Saint Margaret of Scotland was an 11th century Queen of Scotland known for her piety and great acts of charity. She was a princess from the English House of Wessex, which was deposed when William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and took the throne. Saint Margaret and her family then fled to Scotland, where she married the Scottish King Malcolm III. Queen Margaret was known throughout Scotland for her kindness and love toward the poor, and for the strengthening the Christian faith in her adopted homeland by promoting more rigorous religious observance.
God is glorious in his saints!
Welcome to the Christian Saints Podcast. My name is dr Darren Ong, recording from Sepang in Malaysia. In this podcast, we explore the lives of the Christian saints, from the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. Today, we commemorate Saint Margaret of Scotland also known as SaintMargaret of Wessex. She is sometimes referred to as the “Pearl of Scotland”.
Saint Margaret was Queen of Scotland during the 11th century, but she was probably born in Hungary, daughter of the Anglo Saxon prince Edward the Exile of the House of Wessex. , She was the granddaughter of King Edmund II of England (commonly known as Edmund Ironside). King Edmund II was defeated by the Danish King Cnut the Great in the Danish conquest of England, and so his son Edward, Margaret’s father, had to spend most of his life in exile in Hungary.
Hungary at this time had recently converted to the Christian faith, and religious fervour was strong in the court of Hungarian King Andrew the White. He is also known as King Andrew the Catholic, which reflects on his commitment to the new Christian religion. There were many monastic communities, both Western and Eastern, that were active in Hungary at that time, but the Benecditine monks had a particularly strong influence in Saint Margaret’s youth, and were responsible for her early education.
The House of Wessex regained control of the English throne after a period of Danish rule, so after 41 years in exile, her father Edward returned with his family to England in 1057 on the invitation of his Uncle, King Edward the Confessor (who himself was canonized a saint). Unfortunately Saint Margaret’s father died soon after his return to England. Nevertheless, Margaret continued to reside in the English court. Doubtless Saint Margaret was influenced by the piety of her granduncle.
She would soon be forced into exile again. In 1066, after King Edward the Confessor Died, William the Conqueror would invade England and take the throne. Margaret and her family (including her Sister Cristina and her brother Edgar the Aetheling) were forced to flee to Northumbria and then to Scotland. The King of Scotland was Malcolm III, famously portrayed as Macbeth’s rival for the Scottish throne in Shakespeare’s play, which was loosely based on real events. King Malcolm III of Scotland had himself been an exile, forced to flee to England when MacBeth killed his father King Duncan and usurped the throne of Scotland. It is possible that King Malcolm knew Margaret from his time in exile at the English court.
King Malcolm proposed marriage to Margaret. Saint Margaret was initially reluctant. It was possible that she had desired the life of a nun. Nevertheless, she eventually accepted the proposal, and thus became the Queen of Scotland. We read this descriptionfrom William Frobest-Leith SJ, in an introduction to his translation of Turgot’s Life of Saint Margaret
While Malcolm was thus making his fearful
march homewards, rich with the human spoil of
noble England, the English exiles had reached
Scotland in safety by sea. Some of the party soon
returned to share the dangers of the insurgents at
Ely. 1 But the .ZEtheling and his family paid
Malcolm a longer visit, and Margaret, the sister of
Edgar, was now entreated by the King to accept
his hand. Both the sisters of Edgar, however,
were inclined to a religious life. 2 Margaret, her
brother and all her companions, at the first
utterly refused to hearken to the king's suit.
Bat the love of Malcolm was not to be with-
stood. " He dealt with her brother till he said
Yea; for in truth he durst not say otherwise,
seeing they had come into Malcolm's power." 3
"It was," says Mr Freeman, "a good day for
Malcolm and for Scotland when Margaret was
persuaded or constrained to exchange the easy self-
dedication of the cloister for the harder task of
doing her duty in that state of life to which it had
pleased God to call her. 1 Margaret became the
mirror of wives, mothers, and queens, and none
ever more worthily earned the honours of Saint-
ship. Her gentle influence reformed whatever
needed to be reformed in her husband, and none
laboured more diligently for the advance of tem-
poral and spiritual enlightenment in her adopted
country. . . . There was indeed no need for
Margaret to bring a new religion into Scotland,
but she gave a new life to the religion which she
found existing there.
