Research for Queen Hereafter
There is perhaps no more beautiful character recorded in history.
--W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland, 1895, on Queen Margaret
A medieval fairytale: a princess, eldest child of an exiled prince and an exotic noblewoman and raised in a pious royal court, sails with her family to the land of her father’s birth and the throne promised there. The father dies within a week of arriving, possibly poisoned, and his widow raises their children alone—two princesses and a small prince who is to inherit the throne. When the aging king dies a decade later, his enemies invade and the royal family must flee. Sailing over raging seas, they are shipwrecked along a northern coast belonging to a barbarian people.
That king, known to be a brute warrior, offers the fugitives sanctuary; he soon falls in love with the eldest princess, requesting her hand in marriage. Devout, educated, a beautiful young creature of a virtuous and charitable character, the princess intends to become a nun. But for the good of all she is persuaded to marry the warrior king.
Their marriage of near opposites produces eight healthy children—six boys and two girls—and the queen works tirelessly to bring charity, genteel culture and religious reform to her adopted nation, earning the love and trust of the people. The king and queen adore one another: she teaches him to read and turns his plain fortress into a palace; he translates for her when she lectures his foreign priests on theology; she feeds orphans with her own golden spoon and establishes a free ferry for pilgrims; she steals the king’s gold to give it to the poor and releases his ransomed prisoners and he affectionately calls her a little thief. He orders a cover of precious metal and gems made for her favorite old book; he adores her, and she loves him, their children and her faith more than life. Their enduring affection for one another is widely admired.
Twenty-two years later, the king is killed in battle alongside his eldest son, and the queen dies of heartbreak within days. Their royal dynasty lasts generations; the queen is declared a saint by her descendants; the king is immortalized in literature and their memory is still revered.
Fairytales and romance, indeed—yet this is Margaret and Malcolm’s story in a nutshell, handed along by generations of historians and supported by medieval documents. Historians know a good deal more about them now, but their romantic story remains a solid foundation beneath both new and accumulating facts.
Margaret of Scotland has long fascinated historians as one of the most complex women in medieval history. What adds to her uniqueness is a rare detailed biography written by her personal confessor, along with annals and records by other chroniclers and historians both in her lifetime and after. More is known about Margaret than most medieval queens. Her biographer, confessor and friend, Bishop Turgot, was an Anglo-Dane who escaped Norman captivity in Lincoln to join the exiled Saxon royals in Scotland; he later became Bishop of St. Andrews (at the time called Kilrymont or Cill Rimhinn), and he was also Prior of Durham. Margaret regarded Turgot as a close friend, and he was another who adored her. Several years after her death he wrote about her life for her daughter, Edith, known as Queen Matilda when she married Henry I of England.
Despite stilted medieval language and ideals, Turgot’s Vita S. Margaretae, which has survived in medieval copies, was based on his personal memories and brings Margaret to life as an intense young woman of piety, conscience, charity, compassion and intelligence. “There was gravity in her very joy and something stately in her anger,” he wrote. She gave birth to eight healthy babies who thrived to adulthood (Edward, Edmund, Edgar, Aethelred, Alexander, David, Edith and Mary—three kings of Scots, an abbot and a queen of England among them) at a time when too many infants were lost early; that the mother survived eight births was remarkable as well. As a mother, Margaret was attentive and affectionate, teaching her children lessons and manners but recommending that her beloved brood be whipped “when they were naughty, as frolicsome children will be.”
And she had a feisty side, pilfering her husband’s treasury and springing his prisoners loose, and disguising herself as a boy to enter a church forbidden to women. Losing her temper, she would ask more penances, and she pressed Turgot to rebuke her if he saw fault in her behavior. When he could find nothing, she gently chided him for negligence.
A certain mythology has developed around Margaret, in part due to the information gathered for her sainthood 150 years after her death. She kept an altar in a hidden cave near Dunfermline where she prayed and meditated; she fed and clothed the poor and provided for pilgrims; she lost her silver-cased gospel while crossing a river, but by some miracle its delicate painted pages were unharmed (even more miraculously, the manuscript survived the ages and is now preserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford).
