Sunday, 10 June 2012

St Margaret of Scotland

Margaret of Scotland in stained glass at Aldeburgh

Today is one of the feasts of St Margaret of Scotland, who died on 16 November 1093. St Margaret's is a fascinating story, partly because her life spanned some closely-linked but very different worlds (pre- and post-Conquest England; the cloister and the king's court; England and its northern and continental neighbours), and partly because she is remembered as a truly interesting, original, learned and holy woman. Fortunately - unlike with some medieval saints - we have excellent sources for her life, which give us a clear picture of how her contemporaries saw her. In this post I want to make available two of the most informative early sources: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's account of her marriage, and extracts from the Life of Margaret written for her daughter, by a monk who knew Margaret and her family well.

Margaret was descended from the English royal family, but was born in Hungary, where her father had sought refuge after the Danish Conquest of England. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside and his wife Ealdgyth, whose infant children were apparently smuggled out of England for safety when Cnut became king in 1016. After Edmund's brother Edward the Confessor regained the throne he brought Margaret and her family back to England in 1057, presumably in the hope that her father or brother might succeed him. But her father died soon afterwards, and this never came to pass. After the Norman Conquest, Margaret was in a terrible position: her teenage brother Edgar was the last surviving direct heir to the throne, but in no position to defend his claim. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (D), under the year 1067, tells us what happened next:

þæs sumeres Eadgar cild for ut mid his modor Agatha, 7 his twam sweostran, Margareta 7 Christina, 7 Mærlaswegen, 7 fela godra manna mid heom, 7 comon to Scotlande on Malcholomes cyninges gryð, 7 he hi ealle underfeng. Ða begann se cyngc Malcholom gyrnan his sweostor him to wife, Margaretan, ac he 7 his men ealle lange wiðcwædon, 7 eac heo sylf wiðsoc, 7 cwæð þæt heo hine ne nanne habban wolde, gyf hire seo uplice arfæstnys geunnan wolde, þæt heo on mægðhade mihtigan Drihtne mid lichomlicre heortan on þisan life sceortan on clænre forhæfednysse cweman mihte. Se kyng befealh georne hire breðer oð þæt he cwæð ia wið, 7 eac he elles ne dorste, for þan þe hi on his anwald becumene wæron.

Hit wearð þa swa geworden swa God foresceawode on ær, 7 elles hit beon ne mihte, eallswa he sylf on his godspelle sæið þæt furðon an spearwa on gryn ne mæg befeallan forutan his foresceawunge. Se forewitola Scyppend wiste on ær hwæt he of hyre gedon habban wolde, for þan þe heo sceolde on þan lande Godes lof geeacnian 7 þone kyng gerihtan of þam dweliandan pæðe 7 gebegean hine to beteran wege 7 his leode samod, 7 alegcean þa unþeawas þe seo þeod ær beeode, eallswa heo syððan dyde. Se kyng hi þa underfeng, þeah hit hire unþances wære, 7 him gelicade hire þeawas, 7 þancode Gode þe him swylce gemæccean mihtiglice forgeaf, 7 wislice hine beþohte, swa he full witter wæs, 7 awende hine sylfne to Gode, 7 ælce unsiuernysse oferhogode. Be þam se apostol Paulus, ealra þeoda lareow, cwæð, Saluabitur uir infidelis per mulierem fidelem, sic et mulier infidelis per uirum fidelem et reliqua, þæt is on uran geþeode, Ful oft se ungeleaffulla wer bið gehalgad 7 gehæled þurh þæt rihtwise wif, 7 swa gelice þæt wif þurh geleaffulne wer.

