St Margaret of Scotland

Claire Harrill

Claire Harrill is a final-year PhD awaiting viva at the University of Birmingham, where she also works as a teaching associate and visiting lecturer. Her research interests include book history, queens and queenship, life writing and medieval feminist scholarship. Her personal interests include cats and Pokemon Go.

Sometimes, dangerous women come in unexpected forms. At first glance, St Margaret of Scotland (c. 1045 to 1093) does not radiate danger. As a pious woman and dutiful queen who had eight children and apparently spent her life in fasting and prayer, Margaret is easy to dismiss as a woman who posed little danger to the male establishment.

However, that is far from the case. Margaret was an English princess, born in exile in Hungary to a son of Edmund Ironside and a woman about whom we know nothing for sure but her name – Agatha – Margaret returned to England with her family following the death of Edward the Confessor since her father was a potential heir to the throne. That throne was, however, famously taken by William the Conqueror, at which point Margaret and her brother Edgar and sister Christine, became very dangerous indeed.

Margaret was, at that point, most likely safely stowed away in an abbey, probably Wilton, where she was safely far from the opportunity to make a political marriage that might challenge the Conqueror’s power. But this wasn’t to last. Either Margaret’s brother Edgar or the whole family became involved in a northern-English anti-Norman uprising. When this uprising failed, Margaret and her family fled to Scotland where they were welcomed by King Malcolm III, on the condition that Margaret accept him as a husband.

The arrangement of this marriage is shrouded in mystery and hagiographical convention. Margaret’s twelfth-century biographer would have it that Margaret was unwilling, but conceded grudgingly because she knew it would help her family and their supporters. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells a different story, in which Margaret’s brother refused to agree to the marriage, but Malcolm forced him to comply. According to the medieval chronicle tradition, Malcolm fell deeply in love with Margaret on sight, and yet it was still three years from Margaret’s arrival to their marriage. What caused this delay? Perhaps it was Margaret or her brother’s reluctance, but perhaps it was the complication that Malcolm was already married. We do not know if this marriage was dissolved, Malcolm’s wife died or – as plenty of Anglo-Saxon kings had done before him – Malcolm proceeded with two simultaneous wives. We only know that history remembers Margaret in great detail and makes very little mention Malcolm’s first wife, Ingeborg.

When Margaret married Malcolm, she did not just become the wife of the King of Scots. She became the first-ever Queen of Scots. As the last of the Anglo-Saxon royal line, Margaret – or her family – were politically significant enough to demand a place for her as consecrated queen, not just royal bedmate. As Queen of Scots, Margaret posed a very real danger to the new Anglo-Norman dynasty in England. Support for her and her family was strong in the north of England, recently rocked by anti-Norman rebellion as it was, and Margaret’s swift and copious production of sons not only secured the place of her and her family in Scotland but also formed an implicit threat to the Conqueror’s royal place in the south; Margaret’s sons had a strong claim to the English throne as well as the Scottish one, and there was no way for the Conqueror to discredit Margaret without discrediting himself, since his own claim to the English throne was based on his relation to Margaret’s uncle, Edward the Confessor.

During her time as Queen of Scots Margaret, most likely in conjunction with Malcolm, reportedly reformed the Scottish church so that it conformed to Roman practice rather than the practice of the Church of St Columba. Margaret seems, in fact, to have been so insubordinate to native church authority that a legend arose around the Church of St Laurence, in which Margaret’s wicked female body was struck down with horrible pains because she dared to enter the aforesaid church which was for men only. In this legend, Margaret is compelled to beg the church clerics to heal her.

Margaret also reportedly led Malcolm’s reform of secular law to prevent such abuses as the king having himself adopted by the rich, old and childless in order to inherit their money. The widespread reports of Margaret’s reform (always emphatically undertaken under the aegis of Margaret’s adherence to Scripture) also served the political purpose of making Scotland appear religiously and legally unassailable. Under Margaret’s influence, her twelfth-century biographer-confessor Turgot of Durham argued, Scotland was no longer an uncivilized backwater, but a modern, European, religiously orthodox country ruled by a powerful royal couple and heartily approved of by God himself. If the Conqueror wanted to turn his land-acquiring ambitions to Scotland, he would get no approval from the Church.

Of course, our surviving picture of Margaret is coloured by the political concerns of her day, but even so, it seems likely that Margaret was an influential queen. If she did not manage the reforms herself, she appears to have worked cooperatively with her husband in order to bolster Scotland’s place on the European political stage. Her two most politically active children, her son who later became David I and her daughter Matilda who married Henry I of England, also consciously followed her example in their own negotiations of royal power, and both were powerful and influential monarchs. They are both often compared with or likened to their mother in literary and chronicle works, perhaps as a way of seeking or confirming the legitimacy of their power.

But Margaret’s enduring danger is borne out in the texts written about her, each of week seeks to co-opt her into a political cause. In the eleventh-century, that was the attempt to preserve the Anglo-Saxon royal line the face of the Norman Conquest. In the twelfth and thirteenth, Margaret was used in England to protect the dubious royal position of her daughter (who had, some claimed, run away from the life of a nun to marry Henry I) and the place of her sons as Kings of Scots in a hotly contested succession. Though Margaret is described as a saint almost from the moment she dies, in the years following her death it is her political role as queen, not her religious role as saint, that draws the attention of the writers who use her potentially dangerous icon for political ends. By the fifteenth century, the Scottish chronicler Walter Bower deployed Margaret in his nationalist history the Scotichronicon as a kind of hybrid between the Virgin Mary and Scotland’s mythical foundress, the Egyptian princess Scota. A figure who combined a real connection to the earth and the people of Scotland with an unassailable and Church-sanctioned divine right not only to the Scottish throne but to Scottish political independence. It was in Margaret’s dual identity – as English princess and Scottish queen – that her potential danger but also her potential usefulness lay. But she was not just a potent political symbol; her life suggests that she was also a real political actor.

Margaret of Scotland was a dangerous woman. That danger might have been cloaked in a seemly veil of obedience to Scripture and divine duty, but Margaret not only embodied the threat of the Anglo-Saxon royal line to Anglo-Norman power in England, but made a real material difference to the Scottish royal line in the Middle Ages. Of course, many historians dismiss this as nothing more than her motherhood, nothing more than the addition of royal blood and the idea that her sons might be heirs to England as well, but it seems more likely to me that the various reports of Margaret’s real political impact on Scotland are based in some kind of truth – that Margaret (most likely in conjunction with Malcolm) managed what few other medieval women have ever managed. To wield real power, to take real political action, and yet to come out of it with a glowing posthumous report. And those who we do not consider dangerous, but who make dangerous changes, are they not the most dangerous of them all?