The Maid of Norway: The Child Queen of Scots, 1286-1290

‘The Maid of Norway’ is a name or title that echoes out of the mists of history. Yet, ask anyone to embellish, and few can place her or better still begin to tell her story. It’s unsurprising, given that Margaret, the last of the Scottish royal house of Dunkeld, lived, ruled and died all by the age of seven. Her death in 1290, sparked the first Scottish War of Independence, where an over-mighty Edward I sought to subjugate the Scots to English rule. But who was Margaret and why was her status so important? How did her short life have such an impact on Anglo, Scottish and Norwegian relations?

Scotland of the late thirteenth century, was, up until the premature death of Alexander III, King of Scots (r. 1249-1286), a kingdom living in great peace and confident in its security. Culturally diverse, with Gaelic, Norman-English, English, Flemish, French and German languages spoken through parts of the country, Scotland  had a population of approximately 500,000. It had rich resources and established trading routes with Europe and the East, as well as a complex web of small towns, villages and trading ports which pitted the kingdom, grown up and then expanded during times of prolonged prosperity. With a vibrant tradition of Scottish saints reaching as far back as the c5th, including St. Ninian and later St. Andrew, the Scottish royal family itself could boast a saint of their own; St. Margaret of Scotland who had been canonised in 1250. The relationship with the kingdom of England, its immediate neighbour south of the border, had throughout the last three hundred years been complicated, sometimes punctuated by war, but in the last seventy years there had been a prolonged period of sustained and neighbourly peace.

King Alexander III, born in September 1241, had married Margaret, the daughter of Henry III, King of England at Christmas in 1251 in a lavish ceremony at York. Margaret Plantagenet, herself only a year older than her very young new husband, was a perfect match. They hit it off immediately, and their ensuing marriage became a successful one, despite some reservation from Margaret about her new country, writing to her father, Henry III, complaining that living in Edinburgh castle was like a prison that was a ‘dreary and solitary place‘.(1) In 1260, at the age of twenty, Queen Margaret gave birth to her first child, who became her namesake. Two further children would follow; Alexander, named after his father and therefore the heir, was born on 21 January 1264, and David, the spare, arrived on 20 March 1273.

Alexander III
Alexander III (on the left of the image), depicted in a contemporary chronicle sitting next to Edward I in an English Parliament. This event never took place.

Succession to the Scottish royal house therefore looked secure and Alexander III’s reign prospered. His rule would be considered, with the benefit of hindsight, as something of a golden age, like that of David I who had ruled Scotland between 1124-1153. However, fortune is fickle and on 26 February 1275, Queen Margaret, only thirty-five years of age, died at Cupar Fife; the reason for her premature death unclear. The chronicler of Lanercost wrote that she had been a woman of great beauty, chastity and humility, ‘three qualities seldom united in one individual’.(2) It was high praise indeed from the pages of a chronicler who was often misogynistic, even for his time. Their marriage had been something of a love match, and like his brother-in-law Edward I, who famously remained unmarried for over a decade after the death of his own wife Eleanor of Castile in 1290, Alexander made no attempt to remarry for nine years until events overtook him.

One of Alexander III’s greatest achievements was the Scottish expansion and reconquest of the Western Isles, overcoming the Norwegian rule of King Haakon and his son, Magnus Lagaboater (‘the law-mender’) in the 1260’s. Held by Norwegian hands since the days of the Vikings, Alexander secured his western kingdom by force, which was recognised in the Scots-Norwegian Treaty of Perth of 1266, in return for a Scottish compensation payment of 4,000 marks and 100 marks annually, paid in perpetuity. Orkney and the Shetland Isles were reserved for the Norwegian kingdom, only passing to the Scots in 1466.(3) Under the same treaty, Alexander’s daughter, then six years old, was betrothed to the Norwegian royal heir. Some years later, by 1281, the thirteen year old King Eric II Magnusson now ruled Norway, and in fulfilling the terms, Alexander sent his only daughter, now twenty-one, to marry Eric at Riga that August. The Lanercost chronicler wrote;

‘She comported herself so graciously towards the king [Eric] and his people that she altered their manners for the better, taught them the French and English languages, and set the fashion of more seemly dress and food’.(4)

A year and a half later, in April 1283, Margaret gave birth to their first child, a baby daughter, who keeping with the tradition of the period, was named after the child’s mother. It was this little girl, who was destined to become Margaret, Maid of Norway. Sadly for the mother, she did not survive the child birthing chamber. Like so many women in the medieval period, giving birth was a dangerous occasion, which often resulted in complications and premature death of mother or child, or worse still, both.

The royal Abbey of Dunfermline – Burial place of the King of Scots

Fortune’s wheel once more turned. Alexander III’s heir, his son Alexander, married a year after his elder sister. On 15 November 1282 he wedded Marguerite, daughter of Guy de Dampierre, Count of Flanders, but despite their youth, the marriage was childless and short-lived, Alexander dying fourteen months later on 28 January 1284. His younger brother David had already predeceased himself in the summer of 1281. Some nine years after the death of his wife Queen Margaret, Alexander III suddenly found himself without legitimate heirs. In desperation, he was forced to seek a second marriage, settling on Yolande de Dreux, daughter of Robert II, Count of Dreux, who was descended from King Louis VI of France and was also a vassal of Edward I in France. They married on All Saints Day on 14 October 1285 at Jedburgh Abbey.

