The Fugitive Princess Bride Who Christianized the Scots
Today is the feast day of Saint Margaret. Ora pro nobis.
By Ed Masters
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 grand-daughter 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 — Davis 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.
WHERE HER BODY USED TO BE BURIED: 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. )
St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Margaret, Queen of Scotland, was descended by her father's side from royal, by her mother's side from imperial blood. She was born in Hungary at the time of the holy king St. Stephen, at whose court her father Edward and her mother Agatha resided. Her after life proved how piously she had been educated. Edward was the rightful heir to the English crown, but the power of his enemies had deprived him of it. After his death, Agatha resolved to go to England with Prince Edgar and the two Princesses Margaret and Christine, as she had been made to hope that Edgar would be placed upon the throne. A heavy storm arose when they were at sea and drove their ship to Scotland. The reigning king Malcolm received and entertained them most kindly, and making the acquaintance of the beautiful and virtuous princess Margaret, he asked her hand in marriage. Agatha gladly consented, and Margaret was obedient to her mother's wishes. The wedding was celebrated; and Margaret, in the 24th year of her age, was crowned Queen of Scotland.
She reigned for 30 years, and became famed for her wisdom and piety. On the spot where she had been crowned, she had a magnificent church built in honor of the Holy Trinity, in order that her own and her husband's souls might not be lost, and in case she should have male heirs, she might have grace to educate them in such a manner that they would not sacrifice eternal for temporal goods. She also built or restored several other churches and monasteries, and provided them with all things necessary, She desired to have every article used in church most splendid, and was therefore constantly occupied with her maids of honor in working for the churches. Her conduct towards the king, her husband, was exemplary, and by it she caused him to lead a Christian life. She changed everything at the court in such a way, that her husband was royally served and was honored by his subjects with increased respect. She exhorted him particularly to be impartial in the administration of justice; to be kind and liberal to the poor; but above all, to be zealous for the true faith, and to uproot many abuses which had crept into his kingdom. Following her counsel, the king assembled the bishops and represented to them those abuses which he wished them to abolish; which was accordingly done. The Queen herself was a bright light of Christian virtues to all.
In the midst of regal splendor, she led a very austere life, and was so assiduous in her prayers, that she gave to them even a part of the night. The reading of devout books was her greatest delight, and she led others to it also. To the word of God she listened with avidity and joy. She observed the prescribed fasts, and besides kept a strict abstinence of forty days before Christmas, even when she was sick. She evinced a more than motherly heart towards the poor and needy. Incredible is the amount of alms which she gave with her own hands to the poor, for whose benefit she founded many charitable institutions. She valued neither her own clothing nor her magnificent jewels where the poor were concerned. Almost daily did she wash the feet of some and provide them with money. Nine little orphans were at her court, to whom she often gave food with her own lands. Three hundred poor were daily fed in the royal hall, where she and the king frequently served them at table, and at times kissed their feet. The Almighty, who seldom fails to reward such deeds of kindness, even, in this life, blessed the pious queen with many children, whom she most carefully educated. She was not content with merely giving them to the care of such as were famed for piety and learning, but she also taught them herself as well in reading and writing as in virtue and the fear if God. She reproved them for the smallest faults, and never allowed one to pass unpunished. One of the best admonitions which she gave them was as follows: “My children, love and fear God; for they who fear God, have not to fear death; and they who love God with their whole heart, will not only be happy for the short space of time we live on this earth, but will be eternally blessed in the life to come.” She also taught them to behave most respectfully and reverentially in Church and was in this, as in all other things, a bright example to them. She would not suffer one to address a single unnecessary word to another in church: ” For,” said she, “the church is a place to pray and weep over our sins.”
After the pious queen had for many years taken the utmost care of the education of her children, and great solicitude for the welfare of the land, God revealed to her the day of her death. For nearly half a year she suffered from a very painful sickness, which she bore with perfect submission to the divine will, manifesting an invincible patience. Having cleansed her conscience by a general confession, she told her confessor that she would not live much longer, but that he would survive her some years. She then requested him, first, that he would remember her in saying Mass as long as he lived; and secondly, that he would take all possible pains in the further instruction of her children. Four days before her death, the king was murdered, at the siege of the castle of Allwick. One of the royal Princes arrived to inform his mother of the sad news. She asked him, before he had time to speak, how her husband was, but he, seeing how ill she was, would have concealed the fact from her, fearing rightly that agitation and grief would shorten her days. She, however, said: “My son, I know the worst, but request you, by the love you owe me as your mother, to acquaint me with the whole occurrence.”
