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Issue 81 - Scotland's Royal Saint

Scotland Magazine Issue 81
June 2015


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Scotland's Royal Saint

James Irvine Robertson recalls the love affair between a powerful Scottish King and his beatified Saxon wife

Malcolm III, Malcolm Canmore, is best known today as the slayer of Macbeth after the latter killed his father, King Duncan. He next dispatched Lulach, Macbeth’s stepson and successor, seizing the Scottish throne in 1058, and reigned for the next 35 years. He has been described as ‘lusty, aggressive, barbarous, opportunistic and a dedicated soldier’ – and illiterate.

‘The King sits in Dunfermline town, Drinking the blood-red wine’ ran an old ballad.

Malcolm had his headquarters in Dunfermline and one day in 1068 a servant rushed in to report that a ship filled with exotic foreigners in fancy clothes with soft hands had dropped anchor a couple of hours ride south on the River Forth. Malcolm went to investigate. The strangers included the Saxon English Edgar Atheling, grandson of Edward the Confessor and claimant to the English throne. He, his family and their entourage of ‘lordlings’ were fleeing England to the continent following the arrival of William the Conqueror but ill winds had driven their vessel to Scotland.

Malcolm made them welcome. Amongst the refugees were Edgar’s Mother and his two sisters. One of them, Margaret, was very beautiful and she caught the eye of the widowed king.

As well as being exquisite to look at, Princess Margaret was very devout, intelligent and well educated – and was looking forward to a life in a nunnery. Her formative years had been spent at the court of the pious Andrew I of Hungary.

But the circumstances made it very imprudent to spurn the love of a king, particularly one snorting and pawing the ground like Malcolm, and their lavish wedding took place a year or so later in the church of Dunfermline. Margaret soon fell for her husband’s manly attributes and they enjoyed a life-long love match that produced eight children. All of whom survived to adulthood. Three of them became kings, and their daughter, Queen of England.

Malcolm seems to have been somewhat in awe of his wife. He relied upon her for advice and virtually handed over the internal running of his realm to her whilst he got on with the more exciting business of warfare with his enemies. He was not interested in religion but he was content if it made his wife happy. He would kiss her incomprehensible jewelled missal each morning, bound all of her devotional books in silver and gold, and would listen patiently while she told him stories from the Bible.

She always attended Midnight Mass and prepared food for nine orphans each morning and served them on her knees. Sometimes she persuaded Malcolm to join in. She would wash the feet of six paupers every evening.

She strictly observed all the fasts. She began the Queen’s Ferries across the Forth that were free to pilgrims wishing to visit the shrine at St Andrews. She was a friend of Lanfranc, the immensely influential Archbishop of Canterbury, and with his help she founded a Benedictine monastery in Dunfermline. He also helped her in what she would have considered her greatest achievement.

Much of Scotland still held to the practices of the old Celtic Church. Many of its clergy were Céli Dé (‘Clients of God’) or Culdees who either lived as solitary hermits or in religious communities. Margaret showed great respect for them and gave them financial support but certain of their rites and practices varied in detail from western Roman Catholicism.

And its structure was different. Monasteries took the place of dioceses; abbots were above bishops and they could be laymen. The post could be hereditary along with the control of church lands and its people. An example was Malcolm’s grandfather, Crinan, Abbot of Dunkeld, who was killed fighting Macbeth. Such men were powerful barons rather than churchmen.

Margaret organised a three-day conference aimed at bringing the Scots church into line with the rest of western Christianity. She never learned Gaelic so her husband translated for her. Lanfranc sent delegates, as did the Culdees, but Margaret seems to have done most of the talking and she succeeded. There is no record of any strife at the loss of any of the ancient traditions and saints of Columba’s church, or its loss of independence and submission to the authority of the Pope.

The Queen had lived in sophisticated courts on the continent and in England. Although remaining remarkably ascetic in her personal life, at Dunfermline and Edinburgh, she introduced the splendour she considered befitting the Royal Establishment of Scotland. She welcomed English nobles ousted by the Normans in the south. They brought with them their language and customs, which were copied by the native aristocracy. Links were established to the continent by envoys and by merchants catering to the needs of this new elite.

Scotland became more than a barbaric backwater at the edge of civilisation and became a factor worth considering in European diplomacy.

The oldest building in Edinburgh is the tiny chapel on the highest point of Castle Rock that was built by Margaret for her devotions.

Over the years, the strictness of the regime of fasting, self-denial, prayer and meditation that she imposed upon herself weakened her health. She was already ill in November 1093 when Malcolm was leading his fifth invasion of Northumberland with his eldest son by his side. Malcolm was killed in an ambush and their son mortally wounded. When news reached Edinburgh, Margaret turned her face to the wall and died two days later. She was 46.

‘The chroniclers all agree in depicting Queen Margaret as a strong, pure, noble character, who had very great influence over her husband, and through him over Scottish history, especially in ecclesiastical aspects.’ Her contemporaries sang her praises and a popular cult in her honour soon developed in Scotland after her death.

She was canonised by the papacy in 1250, the only Scots Queen to be declared a Saint and in 1673, when her relics were moved to Spain. Pope Clement X declared her Patroness of Scotland