Pilgrim’s in the Kingdom: St. Margaret’s Chapel and Saint Margaret by Deborah and David Douglas


Chapter 4 of Pilgrims of the Kingdom by Deborah Douglas and David Douglas. 2004.

So I have the place to myself as I wander in the rain through the gatehouse, up the great curling cobbled roads past batteries and barracks. At the very heart of the cast precincts, at the highest pinnacle of Castle Rock, is the small building I have come to see: St. Margaret’s Chapel, freestanding, plain, and unpretentious as it has stood for nearly nine centuries, the oldest surviving part of the castle, the oldest building in all this venerable city, and the oldest Norman church in Scotland.

It is raining, inevitably, on the wintry morning I have chosen to explore Edinburgh Castle. I don’t mind, though; the weather has discouraged other visitors, and it suits the place–there would be something incongruous, almost frivolous, about this grim and brooding fortress, stone built on solid stone, on a merely sunny day.

It is tiny–twenty people would be a snug fit–and as resonant and empty as a seashell. The graceful lines of vaulted poor and rounded door and windows relieve the rectangular austerity. A marvelous Norman archway divides the small nave from the even smaller semicircular vaulted apse on the east side. A bouquet of fresh flowers adorns the altar.

These round-headed windows, set in stone walls two feet thick, echo the shape of the wooden entrance door as well as the magnificent Norman arch that separates the minute chancel from the nave. Some say David I, Margaret’s son, may have built the chapel as a memorial to his mother, as he founded the Abbey of the Holy Rood in her memory. Others think that the chapel itself is older–old enough to be the very oratory that her biographer mentions as Margarets’s constant refuge, which she sought night and day for prayer, where she attended Mass and received Communion on the day she died.

It is very lovely. I am, in fact, taken aback by the palpable peace and beauty of the space. Rain hisses against the narrow windows, but otherwise the silence is unbroken, and profound. I can easily imagine the young queen (1047-93) here in this place she loved, a tiny island of prayer in the tumultuous sea of castle life.

It has not always been so peaceful here. Edinburgh Castle was the focal point for political and military turmoil in Scotland for nearly a thousand years; many times throughout the centuries these walls have rung with the noise of battle. In 1314 they also rang to the sounds of demolition: Thomas Randolph, Scottish Earl of Moray, having brilliantly recaptured the castle from under the noses of the sleeping English garrison, and unwilling to let the prize of the castle fall gain into enemy hands, ordered every building in the castle razed –except St. Margaret’s Chapel. On his deathbed in 1329, another Scottish hero, King Robert I the Bruce, spoke of the lonely chapel on the desolate rock and set aside money for the repair of its broken windows.

William Wallace

These narrow windows-so carefully restored in the fourteenth century at the order of a dying king, and so carelessly obscured by military pragmatism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries–are once again both glazed and whole. Douglas Strachan designed the lovely stained-glass windows that were installed in the 1920’s–the one behind the altar in the east wall shows Saint Andrew, patron saint of Scotland; the one in the western wall a bit incongruously depicts Sir William Wallace, a favorite Scottish hero of the thirteenth century (but not one usually remembered for his holiness). To the delight of my Celtic heart, the three windows in the south wall commemorate respectively Saint Ninian, Saint Columba, and of course–Saint Margaret herself, depicted as a calm and handsome woman with a golden crown atop thick flaxen plaits, seated, with a book in her hands.

Standing here, I can hardly believe it was not her own. The small enclosed space within these walls feels as surely shaped by prayer as the Norman arch was carved in stone. It is remarkable that the prayerful atmosphere should linger still, since–although records of use of the “Chapel Royal” occur throughout the Middle Ages–from the sixteenth century it seems the building was used for anything but prayer. It was only rediscovered in 1845, at which time it was being used as the powder magazine of the Argyle Battery. Sir David Wilson, who conducted his renovations at the request of Queen Victoria, reported that “the gunpowder was stored in the apse; the little round-headed window on its south side was built up; and the garrison chapel, a plain unsightly modern building, which then stood immediately to the east, effectively blocked up the central window.”

Margaret’s guide and confessor was a priest named Turgot (later prior of Durham, finally bishop of St. Andrews). At the request of Margaret’s daughter Matilda (then queen of England, having married Henry I in 1100), Turgot wrote The Life of Sant Margaret just over a decade after Margaret’s death. This remarkable document–strong and resolute hagiography–omits much that we would like to know, but it remains the primary source for our knowledge of Margaret’s life and death. Turgot, no doubt mindful of his audience but clearly persuaded of Margaret’s holiness, assures Matilda that “nothing was firmer than her mother’s fidelity, steadier than her favor, or juster than her decisions, nothing more enduring than her patience, graver than her advice or more pleasant than her conversation.”

