The Mysterious Magyar Origins of Margaret of Wessex, Hungary and Scotland

File:Saint Margaret of Scotland.jpg

As all Scots know, 30th November is St Andrew’s Day, their ‘patron saint’. However, few people in Scotland, England and Hungary will know that the 17th November is the day when the Church commemorates the saint who links all three countries. Margaret was born in Hungary, the daughter of the exiled rightful heir to the throne of England in 1045, and became Queen of Scotland by marriage to Malcolm III (Canmore) after fleeing the Norman Conquest of England. Her story begins with the short-lived rule of the royal House of Wessex over the whole of England in the tenth century. In the eighth and ninth centuries, England did not exist, except perhaps as an idea in the vision of Alfred the Great, which was brought into effective reality as a unified state by his grandson Aethelstan in 937. Neither did Hungary, but the Magyar tribes had come together under one leader, Árpád. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, known by historians as ‘the Heptarchy’ were never in danger of invasion by the marauding Magyar horsemen, even in their most occidental adventures. The Magyars were never a sea-faring people, and they reined in their horses on the shores of the seas. Nevertheless, the western Celtic and Roman Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land were only given safe passage along the Danube Road when, under the rule of Szent István (St Stephen), Christianity became the official religion of the country.

Before the reign of István (1000-1038), there are no traces of direct relations between the two countries. Alfred the Great, contemporary of Árpád, the conqueror of the Carpathian Basin, wrote that all he knew of this territory was that it was desert (‘puszta’ in Hungarian). Neither did Alfred write of any of the peoples living in the regions between Carinthia and Bulgaria, which he mentioned. Archaeological finds along the banks of the Oder and Vistula, however, reveal that Hungary had direct commercial relations with the Vikings. The road across Russia, and especially to Kyiv, seem to have played a prominent role in these relations. St István’s coins have also been found as far north as the Faroe Islands. According to a passage in a chronicle written in French verse by Gaimar, who lived in Northumbria, István was acquainted with the Dane Valgarus even before he brought the sons of Eadmund Ironside to the Hungarian Royal Court. But this is the only written record linking the Vikings and the Magyars. Aethelstan’s victory of the Saxons over the Vikings at the battle of Brunanburh in 937 had contributed towards the peaceful settlement and co-existence of Saxons, Angles and Scandinavians in the North and East of England. Yet it was not until 1012 that St Colman decided to take the Danube road on his pilgrimage to Palestine from Ireland. He never got as far as Hungary, however, as he was killed by Austrian peasants who mistook him for a spy. However, the fact that he chose the route along the Danube testifies to the new attitude of Western nations towards Hungary, with pilgrims and traders now being able to approach István’s crown lands without fear. Nevertheless, for some centuries, only a few pilgrims from the British Isles made their way across the country.

