Wednesday, 10 June 2009

St Margaret of Scotland

One of my particular interests - professionally as well as personally, if the next few years go to plan! - is the Danish conquest of England. I like to call it 'The Conquest' on purpose to be confusing, because most people, like me, only learned at school about one medieval conquest of England - the Norman one (and not much about that, if you went to the same kind of school I did). But in 1016, exactly fifty years before the more famous conquest, England was invaded by the Danish king Cnut, and became part of a great pan-Scandinavian empire including Denmark and Norway. When you think that there had been Scandinavians settling in various parts of the British Isles for two centuries before that - in Ireland, Scotland, and northern England in particular - and you add in The Conquest, it's incredible that this Norse strain in British history has been so generally forgotten in the popular imagination.

St Margaret of Scotland, who is commemorated on June 10th, was a victim of The Conquest. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, who was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England before Cnut, and that makes her the great-niece of my favourite saint, Edward the Confessor (Edmund's half-brother). Edward has an excellent story of his own, which I'll write about another day. He and Edmund were both the sons of Ethelred the Unready, a king of Gordon Brown-like incompetence. For a short time first Ethelred and then Edmund divided the kingdom with Cnut, but they both died in 1016, leaving Cnut as unchallenged king. Cnut then married Ethelred's widow. He was just that hardcore.

Anyway, Margaret's father (also called Edward) was only a baby at this point, and like all the other surviving members of the royal family, he was exiled to the Continent. Logically, he is known as Edward the Exile. He ended up in Hungary, where he grew up and married, and that's where Margaret was born. He had a son, Edgar, too, and another daughter. A pretty rubbish time for the English monarchy, I think you'll agree - Cnut ruled until his death in 1035, and was succeeded by his two sons, and it probably didn't look like there was much chance of Margaret's family getting back their ancestral kingdom.

But then! Edward the Confessor came back from exile and was chosen as king. How? That's a story for another day. Well, he heard that his nephew Edward was still alive, and sent for him and his children to come to England and be his heirs. They came. Unfortunately, Edward (the nephew) died pretty much as soon as he returned - probably murdered. So now Margaret and Edgar were in England, a country they had never seen, but to which Edgar was heir apparent. This was in 1057, when Margaret wasn't much more than ten, and Edgar was even younger. The children spent the next ten years living in England at the court of their great-uncle, who (although he was married) never had any children.

This is the bit of the story I find particularly fascinating (I get a little speculative and historical novel-ish at this point, because there's no evidence about Margaret's childhood). What kind of relationship did Edward and Margaret have? The childless king and the fatherless princess, both former exiles, both future saints, both known for their piety and faith... Did Margaret study his example? What did she learn, in that court, of the fragility of earthly power, of the changes and chances of this fleeting world? And Margaret and her brother were Edward's only surviving family, the only link, through their grandfather, to his long-ago childhood before The Conquest. Is it too fanciful to think he might have talked to her, or to Edgar, about their ancestors, the kings of Wessex, and their failures and their successes?

Probably. This is why I study literature, and not history.

Edward the Confessor died in 1066, when Edgar was only fourteen. Now we come to the other conquest. Briefly, Edgar was too young to rule, so Harold Godwinson, Edward's brother-in-law and perhaps the most powerful man in England but for the king, was chosen as king. William the Conqueror invaded. Harold was killed at Hastings. Etc.

Edgar and Margaret, with their mother, fled the country, and ended up in Scotland, where they were taken under the protection of King Malcolm. Malcolm, probably looking for a connection with the house of Wessex, married Margaret as his second wife. She became a queen and the mother of kings and queens. And here we see an indication that her Anglo-Saxon heritage really did matter: her first four sons were given the names of English kings, Edward (for her father? her great-uncle?), Edmund (her grandfather) , Ethelred (great-grandfather), and Edgar (great-great-grandfather). Her eldest daughter, Edith, bore the name of Edward the Confessor's wife.

What did she learn at Edward's court...?

Margaret lived a devout life, personally pious and a benefactor to the church. She died in 1093 and was canonised in 1250; she is one of the patron saints of Scotland.

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