A summary of The Life sounds much like a fairy tale: Once upon a time, a beautiful and devout Saxon princess, a de facto exile from England after the Norman Conquest of 1066, was shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland–possibly fleeing north toward Norway. She was rescued by the barbarian King Malcolm, who fell in love with the homeless princess; they were married within the year. She–like a proper fairy-tale princess–was as good as she was beautiful. She won the wild hearts of Scottish nobility and peasantry alike by her passion for justice and mercy, and her love of the church. She brought the order and discipline of Roman liturgy to the haphazard local practice, and inspired court and clergy by her care of the poor. Her practical charity was outmatched only by her personal devotion: she attended every hour of worship, observed all fast days, and devoted herself to hours of private prayer. She bore eight children and raised them to be themselves good kinds and queens. She died at the the age of forty-six, holding a cross, a prayer on her lips.

Beyond the fairy tale–which is actually grounded in historical fact–lie the criticism and the controversy. Some assessments of Saint Margaret (who was canonized in 1250 C.E., incidentally one of the rare female saints who was neither virgin nor widow but the happy mother of a large family) disparage her as a “severe lady, who checked mirth at court and dominated her husband.” One eminent Scottish historian has rather snidely suggested that Malcolm “offset the oppressive piety of his household by four times invading the north of England.” Another has pointed out that “the young queen had no very high standards live up to, her predecessor being Lady Macbeth.

More seriously, views differ on the value of Margaret’s contribution to church history. On the one hand, she is lauded for introducing far-reaching changes into worship and practice, bringing the “barbarian North” into the Roman fold; on the other hand, she has been harshly criticized for initiating the destruction of indigenous Celtic Christianity. It would appear that in fact the truth lies, as is so often does, somewhere in between.


It seems fitting that here in St. Margaret’s Chapel at the heart of Edinburgh Castle, the stained-glass window depicting Saint Margaret should be right next to the one honoring Saint Columba. A strong tradition links Saint Margaret with Iona: when the Western Isles, for many years in the hands of Norway, came under Malcolm’s protection in 1072. Queen Margaret sent money to restore the monastery there from Viking depredations. I feel sure that Columba and Margaret, although separated by several turbulent centuries and hailing from two different cultures, would have recognized instantly in each other a kindred love of God and the church. In both of them. great personal sanctity was allied with persuasive charm and formidable organizational ability; both are rightly revered as jewels in Scotland’s Christian crown.

Nevertheless, by Margaret’s day, Columba had been dead for centuries, and his legacy was growing dim: the church he and the great Celtic pioneers left behind had grown stagnant, isolated, and weak. The religious heirs of Columba (known as “Culdees” from the Gaelic Celi De, “companions of God“) still lived in the traditional small communities of twelve or less, under an abbot or prior as superior. But by Margaret’s time, these monastic clergy were still the only clergy in the land, and they lived isolated lives of prayer with little regard for the pastoral needs of the people, and no sense of connection with the life of the church elsewhere.

Margaret was a nobly born, gently bred, highly educated, religiously observant young woman; she had been born into a highly cultured Christian court in Hungary and raised in another in England. So when forced to flee the English court after the advent of William the Conqueror, she must have been dismayed to find herself in the wilds of Scotland, and disturbed by the state of church and court. As queen she would naturally have felt some obligation to do what she could to improve both religious observance and pastoral care for the poor.

At any rate, sometime after 1070–soon after her marriage to Malcolm–Margaret approached Lanfranc, then archbishop of Canterbury, for help in reforming the church in Scotland. She also seems to have been instrumental in organizing and even moderating the famous three-day council, probably held in St. Andrews about 1074, that attempted to reconcile the differences between the Culdees and the Roman Church.

It is interesting to note, in the context of accusations sometimes brought against Margaret for destroying the distinctive character of “Celtic Christianity,” just how small the agenda for this council was. There seem to have been only a handful of issues at stake, and none of them strike modern ears as theologically or politically explosive. Like the questions that had earlier concerned the Synod of Whitby in 664 C.E, the debate was not over doctrine but discipline.

