The tragic tale of the Maid of Norway

 The story of the Maid of Norway, or the Lady of Scotland as she was also known, is a short and tragic one. Margaret was born into the royal house of Norway in 1283 to King Eric II and his wife Margaret, the daughter of Alexander III of Scotland. Alexander’s reign had for the most part mirrored the success of his predecessors; he had maintained Scotland’s strength and independence in the face of English hostility and married an English princess who provided him with three heirs. But by the time of Margaret’s birth the Scots king had lost his wife and two of his children, including Margaret’s mother who died in childbirth. Then, worst of all for Alexander and for Scotland, less than a year later his eldest and last surviving son died at just 20 years old.

Rushing to secure the succession, Alexander appointed six of his nobles as guardians of the kingdom and together they confirmed the king’s infant granddaughter as his heir, even though the Norwegian princess had never set foot on Scottish soil. The king then raced to find a new wife in the hopes of producing another son so that Margaret would never have to rule. Although Alexander was only in his early 40’s and in good health, he and his granddaughter represented the last of the Canmore dynasty, and a host of other claimants to the Scottish throne were growing restless without an adult male heir of Alexander’s bloodline ready to assume the crown.

The king found a new bride in a distant French relation, 22-year old Yolande de Dreux, and in October 1285 they wed at Jedburgh Abbey. They had scarcely been married five months when one night the following March, Alexander rode perilously to Kinghorn Castle in Fife during a storm to reunite with his wife. The king never made it to Yolande and the next morning he was found dead on the beach; thrown from his horse, his neck broken. But before Margaret could be proclaimed queen, Yolande informed the nobility that she was carrying Alexander’s child – perhaps the reason why the king was so desperate to be reunited with her. The country waited anxiously for the outcome of the pregnancy, but in November it was made known that Yolande had lost her baby, its sex unknown. After quashing a brief usurpation attempt by Earl Robert Brus, the guardians made plans for Margaret’s arrival and her marriage to an English prince according to Alexander’s wishes.

Margaret’s teenage father Eric and the Scots nobles immediately negotiated a marriage treaty with Edward I. In theory, the alliance between Margaret and the future Edward II could secure peace between England and Scotland and provide Norway with an advantageous link to the English royal house. Edward I, whom history has dubbed the ‘hammer of the Scots’, was at this point still a friend to the Scottish crown; after all, he had been Alexander’s brother-in-law and had promised to guarantee Scottish independence in exchange for the match. During the negotiations however, warning signs started to appear when Edward declared his desire to control several Scottish fortresses. He was eventually forced to relent on this condition and hurriedly cemented the treaty of Brigham in September 1290, when news came that Margaret had set sail for Scotland. The fate of three kingdoms now rested on the shoulders of an eight-year-old girl.

Originally bound for Leith, the ship carrying Margaret and her companions was blown off course in a terrible storm and eventually came to port in South Ronaldsay in the Orkney islands, at the time a Norwegian territory. It was here in a bay now home to the town of St Margaret’s Hope (the origins of its name are unknown) where the uncrowned queen died on September 26th 1290 in the arms of the Bishop of Narve, most likely from the effects of sea-sickness or food poisoning.

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The nobles who had gathered at the coronation site at Scone to crown Margaret queen, arranged for the princess to be taken back to the land of her birth. Her 22-year-old father identified his daughter’s body and laid her to rest next to her mother in the choir of Christ’s Kirk, Bergen. For the Scottish kingdom, the two-year interregnum which followed was marred by instability and uncertainty as thirteen claimants battled to be crowned King of Scots. The most prominent candidates were John Balliol and Robert Brus, both descendants of David I. Unable to settle the matter the magnates invited Edward I to act as an impartial adviser and hear each claim. He eagerly accepted but it soon became clear that Edward wanted the chosen king to submit to him as his superior and overlord. The ensuing power struggle would later come to be known as the Wars of Independence.

So what is Margaret’s legacy, if indeed so young a person is capable of leaving a legacy? It has been suggested that had she become Queen and married Edward’s son, their two kingdoms may have been joined 300 years before James VI and I was crowned, but it is  not helpful to speculate in this way. Edward’s ambitions to annex Scotland are more likely to have influenced his promotion of the match rather than any real desire to unify the crowns. And it is unclear what the status of Margaret’s husband and their children would have been in the government of the Scottish and English kingdoms.

This article also shows that we know nothing of Margaret’s character, appearance or upbringing, and the fact that the sources (at least the Scottish ones) do not offer such insights suggests how contemporaries regarded the princess and her role in Scottish politics. Had she lived, she would have been Scotland’s first Queen to rule in her own right, and in light of this fact it is interesting that so many were eager for her to rule. But as a child, and a female one at that, Margaret was merely a pawn subject to the ambitions of the men around her. Edward and the guardians surely believed that as she grew they would be able to mould her into the monarch they wanted her to be – as a female, they did not expect her to exercise any autonomy. When Alexander died she was sent for solely because the men who wielded power and influence in the succession crisis wanted her to be there. Had they preferred her not to accede the throne, the world may never have heard of the Maid of Norway.

 – Do you think Margaret should be remembered as the first [uncrowned] Queen of Scotland?

– Want to hear more on the Wars of Independence? Leave a comment below.

2 thoughts on “The tragic tale of the Maid of Norway

  1. What an interesting article, thank you for bringing this story to life!

    Are you familiar with the children’s book Quest for a Maid by Frances Mary Hendry? It was a real favourite of mine growing up.

    Can’t wait to read more posts.

    Cheers!
    Rebecca

    Like

    1. Hi Rebecca,

      Thanks for your lovely comment. Sadly I did not encounter that book growing up, but I have since read it whilst researching this article. It is a story which seems to have captured the storyteller’s imagination – what did you like about it?

      Thanks!

      Sally

      Like

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