Scotland's medieval supermom: St. Margaret

St. Margaret’s concern for the poor was renowned. She built hostels for the homeless and freely dispensed alms to beggars. It is said she never sat down for a meal without first having fed nine orphans and 24 adults.

By Dr. Joe McAleer

Few things are more lethal to sanctity than wealth or power. But sometimes, very rarely, the Church has been blessed with saints amongst royalty. Even more rarely: Sometimes, there are more than one saint in a given royal family. Such was the case in Scotland in the Middle Ages.

Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland, whose feast day is Nov. 16, is one of two patrons of the country. The other is St. Andrew, Apostle (Nov. 30). Curiously, neither hailed from Scotland. Margaret was  born in Hungary in the year 1046. Andrew, of course, was a Galilean and a contemporary of Jesus.

But Scots can claim Margaret, unlike Andrew, as one of their own, for she lived her adult life among them as their queen, the spouse of King Malcolm III. According to contemporary accounts, Margaret was a beloved figure, wise, virtuous, benevolent, and pious; a mother of eight, including a future king and saint; a ruler who cared for the poor and launched an ecclesiastical reform that led to wider practice of the Catholic faith.

Margaret did it all. She was, in essence, a supermom.

Saintly uncle
Margaret was only half Hungarian; her father, Edward Atheling, was a royal prince, the son of King Edward Ironside. Returning to England when she was 11, Princess Margaret lived in the court of her uncle, King (later St.) Edward the Confessor, the only English monarch to be canonized. Saint Edward was renowned for his piety and kindness, qualities impressed upon the young princess. When William of Normandy invaded England in 1066, Margaret and her family fled north, taking refuge in the court of King Malcolm. The king was entranced, and they married in 1070, when Margaret was 24.

“To maintain justice, to establish religion, and to make their subjects happy appeared to be their chief object in life,” Butler’s Lives of the Saints claims of the royal couple. A contemporary observed that Queen Margaret “incited the king to works of justice, mercy, charity and other virtues, in which all by divine grace she induced him to carry out her pious wishes.”

It was, in fact, a golden age for Scotland, and Margaret, well-bred and formed, was entrusted by her husband to handle domestic affairs. She was more than up to the job, promoting the arts and education, and organizing synods to correct liturgical errors and sacrilegious practices. She led by example, making attendance obligatory at Mass on Sundays and feast days, and encouraging fasting. She imported sound priests and good teachers, established a guild to provide vestments and church furniture, and founded several churches and abbeys, including Holy Trinity in Dunfermline, where she and her husband are buried.

Her personal piety was well-known. “The small time which the queen allowed herself for sleep, and the retrenchment of all amusements and pastimes, procured her many hours in the day for her devotions,” recorded a contemporary, who noted that, during Advent and Lent, she rose at midnight to attend Mass.

Margaret’s concern for the poor was also renowned. She built hostels for the homeless and freely dispensed alms to beggars. It is said she never sat down for a meal without first having fed nine orphans and 24 adults. During Advent and Lent, the King and Queen would welcome 300 poor persons to their table, serving them as they were accustomed. 

Exemplary mother
Despite her busy schedule, Margaret found time to be an exemplary mother, raising two daughters and six sons. “She did not suffer them to be brought up in vanity, pride, or pleasures, which is too often the misfortune of those who are born in courts,” the contemporary account noted. “She inspired them with an early indifference to the things of the world, with the greatest ardor for virtue, the purest love of God, fear of his judgments, and dread of sin.”

A daughter, Matilda, followed her mother’s example as queen of England, consort to King Henry I. Her youngest son, David, ascended to the Scottish throne and was later canonized. He erected a memorial to his mother, St. Margaret’s Chapel, inside the walls of Edinburgh Castle. The austere building stands today and is the city’s oldest structure. 

Margaret died in 1093, only four days after her husband was slain in battle. In her grief-filled final hours, she is said to have cried out, “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.”

Pope Innocent IV canonized St. Margaret in 1250 “in recognition of her personal holiness, fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church, work for ecclesiastical reform, and charity.” Nine centuries after her death, St. Margaret remains a sterling example for us to admire and emulate.

Saint Margaret of Scotland, pray for us!


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