Ðeos foresprecene cwen seoððan on þam lande manege nytwyrðe dæda gefremede Gode to lofe, 7 eac on þa kynewisan wel geþeh, eallswa hire gecynde wæs. Of geleaffullan 7 æðelan cynne heo wæs asprungon, hire fæder wæs Eadward æþeling, Eadmundes sunu kynges, Eadmund Æþelreding, Æþelred Eadgaring, Eadgar Eadreding, 7 swa forð on þæt cynecynn, 7 hire modorcynn gæð to Heinrice casere, þe hæfde anwald ofer Rome.
[This summer young Edgar left the country with his mother Agatha and his two sisters, Margaret and Christina, and Mærleswein and many good men with them, and came to Scotland under the protection of King Malcolm, and he received them all. Then King Malcolm began to desire Edgar's sister Margaret for his wife, but he and his men all argued against it for a long time, and she herself also refused, and said that she would not have him or anyone, if the divine mercy would grant that she should please the mighty Lord in virginity, with a bodily heart in pure continence in this brief life. The king urged her brother pressingly until he said yes - and indeed he dared not do otherwise, because they had come into the king's power.

Then it came to pass as God had previously ordained, and it could not be otherwise; as he himself says in his Gospel, that even one sparrow may not fall into a snare without his providence. The foreknowing Creator knew beforehand what he wanted to have done through her, that she would increase the glory of God in that land, and guide the king from the path of error and bring him and his people together to the better way, and lay aside the sinful customs which that nation previously followed - just as she afterwards did. Then the king married her, although it was against her will. Her ways pleased him, and he thanked God who in his might had given him such a wife. He reflected thoughtfully, as he was a very wise man, and turned himself to God and scorned every sin. Of this the Apostle Paul, teacher of all nations, said, "Saluabitur uir infidelis per mulierem fidelem, sic et mulier infidelis per uirum fidelem et reliqua"; that is in our language: "Very often the unbelieving husband is hallowed and saved through the righteous wife, and likewise the wife through the faithful husband".

This aforesaid queen afterwards performed many useful deeds in that country, to the glory of God, and also prospered well in kingly ways, as was in her nature: she was sprung from a faithful and noble kindred, her father was Edward Atheling, son of King Edmund, son of Ethelred, son of Edgar, son of Eadred, and so forth in that royal race; and her mother's family goes back to Emperor Henry, who had dominion over Rome.]

This is a very unusual amount and style of commentary for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which draws here on the language of sermons rather than history (Biblical quotations like that from St Paul appear almost nowhere else in the Chronicle). It was clearly written some years after Margaret's marriage by someone sympathetic to Margaret and her family - and to the 'faithful and noble kindred' of the English monarchy, who by the time this entry was written were exiles again for the second time in a century, a 'royal race' in blood and name alone. There's something moving about seeing the chronicle here break the bounds of chronicle-writing, a form which ever since the days of Alfred the Great had been so closely associated with the cultural power of the English monarchy - as if in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest English history and history-writing were both disintegrating together. And to see it display the characteristic language of Old English prose, just at the moment when that sophisticated, confident, long-honed style, the language of Alfred and Ælfric and Wulfstan, was becoming, more and more, a thing of the past: þæt is on uran geþeode...

More than this, it's impossible not to be moved by poor Margaret's situation. Her unwillingness to marry Malcolm might be a little exaggerated, to make the subsequent success of her marriage more glorious by comparison, but she and her brother evidently had little choice in the matter. The chronicler's language is direct and strong: young Edgar elles ne dorste 'dared not do otherwise'; Malcolm married her þeah hit hire unþances wære 'though it was against her will'. The romance which later grew up around Margaret's story should not obscure the real horror of this. Margaret, the sparrow in the snare of a foreign king's court, did not get her will, and the Saxon princess became a Scottish queen.

 Margaret and her siblings, showing their descent from Edmund Ironside

The Chronicle tells us how soon Margaret began to be regarded as a good and civilising (!) influence on Malcolm and his country, but the fullest account comes from a little later, a narrative of her life written by Turgot, Prior of Durham, between 1100-1107. Turgot knew Margaret and Malcolm well, and he wrote about Margaret for her daughter, Edith/Matilda, who in 1100 had married Henry I. The whole Life can be read online here, but these are my favourite extracts:

You have, by the request you made to me, commanded me (for a request of yours is to me a command) to offer you in writing the story of the life of your mother, whose memory is held in veneration. How acceptable that life was to God you have often heard by the concordant praise of many. You remind me how in this matter my evidence is especially trustworthy, since (thanks to her great and familiar intercourse with me) you have understood that I am acquainted with the most part of her secrets.

