St Margaret of Scotland
Our church in Maribyrnong is named after St Margaret of Scotland.
St Margaret was a princess of the Anglo-Saxon royal family of England, the daughter of Edward the Exile and sister of the future King Edgar Atheling. Due to the Danish occupation of England under King Canute, her father had been in exile from infancy; Margaret was born in Hungary about 1046, and raised there at the court of Andrew I.
In 1057, the family returned to England and the court of Margaret’s great-uncle St Edward the Confessor, but after the Norman Conquest by William the Conqueror in 1066, they fled again to Northumberland. Attempting to sail to the continent, a storm blew them to Scotland, where they sought the protection of King Malcolm III (famous for defeating Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play).
Malcolm, a widower and some fifteen years Margaret’s senior, asked for her hand in marriage. Margaret’s wish was for the convent, but her young brother Edgar eventually felt unable to deny their powerful host’s request, and she married Malcolm about 1070. Despite this unpromising start the marriage was a very happy one, and Malcolm revered the holiness and wisdom of his queen. They had eight children, including three kings of Scotland and a queen of England.
As Queen, Margaret helped civilise Malcolm and his court; she founded churches, promoted church reform and discipline, and expanded papal influence. She lived a life of prayer and penance, and served the poor every day before eating. In her last illness, she received news of the death of her husband and eldest son in battle, and died very soon after, on 16th November 1093 in Edinburgh. She was canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV.
To know better the saint in whose honour our church in Maribyrnong is named, here are some extracts from two historical works from her own time. Getting to know our patroness cannot help but lead us to deeply admire and love this amazing woman, queen and saint.
The truthfulness of her biographer
‘Far be it from my grey hairs to mingle falsehood with the virtues of such a woman as she was, in unfolding which I profess – as God is my witness and my judge – that I add nothing to the truth. On the contrary, I suppress many things, fearing that they might appear incredible.’
Margaret’s holiness and wisdom from her youth
‘Whilst Margaret was yet in the flower of her youth, she began to lead a very strict life, to love God above all things, to employ herself in the study of the Divine writings, and therein with joy to exercise her mind. Her understanding was keen to comprehend any matter, whatever it might be; to this was joined a great tenacity of memory, enabling her to store it up, along with a graceful flow of language to express it.’
Life of Queen Margaret, Turgot, Prior of Durham and Bishop of St Andrews
Her marriage to King Malcolm of Scotland
‘This summer young Edgar left the country with his mother Agatha and his two sisters, Margaret and Christina…and came to Scotland under the protection of King Malcolm, and he received them all. Then King Malcolm began to desire Edgar’s sister Margaret for his wife, but he and his men all argued against it for a long time, and she herself also refused, and said that she would not have him or anyone, if the divine mercy would grant that she should please the mighty Lord in virginity, with a bodily heart in pure continence in this brief life. The king urged her brother eagerly until he said yes – and indeed he dared not do otherwise, because they had come into the king’s power.
‘Then it came to pass as God had previously ordained, and it could not be otherwise; as he himself says in his Gospel, that even one sparrow may not fall into a snare without his providence. The foreknowing Creator knew beforehand what he wanted to have done through her, that she would increase the glory of God in that land, and guide the king from the path of error and bring him and his people together to the better way, and lay aside the sinful customs which that nation previously followed – just as she afterwards did. Then the king married her, although it was against her will. Her ways pleased him, and he thanked God who in his might had given him such a wife. He reflected thoughtfully, as he was a very wise man, and turned himself to God and scorned every sin…’
‘This aforesaid queen afterwards performed many useful deeds in that country, to the glory of God, and also prospered well in kingly ways, as was in her nature: she was sprung from a faithful and noble kindred, her father was Edward Atheling, son of King Edmund, son of Ethelred, son of Edgar, son of Eadred, and so forth in that royal race; and her mother’s family goes back to Emperor Henry, who had dominion over Rome.’
