Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Anglo-Saxons in the Scottish Court: Joining up the Dots

Often, fiction has been the lure for me to explore aspects of history which take me sideways, rather than back or forth from my favourite period.

I was reading Queen Hereafter, by Susan Fraser King, which tells the story of Margaret of Scotland. She was English, a member of the Anglo-Saxon royal house whose rule was brought to an abrupt end by the events of 1066. This blog post was going to be a review, but events took a turn which means it has become an adventure, too...

Of the book itself, I can say that it is an accomplished exploration of Margaret's life, thoroughly researched, with credible dialogue and a good sense of time and place. 

The description of the Scottish locations was brilliantly done, and the indoor scenes were beautifully painted. I finished the book feeling glad that I had read it, and that's always a good sign.

I had two tiny niggles: the slight reliance on the past historic tense - she wore, she sat - left me musing that the use of the past imperfect - she was sitting - would give some of the scenes more immediacy and leave the reader feeling a little less detached from the scene being laid out for them. And, occasionally, characters explain, for the benefit of the reader, things which the other character would already know, but this at least shows that the author has done her stuff. I felt safe that I was learning historical facts, that the fiction was woven on a solid frame of truth.

Margaret is portrayed as fervently religious. Reading the book, I wondered if the authors' suggestion is that she was an obsessive compulsive? If so, it's an interesting proposition. Margaret was certainly revered for her religious observance, but on the other hand, was there anything inherently untoward about someone being devout, in those times?

Margaret arriving in Scotland - attribution

I love it when things all fall into place - and it was at this point that they did so, spectacularly. At the same moment as I began reading the chapter in which Margaret arrives at Dunfermline, I found out that our summer holiday booking was for Fife, in Scotland, and we were going to be staying just a few miles outside Dunfermline, where Margaret was buried.

The medieval abbey, founded by Margaret
and rebuilt by her son, David

Margaret's grandfather was Edmund Ironside, the son of Æthelred the Unready who fought, and nearly beat, Cnut. When Cnut became king, Edmund's son, Edward, was exiled, and Margaret was born in Hungary. 

In 1057 her father was recalled to England, being the heir to Edward the Confessor, who was childless and, at this stage, it seemed inevitable that he would remain so. However, Margaret's father died almost immediately upon arrival in England. Her brother, Edgar, became a figurehead for uprising in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings. Margaret, her siblings, and their mother fled north, initially to Northumbria.

There is some dispute as to when and how they ended up in Scotland. The chronicler Simeon of Durham recorded in 1070 that "King Malcolm, with the consent of his relatives, took in marriage Edgar's sister, Margaret, a woman noble by royal ascent." Others place the date of Margaret and Edgar's arrival in Scotland as 1068.

Malcom Canmore's Tower - Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline 

What I did know about Margaret was that she was canonised, for her piety, charity and strict observance of the Catholic faith. I had never really joined up the dots though, for her new husband, Malcolm III, also known as Malcolm Canmore, is the same Malcolm who appears in that Scottish play ~ it was this Malcolm who slew Macbeth.

A statue of Margaret in the cave where she
is known to have prayed

The descendants of Malcolm III and Margaret dominated the Scottish monarchy for the next two hundred years, although their reigns were not without challenges.

Malcolm's own journey to the throne was a bloody one. The Annals of England and Ireland are in agreement that Macbeth was put to flight by Malcolm in 1054, and later sources agreed with Shakespeare that this battle took place at Dunsinan. Malcolm killed Macbeth near Aberdeen, at Lumphanan on 15th August 1057, and I just happened to be at Malcolm's power base of Dunfermline/Edinburgh on 15th August this year, 960 years later!

It's a possibility that although Macbeth was killed, his army might in fact have been victorious, because Malcolm was still not considered king.

Macbeth at Dunsinane - John Martin
(Public Domain image)

Macbeth's stepson, Lulach, reigned for a short while but was also killed by Malcolm. The Chronicle of Melrose reported that "[Lulach] fell by the arms of the same Malcolm. The man met his fate at Essie, in Strathbogie."

Even so, Malcolm's slaying of Macbeth and Lulach did not eradicate all rivals to the Scottish throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entry for 1078 tells us that "In this year King Malcolm captured the mother of Maelslæta and all his best men, and all his treasures, and his live-stock, and he himself escaped with difficulty."

Maelslæta, or Máel Snechtai, was Lulach's son, and was, according to the Irish Annals, the king of Moray. These same annals record, enigmatically, that Malcolm's son Donald, by his first wife, died 'unhappily' in 1085. Was this retribution for the attack on Máel Snechtai?

Malcolm and his eldest son by Margaret, Edward, were killed at the Battle of Alnwick in 1093, fighting against Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumbria, and it seems that Margaret died of a broken heart, just a few months later.

Her relics drew huge numbers of pilgrims to Dunfermline abbey until the Reformation, 'when heretics stole into the Kingdome, trampled underfoot all divine and human lawes and seized the sacred moveables on [Dunfermline] Church.'

Margaret's Shrine

Margaret is best-known for her piety, and her 'reform' of the Celtic Church in Scotland. This is what I knew of her. Somehow I didn't ever really put her together with Malcolm Canmore, Edmund Ironside, and Shakespeare's Macbeth. Nor, perhaps, had I not read Fraser King's novel, would I have taken quite such an interest in the town of Dunfermline when I visited. Well, I probably would've done, because it's a fabulous place for history fans. Watch out for an EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) post about Dunfermline in the near future.

[all photos by and copyright of the author] 


  1. I read Lady Macbeth by the same author and enjoyed it very much.

    1. That's one for my TBR pile, Barbara :-)

  2. Margaret is much revered in Scotland. She corresponded with the Celtic priesthood in Scotland, and was regarded as a "mender". Through her naughty son, William the Lion, I am descended from her.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Christine. How wonderful that you can trace your family tree back so far. I love the word you use for William, too!

  3. Thanks for this interesting post about Malcolm Canmore or 'Big head' as he's known in Scotland and Queen Margaret, Annie St Margaret's Chapel built by her son David. The oldest structure in Edinburgh castle is well worth a visit.

    1. We decided against visiting Edinburgh this time around as the festival was in full swing. But it's on the itinerary for next time!