Today is the feast day of Saint Margaret of Scotland. Ora pro nobis.
By Dom Prosper Gueranger
“One week has elapsed since the day on which we beheld Clotilde arise, and from yonder land of France won over to Christ by her, make known to the whole world, what is the special role of woman beside the cradle of a nation. Until Christianity came, man altogether lowered in his own person and in the social order, by the consequences of sin, was wholly ignorant of the grandeur of the divine intention, in this respect; philosophy and history never dreamed it possible that maternity could be raised to such heights. But since the Holy Ghost has been given to man to instruct him, both theoretically and practically, in all truth, examples have been multiplied whereby the wondrous vastness of the divine plan has been clearly set forth, strength and sweetness herein presiding, as ever, at the counsels of Eternal Wisdom.
Scotland had long been Christian, when Margaret was given to her, not to lead her to the baptismal font, but to establish, amidst a population so diversified and so often at mutual enmity, as was hers, that unity which makes a Nation. Ancient Caledonia defended by her lakes, mountains, and rivers, had, up to the fall of the Roman empire, kept her independence. But while herself inaccessible to invading troops, she had become the refuge of the vanquished of every race, and the proscribed of every epoch. Many an advancing wave that had paused and crouched at the feet of her granite frontiers had swept pitilessly over the Southern provinces of the great British island. Britons, Saxons, and Danes in turn, dispossessed and driven from their homes, fleeing northwards had successively crept in, and settling down, as best they might, had maintained their own customs, in juxtaposition with those of the first inhabitants, adding consequently their own mutual jealousies to the inveterate divisions of the Picts and Scots. But from the very evil itself, the remedy was to come. God, in order to show that he is master of revolutions, just as he is of the surging waves, was about to confide the execution of his merciful designs upon Scotland, to such casual instruments as a storm or a political overthrow may sometimes prove to be.
At the opening of the eleventh century, Danish invasion had driven from the English shore the sons of the Saxon king, Edmund Ironside. The crowned apostle of Hungary, Saint Stephen I, generously received the fugitives at his court, welcoming in these helpless children, the great-nephews of a Saint, namely Edward the Martyr. To the eldest, he gave his own daughter in marriage, and the second he affianced to the niece of St. Henry, Emperor of Germany. Of this last mentioned union, were born three children, Edgar, surnamed Atheling, Christian afterwards a nun, and Margaret whose feast the Church is keeping today. Ere long by the turning tide of fortune, the exile once more returned to their country and Edgar was brought to the very steps of the English throne. For in the meanwhile, the scepter had passed from the Danish princes, back again to the Saxon line, in the person of their uncle, Saint Edward the Confessor, and by very birth-right, seemed destined to pass ultimately to Edgar Atheling. But almost immediately after their return from exile, the death of St. Edward and the Norman conquest, again banished the royal Saxon family. The ship bearing these noble fugitives, bound for the continent, was driven in an opposite direction by a hurricane, and stranded on the Scottish shore. Edgar Atheling, despite the efforts of the Saxon party, was never to raise up the fallen throne of his sires; but his sister, the Saint of this day, made conquest of the land whither the storm, God’s instrument, had carried her.
Having become the wife of Malcolm III, her gentle influence softened the fierce instincts of the son of a Duncan, and triumphed over the barbarism still so dominant in those parts of the country, as to separate them utterly from the rest of the known world. The fierce highlander and haughty lowlander, reconciled at last, now followed their gentle queen along hitherto unknown paths, thrown open by her to the light of the Gospel. The strong now bent him down to meet the weak or the poor; and all alike, casting aside the rigidity of their hardy race, let themselves be captured by the alluring charms of Christian charity. Holy penitence resumed its rights over the gross instincts of mere nature. The frequentation of the sacraments once more brought into esteem, produced seasonable fruits. Everywhere, whether in Church or in state, abuses vanished. The whole kingdom became one family, whereof Margaret was called the Mother; for Scotland was born by her to true civilization. David I (inscribed like his mother in the catalogue of Saints) completed the work begun by her; and another child of Margaret’s, alike worthy of her, Matilda of Scotland, surnamed the “good Queen Maude,” was married to Henry I of England; and thus, an end was put on the English soil, to the persistent rivalries of victors and vanquished, by this admixture of Saxon blood with the Norman race. (4)
Saint Margaret was born about 1045. She was a daughter of Edward “Outremere”, or “the Exile”, and by Agatha, kinswoman of Gisela, the wife of St. Stephen of Hungary. She was the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside. She was little niece to St. Edward the Confessor. (3)
A constant tradition asserts that Margaret’s father and his brother Edmund were sent to Hungary for safety during the reign of Canute, but no record of the fact has been found in that country.
