Margaret the Maid of Norway (1286-90)

For the first time in its history, Scotland faced the prospect of a queen regnant – a female ruler! And not just any female ruler but a Norwegian one at that and still only a child. With rival claimants threatening the prospect of civil war, could the Scots keep the kingdom together? Would Margaret be able to rule successfully? And who’s that English chap on the horizon building lots of castles in Wales…

To listen to Margaret’s episode click here or read on to find out more.

maidofnorway-001Backgroundy Stuff

In 1275, everything had looked pretty good for Scotland. Alexander III was proving an excellent king, having conquered the Western Isles and established friendly relations with England without conceding on Scottish independence. It was a time of peace and prosperity and with a daughter and two sons, the future looked secure. Unfortunately, the next decade saw a tragic reversal in fortune, with his queen dying in 1275, his youngest son in 1281, his daughter in 1283 and his eldest son (and heir) in 1284. As the only son of an only son, suddenly Scotland was running out of people to be king.

Alexander was still fit and healthy, however, so he married the 18 year-old Yolande de Dreux and set about trying to create a new heir as soon as possible. Unfortunately, in 1286 his enthusiasm would prove to be his downfall: riding through a storm one night to be with his wife, he became separated from his companions and fell from his horse, breaking his neck in the process. Alexander III was dead and a succession crisis was in hand.


Margaret the Maid of Norway was born on the 9th of April 1283, the daughter of King Eric II of Norway and Princess Margaret of Scotland (Alexander III’s daughter). This marriage alliance between Norway and Scotland came about in 1281 to cement peaceful relations following Alexander’s acquisition of the Western Isles in the 1266 Treaty of Perth. It was successful in the sense that it produced a child (the Maid of Norway) but tragically, the mother died either during or shortly after childbirth.When Alexander’s last son died in 1284, the Maid of Norway (his granddaughter) was his only living descendent. Although he intended to produce sons, in 1284 he gathered all his nobles and his bishops to Scone where they signed a treaty acknowledging that Margaret the Maid of Norway would be the heir to the throne (should he fail to produce sons):

“We each and all of us will accept the illustrious girl Margaret as our lady and right heir of our said lord king of Scotland, of the whole realm of Scotland, of the Isle of Man and of all other islands belonging to the said kingdom of Scotland. And against all men we shall maintain, sustain and defend [her] with all our strength and power.”

(Treaty of Scone, 1284)

When Alexander III died, however, the succession was still not clear. Although Margaret was in theory the next in line, Alexander’s widow, Yolande, seemed to be pregnant and any child of Alexander III would outrank Margaret in the line of succession. As such, there was something of waiting game until November when sadly Yolande’s baby either miscarried or died during or soon after labour. Alexander III was to have no heir – there was only Margaret left.

The failure of the male succession meant Margaret was the only heir of Alexander III

The failure of the male succession meant Margaret was the only heir of Alexander III

However, things were not as simple as that. Scotland had never had a queen regnant before and there would have been a lot of misgivings about this: she would not have been thought able to lead men into battle while a marriage was politically a very risky business. What’s more, she was only three years old and had never even set foot in Scotland. Meanwhile, the two men with the next best claim after Margaret (Robert Bruce – grandfather of THE Bruce) and John Balliol were establishing themselves for the prospect of war. Bruce raised an army and launched a pre-emptive strike against Balliol’s allies. The reality was that Margaret was neither old enough nor physically present enough to rule and there was a real danger of civil war.

The Guardians of Scotland

To avoid this prospect, and to ensure that Margaret did become queen, the more public-spirited of Scotland’s leading powers formed a council of six men to rule in Margaret’s stead and keep the peace. Popularly known as the Guardians of Scotland (though technically dubbed the Guardians of the Community of the Realm), they featured two bishops, two earls and two barons, with half coming from the north and half from the south of the country. Wisely, Bruce and Balliol were not included, so instead there was William Fraser (the Bishop of St Andrews); Robert Wishart (the Bishop of Glasgow); John Comyn, the Lord of Badenoch; James Stewart, the 5th High Steward of Scotland; Alexander Comyn, the Earl of Buchan, and Duncan the third Earl of Fife.

