The story of Margaret, the Maid of Norway, is short and sad. The little girl died before her 8th birthday, and before she ever set foot in the country of which she was Queen. And her death set into a motion a chain of events that would see Scotland torn apart by war for years to come.
Margaret’s claim to the Scottish throne came from her grandfather, Alexander III. Alexander had come to the throne at the age of 8 and had proved to be a very capable and strong monarch. He had married, on 26th December 1251, Margaret, the daughter of Henry III of England and Eleanor of Provence.
Margaret and Alexander had 3 children together. Their eldest daughter, Margaret, was born in February 1261 at Windsor Castle. And of their 2 sons; Alexander was born in 1264 at Jedburgh and David who was born in March 1273. However, their family was soon to face a succession of tragedies. Queen Margaret died in February 1275 at Cupar Castle. And 8-year-old David died in June 1281 at Stirling Castle.
One happy event in the midst of the tragedy, was the marriage of 20-year-old Margaret of Scotland to 13-year-old Erik Magnusson around the 31st August 1281. Erik had become King Erik II of Norway the year before, with a royal council ruling for the under-age king.
Eric came of age in 1282 and the following year, on the 9th April 1283, Margaret gave birth to a daughter, another Margaret. The queen died giving birth to Margaret; at Tonsberg, Norway, and was buried in Christ’s Kirk, Bergen.
For Alexander III, even more tragedy was to follow in January 1284 when his son and heir, Alexander, died aged just 20. Alexander’s death sparked a succession crisis for Scotland’s king. He had no brothers or uncles to succeed him; his only heir was his 8-month-old granddaughter, Margaret, in Norway. In the same year Alexander obtained, from his nobles, a recognition of Margaret’s right to succeed to the throne, should he fail to produce any further heirs.
However, the death of his last surviving child also prompted Alexander III to look for a new wife. And on 1st November 1285, at Jedburgh Abbey, Alexander married Yolande de Dreux, daughter of Robert IV, Count of Dreux, in the hope of producing an heir.
Shortly after the marriage, in March 1286, Alexander was on his way to visit his new bride, one night, when he got separated from his escort during a violent storm; his horse appears to have lost its footing and fallen down an embankment. The king’s body, with his neck broken, was found on the beach the next day, just a mile from where his wife was staying, at Kinghorn in Fife.
With the new queen pregnant 6 Guardians were appointed to rule the kingdom until the arrival of Alexander’s posthumous heir. However, Yolande either miscarried, or the baby was still-born and by the end of the year it was clear that Scotland had to look elsewhere for a ruler. Alexander’s only surviving heir was now 3-year-old Margaret of Norway.
Within weeks of Alexanders death Robert Bruce and John Balliol had both made attempts on the crown and the south-west was raised in rebellion. However the majority of Scots, represented by the 6 Guardians, gave their backing to Margaret, the Maid of Norway and Bruce and Balliol were forcibly held in check.
As early as 1284 Alexander III had, following the death of his last son, floated the idea that England and Scotland might unite through marriage. In response to a letter of condolence from his brother-in-law, Edward I, Alexander had suggested that, through his tiny granddaughter, ‘much may yet come to pass’.
The prospect at the time had not been without risk, however; should Alexander have more children, England would have been committed to a disadvantageous marriage with a Norwegian princess. But with Alexander’s death, and the queen’s child dead, Margaret’s accession seemed certain.
With the Guardians maintaining an uneasy peace between the competing claims of Margaret, Robert Bruce and John Balliol, Erik II of Norway sought the help of Edward I of England. Messengers were sent between the English and Norwegian courts and in Spring 1289 serious negotiations began.
On 6th November 1289 an international summit was held at Salisbury. The Norwegian ambassadors met with Edward and his advisers. It’s possible the Scottish Guardians had also sent representatives, but some sources say the Scots were excluded from these initial talks. The summit proved successful and it was agreed that Margaret would marry Edward of Caernarfon, Edward I’s son and heir, within the next 12 months.
