Hidden historical heroines (#31: Saint Margaret of Scotland)

St. Margaret of ScotlandMargaret of Wessex (c. 1045 – 16 November 1093) – known posthumously as Saint Margaret of Scotland – was an English Princess who was born in exile and became queen-consort of Scotland. Known for her piety and praised for her charitable works in life, she was canonised as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church by the Pope in 1250.

Margaret was born around 1045, the grand-daughter of Edmund Ironside, King of England. When the Danish Canute conquered England and took the throne in 1016, Ironside’s son and heir – the Ætheling (or “prince”) Edward – was exiled. Edward was only a toddler. He grew up sheltered in the courts of Eastern European monarchs, and when he came to adulthood he travelled to Hungary, where he became a staunch and effective supporter of its king, Andrew I. Edward and his wife had two daughters and a son, who became the new Ætheling – Edgar – the last born male to the Royal House of Wessex.

Margaret’s early childhood in Hungary was a simple and religious one. Their family’s patron, Andrew I, was known as “Andrew the Catholic” and was known for his extreme piety and loyalty to the Roman church, so it is fair to assume that Margaret followed this influence. When she was still young, her father Edward was recalled to England as a possible successor to her great-uncle, the heirless Edward the Confessor. Rather unfortunately, he died immediately after landing. No evidence survives that this was foul play, but it was pretty convenient for all the rival heirs, huh?

Still, Edward the Ætheling had come with a spare in the form of his son Edgar, so Margaret and her family resided at the English court in honour. When Edward the Confessor died in 1066, Edgar was still way too young to be a viable option for king, resulting in the selection of Harold Godwinson. Hope still wasn’t fully extinguished for the little prince – when Harold was defeated and killed by Norman invaders a couple of months later, Edgar was declared King of England. Of course, when the triumphant Normans marched on London, ‘King’ Edgar was offered up like a sacrifice, and William the Conqueror promptly ‘prince-napped’ him and took him back to Normandy. Margaret’s mother gathered up her two little daughters and fled.

Margaret’s mother succeeded in getting passage on a ship to the continent, but a storm drove them north where they were forced to disembark in Scotland and seek the protection of the King of Scots, Malcolm III (the son of murdered Duncan, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth fame). The spot where the royal ladies are said to have landed is known today as Saint Margaret’s Hope.

For King Malcolm, this was a windfall indeed. A widower, he was eager to marry one of the few remaining members of the illustrious Anglo-Saxon royal family and so took Margaret as his wife. He spent some time in the English court after the murder of his father, and so may have had a pre-existing acquaintance with Margaret. The marriage was a successful one, resulting in six sons and two daughters. Margaret seems to have been indulged by her much-older husband, whose pagan-temperaments she calmed by introducing him to religion and offering composed and enlightened advice. She worked tirelessly to bring the Scottish Church in line with those on the continent she had known in her childhood, which benefited the common people greatly.

St. Margaret and orphans

Even in her private life, she remained extremely devout. She served orphans food and washed the feet of the poor every day. A cave on the banks of the Tower Burn in Dunfermline was used by her as a place of devotion and prayer. She influenced her husband to support the cause of her brother, Edgar the Ætheling although, of course, his support was ineffectual and ultimately ended in tragedy; Malcolm and their eldest son were killed in the Battle of Alnwick, against the English, in 1093. Margaret – not yet fifty years old – was stricken to the core with grief and died three days later. With respect to her great personal devotion and what she had meant to Scotland, she was canonised as a saint some century and a half later.

Putting aside Margaret’s undoubtedly selfless and virtuous personality, she was certainly a great agent for social change in 11th Century Scotland. For generations she was held up as the very pinnacle of queenship. Even after her death, her achievements were compounded and her approach continued on through her three sons who each reigned as King of Scotland and her daughter Matilda who married Henry I of England. Margaret’s influence and progeny caused a real melting pot effect in the British Isles – a Saxon Princess with a continental up-bringing, mixing her blood and ideology with that of the Celtic royals and, through her daughter, into the Norman line.

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