The Guardians of Scotland and the seal of St Andrew

The Guardians of Scotland and the seal of St Andrew

The Guardians did a pretty good job of keeping the peace. They acted effectively as monarch, creating a new seal showing the royal arms on one side and St Andrew on the other, on his cross with the legend “Andrew be leader of the Scots, your fellow countrymen!” They raised an army and subdued Robert Bruce, appointed justiciars, sheriffs and local armies and the majority of the magnates and the churchmen of Scotland were prepared to accept Margaret as queen. However, the Guardians could not completely fill the void left by an actual present monarch and divisions and rivalries were still an ongoing concern. Indeed, the Guardians themselves were not above taking advantage of this – when one of their number, the Earl of Fife, was murdered the Guardians split his lands between them.

The Scots needed their queen, Margaret, to be present in Scotland but her father, Eric of Norway, was reluctant to send his young daughter to Scotland amidst such instability. He was also owed a rather substantial dowry payment for his marriage. The Guardians needed some outside assistance to get Eric on board and they turned to a rather surprising character…

Edward I

Edward I of England (1272-1307)

Edward I of England (1272-1307)

For those familiar with later events in Scottish history (or the film Braveheart) the fact that the Scottish leaders actually asked the self-proclaimed “Hammer of the Scots” to help out might seem a tad surprising. However, in the 1280s there was nothing to suggest that this was anything other than the most natural course of action – Edward I was a highly respected Crusader king, feudal lord to many Scottish nobles who held English lands, had been on friendly terms with Alexander III and was Margaret’s granduncle (technically her closest relative after her own father). Eric was wary of the Scots but he looked up to Edward and his involvement could be crucial in securing Margaret for Scotland.

Of course, Edward I no doubt saw an opportunity to increase his influence over Scotland (much like his father, Henry III, had failed to do in Alexander III’s minority in the 1250s). Edward was also mindful of the succession in England – he was of a similar age to Alexander III and had narrowly avoided death a couple of times, and he only had one (infant) son to succeed him. England and Scotland both faced an uncertain future but Edward saw a chance to secure the long-term future for both countries with a marriage between his son, Edward of Caernarfon (future Edward II) and his grand-niece, the Maid of Norway. What’s more, as father-in-law to a minority queen, his influence in Scotland would be immensely improved.


Negotiations between England, Scotland and Norway got underway in 1289 and with the Treaty of Salisbury, Edward persuaded Eric to release Margaret by November 1290 on the basis that the Guardians had ensured the country was at peace. Eric also promised to keep Margaret free of all betrothals before she came to Scotland. As it happened, Edward was already writing to the Pope to secure papal dispensation for Margaret and his son to marry, but this was not exactly double-dealing as a) this was not a betrothal and b) the Scots and Eric were all for the marriage as well! So, with the Treaty of Birgham (1290), the betrothal was agreed – Edward would be the father-in-law of the Queen of Scots and his son would, in effect, be king; Eric’s daughter now had her safety assured by the protection of one of the most powerful kings in Europe, while the Scots had the prospect of a secure succession and the threat of civil war resolved.

That said, the Scots recognised that by marrying their queen regnant to the son of the King of England, this could be something of a threat to their independence. As such, the Treaty of Birgham is something of a pre-nuptial agreement between the two countries, with the Scots taking great care to insert very specific caveats to safeguard their independence and having these backed by papal confirmation. So, the “ights, liberties and customs of the same kingdom of Scotland in all things and in all ways shall be wholly and inviolably preserved” and it would “remain separate and divided from the kingdom of England by its right boundaries and marches, as has hitherto in the past been observed, and that it shall be free in itself and without subjection” – church elections, criminal justice and parliaments were all to remain within Scotland.

That said, the reality was Edward I was now the most powerful influence on Scottish affairs and he did not waste any time exercising this influence (or, to be charitable, making sure that Scotland was at peace!) He took control of the Isle of Man and sent his belligerent Bishop of Durham (Anthony Bek) to “reform the state of the country” in Scotland in order to ensure the required “tranquility” and tried to persuade the Scots to give up possession of their royal castles. Still, Edward kept to his end of the bargain – he made generous loans to keep Eric sweet (including £2K to cover the dowry) and did secure her release to Scotland.

