2011: A day in the death penalty around the world 1798: Anthony Perry and Mogue Kearns, Protestant and Catholic

1301: False Margaret, Norwegian pretender

July 20th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

This is the feast date for the early Christian martyr Saint Margaret the Virgin of Antioch (only one of many saints named Margaret).

Margaret might in principle be of interest to this site as the patroness of the falsely accused, and one of the saints who spoke to Joan of Arc, but her star has fallen quite a bit since its medieval heyday on the celestial all-star team; considering the doubtful historicity of this bog-standard Diocletian martyr, the Catholic Church has dropped some of her celebrations.

So instead we’ll turn to a namesake of Margaret’s — well, namesake once removed.

We don’t know the date or even the season in 1301 when the so-called False Margaret and her husband were executed for fraud and treason: he by beheading, and she by burning at the stake.

The pair had made an audacious grab for the Norwegian throne the previous year. The story was told in detail in a nineteenth-century Icelandic history.

The False Margaret (whose true name has been lost to history, as has that of her husband) claimed to be Princess Margaret, known as the Maid of Norway, who was supposed to have died a decade before. How she got the idea to do this is a mystery. It seems unlikely that she came up with the plan on her own, but if she didn’t, then who set her up?

The actual Maid of Norway was the daughter of Eric II of Norway and a mom also named Margaret, this Margaret the daughter of Alexander III of Scotland. Said couple’s marriage treaty specified that if Alexander died without sons, and his daughter had children by Eric, those children would succeed to the throne of Scotland.

This is precisely what happened: Alexander died in 1286 without a legitimate son to succeed him, leaving his kingdom to the three-year-old Norwegian princess.

Technically speaking, the Maid of Norway was Queen of Scots from 1286 until her death. But since she was never crowned and never set foot on Scottish soil, some lists of Scottish monarchs do not include her name. She remained in Norway for the next several years and a selected group of guardians tried to maintain control of the country for her.

On, for the laughter, harps he pressed,
The feast’s right royal quarter; —
But west the ship fared, ever west
With Eric’s little daughter

-From “King Haakon’s Banquet Hall”, by Henrik Ibsen (pdf link)

Eric set about arranging a marriage for his daughter, eventually settling on the future Edward II of England, who was then Prince of Wales. Margaret set off for Scotland in 1290, with the plan that the English wedding would be arranged once she arrived.

Alas, the Maid of Norway never saw Scotland.

In September or October of 1290, en route, she died suddenly somewhere in the vicinity of the Orkney Islands, which were then Norwegian territory. She was only seven years old.

Her death set off a crisis in Scotland as more than a dozen heirs competed for the vacant throne, and this eventually lead to the Wars of Scottish Independence.

But did little Margaret really die?

In 1300, a woman arrived in Bergen, Norway on a German ship, claiming to be the lost princess. She said she had not died but had in fact been “sold” by one of her female attendants and sent to Germany, and had married there. By this time, Eric II had died without male issue and his brother, Haakon V, had become King of Norway.

In spite of the fact that (a) the Maid of Norway’s body had been returned to Norway and was identified by her father and (b) the False Margaret appeared to be about 40 years old when the Maid would have been 17, the False Margaret’s claims drew considerable popular support.

Why? A theory was put forth by the 19th-century Scottish historian John Hill Burton:

The announcement of so portentous an event [meaning the Maid’s death], through indistinct rumors, naturally caused men to talk and doubt. There was none of the solemn detail that might be expected to attend on a royal death, even though less heavily laden with a perplexing future. We are not told of any who were present, of the disease or its progress, of the spot where she died, or the place where she was buried. The time of death is only inferred … The whole affair has left on Scandinavian history a shadow of doubt, in the possibility that the child might have been spirited away by some one of those so deeply interested in her disappearance, and consequently, that it may be an open question whether the royal line of the Alexanders really came to an end…

It should be emphasized that there is no evidence of any conspiracy surrounding the Maid’s death and no evidence of her survival past 1290. Her own father, who had no apparent reason to lie, viewed the body and identified it as his daughter.

But people will talk, and believe what they want, and so the False Margaret found support for her wild story.

Ironically, even if she had been the real Maid of Norway, the False Margaret was not a serious rival to her uncle Haakon; her sex would have prevented her from ruling. But, as the Norwegian historian Peter Andreas Munch noted,

Her pretensions … might, nevertheless, have been extremely distasteful to him, and probably not altogether free from danger in the future, if, as was not at all unlikely, they should be made use of by the party of nobles who were discontented with his absolute government. This party would willingly have thrust him from the throne … but before they could hope to do so they must have a pretender to the crown of the old royal stock to set up opposition to him. [ … ] And for this purpose there would have been none more suitable than Margaret, if she could be conjured from the dead again.

This woman had to be dealt with. There was no getting around it.

Since the False Margaret and her husband were not executed until 1301, a year after their arrival in Norway, it seems likely that there must have been some official investigation into her claims. If so, the records of this have been lost. What seditious nobles might have hoped to gain through her has likewise slipped into a speculative fog. But False Margaret was clearly a matter of highest statecraft at the time: the executions were delayed until King Haakon could personally come to Bergen to see them carried out.

Embarrassingly, the False Margaret’s cause did not die with her. Her supporters actually erected a church to our friend Saint Margaret near the place of her execution. (The church is no longer extant.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guest Writers,History,Norway,Other Voices,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Scotland,Treason,Uncertain Dates,Women

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