St. Margaret Queen of Scotland

Author: David McRoberts


David McRoberts


We have decided to reprint David McRoberts excellent historical essay on the life of St. Margaret in this the ninth centenary year of her death. It is hoped that all who come to know her may be inspired by her Christian charity and exemplary life.

Nine hundred years after Queen Margaret lived and ruled with her husband King Malcolm III the people of Scotland still revere her as their patron and admire her many qualities which had such a profound beneficial effect on the country of her adoption. In an age where the role of women in our society has only recently been seen as emerging to a truly equal status it is a matter of some wonder that nine centuries ago Margaret was to wield such an enormous influence in the life of her people on so many different and yet powerfully important levels. At court, in the life of the Church, in domestic and international affairs her influence would be seen and can still be discerned centuries after her death.

It is a great privilege therefore to make her life known through this little booklet that once more we can truly benefit from her wonderful example and lasting witness as a woman of deep Christian faith who followed her path of destiny and paced them closely to her Lord and God, not rejecting her role as sovereign and lady, but neither setting so much store by them as to lose sight of her eternal destiny. It is from the viewpoint of this wider back-cloth that her life takes it's true meaning and her actions and aspirations come into focus and find their ultimate context. . .

Fr. David M. Barr P.P.
St. Margaret's Dunfermline
April 1993


Saint Margaret, the winds of yore
Oppressed the bark that carried thee
And drove a treasure from the sea
To Scotland's wild and barren shore.1

The modern kingdom of Scotland is the outcome of a long and painful evolution. After the withdrawal of the Roman Legions from Britain, in the early fifth century, four kingdoms slowly came into being in the area occupied by present-day Scotland: Cumbria occupied the territory between Glasgow and Carlise, Bernicia stretched from the Firth of Forth to the Tyne, Scotia was the territory of Argyllshire with some of the Western Isles, occupied by the Scoti from Ireland, and the rest of the north and east was the extensive, ill-defined Kingdom of Pictavia—the land occupied by that race which, in our history books, is given the name, or perhaps the nickname, of Picts—the painted people. During the four or five bleak centuries which separate Roman Britain from the early Middle Ages we catch fleeting glimpses of these four kingdoms becoming gradually consolidated under the guidance of warrior kings, shadowy monarchs because of our meagre records, but men who were apparently wise and politic leaders. As the dark ages gave place to mediaeval and feudal Europe we see a united Kingdom of Scotland gradually taking shape. It was an age of iron warfare; the nobler things of life were almost lost sight of in the prolonged and bitter struggle for survival. The plight of Scotland was not exceptional; that land was only sharing in the general misery of Europe in an era when culture, orderly government and even religion seemed to be fighting a steadily losing battle against anarchy and barbarism. The Church, like the other institutions of civilised life, had suffered grievously. By the tenth century it presented a gloomy picture; almost everywhere abbacies and episcopal sees (for awhile even the great See of Rome) had fallen into the hands of the rapacious and lawless barons who had sprung up in each locality and seized the authority of the broken down central government. Only too often these local chieftains installed unworthy prelates into the churches they had seized, and, as a result, laxity of discipline and ignorance of the church's teaching prevailed over wide areas. The Celtic churches of the west had perhaps suffered most severely. The great monasteries of the Celtic lands had preserved the learning and piety of Europe during the flood-tide of the barbarian invasions and later, in the amazing wanderings of the Celtic scholar- monks during the sixth and seventh centuries, these men actually began the conversion of the new barbarian ruling classes and relit the almost extinguished lamp of monasticism in Europe. But in their turn Scotland and Ireland had to bear the full brunt of yet another invasion, that of the pagan pirates of Scandinavia. When the Vikings bore down on Europe the defenceless riches of churches and abbeys attracted their ruthless bands. The great monasteries of the western islands were reduced to ruin. Clonmacnoise and Lindisfarne, Bangor and especially Iona were plundered and burnt time and again and the white monks martyred. In every place similar conditions prevailed. We need not wonder that, in such circumstances, religious ideals grew dim, or that strange customs gained ground; the marvel is that the faith survived. The faith, however, cannot fail; the divine life of the church did survive. In spite of the general decay there always remained institutions and individuals in whom the perfection of the Christian life was mirrored. This leaven began to reinvigorate the mass of human weakness: slowly and painfully the new life stirred; individual reformers attacked prevalent abuses and vices; bishoprics and abbeys took up the work and, with the eleventh century, the great religious order of Cluny grew to power and attracted to itself all the noblest spirits of the age, and under its guidance, the reformation became irresistible, everywhere were held synods and councils in which ecclesiastical discipline was restored, independence from lay interference reasserted, the doctrines of the church restated and the ideals of the religious life rekindled. There occurred also one of those curious reversals which happen from time to time in our human story and show us that the hand of God is ever present guiding the destiny of our race. The pagan Vikings founded a settlement in Northern France, accepted Christianity, and with the genius of their race for adaptation, they took the nascent feudalism and chivalry of France, the quickening of scholarship and the arts and the great spiritual revival of Cluny, welded them together and, from their Duchy of Normandy, propagated a new fashion of life throughout western Christendom. Scotland as part of the Continent and comity of Europe could not escape this renaissance and, by the providence of God, the coming of this revival and the shaping of all our future religious and social history was wrought by an exiled Saxon princess, whom Scotsmen have honoured ever since, as a great Queen and patroness—Saint Margaret. In her life story we can see all the new European ideals of religion, manners and polity being propagated and finding acceptance in Scotland. When the reigns of Margaret's husband and sons have passed, the face of Scotland has changed, no longer a shadowy, misty land, turbulent with war, but a prosperous and peaceful kingdom taking its place as an equal in the commonwealth of nations that was mediaeval Christendom. During the Dark Ages the country now known as England passed through a succession of invasions, feuds and dynastic wars similar to what had befallen Scotland. At the beginning of the eleventh century we find the throne of England occupied by a Danish conqueror and the legitimate Saxon heirs to the throne—the Aethelings—sojourning in exile in far off Hungary. The Hungarians, hitherto a savage barbarian race from Asia, had but recently been converted to the Faith and, under their first king, St. Stephen I, had begun their history as a European nation, which has at all times been characterised by their intense loyalty to the Catholic Faith and the Apostolic See of Rome. The royal exiles from England were well-received at the court of St. Stephen: one of them, Eadward, married Agatha, a princess of the Hungarian royal house and their marriage was blessed with three children; Eadgar, the eldest; Margaret, who was born in 1046 and was destined to be Queen of Scotland; and Christina, who later became abbess of Romsey in England. The Aetheling family apparently resided at the castle of Nádasd in southern Hungary. All about them was the flood tide of enthusiasm of the newly converted court and kingdom for the Catholic Faith and the See of Rome, and herein we readily see a powerful factor in the formation of the queen, who was to impart fresh vigour to the decadent and war-weary church in the Scottish kingdom and direct its growth more comformably to the universal life of western Christendom.