But for Alexander, fortune and time was also running out. At the age of forty-three, he was described in the Scotichronicon, as being ‘exceptional in appearance, physically well built, thickset and tall in stature, though he could not be called fat. He had a jovial face, a steadfast heart and a devout spirit‘.(5) Despite these qualities, his steadfast heart was possibly his undoing. Holding a long meeting of his council on 18 March 1286 in Edinburgh Castle, the king determined to head out into the night, despite the terrible weather and thick fog in order to reach his manor of Kinghorn across the mighty coastal river of the Forth, to spend the night with his young wife. He set off with three squires, and having been ferried across the tidal river without incident, was riding along the coastal track where he became detached from his men in thick fog. The squires arrived at Kinghorn but the king failed to appear. A search party was sent out and as dawn broke, the king’s body was found at the foot of the steep cliffs, broken and dishevelled. Whether his horse stumbled and fell or simply threw him, the  golden reign of Alexander III was prematurely cut short, and Scotland was inadvertently thrown into a royal succession crisis.

The Memorial to Alexander III, Kinghorn

As the late king was laid to rest on 29 March at the royal abbey of Dunfermline, Scottish nobles gathered at Scone on 2 April. Queen Yolande promptly declared she was pregnant which would give the late king a posthumous heir. There was of course his granddaughter, Margaret, the Maid of Norway who was now three years old and living with her father King Eric. The Scottish nobles were sceptical of Queen Yolande’s sudden revelation, and the prospect of a young female foreign child ruling the kingdom, influenced by her father whose family had only two decades before been Scotland’s enemy, did not appeal. Rivals families such as the Bruces and the Balliols lined up their male heirs and reminded their peers that they too were closely related to the royal house and ought to be considered contenders for the crown. In the heated year of 1286, six Guardians of Scotland were eventually appointed to run the affairs of the kingdom while a way forward could be determined.(**) All the nobles agreed on oath of fealty to uphold and support the ‘nearest by blood who by right must inherit‘; a suitably vague oath that decided nothing but kept some form of peace in the kingdom.(6) In the following months Queen Yolande either miscarried, or it became apparent that she was not pregnant at all, and promptly left the kingdom. From 1286 until 1289, the rule of Queen Margaret was neither proclaimed in Scotland nor established and the Guardians continued to rule in the absence of a declared sovereign. It was clear that there remained little appetite to accept her, even though she was the last of a long Scottish royal house.

Frustrated, on 1 April 1289, three years after Alexander’s death, King Eric II of Norway was determined to see his daughter come into her rightful inheritance. Writing to Edward I, King of England, Eric encouraged Edward to discuss the status of Margaret and also a potential marriage. It was a guaranteed way to ensure the nobles and Guardians of Scotland would now stand to attention and take Margaret’s status seriously. They would either recognise her or be out manoeuvred and left out in the cold political wilderness. Edward I, recently returned from his two-and-a-half year sojourn around his Duchy of Aquitaine, invited Norwegian delegates and three surviving Guardians – the bishops of St. Andrews and Glasgow as well as John Comyn of Badenoch – and Robert Bruce V, Lord of Annandale (grandfather of Robert Bruce, later King of Scots) to Salisbury to discuss the details. The meeting proved fruitful. Under the subsequent Treaty of Salisbury, ratified on 6 November 1289, the Maid of Norway was accepted and proclaimed as the ‘Lady, Queen and Heiress‘ of the Scots. Eric had played his card well. To ensure her reign could fully begin, it was agreed that Queen Margaret would arrive in Scotland by 1 November 1290, and that if her ship landed in England first, Edward I would deliver her to Scotland ‘when the kingdom shall have been well settled and in peace‘.(7) Even more importantly for the Scots, Margaret was to be ‘free and quit of all contract of marriage or betrothal‘, safeguarding for the Guardians the imposition of a marriage to a man whom may not have been of their liking. They were however not out of the woods yet, being forced not to arrange her future marriage either without first consulting Edward I and receiving the assent of King Eric.

A young Edward of Caernarfon is pictured kneeling at his father’s feet.