So much of Margaret’s life is known—almost too much to pack into a novel that covers just a portion of her life—and only some of it can be real, the rest exaggeration. Certainly her medieval chroniclers applied to her the ideals of perfection that measured most medieval queens and noblewomen, based on the model of the Virgin Mary (the Marian cult was already developing in the 11th century). A historian friend points out that any woman with eight young children and several households to run was simply too busy to spend hours praying each day, which may be closer to the truth than some of the tales about her.
Yet Turgot’s Margaret conveys as genuine, her charitable deeds believable, such as giving away the clothing on her back to the poor on outings (her courtiers did the same, embarrassed by her example), feeding orphans from her own dish and creating Scotland’s “queen’s ferry,” free to pilgrims (bishops could pay or walk). She prayed, admonished and celebrated with fanatical intensity, fasted frequently and lost sleep to devotions, benefitting her soul and ruining her health.
Modern historians accept that Margaret was that good and more, but they point out her other side, too: a complex, highly educated woman obsessively driven by demanding socio-religious standards, regarding herself as an unworthy sinner (she loved bright colors, fine clothing, fancy tableware). Proud and determined, elegant and compassionate, the darker side of her character is seen in the demands she made of herself, including apparent anorexia in excessive response to the tenets of her faith.
Raised in cosmopolitan courts, she knew that her roughshod Scottish husband’s reputation needed polishing. Margaret crafted Malcolm’s transformation from warrior-barbarian to worldly medieval king most deliberately. “By her care and labor the king himself, laying aside the barbarity of his manners, became more gentle and civilized,” wrote Simeon of Durham, a probable acquaintance of Turgot.
Almost single-handedly, Margaret brought Celtic Scotland into the medieval age—encouraging trade, raising standards in the royal households with fine dress and luxury goods, and bringing Roman rite and Benedictine guidance more cohesively into Scotland, a land mostly content with the ancient Celtic Church. She argued theology with Celtic priests—one session lasted three days as she debated Lenten observance and other differences—and she founded Benedictine churches. In a sense, she was a missionary who worried about Scottish souls.
Her increasing physical frailty is mentioned by Turgot, and her death in her mid-forties, said to be from heartbreak after the deaths of Malcolm and their son Edward, may have been due to a heart damaged by habitual fasting; even her priests, says Turgot, would beg her to eat something.
Given all that, I knew that a novel about Margaret could become a doorstopper of a thousand pages, unless it explored only part of her life. Enchanted by her history and curious to know more, I began the research while I wrote Lady Macbeth. For Margaret, I focused the story on her arrival in Scotland, her courtship with Malcolm and the first few years of their marriage, babies and miracles and all. In the young queen, I wanted to show the elements that would create the mature queen of the historical record.
But a female protagonist who has one pregnancy after another, who fasts despite that and prays intensely is best seen, at times, from another perspective—so Eva the Bard entered the story. Eva is purely fictional, but her bardic craft and courtly position fit Scottish medieval society. Male bards were certainly more common, but female bards and harpers were recorded consistently in Scottish history from early myths to the songwriters and poets of the 18th and 19th centuries and beyond to current Celtic music.
Though it is unknown if King Lulach, son of Lady Macbeth, actually had an illegitimate daughter, it is possible. Nor do we know if Queen Gruadh (Gruoch in the historical record) survived her husband to see the reign of Malcolm and Margaret—but again, anything is possible. By the dates alone, Gruadh had a good chance of still being alive when Margaret was a young queen, and, I think, would have bitterly resented Malcolm Canmore.
Regarding Margaret’s birth family, her father, Edward the Exile, was whisked out of England as a toddler to escape the wrath of Cnut, new to the English throne; harbored in Kiev and later Hungary, he married Agatha, who was perhaps of Hungarian, German or Russian blood; for the novel, I favored the strong theory of Agatha as a princess of Kievan and Swedish descent. She was indeed widowed suddenly in 1057 when the Exile, or Outlaw, dropped dead at her feet in London. Stranded with her children in the court of Edward the Confessor, she escaped with them following after the Norman Conquest, and all were shipwrecked in Scotland.
