NRS archivist Dr Alan Borthwick tells us about the marriage contract of Margaret of Scotland and King Erik II of Norway, and the fateful voyage of their daughter Margaret in 1290 – and how, but for a chance of fate, the histories of three countries might have played out very differently…
In 1281, Margaret (1261-1283), daughter of King Alexander III (1249-86) and his wife Margaret (d. 1275), who was daughter of the English king Henry III, was married to the Norwegian king Erik II (d. 1299). The Scottish version of their marriage contract, dated at Roxburgh, 25 July 1281, is held by National Records of Scotland (reference RH5/6).
It takes the form of an indenture, to which the seals of the principal parties were appended: the Norwegian envoys’ seals (now lost) were appended to the version remaining in Scotland, and the Scottish great seal was appended to the part of the indenture to remain in Norway.
The actual marriage of Margaret and Erik occurred in the cathedral of Bergen, Norway, late August or early September 1281. Margaret was crowned as queen of Norway on that occasion.
Margaret, the only child of the marriage, succeeded her grandfather to the Scottish throne in 1286, because her mother’s brothers predeceased her. She is commonly called the Maid of Norway. Her marriage contract included provision for her succession, should Alexander III and his sons die without issue.
A large assembly of Scottish barons in February 1284 formally recorded their recognition of her as “their lady and true heiress of their king [Alexander] for the whole kingdom of Scotland”, failing any further issue of the king or of his recently-deceased son, Alexander. The letters recording this event are also held by NRS, reference RH5/9.
The Maid of Norway was betrothed to Edward, eldest son of King Edward I of England in 1289, but she died in Orkney in probably September 1290 while on her way to her kingdom. Like her mother, she was buried at Bergen in Norway.
Had the Maid of Norway survived to marry Edward, who became king of England on the death of his father in 1307, and had there been children of the marriage, the subsequent history of England and Scotland would likely have been very different; and Norway’s history would also have been affected, as it would have been drawn further into that sphere of influence.
Erik II married secondly (c 1292) Isabel Bruce, sister of Robert Bruce, later King Robert I of Scotland (1306-1329). They had no male heir, so Erik was succeeded as king by Haakon V as king of Norway. Erik was one of 14 men to put forward a claim to the vacant throne of Scotland after the death of the Maid of Norway, in a contest known as the Great Cause. His claim depended on his assertion of a right to the crown as an inheritance from his daughter, but the claim was considered invalid.
There exists in Uppsala University, Sweden, a 13th century manuscript containing a hymn sung at the wedding of Margaret and King Erik. The first verse has been translated from Latin as follows.
From thee, O fairest Scotland, springs that light benign,
Which over Norway like a radiant dawn doth shine.
Breathe freely now once more, since God doth safely bring,
Across the perilous seas, the daughter of thy King.
You can read the full text of the translation, and photographs of the original manuscript, in the article by Rev John Beveridge in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland volume 73 (1938-39), available in PDF.
Digital images of the manuscript are available in the folios on which the hymn has been transcribed.
Head of Medieval and Early Modern Records
National Records of Scotland
You can find out more about the Succession Crisis and the Wars of Independence here at our Archives for Schools site, along with many other resources for pupils and teachers.