Their marriage was a fruitful one, producing eight children, six sons and two daughters. Three of her sons would hold the title of King of Scotland, and one of her daughters, Matilda, would become Queen of England. Saint Margaret is known as a very dedicated mother, and was especially concerned that her children would be raised in the faith. We read from the life of Saint Margaret, by the Bishop Turgot:
Nor did she impose less care on her children than on herself, evidently so
that they would be raised with every care. Whence, since she knew the
Scripture, “who spares the rod, makes his son unlikeable,” she instructed
the servant of the family to restrain the children himself with threats and
rods, however many times they descended into impudence, as a childish
age is accustomed. By this religious zeal of the mother, the children
transcended by their worthy character many who were more advanced in
age. Among themselves, they always remained kind and peaceful, and the
younger exhibited respect to the older ones everywhere. Wherefore,
during the service of the Mass, when they marched along after their
parents for the offering, the younger in no way assumed to preceed the
older, but the older was accustomed to preceed the younger following the
order of their age. They who were often brought to her so that she could
inform them, whose maturity could comprehend it, about Christ and faith
in Christ, and so that they might always fear, she did enough to admonish
them with earnest warnings, for she said: O my pious children, O my
desired and esteemed children, fear God since those fearing him will not
want, and if you will have loved him with a perfect heart, and him you,
since he loves those loving him, then he will return prosperity in this
[rotten] life and eternal happiness with his chosen ones. This kind desire
of their mother, this admonition, was her prayer day and night with tears
for her offspring, that they might know their Creator in the faith that works
through love, that by knowing Him they might worship Him, that by
worshipping Him they might love Him in all things and above all things,
and that by loving Him they might attain the auspicious glory of the
heavenly kingdom. 5
Saint Margaret was very involved in the religious affairs of the Scottish kingdom, and did much to strengthen the Christian faith there. We read about this aspect of her reign from the English Hagiographer, Rev. Alban Butler:
The holy queen remembered that by the rank in which Providence had placed her, and by the authority which the king lodged in her, the whole kingdom was her family. She found it overrun with many abuses, and plunged in shameful ignorance of many essential duties of religion. It was her first care to procure holy and zealous pastors and preachers to be established in all parts of her dominions. She seconded their ministry with the weight of the royal authority, and that of all the magistrates, to abolish the criminal neglect of abstaining from servile work on Sundays and holydays, and of observing the fast of Lent, with many other abuses; and had the comfort to see, by her zealous endeavours, the strict observance of Lent restored, and the devout celebration of Sundays and festivals enforced, the people consecrating those days to God both by assisting at the whole church office, and instructions, and by private devotions. Simony, usury, incestuous marriages, superstition, sacrileges, and other scandalous abuses were also banished. Many neglected to receive the holy communion even at Easter, alleging a fear of approaching it unworthily. She showed this pretence to be only a cloak for sloth and impenitence, engaged sinners to cancel their crimes by worthy fruits of repentance, and contributed very much to revive the spirit of penance, and frequent communion. She laboured most successfully to polish and civilize the Scottish nation, to encourage among that people both the useful and polite arts, and to inspire them with a love of the sciences, and with the principles of all the social and moral virtues. All which she incited her husband to promote by many salutary laws and regulations. Charity to the poor was her darling virtue. Her own coffers could not suffice her liberality to them; and often she employed upon them part of what the king had reserved for his own use and necessities; which liberty he freely allowed her. Whenever she stirred out of her palace, she was surrounded by troops of widows, orphans, and other distressed persons who flocked to her as to their common mother; nor did she ever send any one away without relief. Within doors, when she went into the hall of the palace, she found it filled with poor people: she washed their feet, and served them herself. She never sat down to table without having first fed and waited on nine little orphans and twenty-four grown-up poor. Often, especially in Lent and Advent, the royal couple called in three hundred poor, served them at table on their knees, she the women on one side, the king the men on the other; giving them the same dishes that were served up at their own royal table. She frequently visited the hospitals, attending the sick with wonderful humility and tenderness. By her extensive alms insolvent debtors were released, and decayed families restored; and foreign nations, especially the English, recovered their captives. She was inquisitive and solicitous to ransom those especially who fell into the hands of harsh masters. She erected hospitals for poor strangers. The king most readily concurred with her in all manner of good works. “He learned from her,” says Theodoric, “often to watch the night in prayer. I could not sufficiently admire to see the fervour of this prince at prayer, and to discover so much compunction of heart and such tears of devotion in a secular man.” “She excited the king,” says another ancient author, “to the works of justice, mercy, almsdeeds, and other virtues; in all which, by divine grace, she brought him to be most ready to comply with her pious inclinations. For he seeing that Christ dwelt in the heart of his queen, was always willing to follow her counsels.” 4
The small time which the queen allowed herself for sleep, and the retrenchment of all amusements and pastimes, procured her many hours in the day for her devotions. In Lent and Advent she always rose at midnight, and went to church to Matins. Returning home she found six poor persons ready for her: she washed their feet and gave to each a plentiful alms to begin the day. She then slept again an hour or two; and after that rising returned to her chapel, where she heard four or five low masses, and after these a high mass. She had other hours in the day for prayer in her closet, where she was often found bathed in tears. “As to her own eating, it was so sparing that it barely sufficed to maintain life, and by no means to gratify the appetite,” says Theodoric. “She seemed rather only to taste than to take her meal. In a word, her works were more wonderful than her miracles; though these were not wanting to her.” The same author, who was her confessor, writes: “She was endowed with a wonderful spirit of compunction. When she would be speaking to me of the sweetness of everlasting life, her words were full of all grace. So great was her fervour and compunction on these occasions, that she seemed as if she would quite melt into tears; so that her devotion drew also from me tears of compunction. In the church no one was more still in silence, no one more intent than she at prayer.” She often importuned her confessor to admonish her of whatever he perceived blameworthy in her words or actions; and was displeased that he was, as she thought, remiss in this charitable office. Her humility made her desire reprehensions and correction, which the pride of others cannot brook. Every year she kept two Lents of forty days each; the one at the usual time, the other before Christmas; both with incredible rigour. She recited every day the short offices of the Holy Trinity, of the passion of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin, and of the dead.
