St. Margaret of Scotland, whom we honor as our patron, was canonized for her concern with and ministry to the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, and the sick. She built schools and hospitals, and spent time each day listening to the needs of the people in the outer court of the castle where she reigned as queen with her husband, Malcolm III. The history of this parish has continued the witness of Margaret. For more than a century, the expression of our call to love God and to serve our neighbor has taken different forms, always faithful to St. Margaret’s commitment to be Christ’s witness in the world.
Margaret’s Early Life
Margaret, an English princess, was born in Hungary in about 1047. Her father Edward and his brother, sons of Edmond Ironsides and claimants to the English throne, had been exiled by King Knut. Edward and wife Agatha had three children: Margaret, Christina, and Edgar.
Margaret’s childhood was spent in the pious atmosphere of the Hungarian Court, a court only a few years removed from the influence of King Stephen (966-1036), who Christianized Hungary, gave it a uniform code of laws, and reportedly administered them with great fairness and justice. In both Hungary and later in England, she was likely educated by Benedictines, and the Benedictine idea of a balanced life of work and prayer informed her own life as queen.
When Margaret was about seven, she and her family left Hungary for her father’s homeland. Edward the Confessor had come to the throne, and he invited Edmond to return to England, perhaps with the idea of making him his successor. Margaret spent the second part of her childhood in the strict religious atmosphere of another court, that of Edward the Confessor. Edward, however, soon died under mysterious circumstances, and Margaret’s brother, known as Edgar the Atheling, became a potential heir.
Edward the Confessor died in January 1066. Margaret’s brother Edgar did not succeed him, and when a few months later William the Conquere took the throne, England became too hot to hold Edgar and his family. The traditional story is that on their way back to Hungary their ship was buffeted by a severe storm which blew them north and back into the British Isles and was wrecked off of the coast of Scotland. More likely, they always intended to go there to raise support for a war against William the Conquerer, but were happy to have the story spread about that there was a loyal Hungarian homeland to which they were planning to return. Once on shore, the exiles were warmly received by Malcolm III, King of Scotland. The details of Margaret and Malcolm’s courtship remain unknown. It is generally accepted that Margaret planned to enter a convent, but once she fled England, it probably was important to the family that she forge an alliance through marriage. Margaret and Malcolm were married on the day after Easter in the year 1070, and thus began a marriage whose devotion would become the stuff of legend.
Queen and Reformer
Most of what we know of Margaret’s life as Queen of Scotland comes from a biography written by Turgot, her confessor, at the request of Margaret’s daughter Matilda. Margaret was the mother of eight children. It is for her example as a wife, mother, and ruler that the readings of the Episcopal Church’s Lesser Feasts and Fasts remember her. She was certainly concerned for her children and their religious upbringing in Turgot’s biography, which was calculated to suit the needs of late medieval ideas about queenship. Turgot tells us that
This was the mother’s desire and admonition, the prayer which she uttered day and night with tears for her little ones, that they might acknowledge the Maker in the faith that works through love, and acknowledging worship Him, and worshiping Him, love Him in all things and above all things, and loving Him attain to the glory of the heavenly kingdom.
Perhaps Margaret’s most significant reform was her success in bringing the practices of the Scottish church, still under the influences of Celtic Christianity, into line with those of the Roman Church. Margaret was involved in more than theological niceties here. Since the Synod of Whitby in 664, when England had embraced the Roman rather than the Celtic church, the split between the two had become a matter of political as well as spiritual importance. When she gathered the clergy under the Roman banner, she was also gathering them under Malcolm’s political banner.
One of her reforms had to do with recognizing the centrality of the Eucharist in the lives of Christians. Many of the Scottish clergy felt themselves unworthy to receive the Eucharist on Easter. Turgot describes Margaret’s approach in a way that is perhaps more dramatic than accurate.
What!’ said the queen, ‘Shall all who are sinners not taste that holy mystery? No one therefore ought to receive it, for there is not one who is not stained with sin; not even the infant whose life is but one day on earth. And if no one ought to receive it, why did the Lord when he proclaimed the Gospel say, Except ye shall eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, ye shall not have life in you.’”
To these arguments, Turgot continues, “they could make no reply, and understanding now the practices of the Church, observed them henceforth in the reception of the mystery of salvation.”
Margaret is remembered for her works of charity and mercy. She founded schools, hospitals, and orphanages. When she walked or rode out in public, crowds of poor people, orphans, and widows, flocked to her, and none left her without being comforted. And when all she had brought with her for the use of the needy had been distributed, she used to receive from her attendants and the rich who accompanied her their garments and any thing else they had with them at the time, to bestow upon the poor, so that no one might leave her in distress (except, perhaps, her courtiers).
Margaret was also portrayed as a civilizing influence on Malcolm and the Scottish court, bringing a Continental sense of manners and behavior. Margaret is said to have begun the practice of teaching and employing women to make needlework for the church. Turgot tells us that
her chamber seemed to be a workshop for heavenly crafts. Always there were to be seen in it copes for the cantors, chasubles, stoles, altar-cloths, as well as other priestly vestments and church ornaments. Some were in the course of preparation, others, already finished were of admirable beauty.