A change came in the fortunes of the exiled Aethling family when Margaret came to be about ten years of age. King Eadward the Confessor, advancing in years, was concerning himself about a successor to the English throne. He had no children, and the presence of several claimants, Saxon and Norman, seemed to provide the requisite elements for another fierce war of succession. The legitimate heir to the throne was Eadward Aetheling, Margaret's father; he was invited by the Confessor to return to England. In 1057 the little family set out from Nádasd to return to their native land; Eadward, his wife Agatha, their three children, Eadgar, Margaret and Christina, together with some Hungarian nobles. Tragedy greeted their arrival in England; scarcely had they set foot in that kingdom when Eadward suddenly died. The Confessor received the grief-stricken widow and the orphan children into his protection. The boy Eadgar was now next in succession to the throne. In one member at least of the little family the aging king must have found a kindred spirit—the ten-year-old girl. Though the chronicles are silent on these nine most impressionable years which Margaret spent at the Confessor's court, we can at least guess the influences which at that time moulded the character of the girl as she grew to womanhood. Here once again she found herself in the midst of the new flowering of intellect and spirit which was renewing Europe. Politically and culturally the court of the Confessor was a Norman-French court where all the new fashions and ideals of chivalry, art, scholarship and reawakened religious fervour were reshaping the destiny of England. The spirit of that revival found its highest expression in the life of the king himself; he was now entering the last phase of his long, peaceful reign; the little girl at his court could not but have been interested in the Abbey of St. Peter at Westminster which was then a-building, could not but have been impressed by the king's scholarship, his fervent piety, and his splendid generosity to the church and the poor.2

In 1066 King Eadward the Confessor died and was laid to rest in his Abbey of Westminster. There came the inevitable clash between Saxon and Norman claimants to the throne. Duke William of Normandy was victorious, and in the tumult Eadgar Aethling was set aside; he seems to have lacked the vigourous character necessary for a ruler in that martial age. In the spring of the year 1067 Eadgar set sail with his mother, Agatha "The Hungarian," and his sisters, Margaret and Christina, intending to return to their home in Hungary. Foul winds and tempestuous seas buffeted their ship, drove them up the North Sea till finally they turned into the sheltered waters of Firth of Forth and dropped anchor in that little bay which ever since has born the name of St. Margaret's Hope. Close at hand lay the little town of Dunfermline, which was at the time the capital of King Malcolm's domains. The events of the next few years are full of violence and obscurity. Malcolm welcomed the strangers and apparently made common cause with Eadgar against the new regime in England, for the chroniclers relate stories of forays and sieges that reduced northern England to desolation.

Malcolm III, King of Scotland (Ceannmor, or Great Head, as his subjects called him) is described in the English chronicles as a savage and pitiless warrior. Native chroniclers give what is perhaps a more equitable judgment on his character: the Prophesy of St. Berchan acclaims him as "A King the best that Alban ever had"; St. Ailred of Rievaulx, a contemporary, declares "he was 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 . . . . . . During the first nine years of his reign, until the arrival of William the Norman, he maintained security of peace and fellowship with the English." He seems to have been a king eminently suited to the turbulent era in which his life was set. A brave warrior, a strong ruler, who extended and consolidated his kingdom and had its prosperity very much at heart. Though ruthless in war, he apparently had a magnanimous character and a natural gift for leadership, as is seen in the story related by Abbot Ailred: how Malcolm, learning that one of his nobles plotted his life, invited the man to a hunt, where he led him out of sight of everyone and confronted him with the treachery: "You desire my death: as a knight you must prefer manly combat to murder and treason; we are alone equally armed, you are at liberty to attack now." The man fell at his feet, promised loyalty and kept his promise.

Malcolm cannot have been the ruthless, ignorant barbarian of school history books; as an intelligent man he must have been considerably influenced during his fourteen years exile at the Confessor's Norman court by the new ideals of learning, chivalry and religion which were then sweeping the continent of Europe. Still, to the eyes of the Saxon exiles, accustomed to the more refined atmosphere of the English court where the saintly Confessor had just died, or the court of Hungary where the faith was fresh and untainted and the luxurious wares of Byzantium commonplace amenities, the little royal castle at Dunfermline must have appeared provincial and barbarian enough and Malcolm the king as uncouth as his strange-tongued warrior courtiers. With no small trepidation then they must have learned that Malcolm sought the hand of the princess Margaret in marriage. Margaret had by now grown to womanhood; she was of uncommon beauty, charm and intelligence; her early training at the court of St. Stephen, in close touch with the traditions of Byzantium, and later at the court of St. Eadward, in closer contact still with the new intellectual brilliance of Cluniac Normandy, had but served to enhance her natural qualities; she was wise, scholarly and a saint. At first Margaret refused; she pleaded her desire to enter the cloister. Malcolm urged that such a union of the Celtic and Saxon royal houses had already been arranged by her great-uncle the Confessor. Apparently a year or two passed; Margaret's inclination towards the peaceful happiness of the cloister was finally overcome by the insistence of the king and the acquiescence of her own family, who as exiles were very much in the power of their host. The marriage was agreed upon and, no matter how reluctantly Margaret may have viewed the union, it was to prove a singularly happy match, not only for Malcolm and his people, but for the whole future of Scotland.