The first mention of Hungary in Western European sources was recorded when St István received the two young sons of Eadmund Ironside at his Court, exiles from Canute’s Court following his takeover of their father’s kingdom in 1016. Eadmund died on 30 November 1016, shortly after reaching his agreement with Cnut, King of Denmark, deciding the boundaries of his realm. He left behind his Queen, Ealdgyth and two small sons, Eadmund and Edward. Cnut’s advisor, Eadric, tried to persuade his king to have the two little orphans put out of the way as they might cause trouble in the future. However, since Cnut had already gained control of the whole of the kingdom, he had no desire to sully his name and new kingdom with the blood of children. Instead, he dispatched the two boys to Sweden, with the command that the boys should meet their end there. The boys were both very young, and Edward (the youngest) could only have been a few months old. But Olaf Sköttkonung, the devout Christian King of Sweden, was revolted at the idea of murder of ‘innocents’ that Canute himself was unable or unwilling to undertake. Besides, the princes’ grandfather, Aethelred the Unready, had been an old ally of his. He, therefore, caused the boys to be taken to Hungary, to István’s court. Presumably, they were taken through Russia in 1017-18, but the Anglo-Saxon chronicles record nothing further of them for the next forty years. It may be that the boys were removed to Kyiv in 1028, following Cnut’s deposition of King Olav. They must have arrived in Hungary long before King István’s death in 1038 since we know from the Hungarian sources researched by the inter-war historian, Sándor Fest, that István received them cordially and educated them with deep affection. Eadmund, the elder of the two died young, but in due course, again according to the Hungarian sources, Edward married a Hungarian noblewoman, Agatha, a relative of the German Emperor. She bore him three children: Margaret, Christine and Edgar. The three children were educated in Hungary until 1057 when, after four decades of exile, Edward was recalled to England with his family by the childless and ageing Confessor who was delighted to hear of his nephew’s survival.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicles state that Aeldred, the Bishop of Worcester, was the first churchman from Britain to travel through Hungary to the Holy Land, in 1058. He probably had a special interest in Hungary as, before the Norman Conquest, he was the leader of the Saxon partisans of Edward the Aetheling, whose claim to the throne they supported and who had been a refugee guest at the Hungarian Royal Court for nearly forty years, since the Danish King Canute’s takeover of the Saxon throne. It was only in 1054 that the English courtiers began to show an interest in Prince Edward of Wessex as a possible heir to the throne. Edward the Confessor had himself come to the throne after years of exile in Normandy and was without issue. Bishop Aeldred went to Cologne as ambassador to Henry III, Emperor of Germany, with the request that he should negotiate with the King of Hungary for the return of the Royal family of Wessex. Although the Bishop was received with pomp and splendour, he left the imperial city a year later, without accomplishing this task. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does not give the reason why the powerful Emperor of Germany did not comply with the King of England’s request, but the Wessex family did not reach England until 1057, after Henry III’s death. By the time Aeldred reached Hungary, Edward the Exile had already returned to England with his family, in 1057. Soon after he set foot in London, however, Edward died somewhat mysteriously before he could be anointed by Edward the Confessor as his successor.

According to the hereditary succession, Edgar was the rightful heir to the throne and therefore just as much in the way of the ambitions of William the Conqueror as his father and uncle, the exiled princes, had been in the way of Canute the Great. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had twice proclaimed him King but had not yet crowned him by the end of 1066. Although receiving the support of both the Saxon thanes and bishops for his claim, being the last prince of the dynasty of Cerdic and Alfred and the only lawful heir, the Saxon thanes were obliged to admit that they could not hope to be liberated by a young king who was not exceptionally bright. He was forced to pay homage to William, to give up his claim to the throne and eventually to flee to Northumbria. Not for the last time, the law of male primogeniture determining the English succession denied the country the rule of a great woman in the form of Princess Margaret, Edward of Wessex’s brightest child. Following his death, Edward’s widow, Agatha, and her family continued to live in England in the company of the Hungarian gentlemen who had escorted them there.

Malcolm III meets Margaret of Wessex at Queensferry, a painting by a Victorian artist.

But with the continued Anglo-Danish resistance and the brutal retaliation of the Norman barons, the rest of the royal family were obliged to contemplate flight, and their thoughts turned again to Hungary. They boarded a ship, presumably bound for Hamburg, but a storm drove them into port in the Firth of Forth. They anchored in the little harbour which is still called ‘Margaret’s Hope’ and landed there. According to the legend, there they were met by the King of Scots, Malcolm III (Canmore), who rode out to them. We are told that he soon fell in love with the beautiful, gentle Margaret and sought her hand in marriage. After a period of hesitation, Margaret accepted the proffered hand, and with it a major role in European and Scottish history.

The Hungarian lords remained in the family’s retinue at least until they eventually settled in Scotland following the more extensive Norman Conquest and the ‘Harrying of the North.’ Of the three grandchildren of the Saxon King, Eadmund Ironside, the name of Margaret is the most marked by place and time. Her importance lies not only in the fact that the reforms started in the ecclesiastical and political life of Scotland during the reign of Malcolm were due to Margaret’s gentle influence, but also that she ennobled the still austere morals and customs of the kingdom. Indeed, according to the contemporary evidence of both the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Simeon of Durham, she also civilized her adoptive country. However, her importance to her paternal country, England, has been underestimated. The story of the flight of the Anglo-Saxon princes to Hungary via Sweden, the return of the rightful heir and his family to English shores and the love match of Margaret with Malcolm Canmore is the stuff of legend and romance which remains unmatched in the annals of British, perhaps European history. The story caught the fancy of one of the writers of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to such an extent that he related the return of Edward’s family from their Hungarian exile in verse form.

