Susan here, lately doing some research for a project that’s been simmering for a while. Some of it crisscrosses the research I did for Queen Hereafter: A Novel of Margaret of Scotland (btw, on sale in e-book this week for $1.99!). A great deal is known about her, almost more than any other medieval queen of her era—which, for writing fiction, is both good and a challenge, with so many historical facts to be spun into fiction. Princess, refugee, queen, mother, and later saint—she was one of the rare medieval royals with a biography written by her personal confessor, Bishop Turgot, an Englishman who clearly admired and understood her, and loved her as a friend—and he left a gold mine of information and inspiration for a writer. Turgot idealized his beloved friend as well, recording not only detailed information, but creating some of her most enduring mythology as well.
Her myth is mingled indelibly with facts, with some confirmed by other sources, some simply impossible to dissect, and much of it just so easy to believe. Margaret was kind, beautiful, generous, intelligent, a young Saxon queen raised in Hungary and shipwrecked in Scotland; she had the education and confidence to face up to priests and bishops and argue theology with them; she birthed eight healthy children and loved them dearly; she prayed fiercely and was so devoted to her religious beliefs that she near starved herself, believing she was greatly flawed … she welcomed the poor into her castle and fed their children porridge with her own spoon … she married against her will a big, brawny, uncivilized brute king, taught him to read, and came to love him more than her own life. The stories go on and on, and Margaret emerges as complex, strong, brilliant, sensitive, an unforgettable and extraordinary young queen.
“There is perhaps no more beautiful character recorded in history.”
–W. F. Skene, Celtic Scotland, 1895, on Queen Margaret
She is as much a factual historical queen as a fairytale queen, so perfect and yet intriguingly flawed and vulnerable; from our perspective, in hindsight, she is an extraordinary medieval woman in many ways. To write a solid and balanced novel about her, blending facts and apocryphal stories, I had to piece together facts and unravel some of the idealism to find the person within, portray her as a real young woman, to produce the most interesting, convincingly accurate, and entertaining story I could.
But sometimes the romantic, idealized version is lovely, especially when the story is solidly founded in historical fact. Aside from its political, social, and historical significance, the story and the life of Queen Margaret, who married Scotland’s King Malcolm Canmore in 1069, is undoubtedly a tale of genuine love that grew from a necessary alliance, proving that not all royal medieval marriages were simply convenient.
Here’s an excerpt from the author’s note I wrote for Queen Hereafter – to give you an idea of Margaret’s wonderful fairytale, which took place almost a thousand years ago, and is, for the most part, historically true:
A medieval fairytale: a princess, eldest child of an exiled prince and an exotic noblewoman and raised in a pious royal court, sails with her family to the land of her father’s birth and the throne promised there. The father dies within a week of arriving, possibly poisoned, and his widow raises their children alone—two princesses and a small prince who is to inherit the throne. When the aging king dies a decade later, his enemies invade and the royal family must flee. Sailing over raging seas, they are shipwrecked along a northern coast belonging to a barbarian people.
That king, known to be a brute warrior, offers the fugitives sanctuary; he soon falls in love with the eldest princess, requesting her hand in marriage. Devout, educated, a beautiful young creature of a virtuous and charitable character, the princess intends to become a nun. But for the good of all she is persuaded to marry the warrior king.
Their marriage of near opposites produces eight healthy children—six boys and two girls—and the queen works tirelessly to bring charity, genteel culture and religious reform to her adopted nation, earning the love and trust of the people. The king and queen adore one another: she teaches him to read and turns his plain fortress into a palace; he translates for her when she lectures his foreign priests on theology; she feeds orphans with her own golden spoon and establishes a free ferry for pilgrims; she steals the king’s gold to give it to the poor and releases his ransomed prisoners and he affectionately calls her his little thief. He orders a cover of precious metal and gems made for her favorite old book; he adores her, and she loves him, their children and her faith more than life. Their enduring affection for one another is widely respected and admired.
Twenty-two years later, the king is killed in battle alongside his eldest son, and the queen dies of heartbreak within days. Their royal dynasty lasts generations; the queen is declared a saint by her descendants; the king is immortalized in literature, and their memory is still revered today.
Fairytales and romance, indeed—yet this is Margaret and Malcolm’s true story in a nutshell, handed along by generations of historians and supported by medieval documents. Historians know a good deal more about them now, but their romantic story remains a solid foundation beneath both new and accumulating facts. The story of Margaret and Malcolm is a tale of a beauty and her beast, two people who changed the course of Scottish, and medieval, history.
Right now the e-book edition of Queen Hereafter is on sale for $1.99 through Feb. 14! I hope you’ll take a moment to snap up a copy for your Kindle or Nook—and I hope you will love reading it as much as I loved writing it.
Fact and myth are sometimes deeply intertwined in historical fiction — what are some of your favorite fact-based novels of historical queens? Any medieval favorites on your list?