In the year 1070 the two were married at Dunfermline by Fothad the Bishop of St. Andrews; Malcolm was probably about forty years of age and Margaret about twenty-three years. For another twenty-three years Margaret was to be the wise counsellor and helper of Malcolm.


The providence of God is strong
To rule the tempest and the tide;
It gave the king a royal bride
And thee a folk to dwell among.

The marriage day of Malcolm and Margaret at Dunfermline began a new era for the Scottish Kingdom; the piety and gentleness of the queen was a new force destined in time to influence profoundly the character of the king and his people. The principal source of our knowledge of Margaret's life and work is the contemporary biography written by her confessor Turgot, a monk of Durham, who later became Bishop of St. Andrews. This biography, written at the request of Margaret's daughter Matilda, introduces us to the noble and pious ancestors of Queen Margaret—her grandfather was Eadmund Ironside, her great-uncle St. Eadward the Confessor: there was also Richard the Fearless, Count of Normandy, founder of the great Abbey of Fecamp, and several other kings of England and Counts of Normandy; on the distaff side she was related to St. Stephen I of Hungary and the Teutonic Imperial House, whose greatest ornament was the emperor, St. Henry II. Margaret was a daughter altogether worthy of such forbears, strong in character, solid in piety and a profound scholar, the ideal person required to carry through the renaissance of culture and piety of which her adopted country stood so much in need. Some historians, prejudiced against the ideals to which Margaret devoted her life, have suggested that she was ambitious. Such a judgment has been decried by all serious historians; it is perfectly clear that her whole career and influence become quite unintelligible if her piety and sincerity are gainsaid. Her whole life and work are based ultimately on her all-consuming love of God and His Holy Catholic Church. Turgot makes it quite clear that she accepted her new position in the light of a divinely appointed vocation. "The prudent queen directed all such things as it was fitting for her to regulate: the laws of the realm were administered by her counsel; by her care the influence of religion was extended and the people rejoiced in the prosperity of their affairs."

It had been said that "a nation is what its women make its men"; certainly Scotland and its king became a new creation under the all-pervading wisdom and charity of Margaret. To the period of her ascendancy we ascribe the introduction into Scotland, from the continent, of the settled and orderly feudal system of society with its resultant chivalry towards women and the helpless victims of war, with its respect for the property of the church and the poor. At every stage in her career we see that it is her intense religious life which moulds her every action. In Dunfermline, the place where her nuptials had been celebrated, she caused to be erected a noble abbey church in honour of the Most Holy Trinity: elsewhere she rebuilt the decayed churches of the once glorious Celtic church; the desecrated church of Iona was rebuilt and Bishop Fothad's church at St. Andrews. These noble churches needed equally splendid furnishings and adornments so that the sacred liturgy might be performed in a worthy manner. We read of her presenting chalices and ornaments of fine workmanship to the restored churches. Turgot is particularly enthusiastic about the chalices and other vessels of pure gold given to the church of the Most Holy Trinity in Dunfermline, and he adds that of these he "can speak with greater certainty since, by the queen's orders, I myself, for a long time, had all of them under my charge." He speaks, too, of a beautiful crucifix presented to St. Andrews, but the outstanding gift was "a cross of priceless value bearing the figure of Our Saviour, which she had caused to be covered with the purest gold and silver studded with gems," which adorned the Rood Altar in Dunfermline. The court witnessed a revival of the artistry and craftsmanship in which the old Celtic monasteries had formerly been so proficient; the moribund native tradition of art was re-invigorated by the importation of new craftsmen and new ideas from the continent.

There was one branch of art which the queen always supervised personally, the embroidery of vestments and hangings for the solemn functions of the liturgy, Turgot tells us how "her chamber was so to speak a workshop of sacred art in which copes for the cantors, chasubles, stoles, altar- cloths, together with other priestly vestments and church ornaments of an admirable beauty were always to be seen either already made or in course of preparation." Turgot describes the queen's " "school of embroidery," where the noble-women of the court learned from the much-travelled family of Margaret the great traditions of church embroidery, which were at that time producing such marvellous results in the Norman courts of the south and the far-off Hungarian court of the east.3 The tradition she established remained in the Scottish court until the sixteenth century.4

The court became moreover a centre of revived scholarship; Margaret invited learned clerics from abroad to help in her work; she gathered books, especially books on the Sacred Scriptures, which she constantly studied. In the company of clerics and scholars she never tired of learned disputations. Turgot speaks of the penetration of her intellect and her power of clear exposition: he tells us that "it very often happened that these doctors went from her much wiser men than when they came." We are given a delightful picture of the warrior Malcolm, whose fourteen years at the Confessor's court had not induced him to learn the art of reading, though he himself could not read her books yet he loved them for her sake. "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 a special 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." The devoted biographer relates a marvel connected with one of these books—a copy of the Four Gospels—which was lost on a journey, having dropped unnoticed out of the satchel of a cleric charged with its care. After much searching, it was seen lying in a deep stream, the current moving the illuminated pages. In normal circumstances a manuscript book would have been ruined by such an immersion, but this particular book, except for slight marks on the two pages at the end, remained undamaged and the pious Turgot remarks, "Whatever others may think, I for my part believe that this wonder was worked by Our Lord out of His love for the venerable queen." This identical volume now reposes in the Bodlean Library at Oxford: to the client of St. Margaret it conjures up deep feelings of piety; it brings us very near to the centre of her devotional life; "she had always felt a particular attachment for this book, more so than for any of the others which she usually read." Moreover it recalls something of her achievement when we remember how the rough hands of Malcolm, guilty of so many acts of war, had fondled this very book and how often he raised it to his lips.5

Trade and commerce with foreign countries were greatly encouraged by the new queen; we read of foreign merchants bringing into the country precious wares hitherto unheard of in Scotland; we read of new kinds of cloth of various colours (possibly tartan), and of new and more elegant fashions in costume. In the royal castles at Dunfermline and on the frowning rock at Edinburgh this new elegance of life was most noticeable. The king was now constantly attended, as a monarch should be, by a company of gaily-clad nobles; his apartments were hung with splendid tapestries and his table gleamed with gold and silver dishes. The queen, as she took her place in the life of the court, arrayed herself in like splendour, "not because the honours of the world delighted her but because duty compelled her to discharge what the kingly dignity required. For even as she walked in state robed in royal splendour she, like another Esther, in her heart trod all those trappings under foot and bade herself remember that beneath the gems and gold lay only dust and ashes."