The most apparently substantive point of the council involved the liturgy of the Mass: Margaret and the delegation from Canterbury wanted conformity here with the Latin liturgy rather than “after a barbarous ritual.” Tantalizingly, there is no way to know what this phrase means–had the Culdees been saying Mass in Gaelic rather than Latin? We may never know. At any rate, Turgot’s record of the council does not reflect cultural imperialism so much as a modest desire to bring the isolated Culdee practice more explicitly in line with what the rest of the Christian world was doing. Again, as at Whitby four hundred years earlier, the goal was merely to establish a universal rather than a local practice for Christian life and worship.

In any event, it does not seem that there was much opposition: Turgot reports that “no one on the opposite side could say one word against them [Margaret’s proposal]; nay, rather, giving up their obstinacy and yielding to reason, they willingly consented to adopt all she recommended.

Holy Trinity Abbey

Far from being at inquisitional pains to correct the errors of the Culdees, Margaret clearly admired them; she not only sent funds for the restoration of Iona but also maintained close friendships with many of the Celi De, visiting them in their monasteries and discussing religious matters with them, seeking their counsel, giving them generous grants of land and money, and encouraging them in their transcribing of sacred books. Margaret did, soon after her marriage in the little Culdee church in Dunferline, replace the small existing building with the large, fine Holy Trinity Abbey, built in the Norman manner, more in keeping with the Roman usage she sought to introduce. However, she did not replace the Culdee clergy, and built the new church over the old one, so the ancient site was both honored and preserved as a place of worship. Through a grille over a hole cut in the stone floor, one can still see a bit of the floor of the eleventh-century church built on Margaret’s orders, testimony to both change and continuity across the ages.

The record is undisputed that whatever her role as a reformer, Margaret was a great lover of God and extravagant in her love, for Christ’s sake, of the poor. She seems to have longed, within the context of life with her family and at court, with all her activity in affairs of both church and state, to live the life of a Benedictine nun. According to Turgot, she prayed the divine office every day and was passionate in the practices of hospitality and almsgiving. Turgot tells us that during the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent, she not only fed nine orphan children every morning, taking them on her knee and feeding them tenderly with her own spoon, but that afterward, she and Malcolm would personally feed three hundred poor people, “waiting upon Christ in the person of the poor.” Even if, as may well be, this number is exaggerated, there is no reason to doubt that the royal household did indeed provide food and drink to many–and as Margaret’s biographer Lucy Menzies says, “The description of the warlike Malcolm, the proud King of Scots, waiting on the poor down one side of the hall while the queen waited on the other, shows us the extent of her conquest.”

Margaret’s historical and ecclesial significance aside, I have always been intrigued and amused by her legendary conquest of Malcolm. A portrait of Queen Margaret and King Malcolm, which now hangs in Dunfermline, has become one of my favorite images of Margaret. It nicely portrays Victorian piety and values: The young and lovely queen, gracefully draped in embroidered silk with a jeweled circlet on her flowing red-gold hair, sits on a stone by a wooded stream beside her husband. A book lies on her knee, and she is obviously telling him the story of the gospel. Her face is rapt, her eyes fixed on an unseen point in the distance. Her slender white hand lies affectionately on his big brown fist. Malcolm sits beside her, clothed in the chain mail and leather, crown and sword of his warrior-kingly calling, leaning his rough head in his hand and gazing respectfully down at the book, every line of his figure indicating his rude strength, his touching devotion to his bride, and his bewildered, illiterate attempt to understand what she is saying.

The book in the painting is Margaret’s famous Gospel book-also pictured in the stained-glass window in the chapel in Edinburgh Castle–around which some of the most charming legends about Margaret have grown. One tale recounts, for instance, how the book once fell into a stream and was rescued from the water undamaged and quite dry. Turgot also tells us, in a sweet vignette that offers another unusual glimpse of Malcolm, the erstwhile “scourge of the North,” that the king was so in love with his young queen and so in awe of her learning and her piety that he had her book beautifully bound and jeweled, and although he himself could neither read nor write, he used to pick it up and reverently kiss it for her sake.

From the cobbled space now immediately in from of Margaret’s Chapel–where the royal residence probably stood in the eleventh century–the steep norther face of Castle Mound drops dramatically away into what was once the Nor’Lock, a lake built, like a moat, between the castle and the sea to protect the castle from invasions. Now, hundreds of feet below, the velvety green of Edinburgh’s Princess Street Gardens unfurls between the castle and the New Town, the railroad tracks running through it like a river. Princess Street is alive with bobbing black umbrellas; double-decker buses streak their red against the grey.

