Sancta Margareta

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According to the transmission Margareta (Margrete) was from the Roskilde area, and a relative of Archbishop Absalon (d. 1201). In 1176 she was killed by her husband, who afterwards tried to disguise the murder as a suicide. The crime was discovered when miracles began to happen on the beach where her body had been placed. Subsequently Margareta’s earthly remains were translated to Our Lady’s Church in Roskilde, where she was canonised by the bishop and later worshipped as a saint. In spite of attempts to obtain papal canonisation in the thirteenth century, this was never achieved. Different sources attest to the worship of Margareta in Roskilde and the surrounding country for several centuries. Two sources from the late twelfth century, one of Danish and one of French origin, describe Margareta’s death and later worship, but with certain differences in their contents and emphasis. The text written in Denmark is a legend-like description of her translation by an anonymous author, the other is a legend-like account written down in Clairvaux in Herbert’s Liber miraculorum on the basis of information from the Danish Archbishop Eskil, who was staying in Clairvaux at the time.

Margareta is referred to both as Margareta of Højelse (or Ølsemagle), a village close to the beach where her body was first placed, and as Margareta of Roskilde, the town where she was buried and the centre of her cult. It is natural to compare Margareta with the other female saints in what LUNDÉN calles the “trefoil” of Nordic hagiography, with >Sancta Helene de Skøvde and Sancta Magnhild de Fulltofte. The common factor for these three women is that they were married and killed as a result of family strife. It is suggested that these murders could have been caused by the desire of these women to give financial support to the Church rather than the family (SAWYER 1992).

No office exists.

(1) Relatio de translatione S.Margaretæ Roskildensis


Anno domini .M.C.LXXVI., die sollempnitatis sanctorum Crispini et Crispiniani, Margareta …


…ubi mausoleum ingens honeste construitur, ubi postea multis claruit miraculis.


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  • SUHM 1783: SRD 5, 303 (according to SUHM edited from a manuscript later lost: Ex vetusto Manuscripto in Archivio Regio. This manuscript is probably identical with Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 2434 4°, from the younger Hans Svaning (1600–1676), as the texts in this manuscript and SUHM’s transcription in the SRD edition seem to correspond completely. There also seems to have been a transcription of the manuscript in Bartholianorum Tome A, damaged in the fire in Copenhagen in 1728. Copenhagen, Royal Library, NKS 1127 4°, which includes a list of its contents, reads: De Margareta... (GERTZ 1908–1912, 388)).
  • GERTZ, M.CL. 1908–1912: VSD, Copenhagen, 388 f. (repr. after SUHM’s edition, but with medieval orthography).
  • SØGAARD, H.1984: “Overleveringen om den hellige Margrete af Roskilde,” Historie n.s. 15, 3, 476–83. (Text and facsimile MS micro 2803 of Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 2434 4°, corresponding with SUHM’s edition).


  • OLRIK, H. 1893–1894: Danske Helgeners Levned 2, Copenhagen.

Date and place

The Relatio asserts a specific date for the murder of Margareta, 25 October 1176, while Absalon was bishop in Roskilde. The text itself was written after Peder Sunesen had become bishop in Roskilde, i.e. after 1192, and it refers to Absalon as archbishop, which he was from 1178. The date is uncertain, but the text was probably written down, perhaps on the basis of oral communication, in the 1190s or possibly the early thirteenth century. WEIBULL (1931) sets its origin in 1178.

To judge from the narrator’s viewpoint and his knowledge of local affairs concerning geography as well as family relations, the author was probably a clerk in Roskilde.

Summary of contents

Margareta, who is referred to as Absalon’s relative (cognata) and Peder Sunesen’s and his brothers’s consanguinea, was murdered by her husband, Herlo, who tried to make the murder look like suicide. The body was later thrown on to the beach, where miracles soon began to happen. Bishop Absalon initiated an investigation of the matter and revealed the husband’s crime. The body was taken from the beach and on Absalon’s suggestion transferred to Our Lady’s Church in Roskilde, an event accompanied by great festivity. At her tomb a large number of miracles later took place.

Literary models

This text may be characterised as a retold translation-legend, and it also bears the title Relatio. The narrative is unusual in the sense that it begins with a given year, and that it puts so much emphasis on a supporting character and not the martyred saint herself. The text has the classical elements of a martyr’s legend, although in very concentrated form: vita, passio and/or miracula. Margareta is briefly introduced as the relative of Absalon and Peder Sunesen. There is a short description of the murder, but no motive is suggested. The emphasis is placed on the circumstances relating to the discovery of the victim, the man initiating the translation and his success. In other words, the focus is on Bishop Absalon’s efforts to solve the crime, the trial, the translation of the body to Roskilde and the pleasure found in the following worship. It has been suggested that the importance attached to Absalon’s efforts could give scope for an interpretation of the text not as a legend, but as part of a bishop’s chronicle for Roskilde (DAMSHOLT 1985). That >Sancta Helene of Skøvde’s and Sancta Magnhild of Fulltofte’s legends could have been used as models for Margrete’s is unlikely, as the two other legends are textually far younger.