These your commands and wishes I willingly obey; nay, more, I venerate them exceedingly, and I respectfully congratulate you whom the King of the Angels has raised to the rank of Queen of England on this, that you desire not only to hear about the life of your mother, who ever yearned after the Kingdom of the Angels, but further, to have it continually before your eyes in writing, in order that, although you were but little familiar with her face, you might at least have a perfect acquaintance with her virtues.

There's a complimentary echo here of Gregory the Great's famous pun: 'Non Angli, sed angeli'. Edith was 'but little familiar with her mother's face' not only because when Margaret died in 1093 Edith was still a child, but because Edith was brought up in a nunnery in southern England by her mother's sister Christina (perhaps at Romsey, on which see this post), and probably didn't see her parents very often in her childhood.

I cannot do justice to my subject, but my duty is to make it known so far as I can. I owe this to the love I have for her, and to the obedience which is due from me to you. I trust that the grace of the Holy Spirit, which gave her such powers for good, will to me vouchsafe also the ability to recount them. "The Lord shall give the word to them that preach good tidings with great power."

In the first place, then, it is my wish that you should know, and others through you, that were I to attempt to recount all I could tell to her honour, it might be thought that, under cover of your mother's praises, I was flattering your own queenly dignity. But far be it from my grey hairs to mingle falsehood with the virtues of such a woman as she was, in unfolding which I profess as God is my Witness and my Judge that I add nothing to the truth...

She was called Margaret, and in the sight of God she showed herself to be a pearl, precious in faith and works. She was indeed a pearl to you, to me, to all of us, yea, to Christ Himself, and being Christ's she is all the more ours now that she has left us, having been taken to the Lord. This pearl, I repeat, has been removed from the dunghill of the present world, and now she shines in her place among the jewels of the Eternal King. Of this no one, I think, will doubt, who reads the following narrative of her life and death...


Her grandfather was that King Edmund who had earned an honourable surname from his matchless valour, for he was staunch in fight and not to be overcome by his enemies; and therefore he was called in English "The Ironside." His brother on his father's side, but not on his mother's, was the most religious and meek Edward [the Confessor], who proved himself a father to his country, which, like another Solomon (that is, a lover of peace), he protected rather by peace than arms. His was a spirit which overcame anger, despised avarice, and was utterly free from pride. And no wonder; for as from his ancestors he drew the glory of his kingly rank, so from them too he inherited his nobility of life. He was descended from Edgar, King of the English, and Richard, Count of the Normans, his grandfathers on either side; not only most illustrious, but also most religious men...

Whilst Margaret was yet in the flower of youth, she began to lead a very strict life, to love God above all things, to employ herself in the study of the Divine writings, and therein with joy to exercise her mind. Her understanding was keen to comprehend any matter, whatever it might be; to this was joined a great tenacity of memory, enabling her to store it up, along with a graceful flow of language to express it.

While thus she was meditating upon the law of the Lord day and night, and, like another Mary sitting at His feet, and delighted to hear His word, rather in obedience to the will of her friends than to her own, yea by the appointment of God, she was married to Malcolm, son of King Duncan, the most powerful king of the Scots...

She had no sooner attained this eminent dignity, than she built an eternal memorial of her name and devotion in the place where her nuptials had been held. The noble church which she erected there in honour of the Holy Trinity was to serve a threefold purpose; it was intended for the redemption of the king's soul, for the good of her own, and for securing to her children prosperity in this life and in that which is to come. This church she beautified with rich gifts of various kinds, amongst which, as is well known, were many vessels of pure and solid gold for the sacred service of the altar, about which I can speak with the greater certainty since, by the queen's orders, I myself, for a long time, had all of them under my charge. She also placed there a cross of priceless value, bearing the figure of our Saviour, which she had caused to be covered with the purest gold and silver studded with gems, a token even to the present day of the earnestness of her faith.

