It is not often that a queen washes the feet of the poor in her castle. Nor is it usual for such a person to impact a nation through her godliness, practical kindness and love, so that Scotland produced its golden age of kings for about two hundred years, because of her example.
When Turgot, bishop of St Andrews, was requested by Matilda, the wife of King Henry I, to write a biography of her saintly mother, Queen Margaret, he compiled Life of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland, 7-14 years after she had died in 1093. As Queen Margaret’s private confessor he knew her better than anyone. He tells us “God is my Witness and my Judge – that I add nothing to the truth.” Having a deep dislike of embellishing a biography for sensational purposes, his account is deliberately downplayed for fear that he might be charged with “decking out the crow in the plumage of a swan”.
Margaret, whose grandfather was Edmund Ironside, the King of England, would have preferred to have lived the life of a nun. She was destined, however, to affect the course of Scotland. When King Harold fell in the fields of Senlac at the hands of William the Conqueror, Edgar Aetheling, was chosen as the next king, but despite the resistance by the bishops, William was crowned King of England. Fearing for their lives, Edgar fled England to King Malcolm in Scotland, with his mother Agatha, and sisters Margaret and Christina. Malcolm fell in love with Margaret at first sight, but she deterred him, preferring the life of a celibate Christian. With much persuasion from her family, she finally married Malcolm. Thus begins an extraordinary account.
Turgot writes, “When she went out of doors… crowds of poor people, orphans and widows, flocked to her, as they would have done to a most loving mother.” Often she would greet them at a rock near Dunfermline where she would be available for counsel, prayer and practical help. Every morning she fed nine orphans with her own silver spoon. Regularly 300 of the poor would dine with her and King Malcolm, and she would wait on 24 poor people every day, serving them food and drink. Besides this she sent spies throughout Scotland to report where the English were enslaved by cruel owners, so that they could be ransomed and set free. Often she would visit hermits and monks to find out where the poorest people were, so that they could be helped.
Margaret’s motivation was a deep love for Christ. She repeatedly asked Turgot to rebuke her if he found any sin or worldliness in her; her desire was to be humble and virtuous, hating flattery and greed. “In church… she was there simply to pray, and in praying to pour forth her tears,” said Turgot. Her passion for God was demonstrated too, in the building of Dunfermline Abbey, and other churches, financial assistance of the monasteries and the church, and her pioneering work of establishing a free ferry to enable the pilgrims to cross the Forth estuary on their way to St Andrews. Today both South Queensferry and North Queensferry are named after her.
One of her endearing feats was to restore the abbey at Iona, which had been sacked by the Vikings. These cruel and fierce Scandinavian pirates began ravaging the coasts of Scotland from about AD 794, murdering, looting and raping the locals. The Orkneys and the Shetlands became their northern stronghold, after they had driven out the Picts. From this base they sallied forth to plunder the islands and coastline. The monasteries, being wealthy and unprotected, were easy targets for them. In AD 802 the monastery at Iona was raided again, but this time the Vikings burnt it; this was followed by the slaughter of 68 monks four years later. By AD 825 the monks had abandoned Iona after a second massacre and settling at Kells in Ireland, they named their Gospels after this place. At a similar time monks on St Ninian’s Isle in the Shetlands had hurriedly buried 28 items of silver under a slab of stone to avoid Viking pillaging. The fact that the silver hoard lay buried until its discovery by a boy in 1958 is a silent witness to the fact that the monks never returned – presumably they had become Viking victims. Queen Margaret, appreciating the spiritual significance of Iona, restored the abbey with her husband King Malcolm in 1072. By this time the Vikings had been largely Christianised.
Queen Margaret is often depicted with her gem-studied Bible, produced by her doting husband. She was scholarly, whereas he was illiterate; she promoted peace and healing, but he was a warlord. Often she would help herself to his gold coins for the poor, whilst he smiled with affection.
Her great passion for the Bible meant that when she discovered parts of the Church were out of tune with the Scriptures, “with apostolic faith she laboured to root up all weeds which had lawlessly sprung up…” At times she summoned a church council to solve issues, taking a full part in the discussions herself, freely referring them to the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, so that “no-one on the opposite side could say one word against them.” Her promotion of education is shown today by the founding of a university in Edinburgh named after her – Queen Margaret’s University.
