At the end of Shakespeare’s great tragedy Macbeth, the heroic warrior MacDuff, bearing in hand the head of the usurping King Macbeth, cries out to Malcolm III, the new and rightful ruler, “Hail, King of Scotland!” When we speak about St. Margaret, patron saint of the Scots, we should think of her against this stormy background. She was the second queen of Malcolm, and she was an important influence in helping him to make his country a better and more Christian land.
Margaret was of the royal blood of England’s Saxon kings. Taking refuge in Scotland after the Norman William the Conqueror invaded Britain, she met and attracted Malcolm III. Up to then, she had been contemplating entering the convent, but in 1070 she felt that duty required her to accept the hand of the Scottish monarch.
Malcolm was no gentleman, but rough and uncultured. He had a good sense of values, however, and he was open to the counsel of his new wife.
She saw that the nation needed to be lifted out of its ignorance, crudity and immorality. With her husband’s backing, she saw to it that church synods were held to enforce such church laws as Sunday Mass attendance, non-marriage with relatives, clerical celibacy, simony and usury. With the king she established several churches, most notably the Abbey Church of the Holy Trinity at Dunfermline.
A good wife, she bore Malcolm six sons and two daughters who reflected credit on their parents. Matilda, who married King Henry I of England, became known as “Good Queen Maud.” Three of Margaret’s sons, Edgar, Alexander and David, succeeded their father on the Scots throne. David is venerated as St. David of Scotland.
Queen Margaret’s chief influence for good was her own example. She was prayerful and lived austerely. The poor she dearly loved. Whenever she left the palace, the local beggars crowded about her, and she helped them all. She never sat down at table without first having fed nine orphans and 24 adults. During penitential seasons, she and the king would entertain 300 poor persons, serving them personally on their knees.
Margaret likewise set for the women of the court a pattern of good behavior. She early founded an embroidery guild to make vestments and cushions for church kneelers. When she sat stitching among the guild members, none of them dared to speak in an unseemly manner. Yet she maintained spiritual good cheer. As Bishop Turgot, her biographer, was to write, “Every word that she uttered, every act that she performed showed that she was meditating on the things of heaven.’
St. Margaret’s life was not without its tragedies. In 1093 King William II Rufus of England attacked King Malcolm. Malcolm was slain through treachery as was his son, Edmund. Margaret herself was then on her deathbed. On learning this sad news, she prayed, “I thank Thee, Almighty God, that in sending me so great an affliction in the last hour of my life Thou wouldst purify me from my sins, as I hope, by Thy mercy.” Having survived Malcolm by only a few days, she was canonized a saint in 1250.
The memory of this woman, every inch a queen, remains green among the Scots. Within the grim walls of Edinburgh Castle there still stands the lovely 12th century chapel of St. Margaret. Princess Margaret, the Sister of Queen Elizabeth II, is its royal protector. This guild is still given to supplying church linens and doing other church stitchery.
Every wife and mother can see in St. Margaret’s life what influence for good a devout and responsible woman can have on her husband, her children, and her contemporaries. Such a woman becomes a queen indeed in her own castle.
–Father Robert F. McNamara