Margaret, St. (c. 1046–1093)

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Margaret, St. (c. 1046–1093)

Saint and Saxon princess who, after her marriage to Malcolm III of Scotland, conducted a revival of church discipline and reform, performed spiritual and charitable exercises, and left an influential legacy of equally pious sons and daughters . Name variations: Saint Margaret; Margaret Atheling; Margaret of Scotland. Born sometime in 1046 in Hungary; died in Scotland in Edinburgh Castle on November 16, 1093; buried in Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland; daughter of Edward the Exile also known as Edward the Atheling (1016–1057, son of Edmund II Ironside) and Agatha of Hungary (c. 1025–?); well educated; married Malcolm III Canmore or Caennmor, king of Scots (r. 1057–1093), around 1070; children: Edward (d.1093); Edmund, king of Scots (r. 1094–1097); Edgar, king of Scots (r. 1098–1107); Ethelred, abbot of Dunkeld; Alexander I (1077–1124), king of Scots (r. 1107–1124); David I (b. around 1084), king of Scots (r. 1124–1153); Matilda of Scotland (1080–1118); Mary of Atholl (d. 1116, mother of Matilda of Boulogne [c. 1103–1152]).

With family, returned to England (1057); spent nine years at the court of Edward the Confessor; escaped to Scotland after the Conquest of England (1067); held several conferences of clerics (1070–93), canonized by Pope Innocent IV (September 16, 1249).

Women in early medieval Europe were enjoined to be chaste, passive, and self-effacing. Circumstances, however, often led many women to act in ways which belied this popular image. This was particularly true of early medieval queens. Many monarchs in 11th-century Europe were engaged in the slow process of rejuvenating and consolidating their kingdoms after the Barbaric—and later the Viking—invasions of the 5th and 9th centuries. A queen's role in the royal household was especially significant since the household was, at that time, the center of government. Thus, many early medieval queens worked hand-in-hand with their husbands in the governance of their kingdoms, and both monarchs together exercised considerable power and influence. St. Margaret of Scotland was one such queen.

Born in Hungary sometime in 1046, she grew up at the royal court of Stephen I, king of Hungary, and was the eldest daughter of the exiled Edward the Atheling, son of King Edmund II Ironside, and Agatha of Hungary , a kinswoman of Gisela of Bavaria , queen of Hungary. When they were infants, Margaret's father and his brother Edmund had been banished from England by the Danish King Canute the Great to Sweden and thence to Hungary. Margaret's father grew up in a very pious court, as Hungary had been newly converted to Christianity just prior to King Stephen's reign. Like her father, therefore, Margaret lived her early years surrounded by strong Christian influences and devout monarchs who served as important role models.

In 1057, Margaret, her brother Edgar the Atheling, sister Christina , and her mother and father returned to England at the behest of her great-uncle, Edward III the Confessor. Almost immediately after they landed in England, however, Margaret's father died suddenly. For the next nine years, Margaret lived at the equally pious court of the Confessor. Here, she lived a strict and religious life with her sister Christina, with much of their time being spent in meditation and prayer. Like all royal princesses, Margaret was well educated, and it was said that she could read Latin and speak French. Not much is known of her physical appearance except that she was tall and had blue eyes and fair hair.

These happy, tranquil years were shattered when Edward the Confessor died on January 5, 1066, and Harold II Godwineson of Essex was elected king of England. Nine months later, on October 14, 1066, Harold was defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings by the Norman duke William I the Conqueror who was ordained king of England on Christmas Day in Westminster Abbey. Realizing that the conquest was permanent, Margaret and her family became concerned for their safety since her brother, Edgar the Atheling, was a direct heir to the English throne through the old Saxon line, and therefore represented a considerable threat to William the Conqueror.

Accordingly, in the summer of 1067, the 21-year-old Margaret, her siblings and her mother, set off to return to Hungary. They never reached their destination. Rough and stormy weather blew their ship north to Scotland and into the Firth of Forth where they dropped anchor in a bay since known as St. Margaret's Hope. Scotland was governed at this time by Malcolm III Canmore (Gaelic for Great Head or Chief), who was described by a contemporary, St. Ailred of Rievaulx, as "a king, very humble in heart, bold in spirit, exceeding strong in bodily strength, daring, though not rash and endowed with many other good qualities." Like Margaret, Malcolm had spent a great part of his early life in England at the court of Edward the Confessor, where he took refuge when his father Duncan was overthrown by Macbeth, the powerful lord of Moray. After 14 years of exile, Malcolm returned to Scotland in 1054, accompanied by Earl Siward of Northumbria, to claim back the throne of Scotland from Macbeth. Achieving his goal four years later when Macbeth was killed in battle, Malcolm was finally crowned king of Scotland on April 25,1058. Nine years later, his kingdom was eagerly sought out by Saxon refugees escaping from the Norman court of William the Conqueror.