Composition and style

The text comprises the common elements in a translation-legend: inventio, translatio (exhumation of body and translation to church), and a short reference to the miracles (GAD 1961, 119 f.). The structure is simple and restrained, and rather dramatic in its contrasts between good and evil and their respective representatives, and the style is elegant.


The Roskilde clerk seems to have built his narration both on personal knowledge and on information from other people. He refers directly to Absalon, ut ipse fatebatur (as he used to say himself).

Purpose and audience

The purpose of the Relatio has been to argue in favour of Margareta’s sainthood, to promote Margareta’s cult, and at the same time evoke local support for Absalon and strengthen his family’s influence and position in the power-struggles of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The intended audience is that of the local community.

Medieval reception and transmission

St. Margareta is mentioned in Annales Lundenses and the Older Chronicle of Zealand (>Chronica Sialandie), as well as in a remark in Petrus Olai’s Collectanea (>Petrus Olai), which most certainly is taken from the Zealand Chronicle, but somewhat distorted. Petrus Olai refers to Herlo (here spelled Herlog) as fornicarius (fornicator), which brings a new aspect to the story. According to the Older Chronicle of Zealand there is no written account of Margareta’s miracles. It states that Margareta died on 28 October, while the text of SUHM and Svaning has the date 25 October (GERTZ 1922, 47; cf. SØGAARD 1984, 481). The place-name in the Zealand Chronicle is Ølsyæ, Ølishøue (Højelse, Ølsemagle, north of Køge). According to Annales Lundenses Margareta was killed in Køge (cf. OLRIK 1893–1894, 390). Both the Lund Annals and those of Ryd set Margareta’s death in 1177, as do the Icelandic Annals (SØGAARD 1984, 477, 481). In his Church history Erik Pontoppidan gathered his information about Margareta from the Older Chronicle of Zealand (SØGAARD 1984).

No other works are known to reveal any knowledge of the Relatio or contain references to it. The text does not seem to have had any influence on the language in the letters connected to the campaign for a papal canonisation for Margareta about 1254. The purpose of the campaign was probably to strengthen the position of the Hvide-Galen family, of which Margareta was a member, and which was involved in the struggle for royal power. Papal canonisation seems to have been within reach, since the Pope asked for documentation of Margareta’s sanctity, but it was not effected (JØRGENSEN 1981, DAMSHOLT 1985).

The Sunesen Psalter, a private book of worship, has an entry for the day of St. Margareta’s translation (19 July 1177). Her feast day is not mentioned in the liturgical books from Roskilde and in the Obituarium of Copenhagen from the thirteenth century. Still, other sources, like charters, testify to her cult (DD 1, 3, no. 241, 1198; DD 2, 1, 229 and 234, both 1257).