[I wonder if she was inspired by the crucifix at Romsey.]

She left proofs of her devotion and fervour in various other churches, as witness the Church of St Andrews, in which is preserved a most beautiful crucifix erected by her there, and to be seen even at the present day. Her chamber was never without such objects, those I mean which appertained to the dignity of the divine service. It was, so to say, a workshop of sacred art: copes for the cantors, chasubles, stoles, altar-cloths, and other priestly vestments and church ornaments, were always to be seen, either already made, of an admirable beauty, or in course of preparation...


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, shewed that she was meditating upon the things of heaven.

Nor was she less careful about her children than she was about herself... Thanks to their mother's religious care, her children surpassed in good behaviour many who were their elders; they were always affectionate and peaceable among themselves, and everywhere the younger paid due respect to the elder. Thus it was that during the solemnities of the Mass, when they went up to make their offerings after their parents, never on any occasion did the younger venture to precede the elder; the custom being for the elder to go before the younger according to the order of their birth. She frequently called them to her, and carefully instructed them about Christ and the things of Christ, as far as their age would permit, and she admonished them to love Him always. "O, my children," said she, "fear the Lord; for they who fear Him shall lack nothing, and if you love Him, He will give you, my darlings, prosperity in this life and everlasting happiness with all the saints." Such were this mother's wishes for her little ones, such her admonitions, such her prayers for them, poured out night and day with tears. She prayed that they might confess their Maker through the faith which works by love, that confessing they might worship Him, worshipping might love Him in all things and above all things, and loving might attain to the glory of the heavenly kingdom.

Margaret had eight children, most of whom she named after her English ancestors - in a pleasingly methodical way, the first four sons were named in reverse order for her father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather (Edward, Edmund, Ethelred, Edgar). Her daughter Edith, for whom this book was written, was presumably named for one of the famous Ediths among the Anglo-Saxon royal family, such as St Edith of Wilton, or Edward the Confessor's queen. As wife of Henry I, however, Edith was known by the irreproachably Norman name Matilda; and even so Norman courtiers mocked the king and his English wife by sneeringly calling them 'Godric and Godgifu', English names as common as Jack and Jill and with the same snobbish overtones.

I myself have had frequent opportunities of admiring in her how, even amidst the distractions of lawsuits, amidst the countless cares of state, she devoted herself with wonderful assiduity to the word of God, about which she used to ask profound questions from the learned men who were sitting near her. But just as no one among them possessed a deeper intellect than herself, so none had the power of clearer expression. Thus it very often happened that these doctors went from her wiser men by much than when they came. She sought with a religious earnestness for those sacred volumes, and oftentimes her affectionate familiarity with me urged me to exert myself to obtain them for her use. Not that in doing this she cared for her own salvation only; she thought of that of others too.

First of all, in regard to King Malcolm: by the help of God she made him most attentive to the works of justice, mercy, almsgiving, and other virtues. From her he learnt how to keep the vigils of the night in constant prayer; she instructed him by her exhortation and example how to pray to God with groanings from the heart and abundance of tears. I was astonished, I confess, at this great miracle of God's mercy when I perceived in the king such a steady earnestness in his devotion, and I wondered how it was that there could exist in the heart of a man living in the world such an entire sorrow for sin. There was in him a sort of dread of offending one whose life was so venerable; for he could not but perceive from her conduct that Christ dwelt within her; nay, more, he readily obeyed her wishes and prudent counsels in all things. Whatever she refused, he refused also; whatever pleased her, he also loved for the love of her. Hence it was that, although he 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 say that she was fonder of one of them than the others, this one he too used to look at with special affection, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands. Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals, whom he commanded to ornament that volume with gold and gems, and when the work was finished, the king himself used to carry the volume to the queen as a kind proof of his devotion.

