St. Margaret of Scotland: A Royal Lay Saint for Everyone
Every once in a while, I hear people mention that there do not seem to be very many married Catholic saints.
First, I would like to suggest that there are actually more married saints than we often realize. In fact, there is whole book entitled Married Saints and Blesseds Through the Centuries which covers over 200 saints.
St. Margaret of Scotland is one of those married saints. Although she was royalty, I believe that she certainly is someone that everyone, perhaps women in particular, can relate to rather easily. First, despite being a princess and a queen, her life was no bed of roses. Second, she placed her family of her husband and eight children ahead of her royal position. And third, she used her gifts and talents to refine her rather rough-around-the-edges husband as well as to do a great deal of good outside the walls of her home. She was a very hands-on type of person who conducted herself with grace and humility.
Finally, the little story I will share about her might resonate with any wife who has ever been misperceived or misunderstood by her husband who then acts without thinking.
Let's start at the beginning.
Born in Hungary and Raised in the Court of a Saint
Although she is known as Margaret of Scotland and actually of Anglo-Saxon royalty, she was actually born in the modern day country of Hungary around the year 1045. As part of the Anglo-Saxon nobility, it is believed that her parents were in some sort of exile from England for reasons that are not clear. Margaret's father was Edward Atheling who was a successor to the English throne, and her mother was the Hungarian Princess Agatha. She had two siblings--Christine and Edgar. Her lineage included being the grand niece of St. Stephen of Hungary and the great-grandniece of St. Edward the Confessor.
From her eleventh to her twentieth years, she lived in the court of her great-granduncle King Edward. However, as you might remember from your European history the situation in England changed dramatically in the year 1066. First, King Edward died in January of 1066, and he was succeeded by Harold who was his brother-in-law. Then, at the Battle of Hastings on October 14th of that fateful year, William the Conqueror defeated King Harold, and King Harold himself was killed in the battle.
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Escape, Shipwreck, and King Malcolm
Suddenly, as William assumed power, it was not safe to be part of the old royal family, and Margaret and her brother Edgar were put on a ship to escape to the continent where their mother Agatha had already returned. A storm sent the ship in a different direction and they shipwrecked on the coast of Scotland. The refugee royals were taken to King Malcolm III who warmly received them.
Soon Malcolm came to admire young Margaret for her beauty and virtues. It was an interesting match. Malcolm was an unrefined, uneducated head of a royal court that was fairly rough and tumble. Margaret had been brought up in the more pious and refined court of Edward. She was educated and possessed the graces expected of a young Christian lady of the court. What they shared was a good heart. Beneath his uncultured ways, Malcolm had a good heart and Margaret perceived that.
Even when Malcolm expressed his interest in her, Margaret herself was not immediately sure that she wanted to marry him. First, she had to discern whether she had call to the religious life. However, she eventually felt called to the married life and the couple was married in the year 1070.
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The Married Life of the King and Queen
From all accounts, they had a very happy marriage. Margaret gave birth to six sons and two daughters. Three of the sons, Edgar, Alexander, and St. David were kings of Scotland. And one daughter Matilda was the queen of Henry I of England.
Malcolm had the deepest respect for Margaret, and he allowed her to refine him as she did in her gentle way over the years. Over time he learned better manners, controlled his temper, and in general became a much more virtuous husband and king. Because of her piety, Malcolm was very keen to not offend his queen and over time, he learned to love what she loved, and to reject what she rejected.
Margaret's Influence on Malcolm, the Court, and Scotland
Margaret brought a great deal of civility to the Scottish royal court. For example, she found that even at royal banquets, after someone had had their fill, he was likely to just get up from the table to leave without excusing themselves or saying a prayer after the meal. In her wisdom,
Margaret changed this practice by introducing the Grace Cup. At one banquet, everyone at the table was invited to stay after the final grace in order to receive a cup with a premium wine to be drunk in the queen's honor. No one refused such an invitation, and so for the first time, everyone remained until the end of the meal, were led in a final prayer by the chaplain, and enjoyed a good cup of wine. Over time, this practice became the custom for each meal and became a part of Scottish culture well beyond the walls of the castle.