Edgar the Atheling apparently never married (at least a wife is not recorded). King William probably exiled him as a condition of the agreement with Malcolm at Abernethy; Edgar went to Flanders, returned to Scotland two years later and was offered property and a title in France. Probably eager for his success, Malcolm and Margaret fitted him out with a ship loaded with the finest belongings. It sank. Edgar, who has been described as “hapless,” survived another shipwreck and made his way back to Scotland.
Next he went to England to do homage for William’s forgiveness and was granted modest English properties, providing he gave up his claims. Edgar next went to Italy, perhaps hoping for adventure and profit, but soon he was back in England, but lost his lands under rough King William Rufus. He returned to Scotland prior to the deaths of Malcolm and Margaret. Hapless indeed—but a man of high ideals if lacking the talent to see them through. In a sense, Edgar was the Bonnie Prince Charlie of his day.
However he successfully championed the claims of his nephews, the Margaretsons, as they were called, against Malcolm’s eldest, Duncan, for the Scottish throne. Eventually three of Malcolm and Margaret’s sons succeeded to the throne of Scotland, establishing a Canmore dynasty. Traces of their blood continue to this day in British royalty.
Cristina, who was given lands in England by William, became abbess of Romsey Abbey and later oversaw the education of Margaret’s young daughters, Edith and Mary; some accounts have her treating Edith so cruelly that the girl wrote to her father to fetch her home.
King Malcolm Canmore, or Malcolm III of Scotland, will be known to some readers through Shakespeare’s Macbeth or through historical accounts of the Norman era in Britain. He was undoubtedly a rough, cunning warlord of a king who was civilized, in a sense, by his sophisticated and devout queen. More about Malcolm can be learned through reading my novel, Lady Macbeth, as I have in many ways continued a story here—that of the tensions between Malcolm, Macbeth and Macbeth’s wife—that begin there.
Part of the contribution of historical fiction, I think, is the ability to conjure a historical era and bring to life historical persons such as these, who otherwise might only exist in dry nonfiction accounts. I hope that Queen Hereafter conjures for you the reputable and sainted Queen Margaret of Scotland as a real, vulnerable, likable young woman, placed—with the help of a lady bard and a trouble-stirring former queen—within the context of the Scottish society that no doubt the actual Margaret must have struggled to comprehend.
For the sake of fiction, I played a little with some dates, folding and tucking here and there so that events would move more quickly and make sense within the plot. Some incidents and threads in Margaret’s life, though integral to the actual queen, hit the cutting room floor in this fictional account for very practical reasons. Others were altered slightly, such as the existence of Margaret’s chapel in Edinburgh; true, the actual stone chapel was built under her son, King David of Scotland, but it is possible that a wooden chapel existed there first. Also, fictional characters were added to support the main players, but the core of the story is, I hope, close to what could have happened.
If the two Queens of Scots, Gruadh and Margaret, ever met (we will never know), each might have seen in the other her near opposite: one was the product of an archaic Celtic warrior society more Dark Ages than anything else; the other was a true medieval woman (modern in her own terms), greatly devout with a worldly sophistication.
The story of Margaret and Malcolm is a tale of a beauty and her beast, two people who changed the course of Scottish history. The story is told that centuries after her death, Margaret’s coffin was removed during renovations from its original tomb in the church at Dunfermline to be placed in the new apse. The workers carrying the coffin found it so heavy that they set it down and could not budge it again—then they realized that next to them was the tomb of Malcolm Canmore.
Only when Malcolm’s coffin was moved to the new apse first could the queen’s coffin then be easily lifted and placed in its new position. Legend says that the queen’s spirit, out of love and respect for her husband, prevented her coffin from preceding his into the new space.
Tiny, beautiful lights, it is claimed, sometimes float around her tomb in Dunfermline, proving that she still watches over Scotland. To this day, her presence is recalled in various places—her simple, serene chapel in Edinburgh Castle; St. Margaret’s Loch and St. Margaret’s Well; the water crossing she founded at Queensferry in Fife, the boulder where she sat to rest near Malcolm’s tower in Dunfermline and the little cave tucked under a hill there; and the cove where it is said she first set foot in Scotland, which is called Saint Margaret’s Hope.