 Brabourne, Kent

Thus it came to pass that this venerable Queen, who (by God's help), had been so desirous to cleanse His house from all filth and error, was found day by day worthier of becoming His temple, as the Holy Spirit shone ever brighter in her heart. And I know of a truth that she was such, because I not only saw the works which she did outwardly, but besides this, I knew her conscience, for to me she revealed it. It was her good pleasure to converse with me on the most familiar terms, and to open her secret thoughts to me; not because there was anything that was good in me, but because she thought there was. When she spoke with me about the salvation of the soul and the sweetness of the life which is eternal, every word she uttered was so filled with grace that the Holy Spirit, Who truly dwelt within her breast, evidently spoke by her lips. So deep was her contrition that whilst she was talking, she seemed as if she could melt away in tears, so that my soul, pierced like her own, wept also. Of all living persons whom I know or have known she was the most devoted to prayer and fasting, to works of mercy and almsgiving.

She was poorer than any of her paupers; for they, even when they had nothing, wished to have something; while her anxiety was all to strip herself of what she had. When she went out of doors, either on foot or on horseback, crowds of poor people, orphans and widows flocked to her, as they would have done to a most loving mother, none of whom left her without being comforted. But when she had distributed all she had brought with her for the benefit of the needy, the rich who accompanied her, or her own attendants, used to hand to her their garments, or anything else they happened to have by them at the time, that she might give them to those who were in want; for she was anxious that none of them should go away in distress. Nor were her attendants at all offended - nay, rather each strove who should first offer her what he had, since he knew for certain that she would pay it back two-fold. Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King's private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part. It was his custom to offer certain coins of gold upon Maundy Thursday and at High Mass, some of which coins the Queen often devoutly pillaged, and bestowed on the beggar who was petitioning her for help. Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried, and found guilty.

Margaret and her family 

Nor was it towards the poor of her own nation only that she exhibited the abundance of her cheerful and open-hearted charity, but those persons who came from almost every other nation, drawn by the report of her liberality, were the partakers of her bounty. Of a truth then this text may be applied to her, "He hath dispersed abroad, he hath given to the poor, therefore his justice remaineth for ever."

But who can tell the number of English of all ranks, carried captive from their own land by violence of war and reduced to slavery, whom she restored to liberty by paying their ransom? Spies were employed by her to go secretly through all the provinces of Scotland and ascertain what captives were oppressed with the most cruel bondage, and treated with the greatest inhumanity. When she had privately ascertained where these prisoners were detained, and by whom ill-treated, commiserating them from the bottom of her heart, she took care to send them speedy help, she paid their ransom and set them at liberty forthwith.

This is very interesting - a reminder of how dangerous it could be to be English in the late eleventh century. No wonder that Margaret, the daughter of an exile, who had come to Scotland as a refugee in a foreign land, felt sympathy with her enslaved countrymen. The author of this work, Turgot (who seems to have been born in Lincolnshire), had himself been held hostage by the Normans in his early life, before he escaped by fleeing to Norway and finding refuge with King Óláfr kyrri.

I leave it to others to admire the tokens of miracles which they see elsewhere, I admire much more the works of mercy which I perceived in Margaret; for signs are common to the good and the bad, whereas works of piety and true charity belong to the good only. The former sometimes are the proof of holiness, the latter are that which constitutes it. Let us then, I repeat, admire in Margaret the actions which made her a saint, rather than the miracles which, had we any record of them, would have proved that she was one. In her character let us observe with admiration the works of the ancient Saints rather than their miracles her justice, her piety, her mercy, and her love...