When he met the young Saxon princess, Malcolm, whose first wife Ingebiorge died around this time, was immediately smitten. Margaret, however, was not as keen as her ardent suitor and, indeed, expressed a strong desire to take the veil and retreat into a convent. Malcolm persisted and, after much coaxing, the 24-year-old Margaret was married to the 40-year-old king of Scots in 1070 at Dunfermline by Fothad, the Celtic bishop of St. Andrews.

Fortunately, much more is known about Margaret's life after she arrived in Scotland thanks to an account written 20 years after her death by her confessor and confidant, Turgot, prior of Durham and later the bishop of St. Andrews. Turgot's biography portrays a determined, strong, and pious woman who, although stern, had a great devotion to performing spiritual and charitable exercises as well as a keen interest in reforming the Church in Scotland.

Agatha of Hungary (c. 1025–?)

Saxon noblewoman . Born around 1025; died after 1067 in Scotland; some sources erroneously claim that she was the daughter of Stephen I, king of Hungary, and Gisela of Bavaria (d. 1033); other sources claim that she was the daughter of St. Cunigunde and Henry II, Holy Roman emperor; more than likely she was the daughter of Bruno, bishop of Augsburg (brother of Henry II, Holy Roman emperor); married Edward the Exile also known as Edward the Atheling (son of King Edmund II), before 1045; children: Edgar the Atheling (b. around 1050); St. Margaret (c. 1046–1093); Christina (fl. 1086).

Christina (fl. 1086)

English nun of Romsey . Born in Hungary around 1055; died before 1102; daughter of Agatha of Hungary and Edward the Exile also known as Edward the Atheling (son of King Edmund II); sister of St. Margaret (c. 1046–1093); brought to England in 1057.

By 1086, Christina was a nun at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. There, she brought up her niece Matilda of Scotland (1080–1118) and was opposed to Matilda's marriage to Henry I in 1100.

When Margaret first arrived in Scotland there were no formal, organized monastic orders. Thus, she set about establishing religious orders based on the rule of St. Benedict. In 1070, she invited three Benedictine monks sent from Canterbury by Archbishop Lanfranc to found a priory at Dunfermline. This was the beginning of a wave of monastic foundations in Scotland which would be continued enthusiastically after her death by her sons. Margaret did not neglect the indigenous Celtic orders and was benefactor of at least two Culdee communities at Loch Leven and Abernethy. She was also responsible for rebuilding the monasteries at Iona and St. Andrews. Nonetheless, Margaret was concerned that the Church in Scotland was indifferent to, and unaware of, the revivalist movement of the Roman Catholic Church on the Continent. Throughout most of her life, therefore, she strove to bring the Celtic Church into closer conformity with the Church of Rome.

She was poorer than any of her paupers. …When she went out of doors, either on foot or on horseback, crowds of poor people, orphans and widows flocked to her, as they would have done to a most loving mother, and none of them left her without being comforted.

—Bishop Turgot

To this end, she held many church councils, one of which, described by Turgot in some detail, reformed various malpractices. Malcolm, Turgot noted, "took part as an assessor and chief actor, being fully prepared both to say and do whatever she might direct in the matter at issue." The king also acted as her interpreter, as the queen did not know how to speak Gaelic. The reforms she initiated were concerned with points of observance, rather than with any radical change to the organization and administration of the church. Thus, they included establishing uniform methods for dating and observing Lent, prohibitions on marriage with a stepmother or with a brother's widow, having the unconfessed participate in communion at Easter (despite their feelings of unworthiness), strict observance of Sunday as a day of rest, and a prohibition on the celebration of Mass according to "a barbarous rite" (this probably meant refraining from the use of Gaelic). Margaret's enthusiasm left an important legacy in Scotland. Historian Geofrrey Barrow has concluded that:

in introducing … a wholly new kind of religious life north of the Forth, above all in inspiring in her sons and her husband's successors a zeal and devotion towards the forms of religious life and ecclesiastical observance familiar in Norman England and on the Continent, Queen Margaret was knowingly and deliberately instigating changes which for both Church and Nation were of fundamental, far-reaching significance.

Turgot's observations of the queen's daily life are indicative of her piety and devotion to good works. She built shelters for pilgrims and established the Queen's Ferry which took them across the Firth of Forth to the holy shrine at St. Andrews. Much of her day was spent in prayer, and she periodically withdrew to a secret cave where she worshipped in private. The rest of the time she devoted to alleviating the hardship of those less fortunate than herself. Hence, she maintained 24 poor people throughout the year in food and shelter, ministered daily to orphans during the seasons of Lent and Advent, and fed 300 indigent persons, serving them personally, while she herself fasted. At court, she established a school of church work where noblewomen embroidered altar cloths and vestments. It was, in Turgot's words, "a workshop of sacred art."

