A Medieval Marriage of Mention

Today is the feast day of St. Margaret of Scotland (b. 1046, d. 1093). Unlike St. Joan of Arc or Blessed Mother Teresa, St. Margaret isn’t a saint most people have heard of, let alone are familiar with. But, her story highlights how the beautiful interplay of femininity and masculinity can work together in profound ways for the benefit of society. It can even change the course of a nation.

We forget that up until about a century ago men and women rarely married for love. They married because it made sense socially and economically. Or, if you were “important” politically. Usually marriages were arranged and the woman (especially) had no say in whether or not she wanted any part of it. Such was the case for St. Margaret of Scotland.

Margaret’s father was the rightful heir to the English throne but her family was exiled to Hungary when Danish conquerors invaded England. So, how did she arrive in Scotland? Well…for history buffs or those who have time for a good story, check out this essay written by David McRoberts. The short story is that Margaret and her family were attempting to return to Hungary after a stay in England when a storm redirected their ship. They landed in Scotland, very near to the residence of King Malcolm III.

Margaret was about 21 at the time and the King took an instant liking to her. He proposed but Margaret declined. She wanted to be a nun. Usually this was the only way out of an unwanted marriage, but Margaret was one of those “important” people and an alliance between England and Scotland was politically advantageous. The interesting thing is, instead of forcing Margaret to accept his hand, Malcolm pursued her for two years and Margaret then accepted his proposal. Historians are not sure whether she warmed to him or simply caved in to the pressure of her family. Either way, her decision led to great things for Scotland.

Margaret and Malcolm’s relationship highlights in a very positive way how the differences between men and women — which often bring strife to a relationship — can work together in harmony. Margaret grew up in a culture that prized the ideals of learning, chivalry, art and religion. She was very much devoted to all of these things throughout her life. She was as close to the ideal Catholic woman as any woman could be; a true lady that exuded feminine virtue. In rather stark contrast, Malcolm was a warrior involved in combat for much of his life. History books often use the word “uncouth” to describe him. He was not a particularly religious man (when first they met), and although he spent a number of years in the English court, he never adopted a love of learning, nor did he ever learn to read.

Castle in Scotland

Despite their differences (or perhaps because of them?), Margaret wielded an enormous influence on Malcolm and literally the whole of the country. The essay written by David McRoberts describes this in detail. As queen of Scotland, Margaret was in a position of power, but she could have never had the success that she did if Malcolm had not allowed her to be the woman she was. He gave her the freedom to thrive and did not seek to dominate her. As a result, Margaret, oftentimes with Malcolm in tow, made positive reforms to the court, the Church in Scotland, and ushered in a new era of culture for Scotland. They also performed ongoing acts of charity and service to the poor together.

St. Margaret loved what is good and pursued what she loved. This, even more so than the feminine traits of courtesy, piety, or beauty, is what made her a woman people wanted to emulate, including her husband. I must share a beautiful story from the essay that highlights the relationship Margaret and Malcolm shared. Margaret loved to read and learn. She especially loved to study scripture and owned many books. Malcolm, as I mentioned, was illiterate. A monk named Turgot, Margaret’s confessor and biographer records this story:

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 express a special liking for a particular book he also would look at it with special interest, kissing it and often taking it into his hands. Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals who 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.

Modern men and women seek to find a spouse they share a lot in common with. This is a good and smart thing to do, but at some point their differences inevitably cause wailing and gnashing of teeth. It’s simply unavoidable in the male-female relationship. And that’s ok. These are occasions to learn on multiple levels.

Yet, as we see in the marriage of St. Margaret and Malcolm, the gifts of femininity and masculinity complement one another and work together beautifully for the benefit of each person — not to mention their family; they had eight children, and three of their sons also went on to be kings of Scotland.

A woman has the capability of influencing a man — through her own behavior and sheer physical presence — to be better than he would be without her. More human, if I may be so bold to say. Done well, this is not manipulation; it is an invitation to a generosity of heart that a man may not otherwise have without the insight and gentleness of a woman’s presence. Likewise, in his strength, a man can choose to accept this invitation or turn it down. Fortunately for the people of Scotland, St. Margaret’s invitation was accepted.

— Sarah Drew
Assistant Editor