Edward I, that cunning and shrewd medieval monarch, now saw an opportunity. His only surviving son, Edward of Caernarfon, born in April 1284, was a year younger than Margaret. A marriage between the two would, without any need for war, unite the two separate kingdoms of Scotland and England under their heirs into perpetuity. The King of England discreetly sent Otto de Grandison to Rome to seek the necessary papal dispensation to marry as they were related too closely under the prohibited degrees of affinity in canonical law. Rumour quickly spreadof Edward I’s machinations, reaching the Scottish Guardians on 14 March 1290 while they stayed at Birgham. The English king, at this stage not a political threat to the Scots and had throughout his life so far been a friendly and supportive brother-in-law to the late Alexander III, was therefore seemingly a natural ally. Three days later, on 17 March the Scots wrote to Edward informing him they had heard of the rumour and where happy to consent to a marriage between the two children.  Suddenly everything began to move at pace. On 18 July 1290, the Treaty of Birgham was ratified in which Margaret, Queen of Scots and Edward of Caernarfon, the future Edward II, were betrothed. The treaty focussed at length on the thorny issue of how the two ancient kingdoms would be governed, the Scots eager to ensure that the political and constitutional identities of both would remain separate. It was agreed that Edward, on marriage, would become King of Scots ‘jure uxoris‘ (by right of his wife only), meaning Margaret would remain as Queen Regnant of Scotland. Any heirs to this marriage would inherit both kingdoms, but they would remain separate politically, and importantly for the Scots, the Scottish people would not be compelled to give fealty to England, as had been asked in centuries past and remained a delicate issue between the two countries. Margaret in turn would become Queen Consort of England when her future husband would inherit his throne.(8) The deal was done and accepted by all involved.

Edward I now became increasingly focussed on Scottish affairs. On the 20 May he sent English ships from Yarmouth to Norway provisioned with sweetmeats, dried fruits, gingerbreads and even an organ for the young queen’s amusement, with the view to bring her to her new kingdom. However, Eric II was not prepared to send his daughter to Scotland on English ships, instead insisting that his dignity be observed. It was a wise choice, for on the return journey, when the English ships docked in the Humber, the sick crew disembarked, with several of their number having already succumbed to disease and death. It had been a lucky escape.

Little is known of Margaret’s personal life up until this point. Records kept for royal children, of either sex is often rare, especially when the children were female. Born in April 1283, she had grown up at the court of her father King Eric so Scotland was an alien place to her, although she must have been taught about it. Now at the delicate age of seven, she was to board her father’s ship and sail from Norway to her new life as Queen of Scots. She would be accompanied by Narne, Bishop of Bergen, as well as attendants Ban Thorir Haaknson and Fan Ingebirorg Erlingsdottir.(9) Setting sail in the late summer, the small fleet may have hit a storm and sought refuge in Orkney off the northern coast of Scotland. Either the boats were wrecked or simply seeking shelter, or worse, sickness had broken out on board, but either way the Maid was taken ill so the party remained at Orkney for sometime. News was sent to the Scottish nobles waiting near Scone which became confused and irregular. Her sickness deepened and in an age of limited effective medical help, Margaret died ‘between the hands of Bishop Narne’.(10)

News was sent to Scotland shortly afterwards. With the death of the infant Queen, the ancient royal house of Dunkeld came to an abrupt end. There would now ensue a bitter race to press the claims of many nobles in Scotland for the crown, they themselves being known as ‘The Claimants’, the most serious of which would be the Bruces and the Balliols. Edward I had been cheated of an opportunity, but in attempting to marry his son to Scotland’s infant queen, the King of England had become fixed on an idea of unity between the two kingdoms. With no legitimate heir of Dunkeld now living, he was free to pursue a policy of conquest that would be devastating for Scotland, bringing about the First War of Scottish Independence and later the rise of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots in 1306. The young Edward of Caernarfon, now freed from his first betrothal, would eventually marry Isabella of France in 1308, a  marriage which has in many ways become the stuff of legend.

History changes on a pinpoint, and the life of Margaret, Queen of Scots, is just one such occasion whose untimely death inadvertently changed the course of history for many, far beyond those directly or immediately involved with her.


Stephen Spinks is author of ‘Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance‘ available here at Waterstones  Amazon  Foyles  Amberley Publishing and is currently writing ‘Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation‘, due for release in Autumn 2019.

Twitter: @SpinksStephen

Facebook: Fourteenthcenturyfiend


(1) Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, V, 505.

(2) Lanercost, 9.

(3) Bingham, Caroline. Robert the Bruce, 10.

(4) Lanercost, 22-3.

(5) Scotichronicon, Vol V, Bk X, ch 41, 421.

(**) The body of the Guardians of Scotland would change considerably over the next twenty years, both in composition, personalities and political and administrative power and responsibilities.

(6) Palgrave, Documents, 42.

(7) Foedera, I, ii, 719-20. Bingham, 38.

(8) Stevenson, Documents, 162-73. RPS, 1290/7/1 (Records of the Parliaments of Scotland).

(9) Bingham, 41.

(10) Letter of the Bishop of Bergen, dated 1 Feb 1320, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries X. 417, 418. Foedera I, ii, 741.


Feature Image – Victorian stained glass of Margaret, Maid of Norway and Queen of Scots. Creative Commons. 

One: Alexander III seated on the right side of Edward I.

Two: Dunfermline Abbey. Creative Commons

Three: Memorial to Alexander III at Kingthorn. Creative Commons. 

Four: Edward I grants the Principality of Wales to his eldest surviving son, Edward of Caernarvon. MS Cotton Nero, D.II f.191v

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