Margaret was also an intellectually keen woman and thus had a strong interest in reading. Malcolm often adorned her books with gold and gems, and, though he could not read, noted Turgot, he would "turn over and examine books which she used either for her devotions or her study; and whenever he heard her express liking for a particular book, he also would look at it with special interest, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands." Margaret's love of books was also passed on to her six sons and two daughters, Matilda of Scotland (1080–1118) and Mary of Atholl (d. 1116). Although she loved her children dearly and was a devoted mother, Margaret was a product of her time; hence, she ordered the children's nurse "to curb the children, to scold them, and to whip them whenever they were naughty." According to Turgot, "her children surpassed in good behavior many who were their elders [and] they were always affectionate and peaceable among themselves."

Secular life in Scotland was also touched by this devout queen's inspiration. By birth and inclination she looked toward England and the Continent, while her influence contributed to a more outward-looking, less isolated Scotland. It has been noted that none of her eight children were given Scottish names. Under her guidance, Scottish government was refined, as it became more ceremonial and dignified. Like many Continental kings, Malcolm now had a permanent coterie of nobles who accompanied him whenever he walked or rode abroad. Margaret introduced colorful, fine quality fabrics and elegant fashions, new foods and dishes, as well as a custom of saying grace after meals which has been known since as St. Margaret's Blessing. These Continental and Norman practices would be continued by three of her sons when they succeeded to the throne of Scotland, and closer ties with the English royal house would be established when Margaret's daughter Matilda of Scotland married William the Conqueror's son Henry I.

Although Margaret was canonized 156 years after her death, no miracles were ascribed to her during her life. Her biographer Turgot wrote: "I leave it to others to admire the tokens of miracles which they see elsewhere, I admire much more the works of mercy which I perceived in Margaret; for signs are common to the good and the bad, whereas works of piety and true charity belong to the good only." Nonetheless, Turgot recorded one miraculous event which occurred during Margaret's lifetime. It concerned a Book of Gospels which had been adorned with gold and precious stones. One day the person responsible for carrying it accidently let it fall into the middle of a stream where it lay at the bottom for several days. When it was finally discovered, the book was retrieved entirely undamaged from the water; it was believed to have been preserved by God out of His love for the saintly queen.

Margaret's last years were punctuated by a growing illness and a concern for Malcolm who was invading England regularly in the hopes of regaining territory which he had captured earlier in his reign. Her illness stemmed from excessive fasting; she had also suffered from stomach pains throughout most of her life. Six months before she died, she was unable to ride on horseback or rise from her bed. In November 1093, Malcolm launched his last invasion of England despite warnings from Margaret who had a premonition that this campaign would end disastrously. On the day when her husband and her eldest son were slain at Alnwick, she said: "Perhaps on this very day such a heavy calamity may befall the realm of Scotland as has not been for many ages past." Four days after this disaster, her son Edgar arrived at her sickbed and, unwilling to tell her the news of the deaths of her husband and son, was finally pressed into revealing the truth. Grief-stricken, Margaret died on November 16, 1093.

Scotland's new king was Malcolm's brother, Donalbane, who was head of a faction which reacted against the English influences that Margaret had introduced. As some feared that an outrage might be committed on her corpse, Margaret's body was smuggled out of Edinburgh Castle under cover of a heavy fog which had descended on the burgh that day. Her body was carried down the steep face of the Castle Rock and across the Queen's Ferry to Dunfermline where she was laid to rest in the Church of the Holy Trinity which she had built many years before.

One hundred and fifty-three years later, in July 1246, her great-grandson, Alexander II, petitioned Pope Innocent IV to have Margaret included in the Catalogue of Saints. Enquiries into her life and works were made, including her "miracles" (The Book of the Gospels and the fog which enabled her body to be taken from Edinburgh Castle) and, finally, on September 16, 1249, Margaret was formally canonized. Her bones were placed in a silver casket adorned with precious stones and jewels under the high altar at Dunfermline where they remained until the Reformation. St. Margaret's oratory in Edinburgh Castle still stands today where it serves as a lasting symbol of this devout and influential queen.


Barnett, T. Ratcliffe. Margaret of Scotland: Queen and Saint. Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1926.

Barrow, G.W.S. The Kingdom of the Scots. London: Edward Arnold, 1973.

Menzies, Lucy. St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland. London: J.M. Dent, 1925.

Turgot, Bishop of St. Andrews. Life of St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Edinburgh: William Paterson, 1884.

suggested reading:

Burleigh, J.H.S. A Church History of Scotland. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Dickinson, W.C. Scotland from the earliest times to 1603. London: Thomas Nelson, 1961.

Donaldson, Gordon. Scotland: Church and Nation Through Sixteen Centuries. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1972.

Margaret McIntyre , Instructor of Women's History at Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

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Margaret, St. (c. 1046–1093)

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