Margaret’s sister, Christine, eventually returned to England after Edgar’s reconciliation with William the Conqueror. Christine entered the convent of Romsey back in Wessex and became a nun, playing a prominent role in the education of Queen Margaret’s children, especially her daughter Maud, or Matilda, who became Henry I’s queen consort. Christine became personally acquainted with Anselm, the great Archbishop of Canterbury. By then, England, or rather the loosely allied Saxon kingdoms which the Kings of Wessex had unified in resistance to Scandinavian invasions and encroachments, from the time of Alfred the Great, had once more become a conquered ‘nation’, losing its short-lived independence. The Norman land-grab and their tight system of feudal dues, which was later mythologised by the conquered English as ‘the Norman Yoke’, was resisted by the thanes, among them Hereward, a displaced Anglo-Danish landlord and former outlaw in East Anglia. Many of the commoners followed them, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying’ of the North. Ealdred, the Bishop of Worcester who had arranged for Edward’s return to claim the throne, continued to support the rights of Edgar after the Battle of Hastings. He only abandoned his cause when Edgar himself showed no desire to resist William usurping the throne. Reluctantly accepting the hopelessness of Edgar’s cause, Ealdred, as Archbishop of York (from 1060), was himself among those who crowned William I at Westminster Abbey. It is said that he died of a broken heart in 1069, due to the desperate state of the Anglo-Danish cause in the North.

That just leaves the mystery as to who the mother of the Wessex princesses, Agatha (Ágota), was. She appears to have been related to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II, who was also King István’s brother-in-law, and her close connection with the powerful family would have been a good recommendation for her children when travelling across western Europe. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also states that Edward, who returned to England in 1057, had been brought up to ‘manhood’ in “Ungerland”. The monk, Florence of Worcester, compiled his Chronicon ex Chronicis from other contemporary sources, including the writings of the Venerable Bede and Bishop Asser, relating events up to 1117 (he died in 1118). It is more than probable that everything he recorded regarding the Princes of Wessex came from the Worcester chronicles of Ealdred, Bishop of Worcester, later Archbishop of York. The translation of the Latin phrase filiam Germani imperatoris Henrici is “the daughter of the Emperor Henry’s brother-in-law”, identifying Agatha as the daughter of King István and his Queen Gisella, the Princess of Bavaria, whose retinue of knights and priests helped István to establish Hungary as a strong, Catholic Christian state and to defend it against pagan rebels and his power-hungry relatives, the Pechenegs, before his death in 1038. The sources which recount Agatha’s descent from the King of Hungary, originate in Normandy and Northumbria. The records are by Ordericus Vitalis, Gaimar, and Aeldred. It was in the interest of none of these to emphasise the German connection to such an extent as to obscure her Hungarian descent. Ordericus Vitalis was born in England in 1075 and was educated at a monastery in Normandy from the age of ten. He wrote his great historical work, Historia Eccleasiastica between 1124 and 1142. In this, two of the three children of Edward and Agatha, Queen Margaret of Scotland and Edgar, are frequently mentioned.

At the time Vitalis began writing, Margaret’s husband, King Malcolm (Canmore), was at war with William of Normandy, also fighting for the cause of his brother-in-law Edgar. We can read of Scottish-Northumbrian events already mentioned in Ordericus Vitalis’ Historia. In connection with the deaths of Malcolm and Margaret, he also recorded the parentage of the Queen of Scots. Vitalis confirmed the marriage of Edward to the daughter of the King of Hungary, filia Regis Hunorum, and claimed that Edward ruled over the Hungarians. Indeed, he suggested that István’s preferred successor was Edward, not Peter Orseolo. The order of hereditary succession and the potential insecurity of the Hungarian Crown could have served as a pretext for the Emperor, Henry III, to interfere in Hungary’s internal affairs, in the question of the succession. Territorial associations, extant to the present, also suggest that István may have presented certain lands to Edward on the Saxon Prince’s marriage to his daughter, or thereafter, which formed the basis of the rumour that the exiled Prince exercised power over Hungarian tenants. This is probably what the English records refer to when they suggest that Edward ‘ruled over the Hungarians’.

