Born in 1045 in Hungary, Margaret was the daughter of an English Prince, Edward the Exile. She returned to Britain in 1057 when the childless Edward the Confessor required a successor because her father and subsequently her brother were considered to be legitimate heirs to the English throne. In the event the crown went to Harold Godwinson whose ruin came in 1066 with the Norman invasion under Duke William. The Norman victory at Hasting and rapid advance prompted Margaret, her mother and her brother—who had recently and briefly taken the throne—to flee to Northumberland. Margaret's mother decided the family's safety lay in returning to the continent, but a storm at sea drove their vessel ashore in Scotland where they sought the protection of the king, Malcolm III. He and Margaret were subsequently married. The Norman domination of England soon brought about the infamous 'harrying of the north' and there followed a series of border engagements between the Normans and Malcolm's Scots motivated principally by Malcolm's support for Margaret's brother Edgar's territorial claims. These border wars cost Margaret the lives of her husband and her eldest son who were both killed at Alnwick in 1093. The queen survived them by just three days. Margaret was well known for her charitable works to the extent that in 1250 she was canonised by Pope Innocent IV. This concise overview of the life of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland, is available in softcover and hardcover with dust jacket.
Law-making in Scotland was yet primitive in Canmore’s time, and when laws were made they were often of little avail owing to faulty administration. Wrongs, real or imaginary, were numerous, and who was to settle disputes and assign blame and punishment to the guilty? Sometimes public officials were in fault, sometimes private individuals, but the only chance of redress lay in petitioning the King. Malcolm put all these matters into St Margaret’s hands, and oftentimes she spent several hours of the day hearing the grievances of the poor. An artist might find in the scene a fitting subject for a picture: the background of hill and forest and picturesque Tower, and the green slopes near Dunfermline, peopled for the time being, from the great stone to the silver sea far below, with all who had tales of want and wrong to tell. The setting would be worthy of its central figure—the beautiful fair-haired Queen, resplendent in her shining robes, seated on her rocky throne and bending low to listen with tender pity to a story of misery and suffering.<br>
St Margaret employed agents of ability and fidelity in this business, sending them all over Scotland to inquire into cases of distress that had been reported to her, and to report on others which they might discover while on their rounds. It was their duty to see that the Queen’s instructions were carried out and effect given to her judgments.
The work was good in itself, but it was more important still as a foundation on which others could build. David I., St Margaret’s wise and saintly son, improved very considerably on her methods when he came to the throne. He appointed a judge or sheriff over each county whose duty it was to decide all cases in the King’s name. David himself, however, was always ready, as his mother had been, to give personal attention to the complaints and petitions of the lowly ones of his kingdom. He was in the habit of sitting at his palace gates on certain days that he might hear their cases and deal justly with them; and he considered it no indignity when a royal progress was interrupted in order that some importunate old dame might pour out the tale of her woes to the “protector of the poor.”<br>
Slavery was the greatest curse of Scotland in the eleventh century and for a long time after it. We can only with difficulty think of our ancestors either as slaves or as slave-owners. The desire of freedom for self and others—the love of independence—is such an integral part of Scottish character as we know it, that the thing seems impossible. It is only too true, however. The evil began in savage and pagan times when the motto was “Woe to the vanquished,” and all who were on the losing side in fight or foray expected death or bondage as a natural consequence of defeat.<br>
Christianity was everywhere the determined enemy of slavery, and as the Church grew more powerful in any country, slaves and slave-owners became fewer in number. St Columba and his followers had preached freedom, but when the Danes came, that and many other precepts of the Scottish apostles were forgotten. St Margaret did much to alleviate the miseries caused by slavery but she was powerless to abolish it altogether. Indeed, her fierce husband never went to war without swelling the ranks of the unfortunate slaves by bringing home a train of captives. Poor Queen Margaret! She could only try to help the wretched sufferers and pray and hope for better times. What now of the wife’s wishes being a law to her husband? Ah! This was an evil of long standing and could not be swept away in a day at the word of a gentle woman. The good Queen was prudent and patient and did not expect impossibilities, but she did what she could in the present and made plans for the future. St Margaret was always willing to sow, in order that others might reap. Her desire was that good should be done, not merely that she herself might do it.<br>
Her pity for the poor slaves was intense and she spent large sums of money in ransoming them. Her agents were encouraged to bring her news of any specially hard cases and when she heard of one, she never rested until she found some means of relieving the pool creature’s misery. The time was not ripe for great changes, but she could help individual cases and spread abroad a feeling of kindly sympathy for the hard fate of poor slaves. Perhaps—for St Margaret had occasional glimpses of the future—she may have been comforted and encouraged by a foreknowledge of the better state of things that her own reforms would gradually bring about.<br>
Through St Margaret’s efforts, and those of her children, the Church became a power in the land, and as religion spread abroad, slavery declined. It was not, however, until after the wars of Scottish Independence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries that serfdom, as it was called, ceased to exist. Many slaves obtained their freedom for services rendered to their country during the war, and others fled to the towns in the frequent periods of confusion. They became free if they could elude the vigilance of their late masters for a year and a day; and it was comparatively easy to do so; for search was difficult and the escaped slave could always count on the sympathy and help of neighbours.<br>
When Scotland settled down to something like peace, after the Battle of Bannockburn, serfdom was discredited and dying, and, chiefly owing to the determined efforts of the Church, there was scarcely a trace of it left at the beginning of the fifteenth century.