It was only to be expected that a woman of Margaret's outlook would sooner or later turn her attention to the affairs of the Scottish Church. This aspect of Margaret's work has received many and diverse interpretations; two points that are only too often overlooked need stressing in any discussion of it: first of all we know comparatively little about St. Margaret's work in this respect—we have only a few pages in Turgot's biography, which give scarcely any details—and secondly, that information, meagre though it be, is sufficient to show that Margaret was conducting just such a revival of church discipline and learning as was taking place almost everywhere in Europe at that time. Some signs of this religious restoration had no doubt appeared in Scotland before the advent of St. Margaret, but, such an impetus did she give to the movement, that it is only just that she should receive the full credit for its successful accomplishment.

The ancient Celtic church had, as we have seen, long passed the zenith of its scholarship and spirituality: with most of its great monasteries in ruin and cut off from the main body of Christendom by the Viking invasions, it had become illiterate and provincial; it held on to antiquated customs, which had long since been revised and corrected by the universal church; it had developed some rites which strangers considered unusual and barbarous, and, during the dreadful tenth century, it sank into that lethargy, degradation and secularisation which were almost universal in Europe at that time. Turgot tell us that the holy queen "observing that many practices existed among the Scottish nation which were contrary to the rule of the right faith and the holy customs of the universal church, she caused frequent councils to be held in order that, by some means or other, she might, through the mercy of Christ, bring back into the way of the truth those who had gone astray." He describes in particular one council which lasted for three days, during which the queen induced the assembled ecclesiastics to give up their peculiar local customs, which regulated the days of the lenten fast, Easter communion and the observance of Sunday rest, and to conform to the universal practice of Christendom. Other peculiarities are referred to, some unusual rites at Mass and the non-observance of marriage impediments of affinity: these customs were abandoned. Malcolm, who knew English as well as his native Gaelic, acted as interpreter for his Saxon queen in these discussions with the Celtic churchmen.

Seen against the contemporary European background, the nature of Margaret's work is quite evident; it is a work of restoration not the innovation of the Roman church in place of a national Celtic church as some non-Catholic historians have attempted to show.6 The source of Margaret's reform is the same Cluniac revival which led her contemporary, Hildebrand, to fight against the moral degeneracy of the church and to fight for its independence against the lay usurpers of ecclesiastical rights. The method of Margaret's reform follows closely the method used by the reforming popes, the holding of local councils to investigate and root out scandals and abuses in each district. Her choice of counsellors, too, showed whence her inspiration came; she corresponded with Lanfranc, the Italian scholar who became Archbishop of Canterbury and who was one of the foremost reformers of France and England. In an extant letter from Lanfranc to the queen mention is made of Goldwin and two other clerics, sent to the queen at her own request to help in the task of reformation. It has been conjectured also that she invoked the counsel of a greater member of that same reforming group, Pope Alexander II.7 Margaret's immediate achievement was hard-won and of necessity limited in range: for instance the queen did not attack the root cause of the whole evil state of the church, namely the usurpation of ecclesiastical positions by laymen. There is no mention of this evil in the account of her work given by Turgot. Perhaps she felt that the evil was too strongly entrenched to be overcome by a frontal attack: Malcolm in fact was a grandson of Crinan, a lay-abbot of Dunkeld, and as a matter of course had appointed his son, Aetheldred, to that same position. Like Archbishop Lanfranc in England, who had to tolerate many traditional abuses, Margaret probably felt that this evil could only be overcome gradually by the careful education of men to realise the obligations of the ecclesiastical state and the rights of the church. The queen, however, succeeded ultimately, for, in the reigns of her husband and her sons, the influence of Margaret produced step by step a church spiritual, scholarly and independent of the lay state. It is her especial glory that she achieved this almost entirely by her own initiative and endeavour, and secured greater success than the combined efforts of bishops and popes were, in many another place, able to attain.


Of virtue who could undertake
To tell thy sweet unending store,
And all thy love for Scotland's poor
And poverty for Jesu's sake?

One might well ask the reason why this foreign princess should succeed almost unaided in the work of reformation which elsewhere was taxing to the utmost the combined energies of powerful ecclesiastics. The answer lies in the simple fact that she was a saint. The church uses the epistle of the Mass for St. Margaret's feast-day a passage, from the Book of Proverbs, in which King Solomon describes the ideal woman—the devoted wife, the attentive mother, the diligent housewife, who is the crowning glory of her household and a continual source of happiness to her family. The woman who does not eat her bread in idleness but who attends diligently to all the details of her housework, who is devoted to her husband, who brings up her children in the fear of the Lord and withal does not forget to open her hand to the needy and stretch out her hands to the poor. Such a woman is an honour to her husband, a blessing to her children: her children shall rise up and call her blessed, and her husband he shall praise her. One would imagine that King Solomon was describing the actual life of Queen Margaret; every word of his describes perfectly the beautiful domestic life of the eleventh-century queen. The twenty-three years of her married life were spent mainly in the court at Dunfemline or Edinburgh; the years passed quietly enough, yet, after that short span of years had passed, an amazing change had come over the land. The church was restored to something of its original splendour, virtue was once again held in honour; the ordinary people of the nation could once more live in modest comfort, in security and peace. A great revolution had been accomplished, a remarkable revolution achieved not so much by power, wealth or diplomacy, as by the sincerity, the charity, the prayers and penances of a woman who was as near the ideal of Catholic womanhood as it is possible to be, a saint who first set in order her own house, her own family, so that it became a burning and a shining light which shone throughout the whole kingdom until every family throughout the length and breadth of the land reflected something of its virtue.

