Queen Margaret's meeting with Priests (1069)

The Beginning of the End for the Columban Priests

After William’s invasion of England, the royal family sought refuge in Scotland. Malcolm III took them in, and one of their number was the elder sister of the heir to the throne, a very accomplished woman called Margaret. Malcolm was impressed by her and married her. She was a very religious woman, but her religion was a rule to work by, a formula to be observed, rather than living a life led by the Holy Spirit. She was more concerned about good works than faith, a very common error in those days before the Reformation. It was this woman who decided to reform the Scottish Church, and to this end her husband called a meeting at his Dunfermline palace; made up of a few Columban pastors on the one side, and three English ecclesiastics on the other, chosen and dispatched by Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, at Margaret’s request. The Columban pastors knew no language other than Gaelic, so Malcolm interpreted. The meeting went on for three days, with the Queen making it clear that she wanted to reorganise the church on the basis of Canterbury, in other words, like Rome.

The points raised were: uniformity of rite, the Lenten fast, the observance of the Sabbath, the practice of marriage, the celebration of the Eucharist, and the time of the observance of Easter. The Scottish Church and her clergy were charged on all these points, as being in error, and needing to be "brought back into the way of truth. The report of the meeting only gives one side of the discussions, ignoring the point of view of the Columban pastors. It is clear that there was not a change overnight. There were two ways by which the king could make sure that the kingdom bowed the knee to Roman ways. First, he could make an edict making it compulsory to worship in the Roman Catholic way, and then enforce it with arms. Malcolm was not the sort of man to force religion on his people and anyway it would have been a very difficult and time-consuming job. Secondly, he could have sent preachers all over the kingdom to ‘persuade’ the people to turn from their wicked ways, but where was he to find such people? The only language the people knew was Gaelic, but none of the preachers from England or the Continent could speak Gaelic. Strangely, language in this case was a barrier to the true Gospel being destroyed, whilst later it was the English language that enabled the Gospel to be preached around the world.

Margaret was left with only one strategy, her own influence. "She erected a noble church (in Dunfermline), which she dedicated to the Holy Trinity; and she decorated it with many ornaments, among which not a few of her gifts, which were designed for the most holy service of the altar, consisted of vases of solid and pure gold. She also introduced the crucifix into the Church, having presented one to this church richly ornamented with gold and silver, intermixed with precious stones, and similar crucifix she left to other churches as marks of her piety and devotion, of which the church of St. Andrews affords an instance.” She used her influence in Court to turn people to her religion, using as an attraction beautiful buildings and rich trappings. It is quite easy to persuade people that God would prefer us to worship him in pomp and ceremony, rather than plainness and simplicity.

The Bishop who reported on the conference stated that the Columban pastors agreed to all Margaret’s recommendations, but this was clearly not the case as future events showed. Although the conference did not result in any major changes, it was the turning of the tide, with many significant changes happening slowly over time. In 1093 Malcolm and his oldest son were killed in yet another battle with the English, and Margaret died from a long illness four days later. This same year the last Columban Bishop of St Andrews died.

Additional Information

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