These words obliged the prince to speak. Having given her an account of the melancholy event, the Christian heroine raised her heart and eyes to heaven, and exclaimed: “I praise Thee and give thanks to Thee, O great God, that it has pleased Thee to send me this great cross before my end, in order that by patiently bearing it, I may pay the debt I still owe Thee on account of my sins.” Soon after, she repeated the most fervent exercises of virtue, and said at last: “Jesus Christ! Thou who hast given life to the world by Thy death, release me from the bonds of the flesh and take my soul into everlasting joy.” Having pronounced these words, she ended her holy life. Her face, which from austere fasting and long sickness, was emaciated and pale, shone, soon after her death, with a wonderful beauty. The many and great miracles which God wrought in favor of those who invoked the holy queen, prove how powerful, is her intercession at the throne of the Almighty.
What is related above contains something instructive for men of almost all classes and conditions. Persons of high rank may learn how to live piously in their station, and particularly how they may occupy their time and conduct themselves toward the poor. Married people may learn from it to incite each other to virtue, restrain each other from evil and live in constant love and harmony. It may further instruct parents how to educate their children, and what principles they ought to impress deeply into their hearts. All may learn from this holy queen reverence in Church, zeal in listening to the word of God, pleasure in reading devout books; heroic patience, complete resignation to the divine will; strict observance of the ordained fasts, and other similar virtues. Of all this I will take into consideration only two points.
Margaret, a queen, herself taught her children to read and write, instructed them in religion and Christian conduct, punished their faults, and instilled into their hearts most wholesome principles in regard to the fear and love of God, reverence in Church and similar virtues. All these are marks of a Christian solicitude for the welfare and salvation of her children. How will those parents, in whom not one of these signs is found, justify themselves before God? Many neither instruct their children in religion nor have them instructed by others, but are much more anxious that they shall learn dancing, music, elegance of dress and manners, than their Catechism or the doctrines of their religion. They lead them rather to the theatre, or into society, than to Church or Holy Mass, to a sermon or to religious instruction. They give them a novel to read, rather than a devout book. Others again are too indulgent to their children, do not punish their faults, nor allow others to correct them. And why this? They say that they love their children too much, and that the little ones do not understand why they are punished.
But how blind, how silly must they be to speak thus. Does a parent's love consist in not punishing a child deservedly or in indulging it in everything? The Holy Ghost teaches the contrary when he says: “He that spareth the rod hateth his Son: but he that loves him correcteth him betimes.” (Prov. xiii). Who is right, such parents or the Holy Ghost? “The children do not understand why they are punished,” they say. I say, that through punishment they acquire the knowledge of right and wrong, learn what they are permitted to do and what not. If they are not punished, they become accustomed to do evil and continue in it without hesitation. Hence the Holy Ghost admonishes: “Withhold not correction from a child: for, if thou strike him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod and deliver his soul from hell” (Prov xxiii.). Heed the last words and see the benefit which is derived from just punishment, while the omission of it often leads children to hell. Which way your duty lies is therefore easy to see. You will spare the rod, because it hurts the child; but have you considered that the child will one day burn in hell in consequence? I shall give, to conclude this lesson, a few verses of the book of Ecclesiasticus or Sirach, which I desire all parents to read very carefully.
“He that loveth his son, frequently chastiseth him, that he may rejoice in his latter end and not grope after the doors of his neighbor. He that instructed his son, shall be praised in him, and shall glory in him, in the midst of them of his household. He that teacheth his son, maketh his enemy jealous and in the midst of his friends he shall glory in him . . . A horse not broken becometh stubborn, and a child left to himself will become headstrong. Give thy son his way and he shall make thee afraid; play with him, and he shall make thee sorrowful. Laugh not with him, lest thou have sorrow, and at last thy teeth be set on edge. Give him not liberty in his youth, and wink not at his devices. Bow down his neck while he is young, and beat his sides while he is a child, lest he grow stubborn and regard thee not and so be a sorrow of heart to thee. Instruct thy son and labor about him, lest his lewd behaviour be an offence to thee.” These are the lessons of the Holy Ghost; from which it is easily to be perceived how children ought to be instructed and corrected, and how unwisely and sinfully parents act who do not punish them.
