June 10


Margaret was a daughter of Edward d'Outremer ("The Exile"), next of kin to Edward the Confessor, and sister to Edgar the Atheling, who took refuge from William the Conqueror at the court of King Malcolm Canmore in Scotland. [She was born in Hungary from Edward's Hungarian wife, Agatha.] There Margaret, as beautiful as she was good and accomplished, captivated Malcolm, and they were married at the castle of Dunfermline in the year 1070, she being then twenty-four years of age. This marriage was fraught with great blessings for Malcolm and for Scotland. He was rough and uncultured but his disposition was good, and Margaret, through the great influence she acquired over him, softened his temper, polished his manners, and rendered him one of the most virtuous kings who have ever occupied the Scottish throne. To maintain justice, to establish religion, and to make their subjects happy appeared to be their chief object in life. "She incited the king to works of justice, mercy, charity and other virtues", writes an ancient author, "in all which by divine grace she induced him to carry out her pious wishes. For he, perceiving that Christ dwelt in the heart of his queen, was always ready to follow her advice." Indeed, he not only left to her the whole management of his domestic affairs, but also consulted her in state matters.

What she did for her husband Margaret also did in a great measure for her adopted country, promoting the arts of civilization and encouraging education and religion. She found Scotland a prey to ignorance and to many grave abuses, both among priests and people. At her instigation synods were held which passed enactments to meet these evils. She herself was present at these meetings, taking part in the discussions. The due observance of Sundays, festivals and fasts was made obligatory, Easter communion was enjoined upon all, and many scandalous practices, such as simony, usury and incestuous marriages, were strictly prohibited. St Margaret made it her constant effort to obtain good priests and teachers for all parts of the country, and formed a kind of embroidery guild among the ladies of the court to provide vestments and church furniture. With her husband she founded several churches, notably that of the Holy Trinity at Dunfermline.

God blessed the couple with a family of six sons and two daughters, and their mother brought them up with the utmost care, herself instructing them in the Christian faith and superintending their studies. The daughter Matilda afterwards married Henry I of England and was known as Good Queen Maud, [2] whilst three of the sons, Edgar, Alexander and David, successively occupied the Scottish throne, the last named being revered as a saint. St Margaret's care and attention was extended to her servants and household as well as to her own family; yet in spite of all the state affairs and domestic duties which devolved upon her, she kept her heart disengaged from the world and recollected in God. Her private life was most austere: she ate sparingly, and in order to obtain time for her devotions she permitted herself very little sleep. Every year she kept two Lents, the one at the usual season, the other before Christmas. At these times she always rose at midnight and went to the church for Matins, the king often sharing her vigil. On her return she washed the feet of six poor persons and gave them alms.

She also had stated times during the day for prayer and reading the Holy Scriptures. Her own copy of the Gospels was on one occasion inadvertently dropped into a river, but sustained no damage beyond a small watermark on the cover: that book is now preserved amongst the treasures of the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Perhaps St Margaret's most outstanding virtue was her love of the poor. She often visited the sick and tended them with her own hands. She erected hostels for strangers and ransomed many captives -- preferably those of English nationality. When she appeared outside in public she was invariably surrounded by beggars, none of whom went away unrelieved, and she never sat down at table without first having fed nine little orphans and twenty-four adults. Often -- especially during Advent and Lent -- the king and queen would entertain three hundred poor persons, serving them on their knees with dishes similar to those provided for their own table.

In 1093 King William Rufus surprised Alnwick castle, putting its garrison to the sword. King Malcolm in the ensuing hostilities was killed by treachery, and his son Edward was also slain. St Margaret at this time was lying on her death-bed. The day her husband was killed she was overcome with sadness and said to her attendants, "Perhaps this day a greater evil hath befallen Scotland than any this long time." When her son Edgar arrived back from Alnwick she asked how his father and brother were. Afraid of the effect the news might have upon her in her weak state, he replied that they were well. She exclaimed, "I know how it is!" Then raising her hands towards Heaven she said, "I thank thee, Almighty God, that in sending me so great an affliction in the last hour of my life, thou wouldst purify me from my sins, as I hope, by thy mercy." Soon afterwards she repeated the words, "O Lord Jesus Christ who by thy death hast given life to the world, deliver me from all evil!" and breathed her last. She died four days after her husband, on November 16, 1093, being in her forty-seventh year, and was buried in the church of the abbey of Dunfermline which she and her husband had founded. St Margaret was canonized in 1250 and was named patroness of Scotland in 1673.

The beautiful memoir of St Margaret which we probably owe to Turgot, prior of Durham and afterwards bishop of St Andrews, a man who knew her well and had heard the confession of her whole life, leaves a wonderfully inspiring picture of the influence she exercised over the rude Scottish court. Speaking of the care she took to provide suitable vestments and altar linen for the service of God, he goes on:

These works were entrusted to certain women of noble birth and approved gravity of manners who were thought worthy of a part in the queen's service. No men were admitted among them, with the sole exception of such as she permitted to enter along with herself when she paid the women an occasional visit. There was no giddy pertness among them, no light familiarity between them and the men; for the queen united so much strictness with her sweetness of temper, so pleasant was she even in her severity, that all who waited upon her, men as well as women, loved her while they feared her, and in fearing loved her. Thus it came to pass that while she was present no one ventured to utter even one unseemly word, much less to do aught that was objectionable. There was a gravity in her very joy, and something stately in her anger. With her, mirth never expressed itself in fits of laughter, nor did displeasure kindle into fury. Sometimes she chid the faults of others -- her own always -- with that commendable severity tempered with justice which the Psalmist directs us unceasingly to employ, when he says "Be ye angry and sin not". Every action of her life was regulated by the balance of the nicest discretion, which impressed its own distinctive character upon each single virtue. When she spoke, her conversation was seasoned with the salt of wisdom; when she was silent, her silence was filled with good thoughts. So thoroughly did her outward bearing correspond with the staidness of her character that it seemed as if she had been born the pattern of a virtuous life. I may say, in short, every word that she uttered, every act that she performed, showed that she was meditating on the things of Heaven.

By far the most valuable source for the story of St Margaret's life is the account from which the above quotation is taken, which was almost certainly written by Turgot who, in spite of his foreign-sounding name, was a Lincolnshire man of an old Saxon family. The Latin text is in the Acta Sanctorum, June, vol. ii, and elsewhere; there is an excellent English translation by Fr W. Forbes-Leith (1884). Other materials are furnished by such chroniclers as William of Malmesbury and Simeon of Durham; most of these have been turned to profit in Freeman's Norman Conguest. An interesting account of the history of her relics will be found in DNB., vol. xxxvi. There are modern lives of St Margaret by S. Cowan (1911), L. Menzies (1925), J. R. Barnett (1926) and others. For the date of her feast, see the Acta Sanctorum, Decembris Propylaeum, p. 230.

[1] In Scotland the feast of St Margaret is observed on the anniversary of her death, November 16.
[2] Through this marriage the present British royal house is descended from the pre-Conquest kings of Wessex and England.

Back to the contents
(Butler's Lives of the Saints, Christian Classics, 1995) wmaster@hcbc.hu