This spot commands a marvelous view of the largely eighteenth-century “New Town” below, with the Lomond hills of Fife behind. Standing here, I also have a wonderful vista of the whole sweep of the Firth of Forth–from the west, where it widens from the youth of the river Forth to the east, where it joins the North Sea. To the west, just visible against the sky, the twin balletic leaps of the Forth Bridges (one rail, one road) connect the southern edge of the estuary with the northern. Where those bridges now span the gap, where the picturesque villages of North and South Queensferry can still be seen on either shore, Queen Margaret established hostels and ferries for pilgrims to the shrine of Saint Andrew on the north coast.

The view beyond the city-broad, low band of pewter-colored sea and sky with undulating green between-can’t have changed much since Margaret looked at it. Perhaps it was one of the last things she saw, on a day as wet and bleak as this; she died in the castle, probably very near where I now stand. The final years of Margaret’s life must have been lonely ones: Lanfranc, her old Norman friend and ally, had died in 1089; Turgot had left to be prior of Durham two years before. Her health failed rapidly after the spring of 1093; she was not yet fifty but had worn her body out with fasting, and “lived her life hard,” as Lucy Menzies has observed. For the last six months of her life, she was seldom able to leave her bed. By November she was in constant pain and filled with forebodings about Malcolm, who was away, embroiled in what would be his last invasion of England. She knew her own death to be near, “but in her greatest pains, no complaint was heard to proceed from her innocent mouth.

As Margaret lay dying, a cross clasped in her hands, her son Edgar came in with the news that her husband and their eldest son had been killed at the battle of Alnwick. At the same time–the news of the deaths of both king and heir having traveled fast among other claimants to the throne–the castle was under attack by Malcolm’s brother Donald Bane.

Margaret died as she had lived, deeply anchored in God, steadfast and quiet amid the din of war. “Her departure was so calm, so tranquil, that we may conclude her soul passed at once to the land of eternal rest and peace,” Turgot tells us.

Even as the castle was once more besieged, Margaret’s body was shrouded in haste and carried in secret from her private chamber, through the west gate, and down the steep west face of the Castle Rock. Under cover of an Edinburgh haar, the thick white mist from the sea, her sones Ethelred and Edgar bore her body safely out of the battle, and home to the church she had built some twenty years before-by means of the ferry she had established for the ease of the pilgrims. From where I stand in the drizzling rain outside the chapel, I can just see the place, upriver to the west, marked now by the two bridges that span the estuary.

On the other side of the bridges lies Dunfermline-once the religious and political capital of Scotland, the site of Margaret’s first home in the north, where she built her first “new” church, where she and Malcolm were married. It is also where her body was buried-twice: first under the altar at her Church of the Holy Trinity in November 1093, and then, after her canonization in 1250, in a special shrine just to the east of the high altar. This reliquary chapel must have been beautiful to behold and was famous throughout the Middle Ages; thousands of devout pilgrims made their way from all across Europe to pray there, hoping that the compassionate queen would intercede for the poor and needy in heaven as she once did at court. The chapel itself, however, was destroyed in the vandalizing days of civil war and Reformation. Only a stone plinth remains, inside an iron railing, to show where the exquisite medieval shrine once was.

In 1993, in recognition of the nine hundredth anniversary of Margaret’s death in 1093, Historic Scotland and other agencies published leaflets and maps to mark the “Trail of Queen Margaret.” Many of the places associate with Scotland’s sainted queen were renovated or remembered. Not only Dunfermline’s abbey, tower, and cave are memorials: as far south as the Borders, the famous abbeys of Jedburgh, Kelso and Melrose were all founded by King David I, Margaret’s son. As far north as Angus, where Margaret built a chapel on an island in Forfar Loch, and as far west as Iona, Margaret’s legacy is visible.

But a real sense of her spirit is elusive in many of these places–obstructed as the windows in her chapel were by the ignorance of other ages, other needs, sometimes obscured even by well-meaning attempts to celebrate her memory. At any rate, my own wanderings in search of Margaret seem to lead back to Edinburgh Castle, and to the tiny chapel at its highest point, seemingly carved by prayer itself out of the living rock.

It is here, in the small chapel at the heart of the castle stronghold, that, for this pilgrim at least, Saint Margaret, queen of Scotland, seems most real, most present. Maybe because of this place, like her life, is built so firmly not only on the Castle Rock but also on the rock of her steadfast faith. The rain still hisses against the narrow windows; the peace continues deep and strong. The words of the psalmist come readily to mind here: “The Lord is my rock, my fortress…my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, …my stronghold” (18:2).


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