Margaret was born around 1045 in Hungary, the daughter of the exiled English Prince Edward "the Outlaw" Atheling of the English royal house of Wessex, and a German Princess named Agatha. Margaret was raised in the court of St. Stephen, King of Hungary. In 1057 when she was about 12, Margaret and her family returned to England, where the king was St. Edward the Confessor.
After the Norman conquest in 1066 and after her father's death in 1068, Agatha with her son and two daughters resolved to return to Hungary and embarked with that intent. Their ship was driven up the Firth of Forth to Dunfermline, where Malcolm III, king of Scotland, received them hospitably and granted them refuge. He very soon offered the whole family a permanent home with him and asked that the Princess Margaret should become his wife. Margaret, who was very devout and much impressed with the futility of earthly greatness, had very nearly determined to be a nun, but when Malcolm's request was made to Edgar, "the Childe said 'Yea,'" and Margaret was persuaded to marry the king as his second wife.
Malcolm III was born ca 1031 and founded the house of Canmore, which ruled Scotland for more than 200 years, and consolidated the power of the Scottish monarchy. He was the son of Duncan I, who was killed (1040) by Macbeth. Malcolm lived in exile until he defeated and killed (1057) Macbeth near Lumphanan in Aberdeenshire. He succeeded to the throne in 1058, and married Margaret ca. 1068-1070.
Her holiness and wisdom had an impact on Malcolm, causing him to be a better ruler. Malcolm regarded his wife with holy reverence, and with most devoted love followed her advice, and guided by her he became not only more religious and conscientious but more civilized and kinglike. The king's devotion to her and her influence over him were almost unbounded. He never refused or grudged her anything, nor showed the least displeasure when she took money out of his treasury for her charities. Although he could not read, he loved her books for her sake, handling them with affectionate reverence and kissing them. Sometimes he would take away one of her favorite volumes and send for a goldsmith to ornament it with gold and gems. When this was done, he would restore it to the queen as a proof of his devotion.
In addition to her influence with her husband and her sons, who later succeeded their father in ruling Scotland, Margaret took a direct role in helping the people of Scotland. She devoted time and money to works of charity, assisting the poor, the aged, orphans, and the sick. She also prevented a schism between the Roman Church and the Celtic Church, which had been cut off from Rome. In addition, she introduced European culture to Scotland, and did so more successfully than the forceful introduction in England under the Normans.
She was as saintly and self-denying on the throne as she could have been in the cloister. She at once perceived it to be her duty to benefit and elevate the people among whom it was her destiny to live, and this she undertook with the greatest of diligence and the most earnest piety. There existed so much barbarism in the customs of the people, so many abuses in the Church, so much on all hands to reform, that she called together the native clergy and the priests who had come with her, her husband acting as interpreter, and she spoke so well and so earnestly that all were charmed with her gracious demeanor and wise counsel and adopted her suggestions.
Margaret is credited with the introduction of English (Roman) usages into the Scottish church. Among other improvements, Margaret introduced the observance of Sunday by abstaining from servile work, "that if anything has been done amiss during the six days it may be expiated by our prayers on the day of the Resurrection." She influenced her people to observe the forty days' fast of Lent, and to receive the Holy Sacrament on Easter day, from which they had abstained for fear of increasing their own damnation because they were sinners. On this point she said that if the Savior had intended that no sinner should receive the Holy Sacrament, He would not have given a command which, in that case, no one could obey. "We," said she, "who many days beforehand have confessed and done penance and fasted and been washed from our sins with tears and alms and absorption, approach the table of the Lord in faith on the day of His Resurrection, not to our damnation but to the remission of our sins and in salutary preparation for eternal blessedness."
Margaret re-founded the monastery on the Island of Iona (originally founded by Saint Columba, an Irish missionary who found the monastery in 563 in an attempt to convert the Picts). One of her first acts as queen was to build a church at Dunfermline, where she had been married. She dedicated it to the Holy Trinity. She gave it all the ornaments that a church requires, amongst them golden cups, a handsome crucifix of gold and silver enriched with gems, and vestments for the priests. Her room was never without some of these beautiful things in preparation to be offered to the Church. It was like a workshop for heavenly artisans; capes for the singers, sacerdotal vestments, stoles, altar clothes were to be seen there; some made and some in progress. The embroideries were executed by noble young ladies who were in attendance on her.
No man was admitted to the room, unless she allowed him to come with her. She suffered no levity, no petulance, no frivolity, no flirtation. She was so dignified in her pleasantry, so cheerful in her strictness that every one both loved and feared her. No one dared to utter a rude or profane word in her presence.