(2) The account of Margareta in Herbert’s Liber miraculorum

Incipit De femina a marito occisa et post mortem declarata .XCI. In episcopatu Rosquelie … Explicit ...miracula fiunt ut pre innumera multitudine nequeant comprehendi. Size 3–4 pp. Editions WEIBULL 1931: “En samtida berättelse från Clairvaux om ärkebiskop Eskil av Lund,” Scandia 4, 270–90. (the text is edited with variants from other manuscripts, after a thirteenth-century parchment from the monastery of Aldersbach, Staatsbibliothek München, Lat. 2607 4° fol. 16r–130r, with). MIGNE, J.-P.: PL 185. Translations The text has not been translated. Date and place The Margareta text as edited by WEIBULL is found in Liber miraculorum, a book of miracles and devotional stories collected and written by Herbert, a monk of Clairvaux between 1178 and 1181. In this period Archbishop Eskil (d. 1181) lived as a monk in this monastery. Herbert’s book includes a lengthy account about Archbishop Eskil, and has in that connection references to Danish affairs, among these the story of St. Margareta (WEIBULL 1931, 276 ff.). It mentions that the murder took place about four years earlier, which indicates a date of origin for the Clairvaux text at about 1180. Summary of contents In Herbert’s book Margareta plays a bigger part than in the Roskilde Relatio. She is introduced with her name and place of residence, while her husband remains anonymous. She is described as a mild and simple woman, whose husband is annoyed by her good deeds and abuses her daily because he finds her foolish and silly. One day the husband’s sister, who is jealous of Margareta, makes him beat her almost to death and is herself involved in the actual murder. Brother and sister then take the necessary measures to make the crime look like suicide. The husband fakes grief and shame, and the neighbours are forced to bury the alleged suicide victim on the beach between two criminals. One day miracles begin to happen at the place where Margareta lies. Then the murder is solved, there is a translation of the body to the Roskilde cathedral and the miracles continue. Composition and style The opening words of the text give the place of the murder as the diocese of Roskilde and the date of the murder as 1176. The narration is legend-like, but lacks a proper vita. It has, like most martyr legends, the elements of passio, inventio, translatio and miracula, although the two last mentioned are very short. The passio, the description of the murder, gives no impression of Margareta’s character, and Margareta is not portrayed as one who suffers martyrdom for her faith. Compared to the legends of other female martyrs, like the saint of the same name, Margaret of Antioch, the image of Margareta is quite unclear. At the centre of the story is the cruelty of the husband and his sister towards the good and innocent Margareta. In comparison with the Roskilde Relatio it is significant that Margareta’s consanguinity with Absalon and the Sunesen family is not mentioned, and that the bishop of Roskilde, entering the story only towards the end, is kept anonymous. The text erroneously states that Margareta was translated to the cathedral, and not – as can be documented – to Our Lady’s Church. This error may support the idea that it was Herbert who made the final version of the text, and not Eskil, who with his local knowledge would not have made such a mistake. Stylistically the text is distinct and balanced. It includes indirect references to the Bible, like the spelling of Margareta “margarita”, referring to the precious pearl found in the parable in Matt. 13. Margareta’s body is first placed between two robbers, like Christ on the cross. Furthermore the description of the women is influenced by the Catholic Church’s view of women as Eve and Mary, where the husband’s sister is the temptress, while Margareta is the good Mary. Direct speech is clearly and strikingly formed, like the husband’s complaint: “Heu heu uenite et condolete mihi omnes amici et proximi” (“oh, come and console me, all my friends and relatives”). The blind man who can see, says: “Unde ista lux ceco, unde gaudium misero, unde salubritas desperato?” (“From where comes this light to the blind, from where joy to the miserable, from where health to the hopeless?”). The husband is described in highly contrasting terms: Impius atque crudelis (sinful and cruel), not maritum et comparem (husband and equal) but tyrannum ac persecutorem dirissimum (tyrant and horrible persecutor). There are also textual parallells, like suadente sorore (as the sister persuaded him) later mirrored in suadente diabolo (as the devil persuaded him), alliteration (...conuiciis appetens, uerberibus atterens, ..afficiens malis) and cursus. Several sentences end in cursus velox (...nequeant comprehendi) (examples from WEIBULL 1931, 285–86). Sources The source for Herbert’s text is Eskil’s oral account. Even though Eskil could no doubt have written a distinguished text himself, it seems to be Herbert who shaped this into a coherent story. Purpose and audience This version underlines the universal aspect, the Christian ideal in the innocent wife’s patient suffering under injustice. The local Zealandian aspect is very much toned down, and the purpose of the narrative is to provide general edification for the audience. It is possible that the legend would have had a particular appeal for abused wives, like the legend of Godeliéve (DUBY 1994, DAMSHOLT 1999), but this is impossible to prove. If the Relatio is dated to 1178 as suggested by WEIBULL, Herbert’s account may be interpreted as a response to the glorification of Absalon in the Roskilde Relatio, and thereby as more political than previously assumed. Medieval reception and transmission There is no indication of later knowledge of this text. Bibliography DAMSHOLT, N. 1985: Kvindebilledet i dansk højmiddelalder, diss. from the University of Copenhagen. DAMSHOLT, N. 1999: “Ægteskab i dansk middelalder,” in Ægteskab i Norden fra Saxo til i dag, ed. K. Melby, A. Pylkkänen og B. Rosenbeck (Nord 14), 55–69. DUBY, G. 1994: Love and Marriage in the Middle Ages, Cambridge. GAD, T. 1961: Legenden i dansk middelalder, Copenhagen. GAD, T. 1966: “Margrethe,” in KLNM 11, 351–52. GERTZ, M.CL. 1922: SMD 2, Copenhagen. JOHANSEN, M. 2001: “Margrete Rosinante,” in Dansk kvindebiografisk leksikon, vol. 2, 525–26 JØRGENSEN, E. 1981: “Margrete,” in DBL 9 (3rd ed.). LUNDÉN, T. 1944: “Sankta Helena av Skövde,” Credo 25, 166–81. MCGUIRE, B.P. 2002: Friendship and Faith: Cistercian Men, Women, and their Stories, 1100–1150, Aldershot, Hampshire, England. SAWYER, B. 1992: Kvinnor och familj i det forn- och medeltida Skandinavien, Skara. SØGAARD, H. 1984: “Overleveringen om den hellige Margrete af Roskilde,” Historie n.s. 15, 3, 476–83. WEIBULL 1931: “En samtida berättelse från Clairvaux om ärkebiskop Eskil av Lund,” Scandia 4, 270–90.

Nanna Damsholt