Turgot, her confessor and biographer, tells us of the saintly queen's daily routine of penance, prayer and the duties of her state all succinctly described by Shakespeare, though he wrongly ascribes the virtues to Malcolm's mother instead of to his wife:

"the queen that bore thee
Oftener upon her knees than on her feet
Died every day she lived."

Herein we see the price she paid for victory, a lifetime of unending austerity. Turgot tells us that "of all living persons I know or have known she was the most devoted to prayer and fasting, to works of mercy and almsgiving." In prayer she was completely wrapt in God: like the other saints of the time, her devotional life centred in the church's liturgy. A good part of the night was spent in recitation of the Divine Office: the morning found her at Mass, and on church festivals, the biographer notes "before the celebration of the High Mass she caused five or six Masses to be sung privately in her presence." Like most of the early saints of these isles she would retire at intervals to the depths of a cave where, without the distraction of the outside world, she could spend the hours of the night in undisturbed contemplation of divine things, and in long penitential prayer.8 But greatest miracle of all she taught her earthly-minded warrior husband not only to respect spiritual things but to seek after them. "From her he learned how to keep the vigils of the night in constant prayer; she instructed him by her exhortation and example how to pray to God with groanings from the heart and abundance of tears. I was astonished, I confess, at this great miracle of God's mercy when I perceived in the king such a steady earnestness in his devotion, and I wondered how it was that there could exist in the heart of a man living in the world such an entire sorrow for sin." She taught him not only how to fast and pray, but, what must have been a more difficult lesson, humble, self-effacing charity towards Christ in the person of the poor. The whole court and kingdom must have marvelled as they saw the proud warrior kneel down and wash the feet of the poor folks that Margaret attended every day: courtiers must have looked on with surprise as the king helped Margaret to serve at table the queen's hungry guests. And it could have been no easy task to keep pace with the queen's almsgiving and works of mercy. Turgot gives a formidable list of the poor who day by day received alms of food, money and clothing. Once the queen's generosity was noised abroad, beggars came, not only from Scotland but from foreign parts, to haunt the court; every evening six of these were received into the palace, where their feet were washed—a welcome charity in those days—by the royal couple, and then they were dismissed with gifts of food and clothing. We are told of nine little orphans, brought every morning to the queen, who supervised their clothing and feeding; that task accomplished, it was customary each morning to give alms to some three hundred poor people. Then, in addition to these casual recipients of her kindness, it was her custom as long as she lived to support two dozen old folks who were regarded as part of the queen's household and accompanied the court wherever it went. Little wonder that the queen's charity often exceeded her resources, but her liberality was so infectious that the courtiers strove with one another to offer their own belongings. Even Malcolm's purse was not safe from her pious depredations. "Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the king's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the king always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold on Maunday Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the king was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried and found guilty."

As a result of Malcolm's wars against Norman William the country was full of English serfs; theirs was a particularly cruel fate and Margaret strove gallantly to lighten the tragedy of their lives and, when possible, to ransom them and send them home. For the pilgrims, who even at that time flocked to venerate the relics of the Apostle at St. Andrews, she erected hostels on the north and south shores of the Firth of Forth, and between these hostels, at the place where the great railway bridge now spans the river, she instituted a free ferry service.9 She very literally strove to do good to all men, and in order that all her subjects, no matter how poor, might have easy access to her, she is traditionally believed to have made a habit of holding courts in the open fields. There still exists, on the North Queensferry Road near Dunfermline, an old stone in the form of a seat, called by the local people St. Margaret's Stone because it was one of the queen's seats of judgement.

In spite of occasional re-appearances of his natural violence, Malcolm submitted to the new order because " there was in him a sort of dread of offending one whose life was so venerable; for 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 pleased her he also loved for the love of her."

In the midst of her daily devotions, the relief of the afflicted and the business of state, Margaret did not overlook the most important of her duties, the education of her children. Perhaps fortunately for Scotland, the queen had no knowledge of modern educational theories. She lived in robust age which had not yet discovered child-psychology with its emphasis on self expression and its disapproval of corporal punishment. For Margaret " the word of the Lord endureth forever." and the inspired word "He that spareth the rod hateth his son " applied to the eight royal children just as to the meanest-born in the realm." She charged the governor who had care of the nursery to curb the children, to scold them and to whip them whenever they were naughty, as frolicsome children will often be. Thanks to their mother's religious care her children surpassed in good behaviour many who were their elders . . . She frequently called them to her, and carefully instructed them about Christ, as far as their age would permit, and she admonished them to love Him always." Her system of child-education would not perhaps meet with the approval of modern educational experts but it had the not-to-be-despised advantage of being eminently successful. As in the case of Solomon's perfect woman, " her children rose up and called her blessed." All eight children followed in the virtuous footsteps of their mother, and it is owing in no small measure to this somewhat stern religious training that Scotland was governed for the space of two hundred years by a succession of seven excellent kings; that is, by her three sons, Eadgar, Alexander and David, then by David's two grandsons, Malcolm IV and William, and William's son and grandson, Alexander II and Alexander III, during which time the tradition established by Queen Margaret was maintained and the nation enjoyed greater happiness than perhaps it ever enjoyed before or after. Contemporary chroniclers, foreign even more so than Scottish, are loud in the praises of these kings, especially David, than whom it would be difficult to find in the whole history of kingship another more deserving the title of " Saint." He, more than any of the others, continued his mother's work of building up a devout, scholarly and free church in his kingdom:

He illuminated his days
His lands with kirks and with abbeys;
Bishoprics he found but four or three
But or he died nine left he.
Abbeys he founded nine or ten
And set in them religious men:

but like his mother he first gave his entire being to God. His days were unsparingly devoted to the welfare of his kingdom and to works of mercy, his nights were passed largely in the prayer of God:

The day he was both king and knight
A monk devout he was by night.

