased him and he thanked God who had by his power given him such a consort; and wisely bethought him since he was very prudent and turned himself to God ...

Though Margaret was to the end contemplative by nature, she lived the ordered life of prayer and work "laborare est orare" taught by St. Benedict and well summed up by St. Teresa, "To give our Lord perfect service, Martha and Mary must combine." In what must have been a difficult life she had the help and friendship of the Benedictine, Lanfranc, whom she had come to know in England. This great but humble man, who was both scholar and saint, became Archbishop of Canterbury; he reorganised and reformed the Church in England, while Margaret, with his help and under his guidance, reorganised and reformed the Church in Scotland. He was one of the greatest supports and influences of her life, and it was he who sent her the Chaplain Turgot, also a Benedictine, whose beautiful Life of his Queen tells us the greater part of all we know of her.

She was only the wife of the king; yet she came to have the leading voice in changes which affected the social as well as the spiritual life of Scotland. It was Malcolm's adoration of his wife which gave her this power with him. Her selflessness influenced him the more that his own nature was undisciplined. To come in contact with a saint is always a disconcerting experience. Malcolm realised that Margaret drew her inspiration from sources unattainable to him, but news of the celestial country, "a temper rather than a place," reached him through her. "Whatever pleased her, he loved for love of her. Although he could not read he would turn over the books she used for her devotions, kissing them and taking them in his hands ...Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals whom he commanded to ornament that book with gold and gems and when the work was finished the king himself used to carry the volume to the Queen as a proof of his devotion."

St. Margaret's Chapel
Although Margaret was now in a great position, possessing what was in those days great wealth, she regarded herself merely as the steward of riches. She lived in the spirit of inward poverty, looking on nothing as her own but recognising that everything she possessed was to be used for the purposes of God. In this she is in the direct line of the saints.

The miracle is that the Scots, ever jealous of their liberties, accepted the reforms she introduced. It has been thought that the clan system of Scotland helped her, for the Scots were passionately devoted to their chiefs; once she had won their hearts, she had won her cause. And she herself was so simple and attractive that they felt her way must be a good way; nothing kindles response so quickly as dedication to a great cause. Her people had free access to her. There was a stone called St. Margaret's Stone near Dunfermline, on which tradition says she used to sit so that anyone in trouble might come to her. Her charity was unbounded; she thought of her poorest subjects before herself. Every morning "at the first hour of the day" (though she had already spent many hours in prayer and the saying of the Psalms) nine little orphans were brought to her. "When the little ones were carried to her, she did not think it beneath her to take them upon her knee and to get their pap ready for them and this she used to put into their mouths with the spoon which she herself used . . . The Queen did this act of charity for the sake of Christ, as one of Christ's servants."

It was also the custom at Dunfermline that any destitute poor should come every morning to "the royal hall"; when they were seated round it, then "the King and Queen entered ... With the exception of the chaplains and a few attendants, no one was permitted to be present at their alms deeds. The King on one side and the Queen on the other, waited on Christ in the person of His poor."

The daily observance is an allegory of Margaret's life; service of God and her fellowmen before service of self. Dr Skene, the eminent historian, gives this judgement on her character, "For purity of motives, for an earnest desire to benefit the people among whom her lot was cast, for a deep sense of religion and great personal piety, for the unselfish performance of whatever duty lay before her and for entire self-abnegation, she is unsurpassed." And he adds, "No more beautiful character has been recorded in history."

The coming of Queen Margaret to Scotland marked a new era in our history. Such a life could not fail to be a power for good, and for centuries she was honoured as the ideal of a holy woman who lived in the world. Columba is the great figure of the Celtic period of Scottish history, with Margaret we come to the beginning of the blend of Celt and Saxon which still continues. Zealous as she was for her own Roman Church, Margaret showed no hostility to the Church which she found in Scotland; for she often visited hermits in their lonely cells, and offered them her gifts as she sought their prayers for herself; and she bestowed upon certain of their settlements increased endowments; and caused the church in Iona to be rebuilt which had been destroyed by Norsemen.

St. Margaret's Chapel
But it was under her influence and that of her sons that the Scottish Church lost what have been called its "Celtic idiosyncrasies" and conformed to the wider Christendom of Europe. Margaret held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, seeking "to root out all the unlawful things" as Turgot puts it, "which had sprung up" within its borders. After hearing their point of view on such matters as the date when Lent begins, partaking of Holy Communion at Easter, using Gaelic and not Latin for the Liturgy, and working on the Sabbath, she convinced them that her way was better, Malcolm putting the weight of his kingly authority behind the wishes of his wife, who was to him "the incarnation of all that was pure and holy."

There is no space here to tell in detail how she strove to improve the standard of living in Scotland, to raise the dignity of Court ceremonial, even the manners of the knights, to purify and revive the religious life of the people. She had great compassion, too, on the English captives in Scotland, for at that time "no Scot so poor that he did not have his English captive." Margaret commiserated with them from the bottom of her heart, "she took care to send them speedy help, paid their ransoms and set them at liberty forthwith."

