Most of the earliest saints of the Church are venerated for their great courage amidst persecution and their martyrdom for the faith. After Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the designation of “saint” was given to holy men and women whose sanctity was shown in additional ways – through missionary endeavors (St. Patrick, Ss. Cyril and Methodius); through the ascetic monastic life (St. Anthony, St. Benedict); through pastoral leadership in the Church (St. Gregory, St. John Chrysostom). We ask for the prayers of these saints in their various categories as we sing the Litany of Saints: “All ye holy Angels and Archangels…Apostles and Evangelists…Martyrs…Bishops and Confessors…Monks and Hermits…Virgins and Widows”).
But some have been called saints whose holiness was manifested in the ordinary events of daily life which we all experience: their relations with their husbands or wives; the teaching of their children; their acts of charity to those in need. St. Margaret of Scotland is one who endeavored toward sanctification in the challenges which were presented to her in daily life.
St. Margaret is one of the few saints on our Orthodox Western Rite calendar of saints who lived beyond the arbitrary date – 1054 – for the break between the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West. We know that most Christians were unaware of this break in communion until many years later.
While St. Margaret’s holiness was evident in everyday life, many of the circumstances of her life were not at all “ordinary”. Born (c. 1045) into the English royal family (the niece of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, and sister to Edward Atheling, a possible successor to the throne), Margaret spent her early life in exile. The political turmoil in England, with the Scandinavians who had been invading for centuries vying with the Normans for dominance in the country, made it unsafe for any with her family connections to remain alive. She was born in Hungary (then Pannonia) where her father and uncle had been sent for safety. When she was about 12 years of age, the family returned to England but in 1066, with the Norman invasion, they were forced to flee once more, this time to Scotland.
All this while, the young Margaret sought security in devotion to Christ and his Church. She always prayed fervently and took seriously the Christian duty to be charitable. King Malcomb III of Scotland, a widower, was much taken by the young lady. In addition to her mature and pious demeanor, she was also beautiful and intelligent and had a civilizing effect on one who had been noted mainly for his frequent battles. Margaret and Malcomb were married in 1070, she was named Queen of Scotland, and thus began many years of her positive influence in that country.
Having been the recipient of the Anglo-Saxon Christian heritage from her family, a heritage which had been strong since the work of St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604), Margaret had also been influenced in early life by the religious zeal at the Hungarian (Magyar) court. The Magyars had been evangelized first by Greek monks and then by German missionaries. By the time of King (later St.) Stephen of Hungary at the beginning of the 11th century, Christianity was well established and thriving. The young Margaret was no doubt influenced by the emphasis here on the observance of the Church’s fasts and the prominence of monastic houses.
When she became Queen, Margaret exerted her influence in these same areas. By her example, she promoted the strict observance of the fasts and festivals of the Church and she encouraged the building of churches, pilgrim hostels and monasteries. She was instrumental in reviving the great monastery of Iona which had suffered in the Viking invasions, and she founded the church of Dunfermline as a sort of national cathedral with provision for royal burials.
Queen Margaret was never so attached to the worldly possessions of a monarch that she could not be charitable. She gave away much of her wealth to those in great need; she daily fed poor people and orphans at her table before dining herself.
The king and queen were blessed with eight children, two of whom (Alexander and David) became kings of Scotland; their daughter Matilda married Henry I of England and their son (Ethelred) became abbot of a monastery. St. Margaret took seriously her responsibility to raise her children in the fear of the Lord and taught them, through her words but primarily her example, what the Christian life should be like.
St. Margaret was ill when her husband and son Edward were killed in battle, and she died a short time later. She was buried in the Church of Dunfermline next to her husband (but her relics were lost at the time of the Scottish Protestant reformation). The story of St. Margaret’s life was written by Theodoric, a monk of Durham who had been her confessor. Within 150 years, Queen Margaret was recognized as St. Margaret for her pious example of Christian living.
And so, despite the extraordinary political circumstances of this royal woman’s life, we can see that her true holiness was shown in the way she carried out the normal duties of everyday life. We venerate her for her love of God, her attention to prayer and service in the Church, her generosity to the poor, her Christian teaching of her children, and the example of Christian love and charity she gave to her husband. May we follow in her footsteps. Holy Margaret, pray for us.