She did much for the secular as well as for the religious improvement of her country. She caused traders from all lands to bring their goods, and thus introduced many useful and beautiful articles, until then unknown in Scotland. She induced the natives to buy and wear garments and stuffs of various colors. She is said to have introduced the tartans that afterwards became distinctive of Scottish costume. She instituted the custom that wherever the king rode or walked he should be accompanied by an escort, but the members of this band were strictly forbidden to take anything by force from any one, or oppress any poor person. She beautified the king's house with furniture and hangings, and introduced cups and dishes of gold and silver for the royal table. All this she did, not that she was fond of worldly show, but that the Court should be more decent and less barbarous than heretofore.
Numbers of captives were taken in the wars in raids between England and Scotland, and many English prisoners were living as slaves in Malcolm's lands. They were of somewhat better education and superior culture to the Scots and gradually advanced the civilization of their captors. Many of these were set free by the queen.
When she met poor persons, she gave them liberal alms, and if she had nothing of her own to left to give, she asked her attendants for something that she might not let Christ's poor go away empty-handed. the ladies, gentlemen, and servants who accompanied her took a pride and pleasure in offering her all they had, feeling sure that a double blessing would reward their alms when given through the saintly queen.
She provided ships at a place on the Firth of Forth, still called "The Queen's Ferry," that all persons coming from distant parts on pilgrimage to St. Andrews might be brought across the water free of charge. She also gave houses and servants on either shore for their accommodation, that they might find everything necessary for their repose and refreshment and might pay their devotions in peace and safety. Besides this, she built homes of rest and shelter for poor strangers in various places. From childhood she had diligently studied the Holy Writ and having a keen intelligence and an excellent memory, she knew and understood the Scriptures wonderfully well. She delighted to consult learned and holy men concerning the sacred writings, and as she had a great gift for expressing herself clearly, they often found themselves far wiser after a conversation with her. Her love for the holy books made her spend much time in reading and studying such of them as she had. She longed to possess more portions of the Word of God, and she sometimes begged Turgot and other learned clergymen to procure them for her. Margaret brought up her eight children very strictly and piously, instructing them in the Holy Scriptures and the duties of their station and associating them in her works of charity. She made a great point of their treating their elders with becoming respect. The fruit of her good training appeared in their lives for long years after her time.
There were many holy anchorites living in cells or caves in different parts of Scotland. These the queen occasionally visited, conversing with them and commending herself to their prayers. It was not uncommon in the ancient Celtic Church for devout secular persons to withdraw for a time from association with the rest of the world; they devoted themselves entirely to prayer and meditation for a long or short season, and then returned to the ordinary duties of life. A cave is still shown, not far from Dunfermline where tradition says this holy queen used to resort for solitude and prayer.
Her abstinence was so great and her care for her own needs or gratification so small that her feast days were like the fast days of others. She fasted so strictly that she suffered acutely all her life from pain in her stomach, but she did not lose her strength. She observed two Lenten seasons in each year - the forty days before Easter and the forty days before Christmas. During these periods of self-denial, her biographer says that after sleeping for a short time at the beginning of the night, she went into the church and said alone three sets of Matins, then the Offices of the Dead, then the whole Psalter, which lasted until the priests had said Matins and Lauds. She then returned to her room and there, assisted by the king, she washed the feet of six poor persons who were brought there by the chamberlain. After this, she "permitted her body to take a littel slepe or nodde". When it was morning she began her works of mercy again; while the psalms were being read to her, nine little destitute orphans were brought, and she took each on her lap and fed it with her own spoon. While she was feeding the babies, three hundred poor persons were brought into the hall and seated all round it. As soon as Margaret and the king came in, the doors were shut, only the chaplains and a few attendants being present while the king and queen waited upon Christ in the person of His poor, serving them with food and drink. After this meal, the queen used to go into the church and there, with tears and signs and many prayers, she offered herself a sacrifice to God. In addition to the "Hours", on the great festivals, she used to repeat the Psalter two or three times, and before the public Mass she had five or six private Masses sung in her presence. It was then time for her own dinner, but before she touched it she waited on the twenty-four poor people who were her daily care at all seasons; wherever she happened to be, they had to be lodged near the royal residence.
She had a Gospel Book which she particularly prized and often read. It had beautiful illuminated pictures, all the capital letters shining with gold. One of her people, when passing through a stream let it fall into the water, but was not aware of his loss and went on. By-and-by the book was missing and was looked for everywhere, and eventually found at the bottom of the stream; the pieces of silk that were between the leaves to prevent the letters rubbing against each other were washed away; the leaves were shaken to and fro by the movement of the water, but not a letter was obliterated. She gave thanks for its restoration and prized it more than ever. This book, with the water stain on the last leaf, is now in the Bodleian Library.