St. Andrews was by that time the seat of the Scottish primacy, sanctified by the relics of the Apostle. It was in the eighth century that Angus, King of the Picts, fighting against the Britons, was granted a vision of St. Andrew. The Saint is said to have offered him victory, for (as Andrew Lang puts it) "a consideration!", namely, the "tenth part of his possessions to the glory of God and St. Andrew." At about the same time Regulus of Patras had a vision telling, him to take the relics of St. Andrew to a land which would be shown to him. He set off and ultimately, after many adventures, he and King Angus met on the rocky promontory now known as St. Andrews, then called the Church of the King on the Cliff or, in Gaelic, Cliff Rightnonaigh. There the relics of the Saint were deposited - "they helped to procure for the Church which possessed them a degree of distinction which resulted in its becoming the seat of the Scots primacy."

There are, of course, many legends about the adoption of St. Andrew as Patron Saint of Scotland into which we cannot go here. The relics of the Apostle "imparted dignity and attractiveness to his place of settlement," and Queen Margaret encouraged the making of pilgrimages to this shrine. Turgot tells us that, "Since the Church at St. Andrews was much frequented by the devout who flocked to it from all quarters, she erected dwellings on either shore of the sea which divides Lothian from Scotland, so that the poor people and pilgrims might shelter there and rest after the fatigues of their journey . . . Moreover she provided ships for the transport of these pilgrims both coming and going, nor was it lawful to demand any fee for the passage from those who were crossing." The cluster of houses on either side of the Forth Bridge still bear her name, North and South Queensferry.

Margaret was naturally interested in Iona, the cradle of Christianity in Scotland. When in 1072 the Western Isles, which had for many years been in the hands of the Norwegians, came into the charge of Malcolm, he and his Queen went to Iona, where they are said to have rebuilt the monastery and left the monks wherewithal to carry on their work.

St. Margaret's Chapel
Margaret had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Of the sons, Edward, the eldest, was killed in battle. Ethelred died young, Edmund "fell away from the good". But the three youngest sons were the jewels in the crown; Edgar, Alexander, and David are remembered among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, in his peaceful reign of twenty-nine years developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the strict rule of their aunt Christian in the Abbey of Romsey. Matilda married Henry I of England, the third son of the Conqueror, thus becoming Queen of England and uniting the Saxon and Norman lines; her daughter Matilda married the Emperor Henry V. Margaret's second daughter Mary married Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and their daughter also became Queen of England, as the wife of King Stephen. Margaret's children played a great part in the history of Scotland and of England and of Europe. She brought them up well. In her nursery, though every part of the child's being was developed, her children were taught first of all to love Christ. "If you love Him, my darlings, He will give you prosperity in this life and everlasting happiness with all the saints."

Margaret's children saw the beginning of the Britain we know, the end of the exclusively separate period, the merging of Celt and Saxon into the unity now so firmly welded. It is an interesting fact that of all the saints canonised by the Church of Rome, Queen Margaret stands alone as the happy mother of a large family, a mother who reared sons and daughters to her credit and died surrounded by her children.

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. She had lived an austere life: she spent long hours in prayer both day and night and she fasted rigorously. All this she did that it might please God and avail for Scotland, for her husband, and for her children. She followed a great example when she offered herself thus for the sins of the world; here, too, she is of the great company of the saints and lovers of God.

Towards the end of her life she and King Malcolm lived in the Castle of Edinburgh. None of the buildings of their date now survives, with the possible exception that her own little Oratory may be the origin of the St. Margaret's Chapel we know today. Its Norman architecture, the oldest example of Norman architecture in Scotland, reminds us of her friendship with Lanfranc, who built Canterbury Cathedral according to the Norman style. Like all places from which much prayer has gone up, this little chapel preserves the flavour of sanctity; but it is special because it retains in some blessed way the fragrance of the life of St. Margaret.

As she lay dying, in an extremity of weakness, clasping in her hands a certain black cross she held in deep veneration, her son Edgar came in with the news that her husband and her eldest son had been killed in a battle at Alnwick. No murmur escaped her, we are told; her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God. "Her departure was so calm and tranquil that her friends concluded her soul passed to the land of Eternal rest and peace."

Much as she did for Scotland, Margaret was greater than her greatest work. Her achievements were great, but the selfless spirit in which she achieved them was greater still. As Cassian said, "The height of perfection and blessedness does not consist in the performance of wonderful works but in the purity of Love. For all these things shall pass away and be destroyed, but Love is to abide for ever."

In 1660 a little book was published in Paris, written by a monk of Douay and called The Idea of a Perfect Queen in the Life of St. Margaret of Scotland. Let him say the last word. "Some will admire the innocency of her manners in her tender years, the rigour she exercised on her body in her youth and the prayers wherewith she nourished her soul ... Methinks I make sufficient panegyric if I say she has been the Idea of a Perfect Queen, one of these wise ones who by the sweetness of her conversation, the innocency of her deportment and the force of her spirit reformed the disorders that had crept into her kingdom."
St. Margaret's Chapel

(From St. Margaret Queen of Scotland and Her Chapel, St. Margaret's Chapel Guild)


Queen Margaret of Scotland Girls' Schools Association 2006
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