Granddaughter of King Edmund Ironside and grandniece of King Edward the Confessor, Margaret was well educated, mostly in Hungary, where her family was raised in exile during the rule of the Danish kings in England. As one of the last members of the Anglo-Saxon royal family, she was in danger after the Norman Conquest and took refuge at the court of Malcolm the Third, king of Scotland, made famous by Shakespeare in his play Macbeth. Intelligent, beautiful, and devout, Margaret married Malcolm in 1069 or 1070. Their union was exceptionally happy and fruitful for the Scottish nation, producing eight children. Two of her children, Alexander and David, became kings of Scotland. Through Margaret and her daughter Matilda English monarchs from the reign of Henry the Second to the present day can trace their ancestry to the pre-Conquest Anglo-Saxon kings of England.
According to her biographer Turgot, prior of Durham and bishop of Saint Andrews, Margaret sought with considerable zeal to reform what she considered to be careless practices in the Church in Scotland, then at a low ebb in its ecclesial life. She insisted that the observance of Lent was to begin on Ash Wednesday, rather than on the following Monday. She further insisted that the Mass be celebrated according to the accepted Roman rite of the Church, and not in barbarous form and language. The Lord’s Day was to be a day when, she said, “we apply ourselves only to prayers”. She played a prominent role in the foundation of monasteries, churches, orphanages, and hostels for pilgrims. She and Malcolm together worked to rebuild the abbey of Iona, made famous centuries before by Columba and Aidan, and they had Dumfermline built to be a burial place for the Scottish royal family, like a Scottish Westminster Abbey.
Margaret’s private life was devoted to prayer and reading, lavish almsgiving (including the ransoming of Anglo-Saxon captives), and ecclesiastical needlework. She saw to the spiritual welfare of her large household, providing servants with opportunity for regular worship and prayer. Her influence over the king was considerable as he, strong-willed and initially rough in character, came through love for her to value what she valued. Turgot wrote that Malcolm saw “that Christ truly dwelt in her heart…what she rejected, he rejected…what she loved, he for love of her loved too.” Although he could not read, he liked to see the books she used at prayer and would have them embellished with gold and silver bindings. One such book thought to be hers, a pocket Gospel with fine portraits of the Evangelists, survives in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. A psalter at Edinburgh University Library may well have been hers, too.
Margaret lived just long enough to learn of the tragic deaths of her husband and one of their sons on a military expedition against the English king William Rufus, who had confiscated her father’s estates in England. Worn by her austerities and the rigors of childbearing, Margaret died on the sixteenth of November, 1093, at the age of forty-seven. She was buried beside Malcolm at Dunfermline, and her body was translated in 1250. At the Reformation, her body and Malcolm’s were translated to the Escorial in Madrid. Her work among the people and her reforms of the Church made her Scotland’s most beloved saint, and the Roman Catholic Church named her a patron of Scotland in 1673.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
and Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
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 your 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, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.