Margaret of Denmark: an enigmatic queen

23 January 2019
3-42492.jpg Stained glass window in the Great Hall at Stirling Castle
Dr Amy Hayes explores the life of Margaret of Denmark, wife of James III, mother of James IV and possibly the most mysterious of all the royal consorts.

Margaret of Denmark was queen of Scotland from her marriage to James III in 1469 until her death in 1486.

Unlike her two immediate predecessors, Joan Beaufort and Mary of Guelders, Margaret died before her husband, and therefore leaves fainter trace in terms of political impact on the realm.

The relationship between Margaret and James III was curious. Margaret and James had three sons in the first eleven years of marriage, after which the queen lived at a distance from her husband, being based in Stirling with her sons, including the heir to the throne, the future James IV. Meanwhile, James III remained in Edinburgh.

      QUICK LINK: History Scotland Mary Queen of Scots/Queen Elizabeth online talk

In 1488 rebels against James III claimed that the king had had his wife poisoned, yet the year before James had made an attempt to have Margaret canonised. Margaret is often described as ‘pious’ but there is little in the surviving record that suggests sainthood. Norman Macdougall, biographer of both James III and his son, James IV, simply describes Margaret as ‘an enigma’. The truth may simply be that, like many of Scotland’s queens consort, Margaret of Denmark requires closer study.

Content continues after advertisements


Margaret of Denmark was the only daughter of Christian I of Denmark-Norwa, and his wife, Dorothea of Brandenburg. Her exact date of birth is unclear, but she was most likely born in 1457; at easter 1474, as queen, she gave out Maundy alms to seventeen people, and this type of gift-giving usually related to age, suggesting the queen was seventeen in 1474.

This would have made Margaret twelve years old on her marriage to James III in 1469, which was the youngest age that the church would accept for the marriage of a woman. Negotiations for Margaret’s marriage may actually have begun as early as 1457, when James II and the Danish king were negotiating over the Norwegian ‘annual’ – a payment due from Scotland to Norway for possession of the Western isles, agreed in 1266 but rarely paid in the two centuries since. Scottish and Danish ambassadors met at Bruges in 1460 under the auspices of Charles VII of France, who held alliances with both countries, and the marriage alliance may have been discussed then, but no agreement was reached. 

'Dire financial straits'

The marriage of James and Margaret was formally agreed in the treaty of Copenhagen, signed on 8 September 1468. Margaret’s dowry consisted of an end to the Norwegian ‘annual’ as well as an abandonment of all pursuit for the arrears. The remainder of her dowry was to be 60,000 Rhenish florins.

Margaret’s father was, however, in dire financial straits, and could not provide the full dowry. Initially it was agreed that 10,000 Rhenish florins would be paid to Scotland, and the islands of Orkney were effectively pawned to Scotland for the remainder of the balance. In the end, even 10,000 florins was too much for the Danish king, who could only raise 2,000.

The Shetland isles made up the balance of 8,000 florins, and although Christian I clearly intended to redeem both islands, he was never able to, and both remain a part of Scotland to this day. The marriage of James III and Margaret of Denmark therefore pushed the boundaries of the Scottish kingdom to their greatest extent.

A coronation?

Margaret and James married in the summer of 1469. Firm documentary evidence for the date is missing, but it is broadly accepted that the couple married in July. Margaret may have been crowned after her wedding, or possibly later, in parliament, in November 1469. By the summer of 1470 both the king and queen could be found on a progress to the north of Scotland, including a month’s stay in Inverness. This allowed the new queen to be viewed by a range of her Scottish subjects.


No discussion of Margaret’s queenship can be considered complete without assessment of her piety. Margaret is unusual in that she is the only Scottish queen since St Margaret to have received hagiographic attention. In 1492 an Italian writer, Giovanni Sabadino, presented to the wife of the ruler of Bologna a collection of biographies of notable women. Most of these biographies were on Italian women, but two foreign names were included – Joan of Arc and Margaret of Denmark.

The biography of Margaret is, in essence, a hagiography, praising the queen’s ‘lofty and wonderful virtue’, her generosity to the church and her service to God and her country. This writing, alongside the attempt made by James III to have Margaret canonised after her death, seem to have inspired a belief in the extreme piety of this queen.

And there are other hints of Margaret’s reputation for piety. Her grandson, James V, stated that his love of for the order of the observant franciscans came from his grandmother, and claimed that it was ‘widely known’ that his father, James IV, had received his sense of duty to God from Margaret. 

Nevertheless evidence for Margaret’s piety in the financial records is scant. The queen gave alms at various times in the year, as did her husband, but there is nothing in the sources to suggest a level of piety that would warrant a bid for canonisation. There is little in the surviving financial accounts to differentiate her piety from that of her successor, Margaret Tudor, who has been described as pious ‘in a wholly conventional way’. Indeed there is less evidence of charity and generosity by Margaret (both important qualities in demonstrating medieval piety) than there is for her predecessor, Mary of Guelders, who publicly supported paupers outside of Stirling castle.

For the modern historian, then, Margaret’s piety remains a mystery. Possibly the record evidence does not survive in enough detail to shed light on this, but it would be imagined that some glimpse of a particular piety would exist in the sixteen months of treasurer’s accounts that have survived for this period. It must be assumed therefore that Margaret’s reputation for private devotions was widely known to her contemporaries, and such devotions would not necessarily leave a mark on the financial records. 

(image: Queen Margaret window, copyright Dun_Deagh)

Content continues after advertisement