She had a book of the Gospels beautifully adorned with gold and precious stones, and ornamented with the figures of the four Evangelists, painted and gilt. All the capital letters throughout the volume were radiant with gold. She had always felt a particular attachment for this book; more so than for any of the others which she usually read. It happened that as the person who carried it was once crossing a ford, he let the book, which had been carelessly folded in a wrapper, fall into the middle of the stream. Unconscious of what had occurred the man quietly continued his journey; but when he wished to produce the book, suddenly it dawned upon him that he had lost it. Long was it sought, but nowhere could it be found. At last it was discovered lying open at the bottom of the river. Its leaves had been kept in constant motion by the action of the water, and the little coverings of silk which protected the letters of gold from becoming injured by contact with the leaves, were swept away by the force of the current. Who could have imagined that the book was worth anything after such an accident as this? Who could have believed that so much as a single letter would have been visible? Yet of a truth, it was taken up from the middle of the river so perfect, so uninjured, so free from damage that it looked as if it had not been touched by the water. The whiteness of the leaves and the form of the letters throughout the volume continued exactly as they had been before it had fallen into the stream, except that on the margin of the leaves, towards the edge, the least possible mark of water might be detected. The book was conveyed to the queen, and the miracle was reported to her at the same time; and she, having thanked Christ, valued it much more highly than she had done before. Whatever others may think, I for my part believe that this wonder was worked by our Lord out of His love for this venerable queen.
This miraculous book is now in the Bodleian Library, and you can see images of it - gilded Evangelists and all - here.

Margaret's daughter, for whom this Life was written, 
and her husband Henry I (BL Royal 14 B VI)

The Victorian translator of Turgot's text notes: "Even the smallest circumstances of every-day life were sought out by St Margaret and put to spiritual profit. Having observed that many neglected to give due thanks to God after meals, she introduced the practice of drinking a health at rising from table to those who had complied with that duty. Hence it was called the Grace Drink, or St Margaret's Blessing. A similar custom is related in some Anglo-Saxon chronicles. On high festivals and other solemn occasions, to the abbot or prior of the monastery there was brought a large bowl filled with wine, of which he drank a little, and handed this "poculum charitatis," or love-cup, to his monks, each of whom took a short draught in like manner: after this ceremony, which was meant as a symbol of brotherly affection and good will one towards another, was said grace, which finished with a prayer for their benefactors alive and dead (Cod. Dip. Anglo Sax. v[ol]. iv., p. 304). A relic of this Anglo-Saxon custom may yet be seen in the grace-cup of the universities, and the loving-cup passed round among the guests at the great dinners given by the Lord Mayor of London."

This is charmingly old-fashioned scholarship, but the reference to Anglo-Saxon drinking customs does remind me of a comment which William of Malmesbury makes about St Wulfstan of Worcester, that "Never out of respect for any person, not even when he was at the king’s court and sitting at his table, did he fail to say the blessings which the English used to utter over their drink". Wulfstan was St Margaret's contemporary, and another survival of the old pre-Conquest world; such little things are symbols of much greater cultural change. In translating the passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle above, I hesitated most over the words þeawas and unþeawas: Margaret's þeawas pleased King Malcolm, and she persuaded the Scots to lay aside their unþeawas. The words are not easy to translate into Modern English: þeaw means 'custom', but with strong positive overtones, more like 'virtuous habit, good action', and unþeaw is 'bad habit, sin'. The result is, you might say, that in Old English to follow a good custom is itself a virtue, to deviate from the path of good custom is sin; and this seems appropriate in thinking about St Margaret, who did so much to ensure that the þeawas of her English ancestors were not entirely forgotten.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful woman, this Margaret of Scotland. There's a very humble little Catholic Church named for her, on highway 331 South as I drove through Alabama to Florida to attend a baby shower for my oldest daughter in 2013. I stopped at St. Margaret's of Scotland church to pray as I drove to the shower. I had a wonderful feeling in that church, I happened past it at their Sunday service hour.

I was born at St. Margaret's Hospital in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. It was a Catholic hospital which perhaps was named for Margaret of Scotland. (I am Protestant, and am forced to research these simple things.) The nuns still wore the giant hats then. Sadly, the hospital no longer exists. State government buildings have been erected on the site of old St. Margaret's Hospital. I was also so very very glad I was born under its roof, as if I started life with a blessing.