Geoffrey Gaimar of Lincolnshire wrote a chronicle in Old French, betraying his Norman origin, in about 1140. He wrote this in rhyme at the request of Custance, the wife of Ralph Fitzgilbert, founder of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. In this abbey, through the Abbot Aeldred, we are told that more was known of Queen Margaret of Scotland than in any other monastery. Aeldred, the Abbot of Rievaulx, who spent many years at the Court of King David of Scotland, the youngest of Margaret’s six sons, reported some things he heard from David himself. In particular, the king told him of his father, Malcolm. In a letter in his work Genalogia Regum Anglorum, Aeldred also addressed Prince Henry, grandson of Malcolm and Margaret, son of Empress Matilda, and Geoffrey of Anjou, her second husband. Henry later became the Angevin and first Plantagenet King Henry II of England. Aeldred had written to Henry encouraging him to be worthy of his great relative, King David, whose last hours and death he recounted. On his deathbed, David had asked for his mother’s black cross. This cross is not described in detail, but it could have originally belonged to Gisella, given to Agatha in about 1045, when István’s queen left Hungary after his death, to return to Bavaria, where she lived out her life as a nun and died in about 1060. It is gold but set with dark stones. According to Aeldred’s testimony, the royal family considered Margaret to be descended from both English and Hungarian kings. This record helps to confirm Agatha as the daughter of István and Gisella, and Margaret as their granddaughter. A more recently-published North American Royal Ancestry states that “Edward the Ætheling” was married to “Agatha, a kinswoman of Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor” (Douglas Richardson, Royal Ancestry: A Study in Colonial and Medieval Families [six volumes] [Salt Lake City: 2013])

Some Russian and Ukrainian historians have also claimed, some quite recently, that Agatha was ‘Agafija’, daughter of the Grand Duke Jaroslav the Wise of Kyiv, who married Edward Aetheling after he and his brother arrived at Jaroslav’s court in 1028. However, Edward would have been only twelve at this time, too young even for a betrothal. We know that Agafija’s ‘sister’, Anastasia, referred to below, became Andrew’s wife. Her mother, Jaroslav’s wife was Ingergerd, who herself was the daughter of King Olaf of Sweden, hence Edward and Eadmund’s original refuge at the court in Kyiv. Andrew married Anastasia, who was born in about 1020, in around 1038, after he had fled with his brother Levente from Hungary to Kyiv in 1030. It is possible that Edward went with him, and returned with him to Hungary in around 1046 when he became king, having fought in Andrew’s army. However, a Hungarian estate with Réka Castle in the middle is called Terra Britanorum de Nadasd (today’s Mecseknádásd), and local tradition attributes this name to a grant made by King István to Edward the Exile, which if true would place him in Hungary before Stephen’s death in 1038. The Wessex Princess Margaret is also recorded as having been born there in 1045, the year before Andrew’s coronation at Székesfehérvár, so it seems likely that the family was settled there by the late-1030s, even if Edward himself was away fighting with Andrew. The problem with the ‘Rus’ solution to the Agatha mystery, however, is that Adam of Bremen only mentions the marriages of three of Jaroslav’s daughters, including Anna, who married Henry I of France, but not Agatha, together with the marriages to the kings of Norway and Hungary. There is also a fresco of Jaroslav, Ingergerd and their daughters, of uncertain eleventh-century date, in the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, which was built by Yaroslav which shows only three daughters. Some have sought to identify a fourth in the fresco, arguing that this could be Agatha, but this has been largely disproved. David J Webber concludes that the scientific and artistic evidence of the fresco shows this figure to be a young son and that there is no written evidence of a fourth daughter, so that the Agatha mystery, for him at least, remains unsolved. Moreover, the ‘Rus’ theory is largely based on an attempt by some historians of medieval central-eastern Europe to emphasise the importance of Russian imperial and dynastic links rather than the much more complex reality of the struggle to establish independent states. Henry I of France’s son Philip I certainly offered Edgar Aetheling the Castle of Montreuil as a place of exile, but this was most likely for his own political (anti-Norman) reasons rather than out of ‘ties of kinship’, as Christian Raffensperger has more recently suggested. In his review for the Medieval Journal of America, Alexandr Musin argues that historiography, in general, plays a decisive role in the construction of Raffensperger’s two books:

… the main challenge of both publications resides in the contradiction between the potential creativity of innovative approaches and the tyranny of concepts, which in many cases determines the vision of the past. On the one hand, the concept of Rus’ that the author develops seriously questions the traditional perception of medieval eastern Europe as alter orbis in respect to Latin civilization. On the other hand, the author shares the idea of the Kingdom of Rus’ as a clearly identifiable entity with a unitary system of political power, law, taxation, and culture based at Kiev that spanned territory from the White Sea to the Black Sea.

Today it is not necessary to specify that this geopolitical monster was only the invention of Soviet historian Boris Grekov. His concept of Kievan Rus’ created in the 1930s was a “Soviet Union” projected into the medieval past. In fact, medieval eastern Europe was more a federation of semi-independent local polities with special identities and serious cultural differences, ruled by different branches of familial dynasties and nominally consolidated by the unity of ecclesiastical power.

Aleksandr Musin, Institute for the History of Material Culture,
Russian Academy of Sciences.

For this purpose, Hungarian links to western Catholic states were more significant in the period of the Árpád dynasty. After all, Andrew I is frequently recorded in Hungarian medieval chronicles as a crusading ‘Catholic’ and this fervour certainly transferred itself to Margaret of Scotland. The Hungarian nobles who accompanied Agatha to England in 1057 must also have played an important role at the Scottish Court. The Drummond family, for instance, is said to be descended in a direct line from a Hungarian noble named Georgius, who accompanied Princess Agatha and her three children to Britain. He is said to have saved Agatha and her children when they were in peril of shipwreck at sea, in the ship which was to have taken the Royal Wessex family back to Hungary. Medieval Hungarian chronicles also state that King Andrew I had an illegitimate son named Georgius by a woman from the village of Pilismarót. His name became popular among Orthodox believers, and one historian has written that his mother may have been a Russian lady-in-waiting to Andrew’s wife, Anastasia of Kyiv. This is perhaps the origin of the confusion between Agatha, the mother of Margaret, and the Royal Court of Kyiv. It has been claimed that Georgius accompanied the Wessex exiles back to Britain, settling with other Magyar nobles in Scotland and that the Clan Drummond are descended from George and his son Maurice. When Malcolm subsequently met and married Margaret, Georgius received, at Margaret’s instigation, a large estate from King Malcolm. He was probably a natural son of Andrew I of Hungary, known by name to the Hungarian chroniclers. The descendants of Drummond and other Hungarian nobles must certainly have enjoyed some standing at King David’s court, and the court must have known something of Agatha’s Hungarian parentage. Boece, a sixteenth-century chronicler, mentions five Magyar-Scottish families – the Giffords, Maules, Morthiuks, Fethikrans and Creichtouns, all of whom had originated in Hungary and received donations of money and land to help them settle in Scotland. A further great Scots family descended from the Hungarians settlers of that time were the Leslies, who were to play a major role in the Scottish Reformation and the civil wars of the seventeenth century. In the nineteenth century, the historian Stephen Horváth called attention to the ancient Hungarian families of Scotland.