Queen Margaret’s qualities in ruling
‘This prudent queen directed all such things as it was fitting for her to regulate; the laws of the realm were administered by her counsel; by her care the influence of religion was extended, and the people rejoiced in the prosperity of their affairs. Nothing was firmer than her fidelity, steadier than her favour, or juster than her decisions; nothing was more enduring than her patience, graver than her advice, or more pleasant than her conversation…’
‘The queen united so much strictness with her sweetness of temper, so pleasant was she even in her severity, that all who waited upon her, men as well as women, loved her while they feared her, and in fearing loved her. Thus it came to pass that while she was present no one ventured to utter even one unseemly word, much less to do aught that was objectionable. There was a gravity in her very joy, and something stately in her anger.’
Her upbringing of her children
‘Thanks to their mother’s care, her children surpassed in good behaviour many who were their elders…She frequently called them to her, and carefully instructed them about Christ and the things of Christ, as far as their age would permit, and she admonished them to love Him always. “O, my children,” said she, “fear the Lord; for they who fear Him shall lack nothing, and if you love Him, He will give you, my dear ones, prosperity in this life, and everlasting happiness with all the saints.”’
Her love of the Scriptures and her deep intelligence
‘I myself have had frequent opportunities of admiring in her how, even amidst the distractions of lawsuits, amidst the countless cares of state, she devoted herself with wonderful assiduity to the word of God, about which she used to ask profound questions from the learned men who were sitting near her. But just as no one among them possessed a deeper intellect than herself, so none had the power of clearer expression. Thus it very often happened that these doctors went from her wiser men by much than when they came.’
Her prayer and fasting
‘Whilst she was in the house of God she would never speak of worldly matters, or do anything which savoured of the earth; she was there simply to pray, and in praying to pour forth her tears…As for her fasting, I will say this alone, that the strictness of her abstinence brought upon her a very severe infirmity.’
King Malcolm’s love and deference towards her
‘In regard to King Malcolm: by the help of God she made him most attentive to the works of justice, mercy, almsgiving, and other virtues. From her he learnt how to keep the vigils of the night in constant prayer; she instructed him by her exhortation and example how to pray to God with groanings from the heart and abundance of tears…There was in him a sort of dread of offending one whose life was so venerable; for he could not but perceive from her conduct that Christ dwelt within her; nay, more, he readily obeyed her wishes and prudent counsels in all things…’
‘Hence it was that, although he could not read, he would turn over and examine books which she used either for her devotions or her study; and whenever he heard her say that she was fonder of one of them than the others, this one he too used to look at with special affection, kissing it, and often taking it into his hands. Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals, whom he commanded to ornament that volume with gold and gems, and when the work was finished, the king himself used to carry the book to the queen as a loving proof of his devotion.’
How Margaret revolutionised fashion
‘It was due to her that the merchants who came by land and sea from various countries brought along with them for sale different kinds of precious wares which until then were unknown in Scotland. And it was at her instigation that the natives of Scotland purchased from these traders clothing of various colours, with ornaments to wear; so that from this period, through her suggestion, new costumes of different fashions were adopted, the elegance of which made the wearers appear like a new race of beings.’
‘This worthy queen made it easier for her to shun sin by placing ever before her soul’s eye, tremblingly and fearfully, the terrible day of judgment. She frequently entreated me to have no hesitation in rebuking her in private whenever I saw anything worthy of blame either in her words or actions. As I did this less frequently and sharply than she wished, she urged the duty on me, and chid me for being drowsy (so to speak) and negligent towards her.’
Her reforms of the Church
‘When she saw wicked men she admonished them to be good, the good to become better, the better to strive to be best. The zeal of God’s house (that is, of the Church) had so consumed her that with apostolic faith she laboured to root up all weeds which had lawlessly sprung up therein. Observing that many practices existed among the Scottish nation which were contrary to the rule of right faith and the holy customs of the universal Church, she caused frequent councils to be held, in order that by some means or other she might, through the gift of Christ, bring back into the way of truth those who had gone astray…’
‘There were certain places in Scotland in which Masses were celebrated according to some sort of barbarous rite, contrary to the usage of the whole Church. Fired by the zeal of God, the Queen attempted to root out and abolish this custom, so that henceforth, from the whole of Scotland, there was not one single person who dared to continue the practice…’
‘She succeeded in condemning and expelling from her realm many other inveterate abuses which had gained a footing herein, contrary to the Rule of Faith and the institutions and observances of the Church. For everything that she proposed she supported so strongly by the testimonies of the Sacred Scriptures and the teaching of the holy Fathers, that no one on the opposite side could say one word against them.’