Even as she was very hands on in raising and providing and education for her children, Margaret was involved in affairs of the state as she was often consulted by the king who had great respect for her wisdom. She was involved in helping the poor and encouraging the king to enact more just laws. The king and queen were frequent visitors to hospitals and prisons where they themselves would serve the ill. And, daily, Margaret assisted in providing alms to the needy.
Throughout her reign as queen, Margaret encouraged the arts and education, and she was especially keen on supporting the Church. At her request several synods were held in order bring about reform among the clergy and to curb simony, usury, and invalid marriages. These synods also helped regulate the Lenten fast and insure observance of the Easter communion. Through Malcolm and Margaret, several new churches were built.
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Margaret's Spiritual Life and Last Days
All of this activity was fueled by a regular prayer life and detachment from the world. Margaret might have worn the robes of royalty, but she knew that it was nothing to which she should be attached. Instead, she closely guarded her time for prayer and for meditation upon the Gospels. And she would practice acts of penance unbeknownst to anyone save her spiritual adviser in order to insure that she would remain closely bound to God and not the world.
During her forty-sixth year, Margaret fell ill and was bedridden for many weeks. While she lay ill, an armed conflict broke out and in the ensuing battle both her husband Malcolm and one of her sons were killed. Not many days after learning of their deaths, Margaret herself died on November 16, 1093. The kingdom of Scotland deeply mourned the loss of their saintly queen.
The following story occurred early in the marriage of Malcolm and Margaret.
Malcolm was a warrior king and was very much at home in battle. If he could not be in a battle, he certainly enjoyed hunting for wild boar or wolves which could be found in the woods near Dunfermline.
Royal hunting was not simply a few men heading out into the woods. It was more of an event in which both the men and women were present before the brave men headed off to face the wild game. Although Margaret was not very interested in hunting, she would support her husband in his pursuits. After the hunt had begun and only the ladies remained, Margaret would dismiss her ladies-in-waiting to return to the castle. Then, she would go alone to a special place she had discovered in the nearby woods where she had found a small cave she used for prayer. Here she was no longer a queen, but simply a child of God and able to pray to her Heavenly Father.
An unscrupulous courtier observed this disappearance by Margaret and noted this to Malcolm along with additional hints about the disparity between the young, beautiful, and refined Margaret and the middle-age king who was also illiterate and uncultured. Over time, this courtier managed to plant seeds of doubt and jealousy in the king's mind. Soon the doubts became beliefs and the beliefs found proofs as the king studied the face of his bride to see if she showed signs that he could not possibly be enough for her.
Finally, the courtier reminded the king of Margaret's practice of disappearing after the hunting party had left, and Malcolm resolved to get to the bottom of the matter even as he was fueled by his beliefs that his wife was unfaithful. After all, as the courtier suggested, would a young woman really want to be by herself in the woods?
The next time the hunting party left, Malcolm dismissed himself and returned to the area neare the castle unbeknownst to anyone. After dismounting from his horse, he observed Margaret heading into the woods and he followed her. Along the path, he remained behind her without her seeing him or knowing he was following her. Suddenly, the path took a sharp turn and she disappeared next to a babbling brook.
Malcolm unsheathed his sword and gripped it tightly as he crept closer. Beside the small waterfall in the brook he could hear birds chirping and his wife speaking out loud as she assumed she was by herself. In the voice which he was so fond to hear, she was calling out to God that her husband's brave and noble heart would fully understand the words of Scripture that say, "What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?"
Hearing this, with unfounded suspicions against her pure heart, he dropped to his knees in shame. The sword fell from his hand and made a sound that alerted Margaret that she was not alone. Coming out of her cave, she found her husband on his knees with his head in his hands. When she saw his face filled with shame, she raised him up and then heard his story. Immediately, Margaret forgave Malcolm and comforted him. She also was able to get him to make some resolutions to be more faithful in his own spiritual life. Together, they walked back to the castle.
Although she probably would have preferred her cave to remain stark, Margaret willingly accepted Malcolm's offerings of penance that included adorning her cave in order that it might be a more beautiful retreat for his precious bride.
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Feast Day (Optional Memorial): November 16th
Patron saint of parents of large families
Patron saint of widows
Patron saint against the death of children
Patron saint for learning
Patron saint of Scotland