For the Scottish, the marriage alliance promised an end to the years of uncertainty and to the latent threats they had been facing since 1286. For Margaret, a marriage alliance with England gave the Maid a powerful protector.
In March 1290 the community of Scotland, comprising over 100 Scotsmen of substance, met to ratify the marriage agreement. They wrote to Edward expressing their will to proceed with the wedding. The Guardians of Scotland, however, had sworn an oath to preserve Alexander III’s kingdom intact and undiminished for his eventual heirs, and their overriding concern now was to safeguard Scotland’s future independence.
It was agreed at Brigham that, although Edward and Margaret were not yet of marriageable age, the would be regarded as married on Margaret’s arrival from Norway – and Edward of Caernarfon would be King of Scotland from that moment. The business of Scottish government and law was to remain in Scotland and be run by a resident Viceroy or lieutenant.
There was no common ground, however, on the issue of royal fortresses: Edward I wanted to appoint all custodians as a guarantee of security but the Scots saw this as a demand for the surrender of sovereignty. In the final agreement, ratified at Northampton, the point is glossed over with an agreement that keepers would be appointed by the ‘common advice of the Scots and the English king’.
The reason Edward acquiesced on – or, rather, failed to push – the castles issue was the news that Margaret had already left Norway. Edward wanted the deal signed and sealed before the Scots’ hand was strengthened by the physical possession of their queen.
In the final agreement, the Scots got a clear statement safeguarding their independence. Edward promised that Scotland should remain ‘free in itself, and without subjection from the kingdom of England’.
Margaret set sail in September 1290; accompanied by Bishop Narve of Bergen, she was bound for Leith. In preparation for the Maid’s arrival, Edward I sent gifts for his future daughter-in-law; and the magnates of Scotland began to assemble at Scone Abbey, Perth, in anticipation of the enthronement of their new queen.
However, storms drove the Maid’s ship off course and she landed at St Margaret’s Hope, South Ronaldsay, on Orkney. Scottish and English representatives rode north to Orkney to meet her. Margaret died at Orkney, in the arms of the Bishop, supposedly from the effects of a severe bout of seasickness. She was 7 years old.
As the Scottish and English messengers returned south with news of the Maid’s death, Margaret’s body was returned to Norway. She was buried beside her mother, in the north aisle of Christ’s Kirk, in Bergen.
Her father confirmed the identity of the body before her burial, an act that proved significant in 1300, a year after Erik’s death, when a woman turned up in Bergen. claiming to be Margaret. Reports say the woman appeared to be 40 years old, when Margaret would have only been 17, and she gained popular support, despite the king’s identification Margaret’s body, before finally being convicted as ‘the False Margareth’; she was burned at the stake in 1301.
The tragedy of Margaret’s death brought an end to the rule of the House of Dunkeld, begun with Malcolm III Canmore in 1058, and plunged Scotland into crisis. Edward I’s intervention with his judgement of the 13 Competitors for the crown, and his backing of John Balliol as the next King, saw the beginning of Scotland’s Wars of Independence. Marred not only be English invasion, but also the in-fighting among the Scottish nobles, it was not until Robert the Bruce emerged victorious that Scotland found her feet again.
My book, Heroines of the Medieval World, looking into the lives of some of the most fascinating women from medieval history, will be published by Amberley on 15th September, 2017. It is now available for pre-order in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.
©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2016
Pictures taken from Wikipedia, except that of Edward I, Alexander III and Llewelyn, which was taken from castlewales.com
Sources: castlewales.com; Marc Morris Edward I: A Great and Terrible King; David Williamson Brewer’s British royalty; Mike Ashley The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir Britain’s Royal Families; Roy Strong The Story of Britain; Dan Jones The Plantagenets; the Kings who Made England; Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Oxford Companion to British History edited by John Cannon; The History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; The Plantagenets by Derek Wilson; The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter; royal.gov.uk; britroyals.com; undiscoveredscotland.co.uk; englishmonarchs.co.uk; educationscotland.gov.uk.