For more than six months before her death, Margaret could not ride on horseback and was often confined to bed. Malcolm invaded England many times after 1068. supporting the claim of his brother-in-law Edgar Atheling to the English throne. In 1072, however, he was forced to pay homage to William I, and in 1091, to William II. Shortly before Margaret's death, the king, against her advice, made a raid into Northumberland where he and her eldest son, Edward were slain by Norman forces at Alnwick. Malcolm died at Alnwick Castle on November 13, 1093. The queen, who had a presentiment of it, and said to those that were with her, "Perhaps this day a greater evil has happened to Scotland than any that has befallen it for a long time."
Three days after this, she felt a little better and went into her oratory to hear Mass and receive the Holy Communion. She then returned to bed, and growing rapidly worse, begged Turgot and the others who were present to keep commending her soul to Christ with psalms. She asked them to bring her the black rood, which she had brought from Hungary and always regarded with great veneration. It was of gold set with large diamonds and said to contain a piece of the actual cross of Christ. She devoutly kissed and contemplated it, and when she was cold with the chill of death, she still held it in both hands and kept praying and saying the fifty-first psalm.
Her son Edgar, who had gone with the king to Northumberland, came into her room to tell her of the death of his father and brother. Seeing his mother was dying, he was afraid to tell her the sad news; but she said, "I know, I know, I conjure you to tell me the truth," and having heard it, she praised God and died, just three days after her husband, on November 16, 1093 at Edinburgh Castle. The Annals of Ulster for 1093 say, "Maelcolaim Mac Donnacha sovereign of Alban and Echbarda his son, slain by the Franks. His queen, viz. Margarita, died through grief before the end of (three) days."
While her body still lay in Edinburgh Castle, Malcolm's brother, Donald Bane, assisted by the King of Norway, attacked the castle, but he only watched the gate, thinking the other parts of the fortification inaccessible. Margaret's family and her faithful attendants escaped by a postern called the West Yhet, taking with them the revered corpse. A thick mist hid them from the enemy. They crossed the sea and arrived without hindrance at Dunfermline, where they buried her according to her own wish. Malcolm was succeeded briefly by his brother Donald Bane. Margaret's brother, Edgar the Atheling took Margaret's children to England, and for fear of the Normans, gave them privately to friends and relations to be brought up. He afterwards helped to restore them to their country. Margaret's sons continued her work, which contributed greatly to a golden age in Scotland for two hundred years after her death. First to the throne was son, Duncan II. Three other sons also succeeded to the throne: Edgar (r. 1097-1107), Alexander I (r. 1107-24), and David I (r. 1124-53). Margaret and Malcolm's daughter, Edith, also known as Matilda, became the wife of England's King Henry I, the fourth son of William the Conqueror.
Margaret was worshipped without authority until 1250 or 1251 when she was canonized by Innocent IV who ordered her sacred body to be translated from its first tomb. On July 19, 1297, all the arrangements being made the men who were appointed to raise the body, found it impossible to do so; stronger men were ordered to lift it and tried in vain; still more men were brought, but all their strength was unavailing. Evidently the saint objected to what was being done. The clergy and all present prayed earnestly that the mysterious opposition might cease and the sacred rite be completed. After some time an inspiration was granted to a devout member of the congregation; namely, that the saint did not wish to be separated from her husband. As soon as they began to take up his coffin, that of his dutiful wife became quite light and easy to move, and both were laid on one bier and translated with ease to the honorable place prepared for them under the high altar.
In 1693 Innocent XII transferred Margaret's festival from the day of her death to June 10, though November 16 is still the day celebrated in Scotland. The bodies are said to have been acquired by Philip II, king of Spain, who placed them in the church of St. Lawrence in his new palace of the Escorial in two urns. The head of St. Margaret, after being in the possession of her descendant, Queen Mary Stuart, was secreted for many years be a Benedictine monk in Fife; thence it passed to Antwerp, and about 1627 it was translated to the Scotch college at Douai and there exposed to public veneration. It was still to be seen there in 1785; it was well preserved and had very fine fair hair. Neither the heads, the bodies nor the black rood can now be found, but the grave of Margaret may still be seen outside the present church of Dunfermline. Her oratory in Edinburgh castle is a small church with sturdy short pillars and a simple but beautiful ornamental pattern at the edge of its low rounded arches. It was falling to ruin when, in 1853, Queen Victoria had it repaired and furnished with colored glass windows.