The salvation of her own, her husband's and her children's souls was the heartfelt desire of this holy queen: for which purpose she built a magnificent church. Although you have built no churches, you go often to church to pray: you offer divers devotions, have masses said, confess and go to holy Communion and ask the Saints to intercede for you. But why do you do all this? What is your intention? Ah! generally only temporal things. You desire to be released from some cross; you ask for temporal benefits for yourself or yours. Hence spring all your thoughts, all your devotions.
Why do you not turn them before all things upon the salvation of your soul, or upon receiving spiritual graces or being relieved from spiritual evils? Why not pray that you may shun sin, do good, and be aided to fight valiantly against temptation? Why not that you may gain salvation, and not be eternally condemned? Consider these points more frequently, as they are of greater importance than all else that you could seek or ask. David prayed thus in his Psalms: for, he often begs God to forgive his sins, to aid him in temptation, to give him grace not to be eternally cast into hell, but to go into life everlasting. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy; and according to the multitude of thy tender mercies, blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from mine iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Cast me not away from thy face. Punish me not in thy wrath. O Lord, hasten to help me.” These are words of the Holy Psalmist, which all regard the salvation of the soul. He confessed it to himself, saying: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, this will I seek after, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Psalm xxvi.). It was principally salvation for which he prayed; all his aspirations were directed towards it. Take my advice and follow the Psalmist.
Prayer from the Liturgical Year
by Fr. Prosper Gueranger, 1889
We hail thee, O Queen, truly worthy of the praises lavished upon thee by posterity, among the most illustrious of sovereigns! Power, in thy hands, became an instrument of rescue for an entire population. Thine earthly passage marks the meridian of true light, for Scotland. Yesterday, holy Church commemorated in her Martyrology, him who was thy precursor in this far-off land, Columkille, who leaving Ireland, in the sixth century, had borne the faith thither. But Christianity crippled in its soarings, by divers combined circumstances, could produce scarcely any of its civilising effects on the then inhabitants of the land. Only a Mother could perfect the supernatural education of the nation. The Holy Ghost who had chosen thee, O Margaret, for the task, prepared thy maternity in the midst of tribulation and anxiety: thus had he acted in the case of Clotilde; thus does he ever act in the case of mothers. How mysterious and hidden did not the ways of Eternal Wisdom seem, as realised in thy person! Thy birth in exile, far from the land of thy sires; thy return home; then fresh misfortunes; then the tempest at sea; and at last, thy being cast despoiled of everything, upon the crags of an unknown coast: what a list of disasters, and who among the worldly wise would ever have dreamed that herein was the direct course of a merciful Providence, to make the combined violence of men and the elements, serve the sweet purposes of His designs in thy regard! Yet so it was; and this was the very way thou wast moulded into the valiant woman, raised in all thy loftiness above the deceits of this present life, and wholly fixed on God, the one supreme Good, alone untouched by earth's revolutions.
Far from becoming either soured or dried up by suffering, thy heart firmly anchored, beyond the influence of this world's ebb and flow, on unshaken and Eternal Love, was ever up to the mark, in foresight and in devotedness, such as was needed to hold thee always at the height of the mission destined for thee. Wherefore, thou wast indeed that treasure worthy of being sought from the uttermost coasts; that merchant ship bringing bread from afar, and all good things to the favoured shore on which she is cast. Yea, fortunate indeed were thy land of adoption, had she never forgotten thy teaching and example! Happy thy descendants, had they ever remembered that the blood of saints flowed in their veins! Yet, worthy of thee in death, was at least the last Queen of Scots, as she bowed beneath the heads-man's axe, a brow faithful to her baptism, up to her last breath. But, alas, the unworthy son of Mary Stuart, by a policy as false as it was sacrilegious, abandoned at once both the Church and his own mother. Thenceforth heresy blighted the noble stem whence so many kings had sprung; and this at the very moment when England and Scotland were first united under one sceptre's sway! Nor may the treason of a James I, be redeemed by the fidelity of a second James, to the faith of his fathers!
O Margaret, thy throne is firmly fixed for ever in the eternal kingdom; but abandon not thine own England, the land of thy sires, nor Scotland still more thine own, of which Holy Church has declared thee patroness. The Apostle Andrew shares with thee, the rights of patronage: in concert with him, then, preserve those who have been steadfast in fidelity, multiply converts to the ancient faith, and prepare the way for a speedy gathering of the whole flock, into the fold of the one Shepherd (St. John, x. 16). (2)