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St MargaretLast month saw the feast day of St Margaret of Scotland (16 November). Margaret is the focus of an article that I’m currently writing on sanctity and literature, and I think she’s a fascinating figure. An image of Scottish sanctity with a complex history.

Margaret was born c. 1045, the eldest daughter of Edward Atheling (d. 1057). Edward was one of the sons of Edmund Ironside, the king of England who was defeated by Cnut in 1016. The D text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recounts that Cnut exiled Edward Atheling to Hungary, and it was during his exile that he married Agatha, of whom little is know. She might have been the daughter of King Stephen of Hungary, or related in some way either to the German Emperor Heinrich II, or Heinrich III. Margaret, the eldest child of Edward and Agatha, was born in Hungary, where her family stayed until 1057, when they returned to England. Edward died within the year and his son, Edgar Atheling, was not seriously considered as a successor of Edward the Confessor, who died childless in 1066. After William, Duke of Normandy (the Conqueror) had claimed the English throne through his victory at Hastings, it seems that Margaret’s mother and siblings briefly came under the Duke’s protection. However, they then became involved in resisting the Norman invaders, a movement which had originated chiefly in the north of England. In 1068 Margaret fled with her mother, Edgar, and sister Christina to the Scottish court.

It was in 1069 or 1070 that Margaret married King Malcolm III of Scotland, and they had six sons and two daughters who all survived into adulthood. Three of her sons became kings of Scots: Edgar (d. 1107), Alexander (d. 1124), and David (d. 1153). Her eldest daughter, Matilda (also known as Edith or Mold) became queen of England in 1100 when she married Henry I.

During her lifetime, Margaret was known for her devoutness, converting the church at Dunfermline into a Benedictine priory. She also persuaded her husband to remit the ferry charges at the most popular crossing of the Firth of Forth so that pilgrims could travel freely to St Andrews. The crossing is still known today as Queensferry. Margaret died on 16 November 1093, three days after her husband and eldest son had been killed near Alnwick leading a raid into Northumberland. She and Malcolm were buried at Dunfermline, the church in which they had been married, and which became the final resting place of many Scottish monarchs.

Bodleian Library MS Lat. Liturg. f.5

Bodleian Library MS Lat. Liturg. f.5

A popular cult of Margaret seems to have flourished in Scotland in the years following her death, but it was not until 1249 that proceedings leading to her canonization began. She became St Margaret of Scotland in 1250. Famous for her devoutness, one miracle is said to occurred during her lifetime: the preservation of Margaret’s gospel book, which fell into the river. The book was rescued from the water having suffered no damage. The gospel book is now held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS. Lat. Liturg. f.5) and it can be viewed here. There’s also a great post on ScotBible about whether this ‘miracle’ occurred and how Margaret’s book might have been protected by a Cumdach (book shrine).

One of my favourite stories concerning Margaret, however, comes from Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon, a fifteenth-century chronicle of Scotland, compiled on the island of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth, where Bower served as Abbot. In Book 10, Bower recalls how, in 1263, King Haakon of Norway ‘came to the new castle of Ayr with his pirate ships’, claiming that ‘all the islands of Scotland which lie between Ireland and Scotland were his by right of inheritance’.



In September of that year, Haakon landed at Largs, a town on the Firth of Clyde about 33 miles from Glasgow. John Wemyss, a ‘courageous’ Scottish knight, was at that time ill with a fever, and having ‘gladly abandoned his weary limbs to sleep’, saw the following vision:

A lady of radiant beauty and resplendent in full royal attire came quickly out of [Dunfermline] church. She was leading on her right arm a distinguished-looking knight, clad in gleaming armour, girded with the sword of a knight, and wearing a helmet with the crown on it.

Wemyss is taken aback by this encounter and asks the lady: ‘please tell me who you are and where you and your noble companions are going’. The Lady replies:

I am Margaret, formerly queen of Scots. The knight who has my arm is the lord king Malcolm my husband, and these knights following us are our sons, the most renowned kings of this realm while they lived. In company with them I am hurrying to defend our country at Largs, and to win a victory over the usurper who is unjustly trying to make my kingdom subject to his rule.

Margaret disappears once she has finished speaking and Wemyss awakes. He immediately resolves (against the advice of his men) to travel to the tomb of St Margaret at Dunfermline. Reaching the church, he intends with ‘tearful devotion’ to ‘kiss the whole area round the shrine in which the relics of the queen were kept’. As he moves towards the relics, Wemyss suddenly feels well and ‘in good spirits’. At this moment, a servant comes in to the church bringing the ‘good news of the victory just won at Largs’. [1]

While this account of a saintly miracle is not really much different from other narratives of this type that occur in the Middle Ages, I love Bower’s use of the dream narrative, the ghostly apparitions and the dramatic entrance of the servant at the end of the story. With relatively few accounts of miracles relating to St Margaret, Bower here creates a narrative that at once confirms Margaret’s sanctity (through the vision, the healing of Wemyss, and the conviction that she was instrumental in the Scottish victory over King Haakon), and erases all the complex genealogy of Margaret’s in order to present her as the ultimate figure of Scotland. For Margaret, Scotland is her kingdom, and she becomes its maternal figure through the image of the family that fights together for its country. Later in Book 10, Bower calls St Margaret regine regni Scocie protectricis (queen and protectress of Scotland). Margaret becomes the protector of Scotland in the fifteenth century, just as she had been regarded as its religious reformer in the eleventh. The ghostly appearances remind the reader that history is never far away, and that its stories are able to delight, comfort, and inspire us at any time.

At the Reformation Margaret’s remains, with those of her husband Malcolm, were transferred by Philip II of Spain to a chapel in the Escorial at Madrid, and in 1673 Pope Clement X named her patroness of Scotland.

Malcolm III & St Margaret of Scotland. Forman Armorial. National Library od Scotland, MS Adv. 31.4.2

Malcolm III & St Margaret of Scotland. Forman Armorial. National Library od Scotland, MS Adv. 31.4.2

[1] All quotations taken from D.E.R. Watt (gen. ed), Scotichronicon, by Walter Bower, 9 vols (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1987-98), vol. 5, pp. 337-9.