The date of Margaret’s birth cannot be ascertained with accuracy, but it must have been between the years 1038, when St. Stephen died, and 1057, when her father returned to England. It appears that Margaret came with him on that occasion and, on his death and the conquest of England by the Normans, her mother Agatha decided to return to the Continent. A storm however drove their ship to Scotland, where Malcolm III received the party under his protection, subsequently taking Margaret to wife. This event had been delayed for a while by Margaret’s desire to entire religion, but it took place some time between 1067 and 1070. (2)
After the Norman Conquest, many members of the English nobility, including Margaret, found refuge in the court of Malcolm III of Scotland. In 1070, Malcolm married Margaret and made her Queen of Scotland. (1)
God blessed this royal couple with a numerous and virtuous offspring. The queen was mother of six boys: Edward, Edmund, Edgar, Ethelred, Alexander, and David: and of two daughters; namely, Maud or Mathildes, married to Henry I., king of England, and Mary who married Eustache, count of Bologne. Of the sons Edgar, Alexander, and David I., successively came to the crown of Scotland, and all governed with the highest reputation of wisdom, valour, and piety; especially king David, who may be justly styled the brightest ornament of that throne. The happiness of these princes and that of the whole kingdom in them, was owing, under God, to the pious care of queen Margaret in their education. 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. She inspired them with an early indifference to the things of the world, with the greatest ardour for virtue, the purest love of God, fear of his judgments, and dread of sin.
She chose for them the ablest preceptors and governors, persons eminently endued with the spirit of piety and religion; and would suffer none but such to approach them, being sensible that tender minds receive the strongest and most lasting impressions from the behaviour of those with whom they converse, especially masters. Instructions are dry, but the words and actions of persons breathe the spirit and sentiments of their hearts, and insensibly communicate the same to others, especially where this influence is strengthened by authority.
The zealous mother watched over the masters, examined the progress of her children, and often instructed them herself in all Christian duties. No sooner were the young princesses of an age capable of profiting by her example, than she made them her companions in her spiritual exercises and good works. She daily by most fervent prayers and tears conjured Almighty God to preserve their innocence, and fill their souls with the sentiments of those virtues. She extended her care and attention to her servants and domestics, and the sweetness and tender charity with which she seasoned her lessons, rendered her endeavours the more effectual. By her prudent zeal and example, concord, charity, modesty, religion, piety, and devotion reigned in the whole court, in which virtue was the only recommendation to the royal favour, and to want devotion was the most certain disgrace. (3)
Margaret impressed the Scottish court both with her knowledge of continental customs and also with her piety. For the love of God she imposed upon herself severe mortifications, leaving aside the superfluous and often even the necessary. She influenced her husband and son to govern better and introduced Catholic customs, manners and ceremony to the Scottish court. She raised her sons in great piety and one, David, was later canonized. Above all she excelled in her zealous charity for her neighbor. She was called “the mother of orphans” and “the bursar for the poor of Jesus Christ.”
King Malcolm, after his war against William the Conqueror in Northumberland, was disturbed by a rebellion of the Highlanders both in the north and west of Scotland. He composed the north in person; and Walter his general reduced to obedience the rebels in the west. Malcolm from that time applied himself to improve his kingdom by the arts of peace. He first reformed his own family; and afterwards enacted sumptuary laws, and remedied abuses which had crept in among the people. He built the cathedral of Durham and made the abbot of that place bishop of St. Andrew’s, and added the bishoprics of Murray and Caithness to the former four in Scotland. He concurred with his queen in founding the monastery of the Holy Trinity at Dumfermlin.