Her Christ-like example had such an impact on the nation that the nobles and knights began to emulate her, so that “When she saw wicked men she admonished them to be good, the good to become better, and the better to strive to be best.” Her virtues were also accompanied by a sharp brain and a shrewd business sense, for she administered laws on behalf of her husband and encouraged merchants to travel by land and sea to increase trade, thereby introducing unknown wares to the Scots. With this came fashion, elegance and the arts. Her Christian faith was not drab and miserable, but full of life and colour, and “her chamber was… a workshop of sacred art.” She believed that her role as helpmate to her husband meant that their castle should be adorned with dignity, beauty and the wealth necessary to reflect the king’s position, yet this had no hold on her.
On November 16, 1093, she lay on her deathbed in Edinburgh Castle. One of her sons came to her chamber, distraught with bad news. Her husband and eldest son had been killed in battle in Northumbria. The broken-hearted queen, not letting bitterness rule her heart, called for the Black Rood – a golden crucifix with a splinter of Christ’s cross inside – and prayed. Her last request to Turgot concerned her children, that he should “lavish [his] affection upon them” and “teach them before all things to love and fear God.” She was made a saint in 1250.
One of Margaret’s greatest legacies was the enduring faith of her sons and their descendants. William of Malmesbury could say: “Never have we been told among the events of history, of three kings – and at the same time brothers – who were of holiness so great, and savoured so much of the nectar of their mother’s godliness…” Of the three brothers: Edgar, Alexander and David, it was David whose own reputation most reflected that of his mother’s faith.
King David I
David I came to power in 1124 and reigned for 29 years. He seems to have been an extraordinary king. He poured out his support for the church, showing both a deep spirituality and pragmatism. For the Cistercian monks he gave the land for Newbattle Abbey, as well as land in Haddington and North Berwick for their nuns; the Templars who supported the Crusades were allotted Temple in Midlothian; the Hospitallers received the preceptor at Torpichen; the Carmelites were granted friaries at Luffness and South Queensferry; the Tironesians received Kelso Abbey near his southern commercial centre at Roxburgh; and the Trinitarians got a priory at Dunbar. With all of these monastic groups, and others, he gave copious amounts of finance to help them construct their buildings.
The Augustinians received a special land-holding a mile down from Edinburgh Castle, which became known as Holyrood Abbey. It was probably King David I who built a chapel at the castle in honour of his mother: today this is known as St Margaret’s Chapel, and it is the oldest remaining building in Edinburgh. Wanting to do more in his mother’s name, he chose a place for her Black Rood, so when the abbey was built in 1128 it was called Holyrood Abbey (Holycross Abbey).
There is, however, an additional legend connected with this church. David loved to hunt deer below Arthur’s Seat. One day a white stag was spotted, so he was determined to hunt and kill it. Unfortunately for him, this stag, when cornered, went for his horse and the king was flung to the ground where he expected to be gored to death. Instead he saw a cross shining between the antlers of the stag and he left the scene unharmed. That night, it was said, St Andrew spoke to him in a dream, telling him to build a church there at that spot to house the Black Rood. Years later, in 1829, the Jewish Christian composer, Felix Mendelssohn, said that he was inspired in the ruins of that same chapel, for the beginning of his famous Scottish Symphony. It is to David we also owe our gratitude for the building of St Giles’ Cathedral in 1125, which would become well-known in 1560 for John Knox and the Reformation.
King David first introduced the parish system in Scotland, which began in the Lowlands first, and eventually spread all over the nation. Before then churches and shrines had been scattered in a random sort of fashion. He initiated the building of stone churches in every parish, to be maintained by each parish congregation, and for a parish priest to be appointed for each congregation. Most of the churches would have been basic and plain, but today we can still see the evidence of some of the more grand buildings, such as those at St Cuthbert’s, Dalmeny, and St Baldred’s at Tyninghame.
His talent for organising was taken into the political realm. Inviting French lords over to Scotland to help him establish a feudal system meant that some of the leading nobles in the future would come from these families, such as Robert de Brus, whose descendant would become King Robert the Bruce. With the French came the architecture of churches and castles, such as those at Dirleton and Hailes. But David also pioneered the burghs – 36 of them – two being in Edinburgh (the city and Canongate for the monks). The purpose behind this was to encourage commerce. Like his mother, he saw the potential of opening up Scotland to international trade, so the English, French and Flemish merchants poured into the nation, developing trade links. Besides this, he also introduced the first silver coins for currency. In a very real sense, he brought Scotland into the cutting-edge culture of the Middle Ages. In the words of John of Fordun, in his Chronicle of the Scottish People: “His memory is blessed through all generations, for there never, from time immemorial, arose a prince like him… in a spirit of prudence and firmness, he wisely toned down the fierceness of his nation… for he was a glorious king.”
Reproduced from A Spiritual History of Scotland, by Paul James-Griffiths © 2018, all right reserved