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St Margaret, Scotland’s only royal saint

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

By on Friday, 16 November 2012


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.

  • nytor

    She was in fact English, though, so let’s not let the Scots claim her.

  • nytor

    “She and Edward the Confessor, and their relative Edward the Martyr, along with Saint Edmund of East Anglia are England’s only royal saints”

    No no no no and no again. You have missed Ethelbert of East Anglia, Etheldreda, Cynehelm (Kenelm) of Mercia, Oswald of Northumbria and many, many others.

  • nytor
  • Clerk of Oxford

    ‘She and Edward the Confessor, and their relative Edward the Martyr,
    along with Saint Edmund of East Anglia are England’s only royal saints’

    Not by a long way.  Oswald of Northumbria, Etheldreda of Ely, Edith of Wilton, Ethelbert of Kent…

  • nytor

    Quite. I’m afraid he’s way off beam. The Anglo-Saxon royal houses were drenched in saintliness.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    The ones you mention are not of the English royal family, but local dynasties only.

  • Clerk of Oxford

    I understand why you would say that, but I named them because you mentioned Edmund of East Anglia (who was, obviously, of the East Anglian royal dynasty).  It’s debatable whether the saints of the house of Wessex deserve to be remembered as the only saints of the ‘English royal family’ when speaking of a period in which these distinctions were not clear-cut.

    (And Edith of Wilton was the sister of Edward the Martyr, so they were certainly of the same family!)

  • nytor

    St Edmund of East Anglia was not from the “English” royal family either (it’s the house of Wessex, by the way, which you describe as “English”).

  • nytor

    “Local dynasties” which were both English and royal, and whose saintly members were therefore “English royal saints”.

    Just edit the article. Either your history is inaccurate, or your use of English.

  • teigitur

    Hearken oh daughter, see and incline thine ear; forget thy people and thy father’s house. The King shall greatly desire thy beauty, for he is the Lord thy God and Him they shall adore.

  • teigitur

    Hopkins was totaaly right about Luther. We live not in an ecumenical age, but one sanitised and purged of truth.

  • John McCarthy

    Saint Margaret, Saint of the poor,pray for us.

  • Parasum

    That headline ignores:

    St. Aengus
    St. Constantine III, King and Martyr
    St. David I

    Unlike her, they were natives of Scotland or of what came to be Scotland.

    “Margaret is Scotland’s only royal saint, famous for her love of the poor and her civilising influence over her husband.”

    ## And her Normanisation of the court, so that Macbeth is now the last Scottish king at whose court Gaelic was spoken. To say nothing of her part in the Romanisation of the liturgy. All that Normanisation did for England or Scotland was to destroy the native culture. It was a disaster.

  • Parasum

     To say nothing of Alfred the Great. Alfred is not local, but was king of all England. William the Bastard and his successors do not count as English for a long time.

  • Kevin

    “Hopkins’ way of describing Luther would perhaps not be considered very ecumenical nowadays.”

    On the other hand, if one is not blinded by “ecumenical correctness”, at least these eight lines of the “notoriously difficult” poem become easy to understand.

  • Veuster

    > Margaret is Scotland’s only royal saint

    And St David of Scotland was the Catholic Herald’s Saint of the Week on 24 May 2012 . . .

  • TD Kovich

    I believe that St. David the first of Scotland was also a Scottish royal since his mother was. See

  • Padre Mac

    Agreed, you cannot forget the
    other indigenous royal saints. My understanding is that Saint Ninian (360 – 432) was, although born in these fair islands, educated in Rome
    and was tasked by pope St. Siricius with the conversion of the Picts. That
    means the ‘Romanisation’ as you say of the church and culture was a long time
    in the making, and seen most effectively in the first reformation,
    i.e. the conversion of the Celtic church. Therefore what you refer to as being
    vandalised was in fact the result of centuries of inculturation of the gospel
    message is these islands before the second (Presbyterian) reformation, and the
    demise of the ancient Pictish and Brythonic Celtic languages of Scotland
    happened with the spread of Columban Christianity and Gaelic becoming the
    language of prestige in the 11th century. We must also remember that the South East of Scotland remained speaking English throughout this period. One finds with history that the broader the view the more accurate a picture we can draw. (Please keep in mind that St. Ninian
    is probably St. Finnian, a mentor to Columba, whose name was scribed wrongly in
    the 8th century.)