St. Margaret, by her wise counsels, had perfectly convinced her royal consort that the love of peace is the first duty of him who is the common father of his people; war being the greatest of all temporal calamities. Those warlike princes whose heads were crowned with laurels, and whose triumphs dazzle the world, and swell the pages of history with so much pomp, were the scourges of the earth, especially of their own nations, at least in the ages wherein they lived; and their sounding achievements and victories, when placed in the light in which faith commands us to consider them, will appear no better than a long series of boundless ambition, murders, plunder of whole countries, and the most heavy oppression of their own people.
Malcolm, however, did not forget that it is an indispensable duty of a king to be expert in war, and always in readiness. William Rufus, who came to the throne of England in 1037, surprised the castle of Alnwick in Northumberland, and put the garrison to the sword. Malcolm demanded restitution, which being denied, he besieged it. The English garrison being reduced to great extremity, offered to surrender, and desired the king to come and receive the keys with his own hand; but the soldier who presented them to him upon the point of a spear, by a base treachery thrust the spear into his eye whilst the king was stretching out his hand to take the keys, and killed him. His son Edward carried on the siege to revenge the death of his father, but advancing too eagerly was slain in an assault. Whereupon the Scots were so much afflicted that they raised the siege and retired, having buried their king and prince at Tinmouth. Their bodies were soon after removed to Dumfermlin. Malcolm reigned thirty-three years, and died in 1093. His name is found in some Scottish calendars enrolled among the saints.
Saint Margaret lay at the same time on her death-bed. Theodoric gives the following account of her last sickness: “She had a foresight of her death long before it happened; and speaking to me in secret, she began to repeat to me in order her whole life, pouring out floods of tears at every word with unspeakable compunction; so that she obliged me also to weep; and sometimes we could neither of us speak for sighs and sobs. At the end she spoke thus to me: Farewell; for I shall not be here long: you will stay some little time behind me. Two things I have to desire of you: the one is, that so long as you live, you remember my poor soul in your masses and prayers: the other is, that you assist my children, and teach them to fear and love God. These things you must promise me here in the presence of God, who alone is witness of our discourse.” She survived this about half a year, during which she was seldom able to rise out of bed, and her pains daily increased upon her, which she bore with incredible patience, in silence and prayer. In the expedition into Northumberland mentioned above, she endeavoured to dissuade her husband from marching with his army; but he that only time dissented from her advice, imagining it to proceed only from concern for his safety, and reflecting that the presence of a sovereign raises the courage of the soldiery.
His death happened four days before that of the queen. She, on the day he was killed, appeared melancholy and sad, and said to those about her: “Perhaps this day a greater evil hath befallen Scotland than any this long time.” On the fourth day, her pains being somewhat abated, she got up, and went into her oratory, where she received the holy Viaticum. Then feeling the redoublement of her fever with her pains return upon her, she laid herself down again, and desired her chaplains to recite the psalms by her, and to recommend her soul to God. In the mean time she called for the black cross. She embraced, and signed herself frequently with it; then held it with both her hands before her, and with her eyes fixed upon it, recited the Miserere psalm and other prayers. Her son Edgar coming in from the army, she asked him how his father and brother did? He, fearing to alarm her, said they were well. She answered him: “I know how it is.” Then, lifting up her hands to heaven, she praised God, saying: “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.” Not long after, finding her last moments to approach, she repeated from the prayers of the church for that occasion, the following aspiration: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who by thy death hast given life to the world, deliver me from all evil.” Praying thus, she was loosed from the bonds of her mortal body on the 16th of November, 1093, in the forty-seventh year of her age.
In 1250 Margaret was canonized by Innocent IV, and her relics were translated on 19 June, 1259, to a new shrine, the base of which is still visible beyond the modern east wall of the restored church. At the Reformation her head passed into the possession of Mary Queen of Scots, and later was secured by the Jesuits at Douai, where it is believed to have perished during the French Revolution. According to George Conn, “De duplici statu religionis apud Scots” (Rome, 1628), the rest of the relics, together with those of Malcolm, were acquired by Philip II of Spain, and placed in two urns in the Escorial. When, however, Bishop Gillies of Edinburgh applied through Pius IX for their restoration to Scotland, they could not be found. (2)
In 1673, Pope Clement X named her the patroness of Scotland, over which she had reigned for almost a quarter century.” (1)
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