St. Margaret of Scotland
In the church year, Friday was the feast day of St. Margaret of Scotland, the patron saint of this church; she died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and nineteen years ago. As I think about the story of her life I’m reminded of these words of Jesus:
You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognise as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).
These words could be a description of the life of our patron saint; she was a member of the aristocracy and came into a position of great influence as Queen of Scotland, but she didn’t think she’d been given that position in order to lord it over others. Instead, she’s remembered as a person who spent her life serving others. Let me tell you her story.
Margaret was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her brother Edgar as the rightful heir to the throne of England. In 1054 the Witan, the parliament of Anglo-Saxon England, decided to bring the family back from Hungary so that they could inherit the throne when King Edward the Confessor died, as Edward had no children. So Edgar, Christian and Margaret were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns, who trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of a balanced life of work and prayer. In the case of the girls, the training paid off: Christian became a nun, and Margaret became probably the most devout queen Scotland had ever seen. We know that Margaret learned to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries.
Margaret might have met her future husband, Malcolm of Scotland, at this time; his father was the king Duncan who was murdered by Macbeth, and for some years he was sent to live at the court of the English king for his own safety.
Edward the Confessor died, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety, but on the way their ship was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his kingdom. His court at Dunfermline was undoubtedly rather primitive compared to the English court that the family had known, but I’m sure they were glad of his welcome and the hospitality and safety he offered them.
Margaret was now about twenty years old; King Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells us ‘he soon began to yearn for Edgar’s sister as his wife’. However, Margaret took a lot of persuading; she was more inclined to become a nun, and Malcolm had a stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that Margaret agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when Margaret was twenty-three. In the end, although she was so much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that ‘her customs pleased (Malcolm) and he thanked God who had by his power given him such a consort; and wisely bethought him since he was very prudent and turned himself to God’.
Although Margaret was now in a great position, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day, she saw herself merely as the steward of riches. She lived in the spirit of inward poverty, looking on nothing as belonging to her, but recognizing that everything she possessed was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictine monks. Her friend Lanfranc, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, was busy at this time reforming the Church in England, and under his guidance Margaret carried out similar reforms in the Church in Scotland. She was only the wife of the king, but she came to have the leading voice in the changes that affected both the social and the spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm didn’t share his wife’s contemplative temperament, but he was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot – not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland.
It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and attractive life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way. Let’s think about the sort of life she lived as Queen of Scotland.
Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer and the saying of the psalms. We’re told that after this, nine little orphans would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them with her own spoon, doing this for the sake of Christ, as one of his servants. It also became the custom at Dunfermline that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, then the King and Queen entered, and we’re told that they then ‘served Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, they sent out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; they didn’t want to turn it into what modern politicians would refer to as ‘a photo opportunity’.
The church in Scotland at that time looked more to the old Celtic way of Christianity than to the way of Rome. Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world, but she didn’t do it in an overbearing and proselytizing way. We’re told that she often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offered them gifts, and cared for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things like the date of Lent and the proper customs for celebrating the liturgy and so on. She convinced them, not because of the strength of her argument so much as by the power of her holy life.
In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’. Margaret’s chaplain, Turgot, who wrote her biography, says,
Since the Church at St. Andrews was much frequented by the devout who flocked to it from all quarters, she erected dwellings on either shore of the sea which divides Lothian from Scotland, so that the poor people and pilgrims might shelter there and rest after the fatigues of their journey . . . Moreover she provided ships for the transport of these pilgrims both coming and going, nor was it lawful to demand any fee for the passage from those who were crossing.
The cluster of houses on either side of the Forth Bridge still bear her name, North and South Queensferry.
Most people recognized as saints by the Catholic church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. Margaret, however, is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children, six sons and two daughters; interestingly, she seems to have given them all good Anglo-Saxon names! Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family. All of them we’re told, were also taught to follow Christ first – although I find it a little reassuring that even a saintly parent like Margaret didn’t have a 100% success rate with her kids!
Margaret was not yet fifty when she died; some people say that she had worn her body out with excessive fasting and long hours of prayer in cold churches. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.
As I reflect on the life of Margaret, I think that in many ways she embodies the ideals that we’re striving to follow in this church. Margaret found herself in a position of great power and wealth, but she didn’t consider it as having been given to her for her own selfish pleasures. She was a true Benedictine, living in the spirit of inward poverty. She saw her wealth and power as having been entrusted to her to do good, and she gave her life to serving others in the spirit of Christ. What might we learn from her today?
I think the first thing we need to learn from her is her balance of work and prayer. The Benedictine ideal was an ordered life, with certain times of day set apart for prayer, and others spent in active work for the good of others. Many of us at St. Margaret’s are quite busy with this active work for the good of others. We work hard at our jobs, and we also work together to do good in the world. But how good are we at keeping the balance between prayer and work? We’re told in the gospels that Jesus kept that balance well. In Mark chapter one we read that he was healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, and teaching the people all day long, but then Mark goes on to tell us that ‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1:35). Luke tells us that this was Jesus’ habit: ‘But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray’ (Luke 5:16).
Is that your habit? Do you make time to pray regularly, by yourself or with someone else? For some people, the ‘deserted place’ might be a room in their house; for other people it might a quiet office early in the morning; for others, it might be a quiet walk at some point during the day. For some it will be alone, for others it will be together with a spouse, or with the family as a whole. Those of us who care for young children will find some challenges here, and will need to support each other and think carefully about the best way to build prayer into our daily lives. Yes, it will take a bit of effort, but the lives of praying people down through the centuries have shown us that it’s well worth it.
So we can learn from her balance of work and prayer. We can also learn from the way she was successful in her reforms because of the influence of her godly life. Even people who disagreed with her were impressed with the way she lived out her faith, despite the fact that she didn’t make a big song and dance about it. We’ve just lived through the nastiness of an American election. In modern elections, it seems as if people gleefully seek out all sorts of dirt about the politicians they disagree with, and they then spread it around as a way of discrediting the policies their opponents are advocating. But every now and again you find someone who we refer to as a ‘Teflon person’ – the dirt won’t stick to them! Margaret was that sort of person; people respected her because they saw Christ in her way of life.
What if Anglicans who disagree with each other on the issue of homosexuality were known in the world for the gracious and Christlike way they spoke to each other about their disagreements? What if conservative Christians who campaign against abortion were also known for their willingness to take unwanted children into their own homes? What if liberal Christians who campaign for government programs to help the poor were also known for their own extravagant generosity to the poor? What if even people who disagreed with us could see the face of Christ in our way of life?
The third thing we can learn from Margaret is the way she lived out what is sometimes called ‘the ministry of the basin and the towel’. This phrase refers to the story of the last supper, where Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel that was tied around him’ (John 13:4-5). After he finished this job, he pointed out to his disciples that he, their teacher and master, saw no contradiction between being their lord and being their servant. ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:14).
This is the sort of life Margaret lived. Although she was the Queen of Scotland, she saw no contradiction between being the Queen and serving at tables for the poorest of the poor. She understood herself first of all as a servant of Christ; everything else followed from that.
So we remember with thanksgiving today our patron saint, Margaret, a woman of prayer, a woman who lived a holy life, a woman who served the poor, a woman who used her influence in a Christlike way to do good for all people. As a congregation, let us pray that God will give us the strength by his Holy Spirit to live up to the name we bear. Amen.