Taken all in all, one must agree with the verdict of the historian Skene: " There is perhaps no more beautiful character recorded in history than that of Margaret. For purity of motives, for an earnest desire to benefit the people among whom her lot was cast, for a deep sense of religion and great personal piety, for the unselfish performance of whatever duty lay before her, and for entire self-abnegation, she is unsurpassed, and the chroniclers of the time all bear testimony to her exalted character." Like the Divine Master on Whom she modelled her life it could be said of her: pertransit benefaciendo—she walks through our Scottish story doing good. Like St. Paul's ideal Christian matron she had diligently followed every good work and her good works bore testimony to her.

Now she must prepare to die: even at that supreme moment, the Good Master asked further sacrifices from His faithful servant. After years of peace, through the treachery of William Rufus, war broke out between Scotland and England; her husband and two eldest boys had gone to the war. Margaret hereself was broken in health: for six months she lay in bed in the Castle of Edinburgh racked with pain, then with a presentiment of calamity, that to her attendants seemed miraculous, she spoke of great disaster to the realm of Scotland, and in truth on that day Scotland's wise and valient king was struck down by treachery at Alnwick, and there died also his eldest son Eadward, the heir to the throne. Three days later, it was the 16th. of November, 1093, the court was still without news of the King, the dying queen rallied, she arose and went to her oratory—the little chapel which still stands in the castle of Edinburgh—and there she heard Mass and received the Viaticum of the Lord's Body and Blood; then when she came back to her chamber the illness returned with redoubled intensity; the end was not far off. She directed the clergy to stand about her and recite the prayers for the dying. She asked that someone should bring her to the Black Rood,10 and when there was some delay in opening the chest in which it was kept the queen sighed: " Oh, unhappy that we are! Oh, guilty that we are! Shall we not be permitted once more to look upon the Holy Cross?" At last it was brought to her, she received it into her arms reverently, signed herself with it, embraced it, kissed it, and holding it as best she could before her eyes she repeated the penitential psalm of David, the Miserere. Just then there entered her son Eadgar, who had come hot haste with news from the field of battle: his mother in the midst of her agony recognised him and asked him news of Malcolm and Eadward: the poor lad hesitated. She exclaimed: " I know it, my boy, I know it. By this Holy Cross, by the bond of our blood, I adjure you to tell me the truth." Broken-heartedly he told her. This was the last sacrifice the Good Master demanded; she made it willingly, she had never refused Him anything in her life nor would she now. " All praise be to Thee, Almighty God, Who hast been pleased that I should endure such deep sorrow at my departing, and I trust that by means of this suffering it is Thy pleasure that I should be cleansed from some of the stains of my sins." Death was now close at hand; she repeated the prayer she had been wont to use before receiving the Lord's Body in the Holy Mass: " Lord Jesus Christ, Who according to the will of the Father, through the co-operation of the Holy Ghost, hast by Thy death given life to the world, deliver me . . . . " and very quietly her soul departed and her face, which up to then had been pale and haggard with pain, became " suffused with fair and warm hues " and calm and beautiful so that all wondered.


Beseech the King of endless days
To bless the land in breadth and length,
To clothe its sons with godly strength
And valiant women with their praise.

On the sixteenth of November, 1093, as we have seen, Queen Margaret died. In the space of three short November days Scotland had lost a vigorous and capable king and the queen, his wise counsellor. For a brief span the old turbulence of dynastic war reappeared. The mourning friends of the dead queen had to escape under cover of " a myst " down the western side of the steep rock on which Edinburgh Castle is built: across the Firth of Forth and by the road, which was to become the most frequented pilgrim route in Scotland, they carried the dead queen for burial in her own abbey church of Dunfermline: in that church she was laid to rest before the altar of the Holy Rood. Scotland had lost a great and wise queen but had gained a protectress and patroness in heaven. From the day of her death there began a popular cultus of this noble hearted woman: the poor and infirm, whom she had defended and succoured in life, acclaimed her boundless charity; clerics, nobles and commoners, all proclaimed her sanctity and, because of her burial in that place, Dunfermline took the place of Iona as the sacred house of rest for the Kings of Scotland. Pilgrimages began which still continue to this day. As in life, so in death her people great and small crowded about her seeking her protection, sympathy and wise guidance, nor did she fail them from her place of glory.

The popular conviction of Margaret's sanctity increased with the passing of years until, a century and a half after her death, the kingdom, led by King Alexander II and the bishops, petitioned Pope Innocent IV to canonize the good Queen. The heroic sanctity of her life and miracles performed at her tomb were duly examined and, by a bull dated from Lyons on September 16th, 1249, the Pope formally canonised St. Margaret11. The abbot and monks of Dunfermline had prepared for this great event by extending the monastic church: a new choir, sanctuary and Lady Chapel had been built and, on the 19th of June, 1250, an immense concourse led by the prelates and nobles of the kingdom met at Dunfermline to exhume the relics of St. Margaret and transfer them to the magnificent new shrine erected in the Lady Chapel. The fifteenth-century monk of Dunfermline, who wrote the chronicle known as the Book of Pluscarden, gives an account of the translation of St. Margaret's relics to the new shrine. As the officiating prelates opened the tomb the church was filled with the fragrant odour of flowers: they reverently raised the precious remains from the stone coffin in which they had originally been laid and placed them in a shrine of precious metals adorned with gems. As the solemn procession, carrying the reliquary, advanced to the new shrine, to the accompaniment of hymns and joyful organ music12 there came an unexpected interruption; as they passed the tomb of Malcolm Ceannmor, the bearers of the reliquary found themselves powerless to move; a sudden popular inspiration caused them to take up also the body of Malcolm and the procession moved forward with ease: thus Malcolm was buried near his queen and shared to some extent her glory. Throughout Scotland the 19th. of June was celebrated as the Feast of the Translation of St. Margaret and, with her principal feast on November 16th, it was one of the greater feasts of the Scottish church.

