Today we celebrate a ruler with a great love of the poor

Today is the feast day of two holy women, both of whom have literary connections.

The first is Margaret of Scotland, who was the great-niece of Edward the Confessor. Her father, Edward the Exile, was the son of King Edmund Ironside, and had been exiled by the Danish King Canute. When Edward the Confessor became king, the Exile was recalled (he had been living in Kiev and later Hungary) so that he might be the Confessor’s heir, but he died two days after his arrival, quite possibly murdered. In the end, Harold Godwinson became king in succession to the Confessor, but after his death at Hastings in 1066, the Witan hastily proclaimed Edgar, the young son of Edward the Exile as king; but that did not last long, and Edgar and his mother and sisters soon fled North, and took refuge in Scotland. And it was here in Scotland that Margaret, Edgar’s sister, married the Scottish King Malcolm III, nicknamed Canmore, which means Bighead.

Malcolm III was of course the son of Duncan, and the king who recovered his father’s throne by overthrowing the usurper Macbeth. However, it is only fair to acknowledge that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Macbeth has very little sound historical basis. What is for sure, though, is that Saint Margaret had eight children, three of whom reigned over Scotland, and one of whom, Edith or Matilda, married Henry I of England. Through her the royal line of England descends from the ancient House of Wessex.

Margaret is Scotland’s only royal saint, famous for her love of the poor and her civilising influence over her husband. She and Edward the Confessor, and their relative Edward the Martyr, along with Saint Edmund of East Anglia are England’s only royal saints, unless you count Henry VI, who has never been officially canonised. Odd to think that here has not been a canonised royal saint since the Norman Conquest!

The other saint venerated today is Saint Gertrude. Here the literary connection is not to Shakespeare, but to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Gertrude was brought up in a Benedictine monastery and later took vows, and is famous as a mystic and theologian.  In his notoriously difficult poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, Hopkins has these lines about the five drowned nuns:

She was first of a five and came
Of a coifèd sisterhood.
(O Deutschland, double a desperate name!
O world wide of its good!
But Gertrude, lily, and Luther, are two of a town,
Christ’s lily and beast of the waste wood:
From life’s dawn it is drawn down,
Abel is Cain’s brother and breasts they have sucked the same.)

The point is that Saint Gertrude was supposedly born in Eisleben in Saxony, the town that was later to produce Martin Luther. Hopkins’ way of describing Luther would perhaps not be considered very ecumenical nowadays. Meanwhile, if its Wikipedia entry is anything to go by, Eisleben remains the epicentre of Lutheran tourism  something of which the highly strung Hopkins would most certainly disapprove.