Margaret is also given credit for establishing one mealtime custom which still survives in Scotland. She did not like that fact that Malcolm’s knights rushed from the table as soon as they had finished eating. In order to keep them around for the grace that she liked to say after meals as well as before, she instituted the custom of the Grace Cup, also known as St. Margaret’s Blessing. A special cup of wine was circulated after the meal. The knights, not ones to miss a chance for another drink, stayed for the cup and the final blessing. The custom of the Grace Cup survives in Scotland today, although it is more often drunk with Scotch whisky than with wine.
One of the most endearing stories about Margaret–or maybe it’s an endearing story about Malcolm–had to do with her stealing the gold coins which Malcolm had intended to use for a Maundy Thursday service. She gave them to a beggar who asked her for money. The King, who was quite aware of what she was doing, was greatly amused at this kind of theft, and sometimes, when he caught her in the act with the coins in her hand, would jocularly threaten to have her arrested.
Because of her own experience with exile, Margaret was particularly sympathetic to those who had had to flee their own countries, particularly to English captives who had been carried away from their own country and reduced to slavery. Recounts Turgot, “she sent secret spies everywhere through the provinces of Scotland to ascertain who among the captives were oppressed with the cruelest bondage or who were the more inhumanely treated, and to report privately to her where they were and by who they were ill-treated; and commiserating [with] them from the bottom of her heart, she hastened to their assistance, paid their ransom, and restored them to freedom.”
In 1093, Margaret, ill and dying, was in Edinburgh Castle for safety during wartime. One of her last acts, holding a cross called the Black Rood of Scotland, which was always particularly dear to her, was to recite Psalm 51–Miserere mei, Deus, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness.” When she had finished reciting it, her son Edgar, who had survived the battle in which his father and brother were killed, came to her bedside and tried to tell his dying mother that they were well. Turgot recounts
“By this holy cross, by the bond of our blood, I adjure you to tell me the truth.” On hearing the truth, she raised her eyes and hands towards heaven, saying “I give praise and thanks to thee, almighty God, for that thou hast been pleased that I should endure such deep sorrow at my departing, and I trust that by means of this suffering it is they pleasure that I should be cleansed from some of the stains of my sins.
Margaret died on November 16, 1093, and was buried at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Dunfermline Abbey, which she and Malcolm had built. She was declared a saint in 1249 by Pope Innocent IV, and in 1250 her remains were moved to a new shrine at the east end of the abbey. It is said that when the procession carrying her body passed the resting place of Malcolm, the bier became too heavy to carry, so Malcolm’s remains were exhumed, and they were reintered in the new shrine together.
Margaret’s Black Rood, or cross, became one of the most revered objects in the regalia of Scotland. Probably called the Black Rood because of its black case, it was actually gold and a container for a piece of the true cross, set in diamonds, with a figure of Christ carved out of ivory. Margaret is often depicted in art carrying the Black Cross as she goes about her works of mercy. In 1346, David II took the Black Cross into battle with him, and it fell into English hands. For many years, it was exposed for veneration in Durham Cathedral, but it disappeared during the Reformation.
Margaret was venerated almost from the moment of her death. Pilgrims visited Dumferline Abbey in increasing numbers. Stories of miracles piled up. Alexander II of Scotland and his bishops petitioned Pope Innocent to canonize her. In the high-stakes politics of the 13th century, it may have been a recognition of Scotland’s geopolitical importance or a sop to a pesky king that led Innocent IV to approve the canonization, but the esteem in which Margaret was held in Scotland was very real. Later, Margaret became one of the few medieval saints honored in the names of Anglican and Episcopal churches. She clearly fit the needs of the church in the 19th century. She was an Anglo-Saxon saint, she was royal, and she embodied the practical virtues embraced by the Victorian church. A further attraction may have been that she was part of a romantic Scottish/Celtic past popularized by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and the patronage of Queen Victoria. It’s not coincidental that 19th century images of Margaret show her as a decidedly Celtic queen, with long braids and a rustic crown.
In the 21st century, Turgot’s description of Margaret’s influence on her husband Malcolm is a good summary of how her life might continue to influence us at St. Margaret’s Church:
First of all, with the help of God, she made the King himself most attentive to works of justice, mercy, almsgiving, and other virtues. From her also he learned to keep the vigils of the night in prayer; from her exhortation and example he learned to pray with sighing from the heart and abundance of tears . . . . Since he clearly perceived that Christ was truly dwelling in her heart, he hastened all the more quickly to obey her wishes and prudent counsels. What she refused, he refused; and what she loved, he loved for the love of her love.
The Collects for St. Margaret’s Day, November 16
O God, you 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 you people: Mercifully grant that we who commemorate her this day 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, on God, for ever and ever. AMEN [The Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts]
O God, you have to your servant Margaret such faithfulness as Queen of Scotland that she cared for the poor and relieved the needs of those who lay in prison. Grant us a like devotion, whatever the service to which you call us, that we may be agents of your justice and true servants of your mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. AMEN [For All the Saints: Prayers and Readings for Saints’ Days According to the Calendar of the Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada]