Stories of the Saints - Grace Hall

St Margaret of Scotland

As France was blessed with a saintly King, or, might one not as well say a kingly Saint, in Louis IX, so Scotland had a saintly Queen in Margaret.

Early in the eleventh century, when England was ruled by two kings, the Danish Canute shared the throne with Edmund Ironsides, son of Ethelred the Unready. When in 1017 Edmund had been traitorously killed, Canute sent the two sons of the latter to Sweden, ostensibly to be educated there until old enough to share with him the throne of England, more probably to be there quietly put out of the fierce Dane's way forever.

But the Swedish king, being of a different temper and mind, found means of sending the two princes to Hungary, where at the time reigned that other member of the group of saintly kings, Stephen.

This kind monarch made the princes welcome at his court. The elder, however, died while still in his youth, and the younger, known as Edward the Stranger, in course of time married the sister of King Stephen's queen. Of this marriage with the Princess Agatha, Margaret was the eldest child. Later a son was born, Edgar Atheling, and on him the parents built hopes of their future house, but it was the children of Margaret who were destined to be rulers of England and Scotland, and not those of Edgar.

While Edward the Stranger and his wife and children lived peacefully in Hungary, events occurred which led to their return to England.

In his day Ethelred the Unready had added crime to folly when he had permitted the Massacre of St Brice's Day. In this Gunhilda, beloved sister of Sweyn of Norway, was killed, and Sweyn, maddened with grief and pain, had plunged down like a wolf on the fold and laid England low under his sword. He himself died broken-hearted, leaving his son Canute to reap the benefits of the conquest. When Canute's son, Hardicanute, died without heir in 1042, another son of Ethelred the Unready came into power, thus restoring the throne to the Saxon dynasty. The cause of his ability to recapture the sovereignty lay in the fact that the Norwegians were too much occupied with battle and conquest elsewhere to give their attention to England. So it was that the brother of Edmund Ironsides, Edward, afterward called the Confessor, came to the throne.

In the heart of this gentle prince, who had himself known exile in Normandy, dwelt sympathy for his nephew, the Stranger Edward in Hungary, so, when he found himself firmly established on the throne, he sent messengers to invite Edward back to England, asking him to bring his family to settle in peace and amity in the country of his birth.

With gratitude the invitation was accepted, and when Margaret was twelve years old the family journeyed from Hungary to England, followed by the good wishes and laden with the gifts of their long-time hosts.

Edward was to be no longer the Stranger; he was returning to what he had always thought of as home, but his joy was short-lived—when he had been three days in England he fell ill and died.

Edward Atheling might then have been thought destined to be the rightful successor to Edward the Confessor, but he was a weak and delicate youth, and the men of England had set their hearts on the stalwart hero Harold, Earl Godwin, and at Edward's death in 1066 made Harold king. He had reigned only a few months when came the Norman invasion, the Battle of Hastings, and the death of Harold.

It was then that the Princess Agatha, realizing that to remain in England could only mean the subjection of her family to the Norman conqueror, William, sailed away from England and made her way to Scotland.

Malcolm Canmore, son of that Duncan who was murdered by Macbeth, whom Malcolm in turn killed at Dunsinane, was then King of Scotland.

He was in his fortress castle of Dunfermline when messengers came to him with the news that an English ship had sailed into the Firth of Forth, fleeing before a storm, that a company of noble travellers had landed and now craved his hospitality. The messengers specially mentioned a maiden "of incomparable beauty, and pleasant and jocund speech" who made one of the party. This was the Princess Margaret.

Malcolm sent his "wisest counsellors" to meet the strangers and bid them welcome, and to say that the King himself was on his way to greet them. Hurried preparations were made for the reception of the guests, but they can have had but crude results, for of ease and of luxury, of beauty or of refinements, there were none in Malcolm's Tower.

Meanwhile, all unsuspecting of his impending happy fate, the King strode down the steep path leading from his dwelling, through the autumn woods, to the shore where the little group of strangers awaited him.

There before him stood the tall and stately Princess, fair as a lily and radiant as an angel, who was to fill his life with all the beauty and goodness it was to know.

What the Princess saw was a giant, crowned with tawny hair, whose glowing eyes rested upon her with awed admiration, eyes which none the less one could imagine filled with the savage fire of a relentless cruelty. She saw a king among men, fierce toward his enemies, but toward her destined to be always the gentlest and most adoring of lovers.

During the winter that followed Margaret won her way into the hearts of all the retainers of her host. Her bright presence filled the gloomy tower with light, her practical ability and solid understanding brought order to the rough and chaotic household, her charm made possible the making of changes and bringing of beauty to it without giving offence, her serenity smoothed away difficulties, her joyousness brought cheer.

The result of the prolonged visit was that in the following spring of 1069, to the delight of all the Scottish court and of every one concerned, Malcolm Canmore and the Princess Margaret were united in marriage.

The wedding was solemnized with all possible state; the festivities lasted for days; minstrels sang prophetically of the bright life to follow upon this bright beginning.

Indeed, never was married life more perfect in union than that of Malcolm and Margaret. Her genius for "sweet ordering, arrangement, and accord," brought about insensibly through the years improvements which made of the primitive court she had arrived in, with its rough and homely manners, a court indeed, where dignity and high regard for ceremony were maintained.

A charming story is told, which well illustrates the Queen's method of bringing about civilizing changes. At the end of her banquets it was her custom to ask her chaplain to say grace. But the Scottish nobles saw no reason for remaining until the end of the repast, if they had finished eating. In consequence it often happened that by the time the chaplain said grace few or none of the courtiers were there to hear it.

The Queen made no comment upon the incivility of their brusque departure from her table, or their disrespect for the prayer of thanks to God, but one day invited them all to remain until the end of the feast, when, she told them, after grace flagons of her choicest wine should be served to them, of which she asked them to drink a cup. The company, therefore, remained until grace had been said and the promised cup had been drunk in the Queen's honour. Thereafter she was no longer disturbed by the dispersal of the guests before the meal's end—the Grace Cup from that day became a custom which endured for centuries.

Of her savage giant the Queen in time made no saint like herself, to be sure, but she taught him the Scriptures by gradual degrees, and through her simple daily example led him to feel the sweetness of seeking the Kingdom of God.

Her beauty, her goodness, her wit, were a never-failing source of wonder and delight to him. He loved her possessions because they were hers, her books because she loved them, and though he never learned to read them, he was often seen reverently to hold them, and kiss the pages from which she had been reading.

Few tales of wonder or miracle are told of Margaret. The great miracle that she wrought was that of leading a rude and semi-barbarous country and people into the paths of belief and civilization. But one story comes to us about a favourite copy of the Gospels which she always kept beside her. Her study of the Scriptures was constant, and this volume was one of peculiar value, illustrated with paintings of the four Evangelists and decorated with illuminated capitals. The King had once stolen it from the shelf where it was kept and had caused the volume to be richly bound and embellished with gold and precious stones. Wherever the Queen travelled this book accompanied her, being put in the special charge of some one of her retainers.

It happened on a certain journey that this retainer carelessly permitted the volume to slip from the silk and leather casings in which it was carried, and went on, unconscious of its loss.

When the Queen later asked for her book, it was nowhere to be found, nor was search of any avail.

More than a week later another of the Queen's servants, traversing the road on which the book had been lost, in fording a stream, was overjoyed to find the lost volume lying submerged near the edge of the water. For days the stream had been flowing over the open pages of the book, yet when it was taken out and dried not a trace of the exposure remained to bear witness to the accident. The leaves were as smooth and white, the colours as brilliant, and the gold as undimmed as before.

Margaret's chronicler states it as his opinion that "this wonder was worked by Our Lord, out of His love for the venerable Queen."

The precious volume still exists and is now kept in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

Margaret's care of the poor was another direction in which Malcolm lavished upon her his generous all, for to give her the pleasure of feeding and clothing her charges he often drained the royal treasury well-nigh dry.

The news of all her good works and those of the King was in time carried afar into other kingdoms by travellers and released prisoners.

It once happened that all these things came to the ears of one who had in the past been a bitter enemy of Malcolm. When a pilgrim told him how he had heard that whosoever arrived at the Scottish Court poor, sick, or weary, the Queen tended him and the King fed him with his own hands, the former enemy of Malcolm refused to believe these rumours.

But," said the pilgrim, "that which I say is known to all. I have heard it not once but many times."

"Is it of thine own knowledge and experience that thou dost quote?"

"Nay, not of my own, but that of many with whom I have spoken."

"How simple," replied the doubter, "to spread tales of generosity and of sanctity! For what is more easy than bribery?"

"Go, then, and see for thyself," said the pilgrim. "Truly, I will," replied the other.

[Illustration] from Stories of the Saints by Grace Hall


To make his case appear more piteous he injured his foot with a stone and, disguised as a beggar, made his way to Dunfermline. When he arrived near the castle gates he found waiting before them a crowd of poor women and men, although it was not yet near the noon hour. At noon the gates were opened and all were admitted to the square courtyard where tables were spread, and to which presently descended a man and a woman in simple homespun garb. These without delay began to minister to the wants of the needy ones. To some they distributed clothing, to some medicaments, and to all food; some there were whose feet they bathed, and some whom they detained and sent into the castle for further care.

The sceptic immediately recognized that these were the King and Queen, for their plain attire could not hide the dignity and beauty of their regal bearing.

When his turn had come to receive attention, the man said to the King:

"My lord, as thou mayest see, my foot is wounded and would perhaps fare better at the hands of a woman."

"True," answered Malcolm; "when thou hast eaten, the Queen shall bind thy foot."

Later, Margaret came to him and, kneeling before him as humbly as any handmaiden, bathed his feet, anointed them, and bound his wound. Then rising she commended him to God's care and bade him go upon his way.

"Not until I have knelt before thee, gentle Queen, and craved thy pardon and that of thy royal consort for the ill thoughts I harboured until now." When he had told her his name and station, she led him to the King, who recognized him as one formerly hostile to the royal house of Scotland; he now made of him an honoured guest, detained him for the night, richly entertained him at his own table, and let him depart on the following morning carrying honour and praise in his heart for those of whom he had before had only thoughts of fear and derision.

Early in their married life an event occurred which settled once and for all the possibility of misunderstanding or estrangement between the King and Queen.

It was Malcolm's custom, when he was not away on campaign and battle bent, to hunt in the vast stretches of forest that surrounded the Tower. He hunted no tame and harmless quarry, but wolves and wild boars. These chases were filled with danger which to him constituted their charm, and it was Margaret's custom, when he had set out upon a day's hunt, to retire to a little cave, of which she had made for herself an oratory. This natural cave was situated at some distance from the Tower, down a steep path in a secluded part of the wood. Here she spent the period of the chase in prayer for her lord's safety and welfare, both spiritual and physical.

A youth of the court, one cannot divine with what intent, unless from pure malice, had for some time been dropping insidious words into the King's ear. He spoke to him of the Queen's beauty and youth, leading him to realize his own middle age and rude appearance; he spoke of her erudition, which made Malcolm's comparative ignorance the more glaring in his own eyes; he spoke of the Queen's delicacy and refinement, which made the great warrior wince at his own uncouth manners. In short, he awakened in the King's mind whispering doubts of the Queen's love for him who was so unworthy of her favour. The next time he departed for the chase, after Margaret had bidden him a tender and smiling farewell, the youth returned to the charge. He wondered the Queen could look so gay in taking leave of her lord, departing on a sport so dangerous. How, he wondered, did the Queen spend the hours of the King's absence? It was said that she, too, spent her time in the forest. . . . Young and lovely ladies seldom loved solitude. . . . Maybe she found diversions of her own to wile the heavy hours.

A fury of jealousy mounted to the King's brain; he held it in bounds, only determining to discover for himself how his wife spent the time of his absences.

The next day the chase began as usual, but, unseen of his followers, Malcolm early retraced his steps, and was just in time to see Margaret threading her way down the path from the castle and into the wood below. He followed her at a distance, unseen. Soon she came to her oratory and entered. Losing sight of her, Malcolm darted forward, and arrived suddenly before the cave. From it issued Margaret's voice raised in prayer. He listened: she prayed passionately, with all her out-poured heart . . . for him . . . that God would bring him into His great light, and teach him that it would profit him nothing to gain the world if he gained not his own soul.

With a groan Malcolm sank to the earth, his drawn sword resounding on the stones. Margaret, startled from her orisons, appeared at the mouth of the cave. What was her bewilderment at seeing the King prostrate before her. She raised him and questioned him, and he, confessing, told her all—his suspicions, his subterfuge to discover the truth, and now his contrition and shame. Easily she forgave and won him to a new point of spiritual progress and devotion. Henceforth he was willing "to watch the night in prayer by her side," at first only to please her, until at length he found comfort and peace in the exercise of the religious practices to which she led him.

Another story gives evidence of Margaret's gay courage, her stout-hearted and gallant humour.

As she constantly accompanied Malcolm, even on his wildest and roughest journeys, one nobleman was appointed her chamberlain and charged with responsibility for the Queen's safety on the way.

This post fell to a youth by the name of Bartulph. Whenever, then, the Queen travelled she rode on Bartulph's horse, and if need were, clung to him to keep her place behind him in going over rough and steep paths.

On a certain occasion a journey was made after heavy rains had turned the streams into turbulent torrents. Bartulph and the Queen were separated from the King's party, and coming to a fording place were obliged to make the crossing alone and unaided.

For greater safety Bartulph clasped a heavy leather belt about the Queen's waist, and fastened this by a stout buckle to his saddle. Then he rode his horse boldly into the flood. When they had reached mid-stream, the poor animal had the utmost difficulty in retaining his footing, for the torrent was powerful and threatened to carry away all three to their doom.

Bartulph's attention was perforce given to controlling the floundering horse, and Margaret must certainly have been swept from its back had it not been for the belt, the buckle, and Bartulph's forethought in so anchoring her. Wet and cold, in danger of her life, and with good cause for fear, the Queen silently held to her place, until Bartulph, having found footing for his struggling and panting beast, shouted over his shoulder above the torrent's roar: "Grip hard, we'll win owre yet!"

"Gin the buckle bide," answered the Queen, still clinging desperately, and we can almost hear the chuckle that accompanied the brief utterance.

When, at the journey's end that night, the Queen, arrayed again in royal splendour, related to her lord the adventures of the day, she laughingly told of the laconic conversation which in the moment of danger had taken place between Bartulph and herself, and the King granted the Queen's chamberlain the right to adorn his shield with buckles, and to take for his device the words, "Grip hard! "

Later, Bartulph married the King's sister, and this was the origin of the great Scottish house of Leslie, whose motto is still "Grip Hard," and whose shield still shows its band of buckles.

In course of time six sons and two daughters were born to Margaret, whom she brought up in the paths of Christian love and wisdom—children worthy to become rulers, as later some among them did.

A volume might well be filled with the story of the Queen's charities; of the slaves she set free (it was her freeing so many of Malcolm's English prisoners that caused her to be as much loved and venerated in England as in Scotland), of the laws that she established; of the churches, abbeys, schools, monasteries, and hospices that she founded; of the seemly and civilizing customs that she instituted; of all the good works that she accomplished in the twenty-four eventful years of her reign in Scotland.

In all this time she herself was treading the path to that perfection, as it was viewed in her day, which resulted in her being named a Saint: her penances and prayers were increasing, she chastised her body in order to free and develop her soul. Nor, happy as was her existence, can it be said that no shadow of grief lay upon it.

Malcolm was all love and tenderness where she was concerned, but not even her gentle influence could make him anything but savage in his dealings with his enemies. The Great Head, as he was called, was terrible in war. Five times he invaded England and laid waste the country he crossed with fire and sword, slaying men, women, and children, or driving them in hordes back to Scotland as slaves. Then, too, her second son, Edmund, unlike the rest of her children, was a source of sorrow and anxiety. Undoubtedly led astray by the influence of Malcolm's rebellious younger brother, Donald Bane, Edmund was guilty of disloyalty to his father, and was for this stripped of his royal rank. He later repented, however, and retired to a monastery, where he spent the rest of his days.

As time wore on St Margaret, wearied by her labours of state, her journeys to all corners of the kingdom administering charity and justice, her labours at home, her fastings and austerities, fell a prey to a lingering illness; she wasted away daily, yet bore her suffering and growing weakness with a marvellous courage and cheerful tranquillity. She saw with clear eye her impending death, but was undismayed; she, on the contrary, welcomed her pain and relied upon it to purify and prepare her to meet her God.

When Malcolm had made his raids into England, William the Conqueror had been too much occupied in the south to offer him resistance. When, however, William found himself securely settled on the throne, and had reduced his realm to a proper state of subjection, he determined to go into the north, settle his score with the Scottish King, and reduce him also to such subjection that no more invasions should be feared from him. He, therefore, gathered a large army and advanced upon Scotland. Having crossed the Forth, he met Malcolm's forces at Abernethy. There could be no doubt of the issue of the battle. William's forces far exceeded those of Malcolm, and had it not been for the intervention of Edgar Atheling, who was now a pensioner of William, the Scottish arms would have suffered complete defeat. But through the good offices of Edgar a treaty was arranged. Malcolm promised to keep the peace, and William consented to allow him to hold the territory of Cumberland.

Yet after William's death, his son, William Rufus, unwilling to abide by his father's agreement, made preparations to take from Malcolm the land granted him by the treaty; so Malcolm, with the intention of forestalling him, determined to descend into Northumberland and protect his rights to Cumberland.

In vain the Queen pleaded with him not to leave her. Her illness had so told upon her that she could not face the anguished suspense of his absence. She entreated him to let Rufus take Cumberland if he would, but for love of her, not to leave her! Malcolm, never having realized the serious nature of her illness, tenderly laughed at her anxieties, and continued his preparations.

She then besought him not to take with him her two eldest sons, Edward and Edgar, both of whom were now thought old enough to accompany their father on his campaign.

Her prayers were of no avail. Princes must earn the right to bear their title, said the King, and in a short time he would return with his two sons, and she should greet them proudly and hear with a high heart the tales of their daring deeds.

Heavy with foreboding, the Queen bowed her head as always to her lord's will. They were salt tears and quivering sighs she wove into the embroidered banner which she made for the King.

Surrounded by her ladies she stood on the battlements of Edinburgh Castle and watched the departure of her loved ones, waving them a last farewell.

A mournful silence settled upon the days that followed. With breaking heart she awaited tidings of the battle; wearily, painfully, she dragged herself to her chapel; at the foot of the altar she prayed without ceasing.

Added to her fears for the outcome of the war with the English was another equally sharp fear. Donald Bane, followed by a band of malcontents, had risen in arms and lay in waiting, ready to take advantage of any misfortune that might overtake Malcolm's arms in the south.

At last, one day when her confessor had come to her, trying to bring her cheer and hope for the future, she of a sudden laid her hand on his, and with eyes gazing beyond the visible objects before her, spoke in a low voice as if unconsciously: "Perhaps to-day a great evil has fallen on the Scots, such as has not happened to them for many ages past!"

Prophetic utterance!

On that day, and in that hour, Malcolm had met his death.

He was laying siege to Alnwick, and the Northumbrians proposed to surrender, when a Norman knight undertook to deal with the Great Head himself. He agreed to the surrender, but Malcolm himself must come to take the keys from him. The King consented, and rode forward toward the gates to receive them. The knight, making as if to hand over the keys to him on the end of a spear, suddenly lunged forward, piercing Malcolm in the eye. The King fell backward dead. In the confusion that followed, Edward also was killed, with many of his followers. Edgar, with the remnants of his father's army, retreated into Scotland. The return of the lad, who was little more than a stripling, was made the gloomier by the dread of breaking the disastrous news to his mother.

Meanwhile, the Queen lay dying, surrounded by her weeping children and attendants. She prayed even while the chill of death crept over her. The priests, after giving her the last rites, were recommending her soul to Heaven when the blast of a horn sounded without the castle walls, and in a moment Edgar burst into the room. He was worn with sorrow of his losses and weariness of his journey, and now, at sight of his mother lying white and still, his boyish heart was near breaking. He sank sobbing beside her.

Margaret, who had been all but lifeless until his entrance, now seemed to revive, and, laying her hand on Edgar's bowed head, asked:

"How fare thy father and thy brother, my child?"

"They are well," replied Edgar.

"I know it—I know it," said Margaret, "but now by the Holy Cross I adjure thee, Edgar, tell me the truth. How fares it with the King and Edward?"

"The King and Edward are both slain," confessed the boy, and told of his father's traitorous murder.

When the bystanders heard the tale, and the day and the hour of its occurrence, they recalled the Queen's words: "Perhaps to-day a great evil has befallen the Scots . . ."

Then the Queen, after blessing her children, prayed again: "Lord Jesus Christ who, according to the will of the Father, hast by Thy death given life to the world, deliver me."

With the words "deliver me," St Margaret, Princess of Hungary and England, Queen of Scotland, died, on the 16th of November, 1093.

Breath had no sooner left her body than consternation spread throughout the castle. Donald Bane had appeared with his forces at the gates. He had heard of Malcolm's death and the rout of the Scottish army, and had come to reap a swift advantage from them. Woe now to the children of Malcolm!

But the spirit of Margaret was still strong to protect her own.

The staunch inmates of the castle were willing to hold the fortress while the royal princes made their escape.

The forces of Donald were at the gate, but the stronghold of Edinburgh Castle was not surrounded—the steep eastern rock was free. The Queen's body was reverently lowered down the declivity, and the royal children, with Edgar at their head, and their attendants made good their escape by the same way, while miraculously a thick white mist arose and enveloped them, keeping them hidden as they threaded their way through the forest, across the Forth, and so to the protection of Edgar Atheling.

When at last Donald Bane succeeded in entering the castle, the quarry he sought had flown.

St Margaret's body was buried in the Church of the Holy Trinity which she had built at Dunfermline. Not until twenty years later were Malcolm's remains brought from Tynemouth, where they had been interred, and placed beside hers.

In 1250 she was formally canonized by Pope Innocent IV, but the "Good Queen" had been canonized a century and a half before in the hearts of her people, who even during her life had called her Saint.

When at the time of her canonization her body was taken from its old tomb to be placed in a new and magnificently decorated silver shrine, a marvel occurred. As the bearers carried her remains past the spot where lay the body of Malcolm, they felt the Saint's relics grow so heavy that there was no carrying them farther. Try as they would, they could not move them. What was to be done? After much agitation, confusion, and fruitless effort, the voice of an aged monk arose quaveringly:

"The Queen desires that in death her husband should share her honours," he said.

Malcolm was therefore raised from his resting-place and laid beside his Queen. Then, giving proof of her assent and approval, the Queen suffered herself to be carried on with the King to the new shrine. Until death she wished to cleave to him—and after.