Born in Exile, St. Margaret of Scotland Arrived in Her Future Realm with a Vibrant Faith
Her chapel still stands on Edinburgh’s fearsome castle heights, the oldest building in that ancient city. But in spite of her name, St. Margaret Queen of Scotland was not a Scot.
Catholic saints are often not named for their native land, but instead for the lands where they traveled and settled, were exiled to, or where they preached or planted the seeds of the Faith. One such stellar paragon was St. Margaret—Queen of Scotland and wife of King Malcolm.
A Princess Born in Exile
Margaret was born in exile in Hungary in 1045, the daughter of Edward d’Outremer (“The Exile”), who was a kinsman of King St. Edward the Confessor, the rightful heir to the Saxon throne of England. Her mother was Agatha, a German princess and the kinswoman of Gisela, wife of King St. Stephen of Hungary, and granddaughter of King Edmund Ironside. Thus she was descended from royal blood on her father’s side and imperial blood on her mother’s side. Margaret was the sister of Edgar the Aetheling and of Christina, both born in Hungary.
Growing up at the Hungarian court during the reign of the pious Andrew I of Hungary (also known as Andrew the Catholic) no doubt greatly influenced Margaret in becoming a devout Catholic herself. The Saxon royal family of England was in exile following Canute the Great’s conquest of England. She and her family went back to England in 1057, for her father was considered a successor to her great-uncle King St. Edward the Confessor. When Edward died in the fateful year of 1066, her own father died almost immediately upon landfall—to this day, no one knows if it was murder.
Her brother Edgar was then considered to be the heir to the English throne, but Harold Godwinson was selected as king instead, for Edgar may have been considered too young. When Harold was defeated and killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by William the Conqueror, Edgar was proclaimed King of England. However, the Witenagemot (an advisory assembly of the ecclesiastic and secular ruling class) soon turned the young Edgar over to the Conqueror, who brought him prisoner to Normandy.
Fleeing from William the Conqueror
William finally allowed Edgar to return to England two years later; once he was safely with them, the royal family fled at once. Margaret, Edgar, Christina and their mother Agatha all fled to Northumbria, by the Scottish border. After some time had passed Agatha was determined to go back to England in hopes that Edgar would become its rightful ruler, but Our Lord had other plans. A storm blew the ship they were sailing on northward until they landed in Scotland in a place that was later given the name of ‘St. Margaret’s Hope’ near the village of North Queensferry.
Once there, they looked to the king of Scotland, Malcolm III, for protection. Malcolm had been only a boy when Macbeth (of Shakespeare fame) killed his own father, Duncan. Macbeth was consequently driven out; Malcolm had ascended to the throne of Scotland in A.D. 1054.
Civilizing King Malcolm
Walking to Dumferline, the family were met on the way by King Malcolm, who was smitten with young Margaret. They were married in the Castle of Dumferline in 1070; Margaret was 24 years of age.
From the start of their reign, Margaret immediately set to work to civilize the still-semi-barbarous inhabitants of her realm. She oversaw the building of churches and monasteries, and sewed liturgical vestments. One of the churches she founded was the Abbey of the Holy Trinity at Dumferline, which contained a relic of the True Cross. She also helped restore the monastery at Iona, and established ferries to bring pilgrims to St. Andrew’s in Fife.
Margaret was also instrumental in reforming some of the practices of the Faith in Scotland, which included the regulation of the Lenten fast, the observation of Easter communion, and the removal of abuses in marriage, including marrying within certain degrees of kinship. Simony and usury also were prohibited and Mass attendance on Sundays and Holy Days was mandatory. She helped raise good priests and educators for her nation and she was helped in many of her reforms due to the guidance and influence of Lanfranc, the future Archbishop of Canterbury.
Margaret also aided in refining the manners of her husband, King Malcolm: every night he would rise with her to pray, including during the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. On going to church for Matins, he even kissed the holy books she used and had them adorned with gold and silver. (Malcolm himself did not know how to read). Her influence over her husband helped to sanctify him and he is one of Scottish history’s most devout, holy kings.
Her second biographer, Turgot, bishop of St. Andrews, credited her with civilizing Malcolm by reading stories from the Bible to him, proving that St. Jerome’s adage, “Love the Bible and wisdom will love you,” is true. One day her book of the Gospels was dropped into a river and according to tradition, was miraculously restored. It is now in the Bodleian library at Oxford.