The new shrine of St. Margaret followed the usual pattern of mediaeval shrines: it was a detached structure which stood in the centre of the Lady Chapel. On the base of Purbeck marble ( which still exists outside the east end of the modern Abbey Church ) there arose a marble structure resting on eight slender columns and, on this marble structure there stood the reliquary proper, a wooden coffer plated with gold and silver adorned with precious stones, which ( except on great feast days ) would be covered with an embroidered veil. All around in the chapel would cluster the ex-voto offerings and lamps with which grateful clients expressed their love and gratitude.13 Day after day during Scotland's golden centuries crowds of devout pilgrims prayed at Margaret's tomb and assisted at the daily liturgy of the great church where rested the remains of Scotland's kings and queens. It was in very truth, as king King James II declares in his charter of the year 1450, a place which should be held by all men in special veneration since " there rests therein, in holy peace, not only the sacrosanct relics of our renowned and most glorious progenitor the blessed Queen Margaret but where also so many of the bodies of our ancestors, kings of Scotland, lie most honourably entombed."

One would have expected such a place to escape destruction, even at the hands of the soi-distant reformers, but the Scots Calvinist revolutionaries, like their French counterparts, in their hatred of the ancient faith and traditional loyalties, must vent their fury on the shrines of saints and tombs of kings alike. "Upon the 28th day of March (1560) the wholl lordis and barnis that were on thys syd of Forth passed to Stirling and be the way kest doun the Abbey of Dunfermling." The rabble seemed to have vented their rage mainly on the monastic buildings and the choir and sanctuary of the church: the altars and royal tombs were desecrated and the Lady Chapel and St. Margaret's shrine despoiled. The monks of Dunfermline however had foreseen the attack and had hidden away the reliquary of St. Margaret and St. David, and the sepulchres of Bruce and Randolph."

About this time the head of St. Margaret was enclosed in a separate reliquary and we find it being brought for a short time to Edinburgh Castle, at the request of Queen Mary, who was there awaiting the birth of her child, the future James VI. The monks of Dunfermline seem latterly to have withdrawn from the abbey, the choir of which had become ruinous since the violence of 1560, and the nave had gradually been appropriated to the preaching of the Knoxian Evangel. They retired to a house belonging to the Laird of Dury being " a monck of Dunfermling." The relics of St. Margaret remained at Craigluscar some seventeen years until, in 1597, the precious relic of St. Margaret's head was entrusted to John Robie, a young lad on his way to the college at Douay. Thenceforward, for some two hundred years, the relic was venerated in the Scots College at Douay: indulgences were granted by various popes to those who devoutly visited the College Church on the feast of St. Margaret. According to Father Augustine Hay, a Canon Regular of St. Geneviève, Paris, who describes the reliquary in 1696, the relics of St. Margaret " are kept in the Scots College of Douay in a Bust of Silver. Her skull is enclosed in the head of the Bust whereupon there is a crown of Silver gilt, enriched with severall pearls and Precious Stones. In the Pedestall, which is of Ebony indented with silver, her hair is kept and exposed to the view of everyone through a Glass of Crystall. The Bust is reputed the third Statue in Doway for its valour (value). There are likewise severall Stone, Red and Green on her Breast, Shoulders, and elsewhere. I cannot tell if they be upright, their bigness makes me fancy that they may be counterfitted." On the eve of the French Revolution the relic was seen by Father James Carruthers who, in his History of Scotland says: "It was still in the Scots College at Douay when I left it in the year 1785"; at that time the skull was complete and the queen's auburn hair was still on it. It is said the relic was hidden away during the upheaval of the French Revolution, but since that time it has disappeared from human ken. The remainder of St. Margaret's relics, together with those of her consort Malcolm Ceannmor, were apparently carried to Flanders and ultimately found their way into the possession of that inveterate relic collector Phillip II of Spain, who placed them in the Royal Monastery of the Escorial in two caskets entitled: St. Margaret, Queen and St. Malcolm King. It was from this source that Bishop Gillis of the Eastern District of Scotland obtained, in 1863, the relic of St. Margaret, which is now treasured in St. Margaret's Convent, Edinburgh.

It is in the Scots College at Rome however that we find the veneration of St. Margaret not only preserved but increased and propagated during the post-reformation period. When the College Church was built, in 1646, one of the three altars was dedicated to St. Margaret and was adorned with a magnificent altarpiece, by an unknown Polish artist, showing St. Margaret at prayer. Here the future priests of Scotland imbibed a knowledge and love of the saintly queen: especially was this the case in the year 1673 when the Rector of the College, Father William Leslie, the agent of the Scots Mission, petitioned Pope Clement X, in the name of the Catholic clergy and laity of Scotland, that St. Margaret should be named patroness of Scotland and that her feastday should be celebrated throughout the universal church. The request was granted by Pope Clement X and the feastday of St. Margaret in the general calendar of the Latin Rite was allocated to the 10th of June. We have an account of one celebration of the feast of St. Margaret in the Scots College, Rome, on June 10th, 1717. King James III—the Old Pretender—had just returned from the unsuccessful 1715 Rising; he visited the Scots College on the Feast of St. Margaret ( which was also his own birthday), and assisted at the Mass said by Pope Clement XI in the College Church.14

With the return of normal Catholic life to Scotland St. Margaret has returned to her own. Margaret still vies with Mary as the popular name for girls; more than twenty of the modern churches are dedicated to her; her feastday which is once again celebrated in Scotland on the original date, November 16th, is one of the principal feasts of the year; and once again devout pilgrims come in great numbers to pray in the place hallowed by her life and good works and where her memory was revered by centuries of faithful devotion.

