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Martyrs, Mystics, and Saints: Margaret of Scotland


“For the fairness which was pre-shadowed in her name was eclipsed by the surpassing beauty of her soul. She was called Margaret, and in the sight of God she showed herself to be a pearl, precious in faith and works.” – Turgot of Durham, The Life of St Margaret of Scotland

Unrest in England

The situation was dire. The Anglo-Saxon Monarchy had finally been restored after a prolonged period in which the Danes ruled over England. The current ruler in that time, Edward, King of the English and of the House of Wessex did not have a successor. Upon the King hearing that his kinsman, the one they called Edward the Exile was still alive and abroad in Hungary, he immediately invited him to England.

For years Edward the Exile had thrived abroad, having married the foreign-born Agatha and supported the Andrew I of Hungary (called “Andrew the White”) before his accession to the throne. By Agatha, Edward was father to three children: Edgar (whom history would call “Edgar the Ætheling”), Margaret, and Cristina. In August 1057, Edward made the trip with his family from Hungary to England, where the situation was growing steadily worse and worse. At the time, young Princess Margaret would have been about 12 or 13 years old and thus little more than a child, wandering into dangerous territory with her family.

To make matters worse, not long after setting foot in England, Edward the Exile surprisingly died. It is entirely unknown if he died of natural causes or if there was a more malevolent cause but it is known that he died on the second day after arriving. In fact, when he and his family landed, he was barred from the King Edward the Confessor’s presence and this is likely due to the influence of the Godwinson family.

It is the demise of Edward the Exile that ultimately threw a wrench into the plans of the King and it resulted in even more conflict between the possible successors. Among the likely candidates were: Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, Hereford, and East Anglia; William, Duke of Normandy (whom history would call “William the Conqueror”). In addition, Edward’s very own son, Edgar was considered to be a possible heir to the throne.

The War for the Throne

In January of 1066, Edward, King of the English finally passed away. Not only had he failed to produce any heirs, but there were several claimants through the throne who were eager to assert their power. Despite their father dying 9 years before, Margaret, Edgar, and Cristina remained at the English court along with their mother. The situation had not improved since their arrival but had worsened considerably.

Likely due to the fact that the Godwinsons were still an influential family, Harold Godwinson ascended to the throne and was known thereafter as Harold II, King of the English. Months later in that very same year, Harold would be defeated at the Battle of Hastings and in his stead, Edgar the Ætheling was proclaimed the new King of the English. This was when William, Duke of Normandy came on the scene and immediately took the young Edgar hostage, whisking him away to Normandy. Eventually, the Duke returned Edgar to England in the year 1086 and the family of Edward the Exile escaped northward to Northumbria.

A New Beginning in Scotland

Seeking to escape the war that transpired all around them, Agatha and her children took to ship. She had hoped to reach the safety of the continent but while caught in a storm, they were forced northward still. They ended up in the most surprising of places, Scotland. For the most part in her young life, Margaret really had not played much of a public role. Due to the fact that her brother was proclaimed King of the English, he was the one who everyone focused upon. However, it is when she adventured to Scotland that Margaret began to appear as the most important person in her family. While in Scotland, the family of Edward the Exile sought asylum with the reigning monarch, King Malcolm III (history knows him as “Malcom Canmore” which translates to “Malcom the Great Chief”), a man who was largely known to be rather brutish and somewhat abrasive.


They had landed in an area that is known today as “St Margaret’s Hope” and legend has it that the King himself met Princess Margaret there. It is said that he fell madly in love with her. One must bear in mind that this is stuff of legends and that over the years, aspects of Margaret’s life have been painted in too romantic a light. It is difficult to discern what is fact and fiction. English chronicler, Symeon of Durham has asserted that though Margaret landed in 1068, she did not actually meet King Malcolm until 1070. He was a 39 year old widower with two sons who lost his wife, Ingbjorg (although it is entirely unsure when she is known to have passed away, it is known that she did so before 1070).

A Happy Marriage

304By the end of that very same year, Malcolm and Margaret married, uniting the royal Houses of Dunkeld and Wessex. The couple would go on to produce 8 children: Edward (likely named for his father, died in 1094), Edmund (he was known to having been passed over in succession due to traitorous tendencies), Ethelred (who became an abbot), Edgar, Alexander (he would go on to become Alexander I of Scotland), Edith (who would go on to marry Henry I of England), Mary (who would one day be the Countess of Boulogne), and David (he would become David I of Scotland). Legend has it that Malcolm and Margaret were very different in regards to temperament. Margaret is oftentimes associated with civilising her barbaric husband and it was said that she inspired her husband as well as her sons to be holy, upstanding rulers. Margaret, from her young age, was a devout and pious, often striving to be close to God. This was something that many medieval monarchs strove to do.

tumblr_o8k7l4Xrma1u6zlybo1_500In addition, she brought the Scottish church in union with the Church of Rome, having received aid from Lanfranc, a prior and abbot who would go on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. According to historian W.F. Skene, Queen Margaret was heralded as having been of strong, pure, and noble character and she was recognised for the key role she played in the reformation of the Scottish Church (which was said to have been primitive in some regards). It was said that the Scottish had celebrated the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday but when the Queen learned of this, she immediately saw that the error was corrected.

Margaret was of exemplary character and often recognised as a just ruler, engaging in all sorts of charitable works, feeding and washing the feet of the poor, tending to the orphans, and the giving of alms. Furthermore, she invited the Benedictines to open an abbey in Fife and even saw to the rebuilding of monastery at Iona (which fell prey to Viking attacks in centuries before). Known for her great mercy, she played the role of intercessor and caused English exiles to be released from Serfdom in Scotland (a result of the Norman Conquest). In her private life, Margaret spent a great deal of her time in prayer, devotional reading, and ecclesiastical embroidery (such as altar cloths and priestly vestments). While King Malcolm was largely ignorant of religion and reading, he celebrated the fact that his wife was such a force of good in their nation. It was said that they had a happy marriage despite the differences of temperament.

The Battle of Alnwick

It was said at the Battle of Alnwick that everything changed for the royal couple. Queen Margaret soon learned of the demise of her beloved husband, Malcolm, and their son Edward at the very battle. Her son Edgar returned to Scotland to inform her of the loss. Margaret, at that time, was already very ill and had weakened her bodily condition from fasting and strict religious observance. She met her end three days later on 16 November 1093 and was interred in Dunfermline Abbey. Her last words were: “O Lord Jesus Christ who by thy death hast given life to the world, deliver me from all evil!”


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