The Story of Malcolm & Margaret’s Children
Malcolm frequently sought her counsel, and they raised eight children, six boys and two girls along with Malcolm’s boys from his first marriage. (He was a widower.) The royal couple ensured that their children received a thorough Catholic education, with Margaret herself supervising them. Their children were as follows:
- Edward, killed 1093.
- Edmund of Scotland (c.1070 – after 1097)
- Ethelred, abbot of Dunkeld
- Edgar of Scotland (c.1074 – 11 January 1107), king of Scotland from 1097 – 1107
- Alexander I of Scotland (c.1078 – 23 April 1124), king of Scotland from 1107 – 1124
- Edith of Scotland (c. 1080 – 1 May 1118), also called Matilda, married King Henry I of England
- Mary of Scotland (1082–1116), married Eustace III of Boulogne
- David I of Scotland (c.1083 – 24 May 1153), king of Scotland from 1124 – 1153
Two— David I and Matilda, aka Maud—are also saints. The zeal these children brought to the Faith as adults was proof they could not have had a better instructor than their mother. Indeed, many of the customs Margaret learned while in exile in Hungary and at the court of King Edward the Confessor prepared her not only for her role as a wife and mother, but also for her role queen of a nation.
Margaret’s Christian Devotion to the Poor
Margaret was known for her devotion to the poor. She gave them a sizeable amount of alms, and in imitation of her Divine Master washed the feet of the destitute. Each day she and her husband, the king, would feed many of the needy in the royal hall and care for orphans, feeding them with their own hands. Beggars never were turned away, and they often fed as many as three hundred of them, especially during Advent and Lent. She also had hostels built for travelers and ransomed many captives of her native England.
Her life of piety and extreme austerity took its toll on Margaret’s health. Besides rising at midnight for Mass and getting very little sleep, Margaret also ate little herself, devoting many hours to prayer, raising children, feeding the poor, and all in all transforming her nation into an exemplary model of Christendom.
Their Tragic Deaths
In the year of Our Lord 1093 Margaret was on her deathbed. Besides frequently going into battle with William the Conqueror, Malcolm also went to battle against his son William Rufus. In that same year Rufus made a surprise attack on Alnwick castle, wiping out its garrison. King Malcolm and his son Edward were slain by treachery.
Arriving home, their son Edgar was asked by his mother how his father and brother had fared in battle. He told her they were well, concerned how she would react if her told her the truth. However, she already knew the truth, replying, “I know how it is!”
Thanking God for sending her this last suffering as atonement for her sins, not long afterward Margaret proclaimed, “O Lord Jesus Christ, Who by Thy Death hast given life to the world, deliver me from all evil!” With these words, Margaret surrendered her soul to God at the age of 47. The date was 16 November 1093. She died just three days after Malcolm and her son Edward, having reigned twenty-three years as queen of Scotland.
Saint Margaret’s Legacy: The Church in Scotland
According to her confessor and first biographer Theodoric, Margaret was aptly named; her name derives from the Latin “margarita” and the Greek “Margarites,” both of which mean “pearl.” He considered her soul as unto a precious pearl. Living a life of luxury at three courts never dimmed her purpose in life: loving and serving the Lord and His Church and using her power and influence to thoroughly Christianize and further civilize that country.
Some of Margaret’s relics were lost during the breaking away by Scotland from Rome in the 16th century. Pope Innocent IV canonized Margaret 1250, and more than 400 years later Pope Clement X proclaimed her Patroness of Scotland, in 1673.
Later, during the French Revolution, her relics were sent to France after Scotland became mostly Presbyterian. Philip II of Spain also acquired some of her relics, but when Bishop Gillies of Edinburgh petitioned Pope Pius IX for their return to Scotland, they could not be found.
St. Margaret’s Feast Day is on 10 June on the traditional calendar and on 16 November on the new calendar.
(Editor’s Note: The author would like to dedicate this piece to the memory of his late grandmother, also named Margaret and of Scottish descent. He recalls with both fondness and sadness how he helped her and his grandfather move from their home on 16 November 1985, five months before her death and exactly 892 years after St. Margaret’s death. )