The Bishop Turgot also speaks about her great generosity and care for the poor, and also spends a lot of his time in his biography on her charity. Again from his life of Saint Margaret:
For what was more merciful than her heart? What was more kind toward
those suffering? If allowed, she would spend not only her own money but
even herself on the poor. She was poorer than all her poor, for they, not
having, desired to have, whereas she, who had possessed, did not cease to
dispose (of what she had). However, when she went out in public either
on foot or by horse, a small assembly of poor, orphans, and widows
streamed together, as to a most pious mother, none of whom ever went
away from her void of hope. And when she had distributed everything
which she had brought with her for the use of the needy, she received from
her wealthy companions and attending servants the clothing and the other
things which they had with them then, in order to give to the poor, lest
anybody depart from her without colsolation. They did not bear this with
annoyance, rather they competed to offer more to her, since they knew for
certain that she would return everything to them twofold. Sometimes she
even took something that was the property of the king to apportion to the
needy, and this pious man always considered this theft of piety wholly
acceptable and agreeable. For since he himself had been accustomed to
offer gold coins at his command at the supper of our Lord and at the
solemnities of the High Masses, she was accustomed to steal often from
these and others and to lavish them on the pauper who had petitioned her.
Indeed, although the king himself often knew this, pretending that he did
not know what was happening, he joked that she was guilty. Nor did she
show her generosity of charity with a joyfulness of heart only to the local
poor, but indeed even to those coming from almost every country toward
the fame of her mercy. Assuredly, we are allowed to say about her: she
dispersed, she gave to the poor, and her justice remains forever.
Also significant is Saint Margaret’s concern about slaves. Slavery was common in both England and Scotland at this time. The Bishop Turgot records Saint Margaret’s efforts to identify the slaves in her realm and free them from captivity:
For who would be able to enumerate how many she restored to liberty by
having ransomed those whom hostile violence had reduced to slavery,
taking captives from the people of the English. And so she sent forth
secret spies everywhere through the provinces of the Scots, evidently in
order to enquire everywhere about that those in captivity who were
pressed more harshly and dragged off more inhumanely, and they
reported plainly to her where they were and by whom they were
oppressed. Suffering for such people from her innermost being, and
aiding them more quickly, she hurried to recall those redeemed to
Unfortunately, Saint Margaret would suffer many tragedies towards the end of her life. She suffered from a chronic illness that would leave her bedridden for long stretches of time. (historians don’t give us many details of the nature of this illness. Furthermore, there were tensions between the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. There had been an uneasy peace between King Malcolm of Scotland and William the Conqueror. But open hostilities resurfaced when William the Conqueror died and his son William Rufus took the throne of England as King William II. King Malcolm attacked Northumbria, but on the way back north was ambushed by the forces of Robert de Mowbray, the Earlof Northumbria. He was killed in the battle, along with Edward, his oldest son with Saint Margaret. Saint Margaret died soon after hearing the news of their deaths, in 16 November 1093. She was less than 50 years old. She is celebrated as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, with a feast day on 16th November.
There are numerous churches in Scotland that still bear her name even today, most notably Saint Margaret’s Chapel in Endinburgh castle, a 12th century church that is the oldest surviving building in Edinburgh. There are also many institutions in Scotland and beyond that are named for her to preserve her memory and legacy, like the Queen Margaret of Scotland Girls’ Schools Association, which is an association of girls’ schools dedicated to following the ideals set forth by Saint Margaret, and the St Margaret‟s Chapel Guild, which engages in various charitable activities, notably bringing in children from Chernobyl to Scotland for medical and dental care.
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Christian saints podcast. Look for the Christian Saints podcast page on Facebook or Instagram, or look for us on Twitter at podcast_saints. All music in this episode was composed by my good friend, James John Marks of Generative sounds. Please check out his music at https://generativesoundsjjm.bandcamp.com/. For my research in this episode, I was greatly aided by a PhD thesis by Dr Catherine Keene, entitled SAINT MARGARET, QUEEN OF THE SCOTS: HER LIFE AND MEMORY, which is worth reading for anyone interested to learn more about the Saint.
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Let us end this episode with the Anglican collect for Saint Margaret of Scotland’s feast day:
O God, who called your servant Margaret to an earthly throne that she might advance your heavenly kingdom, and gave her zeal for your church and love for your people: Mercifully grant that we also may be fruitful in good works, and attain to the glorious crown of your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.