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The Pearl of Scotland

On Monday of this week, we celebrated the feast of St Margaret of Scotland, who was born in Hungary in 1045 and who would go on to become Queen of a country which would indeed blossom and flower under her refining and religious influence.

Of her eight children three, Edmund, Alexander, and David became kings of Scotland; her daughter Matilda married Henry I of England.  Through Margaret and her daughter, Matilda, the English Royal family of today can trace their descent from the pre-Conquest kings of England.

But what were the circumstances which brought a young Hungarian woman 5124 miles across the sea to a land occupying the northern third of Great Britain, home to almost 800 small islands, including Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides, Arran, and Skye?

Historical Background

The last Roman soldier left Britain in 410 and new people arrived from Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands.  These comprised the Saxons who were German Dutch, the Angles-southern Danish, and the Jutes-northern Danish.  The term “Anglo-Saxon” continues to be used to refer to a period in the history of Britain generally defined as the years between the end of the Roman occupation and the Norman Conquest.

During that time, though, the various peoples commonly grouped together as Anglo-Saxons were not politically unified until the ninth century and their reign over England was interrupted by twenty-six years of Danish rule that began with the accession of Canute.

Canute exiled his potential rivals from an Anglo-Saxon royal family.  One of these men Edward d’Outremer, the Exile, made his way to Hungary where he married a German Princess Agatha, daughter of Yaroslav the Wise, Prince of Novgorod and Kiev.  They had three children of whom Margaret was the eldest.

Margaret’s great-uncle was King Edward the Confessor of England.  When King Harold was killed by the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Margaret’s brother Edgar Atheling was regarded by the English as the rightful heir to the throne.  The family duly set sail for England.  However, the Conqueror would not accept this claim and Edgar was forced to submit.  As heir presumptive at a very volatile time Edgar and the rest, fearing for their safety, decided to return to the continent.  However, a storm washed them up against the coast of Scotland where they were forced to set down at the Firth of Forth.

This was the circuitous route by which a woman of English blood who grew up in Hungary arrived in a country which would eventually commemorate her as a saint.

 True Love

The family was fortunate enough to be given shelter by Malcolm III, king of Scotland who had his own issues with England.  Malcolm could not read or write but he was powerful in battle.  In a civil war raged against the former king, Macbeth, the latter was slain.  Not only did Malcolm seize the throne but he had fully avenged Macbeth’s murder of his father Duncan and his grandfather Crinan.

When Malcolm met Margaret she was twenty-one, intelligent, beautiful, and devout.  He was a widower with three children from his first marriage.  He fell in love but had to wait two years before she finally agreed to become his second wife.  During this time Margaret tried to discern whether or not she had a vocation to the religious life.  Malcolm left her in peace to come to her decision.

Margaret loved to read and learn, especially scripture writings and she owned many books.  She had grown up in surroundings that prized the ideals of learning, chivalry, art, and religion.  Her presence infused the unsophisticated, rural, Scottish court with culture. To enable her to feel more at home, Malcolm decreed that the language used at court should be Saxon rather than Gaelic.

Theirs was indeed a love match.  Turgot, Margaret’s confessor, and biographer recorded this very touching story:

Hence it was that, although he [the King] could not read, he would turn over and examine books which she used either for her devotions or her study; and whenever he heard her express a special liking for a particular book…sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals who he commanded to ornament that volume with gold and gems, and when the work was finished the King himself used to carry the book to the Queen as a loving proof of his devotion.

When Margaret was told that her husband had been killed in battle she only survived a few days after hearing the tragic news.

Good and Great Works

Despite their differences, Margaret wielded an enormous influence on Malcolm and literally on the whole of the country. The Court became more respectable and respected as a result.  Margaret read to her husband from the Bible and encouraged monasteries to open in the country.  Together she and Malcolm worked to establish schools and to build churches.  She herself brought clothes and food to the needy people of Scotland.   She nursed the sick and even brought homeless people into the castle.

She brought her more Roman experiences of Church life with her to Scotland and so pulled the Scottish Church into conformity with Roman and continental practice regarding the dating and observance of Lent and Easter.  She encouraged the faithful to more fully observe Sunday by not working.  She revived the abbey of Iona, made famous by Columba and Aidan, and built Dunfermline to be like a Scottish Westminster Abbey as a burial place for its royal family.

In order to assist pilgrims traveling to St Andrew’s in Fife Margaret arranged for the construction of a ferry across the Firth of Forth which gave the towns of South Queensferry and North Queensferry their names.

As a result of her good actions devotion to the holy queen began soon after her death.  On 19 June 1250, she was canonized by following her canonization by Pope Innocent IV, and in 1673 she was named patron of Scotland.

‘Saint Margaret of Scotland, you were the model of a virtuous queen who cared for both the spiritual and material welfare of your people.  Inspire all leaders to give their personal witness to holiness so that, through their leadership role, they inspire their people to be more virtuous.’

Written By Marie – Therese Cryan


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