The marriage of Margaret of Denmark and King James III of Scotland may not have been very happy. But the union had a significant impact on the territorial gains of Scotland.
Margaret was born on June 23, 1456 in Denmark. Her parents were King Christian I and Queen Dorothea of Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Margaret was named after Queen Margaret I of Denmark who had ruled in her own right from 1387 to1412. We don’t know much about Margaret’s upbringing but she probably enjoyed a close relationship with her mother. By the time Margaret was four years old, there was talk of marriage with the Scottish Prince James.
The Norse had been in control of the Western Isles for hundreds of years. In 1263, the Scots won the Battle of Largs over the Norwegian fleet. According to the terms of the Treaty of Perth after the battle, King Magnus IV of Norway ceded the Hebrides and the Isle of Man to Scotland. In return, the Scots owed 100 merks sterling per year and a lump sum payment of 4000 merks. After some time, the Scots stopped the payments. There was wrangling over the debt from 1426 to 1460 with the Norse demanding payment.
In 1460, Margaret’s father, Christian I of Norway, founder of the Oldenborg dynasty, was king of Norway, Sweden and Denmark and keenly interested in extending his territorial holdings even more. He was in need of cash and made some alliances to fund his plans, including an agreement with King Charles VII of France. Christian requested Charles’ help in getting the Scottish debt paid. Charles suggested a marriage alliance with Scotland. Nothing came of the discussions at this time but by 1468, Christian was facing an uprising in Sweden, political troubles in Denmark and was strapped for cash. The Scots decided to send a delegation to meet with Christian to negotiate a marriage between the eleven year old Margaret and thirteen year old James and discuss the debt situation.
The Scots sent eight ambassadors to Denmark in the summer of 1468. The debt for the Isles was to the point of embarrassment and if Scotland defaulted, the Hebrides would revert back to Norway. The Treaty of Copenhagen was settled. With the marriage of Margaret and James, the debt for the Western Isles was cancelled. King Christian agreed to pay 60,000 florins as a dowry. Norway’s rights in Orkney were pledged as collateral for 50,000 of the florins. The other 10,000 was to be paid in cash but Christian could only come up with 2,000 florins so he pledged his rights to the Shetlands as collateral. By 1470, Scotland found itself owning the Northern Islands for the first time in 600 years. Scotland also now owned the Hebrides so the country was at its full extent.
It was too late in the year for Margaret to leave Denmark so she didn’t make the trip until the summer of 1469. She arrived in Scotland, met her husband for the first time and was married on either July 10th or 12th. She was duly crowned on July 13th at Holyrood Abbey. James, who had been ruled by several regencies since he was nine years old, finally took full control of his government in his own right. A year after they were married, Margaret and James went on a progress to the north and then settled into the routine of court life, moving between the royal homes of Holyroodhouse, Linlithgow, Stirling and Falkland. Margaret and James had three children. The future James IV was born in 1473, James Stewart, Duke of Ross was born in 1476 and John Stewart, Earl of Mar was born in 1479.
Margaret received the highest jointure allowed under Scottish rules for a marriage settlement. There was never any problem with finances. Her revenues were collected with regularity and her expenses were paid. She dressed at the height of fashion for her time, spending enormous sums on clothing and jewels. She may have taught her eldest son James to speak Danish. Scottish historians praised her beauty, gentleness and understanding and considered her sensible. She was very popular in Scotland. Margaret’s Italian biographer Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti, who wrote six years after her death, suggested she only had sex with her husband for procreation possibly leading James to seek mistresses. They do not seem to have been on the most affectionate of terms but Margaret seems to have always respected James’ position as monarch. James may have been difficult to deal with.
In 1476, James decided he wanted the Earldom of Ross for his second son and accused the Earl, John MacDonald of treason, calling him before Parliament. MacDonald was stripped of his title and it was given to James Stewart, the second son. However, MacDonald was allowed to remain as a Lord of Parliament, apparently at Margaret’s request. There was tension between Margaret and James over his treatment of their elder son and obvious preference for the second son which possibly led to estrangement. During the crisis of 1482 when James’ brother deprived him of power for several months, Margaret was said to have shown more interest in the welfare of her children than her husband, and this apparently led to even greater estrangement even though Margaret did everything in her power to get her husband released and restored. It appears they lived apart in different residences from this point on. She spent most of her time at Stirling with her children and James remained in Edinburgh. He may have continued to visit Margaret and the children.
Margaret fell gravely ill in the summer of 1486 and died at Stirling on July 14th. The usual rumors of poisoning were circulated at this time but it may have been enemies of James who spread the rumors. James was deeply affected by her death and sent a supplication to the Pope asking that she be made a saint. Whether he did this out of guilt or not we will never know. James did seek another wife but nothing was ever settled. In 1488, James died at the Battle of Sauchieburn and was buried next to Margaret at Cambuskenneth Abbey.
Further reading: “Danish Biographical Lexikon” published by C.F. Bricka, “British Kings and Queens” by Mike Ashley, “The Kings and Queens of Scotland”, edited by Richard Oram,” Scottish Queens 1093-1714” by Rosalind Marshall, “The Royal Stuarts” by Allan Massie