Queen Margaret

In 1290, Margaret was finally ready to leave Norway, though not quite as early as some hoped. Edward sent a “great ship” from Yarmouth, lavishly provisioned with luxuries such as sturgeon, rice, whale meat, sugar, gingerbread, figs, raisins and almonds (even an organ for her to play) so she could be brought to England in splendour. Unfortunately, when the ship arrived it turned out Eric had gone off to fight the Danes and so it had to turn back without her. In August, Eric declared that he would be bringing Margaret to Scotland himself but he then seems to have decided a visit to Scotland was not high up his to-do list.

Finally, though, in September 1290 Margaret was put on board a ship in Bergen under the care of Bishop Narve of Bergen. She was also accompanied by two Scottish knights, Barone Tore Haakonsson and his wife, Ingebjorb (Margaret’s principal lady-in-waiting). It’s not clear if any English officials were on board but it would be surprising if Edward had not at least tried to get someone on board.

With Margaret now on her way, the final preparations were underway for her inauguration. Bishop Fraser gathered an escort of Scottish knights to take Margaret from the coast to Scone, where all the other lords and bishops were waiting for her inauguration ceremony. Edward had sent Bek north with a welcoming gift of ornate jewels for his prospective daughter-in-law. The stage was set but tragically, she would never arrive.

No account survives of the voyage but Margaret fell ill and the ship docked at South Ronaldsay in Orkney, where she “died between the hands of Bishop Narve”. Perhaps she was already of frail health or ate some decayed food, but many accounts suggest that she died of sea-sickness (a particularly violent bout, presumably). At just 7 years old, and without having set foot on Scottish soil (even if she was alive by Orkney, this was currently Norse territory), Margaret the Maid of Norway was dead.

A woman appeared in Bergen in 1301 claiming that she was Margaret and that she had been sent to Lubeck in Germany, accusing various people of treason. In reality, Eric had identified Margaret’s body before having her buried beside her mother in Bergen (and also the woman was aged about 40 rather than 17!) so she was burnt at the stake. A popular Scottish maritim ballad (Sir Patrick Spens) speaks of a disaster at sea after the King of Scotland called for the greatest sailor in the land to take a ship to Norway on a royal errand, only to suffer shipwreck on the way home. This is thought to be mixture of the return journey of Margaret’s mother (where some nobles were drowned) and the tragedy of the Maid of Norway dying on the way to Scotland.


There is no evidence of any battleyness for Margaret, so we have to give her a score of 0/20.


Margaret was due to marry a cousin (of sorts) in the form of the future Edward II…but this wasn’t her choice and it never actually happened! It’s another 0/20.


Margaret never even made it onto Scottish soil, let alone did any queening, so it’s another 0/20.


We are counting her reign as having begun on the 25th of November 1286 (i.e. when Alexander III’s widow had her miscarriage/stillborn child), meaning she was queen for 3.83 years, which when converted into a score out of 20 gives her a total of 3/20.


Obviously Margaret had no children, giving her a total score of just 3 (pretty low, though still better than Aed!)

Rex Factor

For such a low score, you’d think there would be no possible argument in favour of Margaret the Maid of Norway. However, she is technically Britain’s first ever Queen Regnant (some 250 years before the Tudors), which is pretty impressive.

However, some historians would question whether her reign should even be counted at all: she never went through the crucial inauguration ceremony at Scone and never set foot in Scotland, so perhaps should be remembered as “Lady of Scotland” or “Queen Designate”. Still, both Edward and Eric were referring to her as queen, and Edward himself had been abroad for two years before his coronation, while James I of Scotland would spend many years a prisoner in England before coming to Scotland and being crown and yet both their reigns is measured from the death of their predecessor.

So, we are still going to count Margaret the Maid of Norway as queen…but she doesn’t have the Rex Factor!


Let us know what you think – does Margaret the Maid of Norway deserve the Rex Factor? Should she even count as queen? Complete our poll below and let us know:

9 thoughts on “Margaret the Maid of Norway (1286-90)

  1. She wasn’t queen, in any pragmatic sense, but she does have the Rex Factor. Beacause?
    Fastinating story, and ripe for alt-earth storylines.

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  8. I am looking forward to hearing more about the Guardians of the Realm, particularly Bishop Wishart of Glasgow – I don’t think we’ve heard the last of him.
    A different the Bishop of Glasgow lead the attack that defeated Somerled back in the reign of Malcolm IV, what are they teaching in Glasgow Bishop school???

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