It is indeed a heartening sign that devotion to St. Margaret should thus be regaining its place in the lives of Scots Catholics, for St. Margaret is the patroness we have most need of in these days: she is surely the special patroness of the Catholic housewife. The feature of our modern life which chiefly perturbs and dismays the thoughtful man is the fact that, on all sides, he finds evidence of an ever increasing decay of family life. The sacred character and the true purpose of Christian wedlock is gradually becoming forgotten and everywhere we see the modern state encroaching on the traditional rights and responsibilities of the family. Catholic women would do well indeed to ponder over the life and example of this great patroness of Catholic family life: if they would form their lives according to that model, they too like her would achieve a revolution which, though not perhaps spectacular, would nevertheless be very real: their lives would do much to restore our country and its ancient faith, and would go far to bring back sanity to a world which seems to be losing fast its sense of purpose.

In the Book of Pluscarden there is related a beautiful legend, which illustrates St. Margaret's fond care of her people: it tells how Sir John Wemyss, a cripple knight, saw in a vision the great portal of Dunfermline Kirk swing open and St. Margaret mounted on a charger issue forth, accompanied by four splendidly caparisoned and armed warriors of Noble aspect, who all rode away into the west. It was the third of October, 1263, the day of the battle of Largs when Haco, King of Norway, was routed by a small Scottish force under Alexander II, thus saving Scotland from the Viking overlord. The pious knight, enlightened by St. Margaret recognised in the heroic warriors her consort Malcolm and her three royal sons setting out to help the Scots in their hour of peril. The knight proved the truth of his vision by going to the shrine in the abbey church where he was cured of his infirmity. May St. Margaret yet ride forth to fight the battles of her people who have recourse to her.


1. The verses placed at the beginning of each of the four sections of this essay are taken from Canon John Gray's fine hymn in honour of St. Margaret

2. It is quite possible that Margaret made the acquaintance of her future husband at the court of the Confessor. Malcolm III remained in exile at the Confessor's court until 1057, when he returned to Scotland, defeated Macbeth and regained the Scottish throne. Some chroniclers even state that the Confessor arranged their future marriage.

3. At the court of Hungary, where Byzantine influences were particularly strong, the queen of St. Stephen I, Gisela, who was also grand-aunt of Margaret, earned fame as an embroiderer. The magnificent coronation robe of Hungary dates from this period and was the work of Queen Gisela. At a somewhat later date some ladies of Normandy executed the famous Bayeux Tapestry.

4. Some of the sixteenth-century Mass Vestments preserved in St. Mary's College, Blairs, are believed to be the work of Mary Queen of Scots.

5. See illustration opposite Page 24.

6. The extant documents, especially Turgot's biography, show that Margaret recognised the church in Scotland as part of the Church Catholic; she honoured its bishops and monks and, with Malcolm, she restored and endowed its religious houses. Even in her new foundation at Dunfermline she apparently entrusted the abbey to Columban monks and made no effort to introduce any new religious order (not even the Cluniac Benedictines). In Turgot's account of the three day council, the queen, introducing the enquiry, sets it down as a common basis of discussion " that all who serve God in one faith along with the Catholic Church ought not to vary from that church by new or far-fetched usages, " therefore the church in Scotland, as part of the universal church, should not indulge in customs peculiar to itself. Obviously the existence of a primitive National Celtic Church, independent of Rome, and Presbyterian in tendency, which is described by some modern historians, was not known to St. Margaret or Turgot.

7. It has been suggested that Margaret gave to her fifth son the name Alexander as a tribute of respect to Pope Alexander II. It was a new name in Scotland and it was destined to become a favourite.

8. St. Margaret's Cave, which lies some three hundred yards to the north-east of Ceannmor's Tower, retained, up to about the year 1700, traces of an altar and a crucifix carved in the rock. There are over a dozen such saints' caves in Scotland; the earliest being the cave of St. Ninian at Whithorn. The coast of Fife is especially rich in such relics of the past. There is St. Serf's cave at Dysart, St. Monan's cave at St. Monance, St. Constantine's at Fifeness, St. Fillian's—a fine specimen—at Pittenweem, and, in the cliffs at St. Andrews, the cave—" Where good St. Rule his holy lay, From midnight to the dawn of day, Sung to the billows' sound."

9. Now North and South Queensferry, the latter is known in mediaeval documents as " Passagium Sanctae Margaritae Reginae "—The Ferry of St. Margaret the Queen.

10. The Black Rood of Scotland was a richly ornamented reliquary cross of pure gold, about an ell long, containing a fragment of the True Cross. Possibly Margaret brought it with her from Hungary or England. After her death it was jealously guarded as one of the crown treasures. It is recorded that after David I venerated it on his death- bed at Carlisle in 1153 : later, in 1291, it was carried off, along with the regalia, coronation stone and other national treasures, to England by Edward I. It was restored to Scotland in 1328. We read of it being carried into battle by the Scots, and, when King David II was defeated in 1346 at the battle of Neville's Cross, the Black Rood was among the booty captured by the English. Thereafter it was preserved in the cathedral of Durham until 1540, when that great church was despoiled by the minions of Henry VIII, and the Black Rood of Scotland then disappears from history.

11. With the exception of St. William of Perth, canonised about 1254 by the same Pope Innocent IV, no Scottish saint was ever formally canonised by the Pope, but they attained to that honour by the primitive process of a popular cultus, sanctioned by the local bishop or abbot.

12. Incidentally this is the earliest mention of the organ in Scotland.

13. In the annals of Dunfermline are many references to offerings made at St. Margaret's Shrine. For example, on the 16th. February, 1303, we find Edward of England presenting a jewel at St. Margaret's shrine, and, on the following 8th. of December—the feast of Our Lady's Conception—his queen also made a gift. In 1315 King Robert the Bruce gave gifts to the Abbey to maintain a wax candle to burn before the shrine "constantly and forever."

14. It is of interest that Pope Pius IX had a great devotion to St. Margaret of Scotland, and it was to her inspiration that he attributed the design of restoring the Scottish Hierarchy, which he did so much to accomplish. The origin of this devotion to St. Margaret is no doubt to be found in the fact that, as a young cleric in minor orders, Pope Pius IX was a member of a confraternity which held its meetings in the Scots College Church ( 1808—47 ) . There the young cleric could not but be impressed by the beautiful and striking picture of St. Margaret.