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Friday March 12 2021

Looking Back: Saint Margaret of Scotland

A tribute to Saint Margaret, published in March 1938

Margaret: Saint and Humanist

OF all the byways crossing the broad plain of history, none leads to more profitable exploration than that marking the influence foreign consorts have exerted upon their adopted countries.

Because she was one such gift to a weary kingdom, Queen Margaret should always be grateful memory in Scotland. Indeed, this English princess was one of the first to attempt levelling the wall of prejudice that for so long held Scot and Englishman apart.

When she became Malcolm Canmore’s queen at Dunfermline in 1070, Margaret placed Scotland upon the political map of Europe. Sister of Edgar Ætheling, lawful heir of the Confessor, with a paternal ancestry reaching back to Woden, her mother’s house held claim to the Empire of Rome; at one bound, Malcolm had been placed upon equality with the greatest rulers on the Continent.

Until this happy union, Scotland was a barbarous land wherein fighting ousted learning to make a court lacking in the culture worthy of her power. Trade seldom extended beyond the simple bartering of necessities, and industrial art languished, not so much for want of craftsmen as for poverty of patronage.

With the coming of the fair-haired Saxon queen all was changed. Of course, over-enthusiastic hagiologists have woven about this essentially practical woman a web of legend that has done much to obscure her real power for secular good, and many of them have even frowned upon her marriage as a loss to the conventual life – where her gifts would have lain stagnant. Because of that, it is among the things of the earth, earthy that we must seek the facets of the diamond which gave to Queen Margaret’s life its radiance.

Encouraged by the new queen’s taste, merchants came from beyond the seas and found a ready market for wars little thought of in Scotland before. Ambitious that her husband should cut a worthy figure before his kingly peers, Margaret exerted sufficient influence upon her new subjects to induce them to lay aside the trappings of war and don instead clothing that brought a welcome gleam of colour to dispel the drabness obtaining before. As a contemporary wrote “…from this period new costumes of different fashions were adopted, the elegance of which made the wearers appear like a new race of beings.”

Instead of the rude Court about which they had read, foreign visitors to Scotland were amazed to find Malcolm’s palace a luxury comparing favourably with any on the Continent. Rich hangings, gold and silver plate, the discourse of learned men, and all the other evidences of contemporary European culture, impressed strangers with the realisation they were at the Court of a leading power.

Not that Queen Margaret was a blue-stocking – her boundless energy found time to enlist into her husband’s household a body of honest servants, most of whom she trained herself. She successfully eradicated the oppression of the peasants by the royal attendants, and so abolished the trail of discontent that usually marked the royal progresses through the realm.

Besides being a devoted, if stern, mother, Queen Margaret had a warm corner in her heart for the children of al classes, as the following story shows:

“She ordered that nine little orphans, utterly destitute, should be brought into her Court, and that some soft food should daily be prepared for them. When the little ones were carried to her she did not think it beneath her to take them upon her knees, and to get their pap ready for them, and this she put into their mouths with the spoon she herself used.”

Of Saint Margaret’s religious devotion, sufficient has already been written to familiarise us with her piety. She welded the ecclesiastical life of Scotland into a unity which previously had been sadly lacking, and left as memorial of her marriage the great Church of the Holy Trinity at Dunfermline.

Her conversion of the native church to the proper time for observing Easter was one of her many triumphs. The Scots Sabbath, too, was founded by the Queen, who overcame a tendency on the part of the people “to neglect the reverence due to the Lord’s day, by devoting themselves to every kind of worldly business.”

In death, as in life, Queen Margaret was ruled by love, and when Malcolm Canmore and his son Edward fell on the banks of the fatal Aln, she did not long survive her loss. She passed on at Edinburgh on 10th June 1093.

“Her departure,” says an old chronicler, “was so calm, so tranquil, that we concluded her soul passed to the land of eternal rest and peace. Her corpse was shrouded as became a queen, and we carried her to the Church of the Holy Trinity, which she had built. There, as she herself had directed, we committed it to the grave, opposite the altar and venerable sign of the Holy Cross which she had erected. And thus, at length, her body rests in that place in which, when alive, she used to humble herself.”

Margaret was canonised by Pope Innocent IV in 1250. Her remains (along with those of Malcolm Canmore) were placed in a new shrine in Dunfermline Abbey, but dispersed and subsequently lost after the Scottish Reformation.

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