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Margaret [St Margaret]free

(d. 1093)
  • G. W. S. Barrow

Margaret [St Margaret] (d. 1093), queen of Scots, consort of Malcolm III, was the eldest child of Edward Ætheling (d. 1057) and his wife, Agatha, who was a kinswoman of the emperor Heinrich II (r. 1002–24). Margaret's father was one of the two sons of Edmund Ironside (d. 1016), briefly king of England in succession to his father, Æthelred. Edward and his brother, Edmund, were exiled by King Cnut, perhaps with the intention that they would be murdered. Instead, they seem to have been sheltered by the king of Sweden and sent to the court of Jaroslav, prince of Kiev. Before 1046 they were persuaded by a fellow exile at Kiev, Andrew, first cousin once removed of Stephen, king of Hungary (d. 1038), to join the successful expedition which secured for Andrew the Hungarian throne. Either while still at Jaroslav's court, or (less probably) after reaching Hungary, Edward was provided with a bride. Although Agatha's parentage cannot be established with certainty, the hypothesis which fits the surviving evidence most convincingly is that she was the daughter of Liudolf (d. 1038), margrave of West Friesland, son of Gisela of Swabia and Bruno, brother of Heinrich II, the Saxon. Through her grandfather, Agatha was the great-niece of Heinrich II, brother-in-law of King Stephen of Hungary, while through her grandmother she was related to Heinrich III, the Salian (r. 1039–56).

In 1057 Edward and his family travelled to England, but Edward died within the year, and his young son Edgar Ætheling was not seriously considered as a successor of Edward the Confessor, who died childless early in 1066. After the duke of Normandy had secured the English throne for himself by his victory at Hastings, the Ætheling and his family, having briefly come into the Conqueror's peace and protection, became involved in the movement of resistance to the Norman invaders chiefly originating in northern England. In 1068 Edgar, with his mother and sisters, Margaret and Christina, fled to the Scottish court. In either 1069 or 1070 Margaret was married to the Scottish king, Malcolm III, at Dunfermline. It was said that the marriage was against her inclinations, since she wished to enter the religious life; but in the circumstances she and her brother and mother could hardly defy Malcolm III's will. The marriage lasted for some twenty-three years and produced six sons and two daughters who all survived to adulthood. Three sons, Edgar (d. 1107), Alexander (d. 1124), and David (d. 1153), became kings of Scots, while the elder daughter, Matilda (d. 1118), otherwise known as Edith or Mold, became queen of England in 1100 on marrying Henry I.

Margaret converted the church in which she was married, Holy Trinity at Dunfermline, into a Benedictine priory which, under the auspices of Archbishop Lanfranc, drew its first community of monks from the cathedral monastery (Holy Trinity or Christ Church) of Canterbury. In 1128 this priory was raised to the status of an independent abbey at the behest of David I, the first abbot being Geoffrey, prior of Canterbury. Margaret also persuaded her husband to remit the ferry charges at the most popular crossing of the Firth of Forth (later to be known in her honour as Queensferry) for bona fide pilgrims, most of whom would be visiting St Andrews, a shrine which Margaret greatly venerated.

Thus far in establishing Margaret's character and significance the facts are largely incontrovertible. Beyond that, the greater part of the information regarding her is derived from the life written c.1100–07, at the request of her daughter Queen Matilda, by Turgot, then prior of Durham but formerly for some years Margaret's chaplain. This work, the fullest version of which relates several miracles attributed to Margaret, may have been designed to put the case for her canonization, the postponement of which for over a century is hard to explain. Evidence more objective than the life shows a woman of outstanding piety and religious devotion, with a zeal which may have stemmed from her childhood in a country only recently and partially converted to Christianity. The life stresses her compassion towards children (especially orphans) and the poor, the severity of her self-denial, including much fasting, her love of formality and etiquette (she was, rather oddly, fond of fine clothes and jewellery), and her anxiety to bring the Scottish church into conformity with what she understood to be the doctrine and practices of western Catholicism. In particular, she urged the clergy and people of her adopted country to receive communion more frequently than once a year at Easter, to abstain from ordinary labour (for example, farm work) on Sunday, to observe the Lent fast from Ash Wednesday instead of the Monday following, to forbid marriage between a man and his stepmother or sister-in-law, and to celebrate the mass by a universally accepted ritual. None of these points touched the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. It may be agreed that Margaret made a deep impression upon the Scottish clergy; that she persuaded many of them to alter their rites and practices must be regarded as doubtful. The life mentions, significantly, Margaret's reverence for the ascetic clergy scattered throughout Scotland, evidently communities of (Céli Dé'Clients of God'), who followed an eremitical regime. This statement is borne out by her recorded benefactions to the Céli Dé of Loch Leven, and lends weight to Orderic Vitalis's report that she tried to restore the church of Iona.

It would have been impossible for Margaret to pursue her reform programme in the Scottish church without the goodwill and co-operation of Malcolm III. The life, indeed, emphasizes the extent to which the king helped his wife, not only in her charitable activity but also in the conduct of conferences with the Scottish clergy. According to Turgot, Margaret's customary language was English (not, as might have been expected, French), and, since her husband was fluent in English as well as in his own Gaelic speech, he acted as interpreter.

Queen Margaret died at Edinburgh Castle on 16 November 1093, three days after Malcolm III had been killed near Alnwick while leading his fifth raid into Northumberland; she was buried before the high altar in Dunfermline Priory church. Grief and shock at hearing of the death of her husband and of her eldest son may have been the immediate cause of Margaret's death, but the life tells that she was greatly exhausted by years of self-denial and under-nourishment. She enjoyed a very high reputation in the Anglo-Norman world of the early twelfth century, and was eulogized by William of Malmesbury, John of Worcester, and Orderic Vitalis, the last of whom described her as 'eminent for her high birth, but even more renowned for her virtue and holy life' (Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist., 4.273). The Hexham writers, Prior John and Ailred of Rievaulx, refer to her as 'holy' and 'religious', and in 1199 King William the Lion (d. 1214) was dissuaded from invading England by a vision he experienced while spending a night at his great-grandmother's tomb at Dunfermline. But although there developed in Scotland, from soon after her death, a cult of St Margaret which seems to have had a genuinely popular character, it was only in 1249–50, in response to a campaign organized by Scotland's most senior clergy (and doubtless encouraged by the crown as a counterpoise to the cult of Edward the Confessor promoted both by Westminster Abbey and by Henry III), that the papacy authorized her formal canonization. At the Reformation her remains, with those of her husband, 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.

Surtees Society
D. Whitelock, D. C. Douglas, & S. I. Tucker, eds. and trans., (1961)