The well-informed English and Scottish sources all tell the same story of Agatha and her children, though each in a different setting, and therefore with a different purpose or bias. Further, it is doubtful if these noble families would have remained and settled in Scotland had Margaret herself not been of Hungarian, as well as Saxon, royal blood. Agatha was certainly related to the German Emperor, Henry II, through her mother, Gisella, the Emperor’s niece, but Fest’s sources show that can be little doubt that she was also István’s daughter.  Writing in the middle of the last century, Sándor Fest also commented on the unusual name (in Northumbrian English) of Margaret’s youngest son, ‘Dávid’, and suggested that he may have been named after her Hungarian relative, the second legitimate son of Andrew I. This David was a little boy of only three or four when Margaret left Hungary with her parents in 1057, aged twelve.  As a close relative, she must have known him well at Andrew’s court in Hungary. It is logical to suppose that her childhood memories induced her to give a name that was unusual in Scotland at that time to her youngest son, whom she would not then have expected to subsequently become King of Scotland. As to Agatha’s own name, although Greek in origin (meaning ‘good woman’), the name of a third-century martyr and saint, it was popular in the Middle Ages throughout Europe, not just in the eastern parts, including in the French ‘Agace’ and the Latin ‘Agacia’, though it fell out of use in the later Middle Ages. The Hungarian form, Ágota, is still quite common today, however. It cannot, therefore, be taken as an indication that Margaret’s mother was a woman of Orthodox origin.

This stained glass window depicts Margaret in her chapel at Edinburgh Castle.

So, the last descendant of Alfred the Great and legal heir to the English throne found refuge from Cnut’s outstretched murdering hand, first of all in Kyiv, possibly in eastern Hungary and then at the courts of King István and King Andrew I in the stormy early and middle decades of the eleventh century. It was on arriving at István’s court that he met and married the King’s daughter, Agatha, at some time in the 1030s. The couple were given lands in Baranya County, referred to in a document from the reign of Andrew II which mentions ‘British Land’ (1205-35). Here, in Mecseknádasd, their firstborn child, who became Margaret of Scotland, was born in about 1045. There are also shrines and churches dedicated to ‘Szent Margit’ in the area.

Margaret died shortly after her husband, Malcolm III, in 1093. Many of Margaret’s six sons became kings of Scotland, ending with David I, and her daughter Matilda married the Norman king, Henry, son of William I, thus giving legitimacy to their dynastic rule over the English. The physical evidence of Margaret’s role in the reform of Christianity in Scotland can be seen in the ruins of the many great abbeys built in the following century. But besides the great Romanesque and Gothic abbeys of the eleventh century, we must look at some of the smaller monuments of the Reform Movement, like the tiny chapel built by her, now standing on a rampart of Edinburgh Castle (her window is shown above). As we have seen, she was descended from the kings of Wessex and Hungary’s Arpád dynasty and through her marriage to Malcolm Canmore, helped to unite Scotland with the help of Hungarian noblemen and Norman adventurers. Margaret invited the Benedictine Order to establish a monastery in Dunfermline, Fife in 1072 and established ferries at Queensferry and North Berwick to assist pilgrims journeying from south of the Firth of Forth to St. Andrews in Fife. She used a cave on the banks of the Tower Burn in Dunfermline as a place of devotion and prayer. Among other deeds, Margaret instigated the restoration of Iona Abbey. Although a Catholicising Queen, this was perhaps a significant acknowledgement of the Scottish Church’s Celtic roots. She is also known to have interceded for the release of fellow English exiles who had been forced into serfdom by the Norman conquest of England.

Published Sources:

Sándor Fest (Czigány & Korompay, eds., 2000), Skóciai Szent Margittól a Walesi Bárdokig: Anglo-Hungarian Historical and Literary Contacts. Budapest: Universitas Kiado.

Christian Raffensperger, Ties of Kinship: Genealogy and Dynastic Marriage in Kyivan Rus’. (Harvard Series in Ukrainian Studies.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press for the Ukrainian Research Institute, 2016. 

Christian Raffensperger, Conflict, Bargaining, and Kinship Networks in Medieval Eastern Europe. (Byzantium: A European Empire and Its Legacy 2.) Lanham, Boulder, New York, and London: Lexington Books, 2018.

2 thoughts on “The Mysterious Magyar Origins of Margaret of Wessex, Hungary and Scotland

  1. Thank You for the long version I try to share or send it to my Scottish friend who lives in Győr with his Hungarian wife and family perhaps he does not know the full story…


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