Her religious feeling
‘When she spoke with me about the salvation of the soul and the sweetness of the life which is eternal, every word she uttered was so filled with grace that the Holy Spirit, Who truly dwelt within her breast, evidently spoke by her lips. So deep was her contrition that whilst she was talking, she seemed as if she could melt away in tears, so that my soul, pierced like her own, wept also.’
Liberty for captives
‘But who can tell the number of English of all ranks, carried captive from their own land by violence of war and reduced to slavery, whom she restored to liberty by paying their ransom? Spies were employed by her to go secretly through all the provinces of Scotland and ascertain what captives were oppressed with the most cruel bondage, and treated with the greatest inhumanity…She took care to send them speedy help, she paid their ransom and set them at liberty forthwith.’
St Margaret’s care for the poor
‘When she went out of doors, either on foot or on horseback, crowds of poor people, orphans and widows flocked to her, as they would have done to a most loving mother, none of whom left her without being comforted…Now and then she helped herself to something or other out of the King’s private property, it mattered not what it was, to give to a poor person; and this pious plundering the King always took pleasantly and in good part…Although the King was fully aware of the theft, he generally pretended to know nothing of it, and felt much amused by it. Now and then he caught the Queen in the very act, with the money in her hand, and laughingly threatened that he would have her arrested, tried and found guilty…’
‘[Daily in Advent and Lent] she, along with the King himself, washed the feet of six poor persons; and used to give them something wherewithal to relieve their poverty…She ordered that nine little orphans utterly destitute should be brought in to her at the first hour of the day, and that some soft food such as children at that tender age like, should daily be prepared for them…While this was going on, it was the custom to bring three hundred poor people into the royal hall, and when they had been seated round it in order the king and queen entered; whereupon the doors were shut by the servants…The king on the one side and the queen on the other waited upon Christ in the person of His poor, and served them with food and drink which had been prepared for this special purpose…’
‘Upon holy days…she used to repeat the Psalter twice or thrice; and before the celebration of the Public Mass she caused five or six Masses to be sung privately in her presence. When these were finished, meal-time was at hand. But before it was served she herself humbly waited upon twenty-four poor people whom she fed; for without reckoning any of the alms-deeds which I have already mentioned, throughout the course of the year she supported twenty-four poor as long as she lived.’
Her holy death
[On her death-bed, she received news of the death in battle of King Malcolm and their eldest son Edward:]
‘To murmur against God with such a one was impossible. At the same moment she had lost her husband and her son, and disease was putting her to a cruel death, but in all these things she sinned not with her lips, nor spoke foolishly against God.
‘Raising her eyes and her hands towards heaven, she glorified God, saying, “I give praise and thanks to Thee, Almighty God, for that Thou hast been pleased that I should endure such deep sorrow at my departing, and I trust that by means of this suffering it is Thy pleasure that I should be cleansed from some of the stains of my sins.”
‘Feeling now that death was close at hand, she at once began the prayer which is usually said by the priest before he receives the Body and Blood of our Lord, saying, “Lord Jesus Christ, who according to the will of the Father, through the co-operation of the Holy Ghost, hast by Thy death given life to the world, deliver me.”
‘As she was saying the words, “Deliver me,” her soul was freed from the chains of the body…Her departure was so calm, so tranquil, that we conclude her soul passed to the land of eternal rest and peace. It was remarkable that her face, which, when she was dying had exhibited the usual pallor of death, became afterwards suffused with red and white tints, so that it seemed as if she were not dead but sleeping.’
Life of Queen Margaret, Turgot, Prior of Durham and Bishop of St Andrews