Margaret Scotland

You are here: Heritage | Timelines | Margaret of Scotland

Queen Margaret of Scotland

They are sometimes referred to as the Odd Couple - the belligerent, warlike and bloodthirsty King of Scots and the beautiful, gentle and deeply religious queen he loved and adored.

Malcolm Canmore was the monarch of Scotland who created a royal dynasty which ruled for 200 years. But it was hid wife Margaret who really captured the hearts of the people, and who is loved and revered to this day as our only female saint.

St Margaret of Scotland was a remarkable woman who combined toughness, determination and discipline with real compassion, devotional piety and - above all - genuine concern for the poor. (short biography of St Margaret)

She literally gave away the King's gold, personally fed and washed some of the lowliest peasants in the land, and would give away her own fine clothes to put on the backs of starving beggars.

As a result, she became the most loved royal Scotland has ever produced, and she is still so highly regarded to this day that both Catholics and Protestants put aside their modern differences to pay their respects to her.

Yet this remarkable woman who is still venerated nearly 1000 years after her birth wasn't actually Scottish at all. She was a Hungarian who had gone to England to live - and it was only the hand of fate which brought her here.

Margaret was born about 1046 in Castle Reka in southern Hungary. But her father, Edward the exile, had a legitimate claim to the English throne, and was sent for in 1054 to replace the ailing Edward the Confessor as English monarch.

Unfortunately, her father died almost as soon as he arrived, but Margaret and her mother Princess Agatha were invited to stay on at the English court. They lived a comfortable life, and the young girl grew up studying religion, Latin and English. It was at the English court that she first met Malcolm, who sought sanctuary there after the murder of his father Duncan by Macbeth.

Things started to go seriously wrong for Margaret, however, when William the Conqueror invaded England and won the Battle of Hastings in 1066. With a new Norman dynasty on the English throne, she and her family were advised to flee to Hungary.

They made their escape attempt, but wild storms blew their ship north until it eventually came to land at a sheltered cove on the north bank of the Forth - a spot now known as St Margaret's Hope.

News of their arrival quickly spread, and Malcolm himself made his way down from the royal palace at nearby Dunfermline to see what was going on. He was astonished and delighted to find that it was the girl he had known since childhood, now grown into a beautiful young woman.

Malcolm invited her to his court, and, having suffered the death of his first wife Ingibiorg, it wasn't long before he asked Margaret to marry him. The fact that she didn't say yes straightaway says a huge amount about her strength of character.

Most women would have pounced on a marriage proposal from a King, but it caused Margaret great trouble and worry. She had made her mind up to serve God by entering a convent, and knew that being Queen would be a much harder and more difficult task carrying real responsibilities. However - perhaps because she believed God was testing her - she accepted.

What is particularly interesting about the partnership between Margaret and Malcolm is that in an age when most royal marriages were forged for convenience or political purposes, they genuinely loved each other. She bore him no less than eight children, three of whom - Edgar, Alexander I and David I - were to themselves become kings of Scots and so secure the Canmore dynasty for hundreds of years.

The author and historian Father Mark Dilworth, who is a former Keeper of the Scottish Catholic Archives, says that the pair had huge affection for each other. "He loved her and tolerated her habits, such as giving his gold away to the poor. In his own way, he'd probably say 'girls will be girls'. It looks as if she had him eating out of her hand. Margaret seems to have originally wanted to be a hermit or a nun, but then decided it was her duty to be a Christian queen or mother."

Clearly the feisty Margaret came to an arrangement with Malcolm that things were going to be done her way. Her generosity and compassion were legendary. In the constant wars between Scots and English, for example, prisoners were always being brought back to be used a slaves. Margaret would buy the men off their captors, and then free them.

It is also said that no-one was ever turned away from her palace gates empty. She is said to have personally washed the feet of the poor during Lent, maintained those who could not look after themselves, taught religion to orphans, and fed 300 staving peasants in the royal hall at Dunfermline while she herself fasted. On occasion, she would literally give beggars the clothes off her back.

Malcolm, who is regarded as one of the fiercest and most devious warrior kings Scotland has ever produced, did nothing to stop her. He would even let her raid the common purse to feed the poor.

Only one thing outshone Margaret's commitment the poor: her piety before God. She regularly spent time in contemplative prayer, and her brilliant mind and first class education meant she could - and would - argue with and make suggestions to the religious leaders of the day.

Under her direct influence, the church began to keep a stricter Lenten and Easter observance and also attempted to maintain Sunday as a holy day of rest. Margaret personally attended many church councils, and invited three Benedictine monks from Canterbury to found a priory in Dunfermline - the first of a wave of monastic foundations in Scotland.

Like many Scots, she also venerated the shrine of the apostle Andrew at St Andrews and established a ferry across the Forth to take pilgrims there. The landing sites on both banks of the river are still known as North and South Queensferry.

For much of the time, however, Margaret was left on her own at the Scottish court. Malcolm spent months in conflict with the English, regularly mounting invasions which rarely came to anything. The Normans began the construction of a "New Castle" on the Tyne to keep him out, with a similar structure at Carlisle being built by the Conquerer's successor William Rufus.

By this period in Scottish history, Edinburgh was beginning to emerge as a town of some size, and the court would often move there, to convene on the spot now occupied by the castle. Margaret is said to have hated the place, though her son David - later to himself be king - built Queen Margaret's Chapel, which still stands within the castle precincts today, in her honour.

The marriage between Malcolm and Margaret lasted a remarkable 23 years, and only ended when another of the King's interminable assaults on northern England went tragically wrong. On 12 November 1093, he was cornered and killed - some say by trickery - in an assault on Alnwick in Northumberland. His son Edward died in the same battle.

For Margaret, who was already gravely ill in Edinburgh, the news of the death of her beloved husband and son was more than she could take. She died of a broken heart four days later, and her body was taken back to Dunfermline for burial.

Although clearly a good person, what made her so special that she was made a saint by the Pope in 1250? Mark Dilworth believes that her reputation for helping the poor and as a good mother would have led ordinary Scots people to venerate her long before her eventual canonisation.

"You have to remember that the rules over making saints weren't as rigid then. Pregnant women would pray to her because she'd had so many pregnancies herself. It's said that a nightshirt she put on was known as Queen Margaret's Sark and worn by all subsequent Scottish Queens when they gave birth, quite possibly down to Mary Queen of Scots.

"I would imagine that subsequent kings and queens would have come up with a few cures and things like that to help her on the path to sainthood. The cave in Dunfermline where she used to pray is venerated to this day, and it's not just Catholics who feel an affection for her. Members of the Church of Scotland have a great love of her as well."

In subsequent centuries, affection for Saint Margaret has spread across the world - even to North America, where a large number of churches are dedicated to her.

One of the most recent to receive her name was the Church of St Margaret of Scotland in North Conway, New Hampshire, which was only first dedicated in 1991. The church's Anglo-Catholic priest, Father Jeffrey Swayze, explains: "Margaret was a faithful mother and wife and a great disciple of Christianity, and her values spoke of her great commitment to God.

"It was because of her piety and commitment that our Bishop felt our new church should be dedicated to her. She really transformed the church in her country and inspired many of her people.

"As a parish, Margaret has certainly raised our interest in and knowledge of Scotland. We have an information board at the back of the church about her life, and quite a few of the parishioners have now been to Scotland. In fact, I've been over twice myself."

Meanwhile...

 Print