Sunday, November 15, 2015

Margaret of Scotland: Saintly Queen, Queenly Saint

by Margaret Porter

National Trust Images/John Hammond
The sixteenth day of November, the date on which Saint Margaret died in 1093, is her feast day.

A princess of the House of Wessex, Margaret was the daughter of Edward the Exile and Agatha of Hungary, and probably left England in infancy in the time of King Canute. First exiled in Sweden, then Kiev, Edward and his wife eventually settled in her native Hungary, where Margaret and her siblings were born. The Hungarian court was highly religious, and from an early age Margaret became devoted to the church.

According to Turgot, her confessor and biographer:
Whilst Margaret was yet in the flower of youth, she began to lead a very strict life, to love God above all things, to employ herself in the study of the Divine writings, and therein with joy to exercise her mind. Her understanding was keen to comprehend any matter, whatever it might be; to this was joined a great tenacity of memory, enabling her to store it up, along with a graceful flow of language to express it.
In 1057 she returned with her family to England. Her father, summoned as a potential heir to Edward the Confessor's throne, did not long survive the journey. After the Norman invasion and Harold's defeat at the Battle of Hastings, her brother Edgar was proclaimed king, but the Conqueror prevailed and England became unsafe for the returned royal exiles. Edgar, his mother Agatha, Margaret, and other family members fled to Northumbria. It is believed they were sailing back to the continent when a storm drove their ship onto the coast of Scotland. They chose to remain. This second exile resulted in Margaret's marriage to King Malcolm III, who supported her brother's claim to the English throne.

Medieval image of Queen Margaret
Margaret's influence on the church in Scotland was profound, and she imported continental Catholic practices to a realm where religion was somewhat less sophisticated. She brought other refinements, introducing arts and culture to her husband's court. She was also a proponent of royal rule that was 'just' and 'holy'.

Turgot describes the Malcom's admiration of his queen, and her role in the expansion of his faith:

. . . he could not but perceive from her conduct that Christ dwelt within her; nay, more, he readily obeyed her wishes and prudent counsels in all things. Whatever she refused, he refused also, whatever pleased her, he also loved for the love of her. Hence it was that, although he could not read, he would turn over and examine books which she used either for her devotions or her study; and whenever he heard her express especial liking for a particular book, he also would look at it with special interest, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands. Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals, whom he commanded to ornament that volume with gold and gems, and when the work was finished, the king himself used to carry the book to the queen as a loving proof of his devotion.
Malcolm had sons at the time of their marriage, but Margaret bore him six more and two daughters. Three of those sons succeeded Malcolm in turn--Edgar, Alexander, and eventually David. Their daughter Matilda married Henry I of England, and another daughter married a French count. Not surprisingly, one son became an abbot.

She was a great giver of alms and reportedly never sat down to dine without first feeding the poor and the orphaned--she founded or encouraged the creation of schools, orphanages, and hospitals. The chief recipient of her support was Dunfermline Abbey.

Says Turgot, in his account of her, "When [she] spoke, her conversation was with the salt of wisdom. When she was silent, her silence was filled with good thoughts. So thoroughly did her outward bearing correspond with the staidness of her character that it seemed as if she has been born the pattern of a virtuous life."

Not only was Margaret's piety expressed through many good works, she strongly believed that Holy Communion should be received frequently rather than rarely or periodically, as was customary in her time.

Margaret's husband and eldest son were away during what proved to be her final illness at Edinburgh Castle. Turgot received a firsthand account of her last days from a witness:

Her face was already covered with a deadly pallor, when she directed that I, and the other ministers of the sacred Altar along with me, should stand near her and commend her soul to Christ by our psalms. Moreover, she asked that a cross, called the Black Cross, which she always held in the greatest veneration, should be brought to her...she received it with reverence, and did her best to embrace it and kiss it . . . .
She was already preparing for death when her son Edgar arrived at Edinburgh Castle in the aftermath of the Battle of Alnwick just over the Border. He was reluctant to announce the tragic news of her husband's and her eldest son's deaths, but Margaret insisted upon hearing it. After learning of her losses, she continued to pray with her last breaths and died peacefully. "Her departure was so calm, so tranquil, that we may conclude her soul passed at once to the land of eternal rest and peace. It was remarkable that her face...became afterwards suffused with fair and warm hues, so that it seemed as if she were not dead but sleeping."

A century and a half after her death, Queen Margaret was canonised by Pope Innocent the IV, for her faithfulness, her charity, and her success in reforming the church in her adopted land. At that time her remains were removed from their original burial place at Dunfermline Abbey and re-interred in a shrine with her husband. During the 16th century, historian John Major in A History of Greater Britain as Well England as Scotland writes of the event as it occurred in 1250:

In the following year Alexander [the Third] and his mother, with the bishops of the Church, assembled at Dunfermline for the transfer of the remains of Queen Margaret. And when these were raised, a most sweet fragrance filled the whole church. But while the remains were being carried with all due honour to the monument which marked the resting-place of her husband, Malcolm, the bearers found themselves completely unable to go further—until some wise men gave them this advice: to disinter likewise the bones of Malcolm. And, when the saintly bones were united with one another, they were carried without difficulty to the appointed place, where, with due adornment of gold and precious stones, they remain to this day.
Except that Margaret did not remain. Her head was later removed from the shrine by none other than Mary Queen of Scots in 1570, who sought her saintly ancestress's presence during childbearing. The head, possibly with the rest of the saint, was later transferred to the Catholic monastery and seminary at Douai in France. All bodily relics associated with Margaret were lost during the French Revolution.

The Roman Catholic Church formerly celebrated Margaret's feast day in June. However with a later revision of the Calendar of Saints, her death date became vacant. Since 1969 the Catholic Church to which she belonged has followed the tradition of the Church of Scotland, which she reformed, honouring her on 16th November.

Margaret's Shrine, Dunfermline, © Kim Traynor

Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, is her latest release, available in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.


  1. And a friend to Robert of Normandy, (The Wayward Prince,) to whom she allowed the privilege of being her daughter, Agnes' godfather. The poor girl was later married to the dubious Henry and renamed Matilda - I'm certain that Henry had a mother fixation, he had a rather odd attitude to women.

    1. Such interesting times. Such complex relationships!

  2. Wonderful post. I love Saint Margaret. You reminded me of grade school because we had 12 Marys in the class and seven of them were Mary Margarets.

    1. So glad you liked it! Twelve Marys is a lot! I was the only Margaret I knew, apart from family (I am a 5th or 6th generation Margaret). Then at my college I discovered about half-a-dozen of us in my freshman class!

  3. I believe there is a typo in stating that Mary, Queen of Scots, had Margaret's skull removed from her shrine in 1590, to aid Mary in childbirth. Mary was well deceased by then.

  4. This is an interesting article but does contain one typo in that Mary, Queen of Scots, was not alive in 1590, the year given when Margaret's skull was removed from her shrine by Mary.


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