Back to the past with Ed Grimsdale: The ferrywoman of Biddlesden, Hungary and Scotland

Biddlesden Chapel, picture by Reverend Liz Simpson, Rector of the West Buckingham Benefice. PNL-140408-162352001
Biddlesden Chapel, picture by Reverend Liz Simpson, Rector of the West Buckingham Benefice. PNL-140408-162352001

People who brought communities together through building roads, bridges or providing ferries were honoured in olden times for their good deeds.

One of the alternative titles for the Pope is Pontiff. It comes from the Latin word pons (bridge): popes were bridge builders.

I’m going to tell you a little about Margaret of Wessex, a wonderful woman of the 11th century who brought communities and nations together.

Princess Margaret was born in Hungary during 1045 to the exiled Edward Aetheling of the Wessex Royal Family.

Luckily, Margaret remained in Hungary for the first 10 years of her life since central Europe was more cultured than Anglo-Saxon England and so Margaret received a good education.

She grew to be an austere, devout, good woman devoted to alms-giving, prayer, fasting and tending to those less fortunate than herself.

In 1069, Margaret married the rough-and-ready Malcolm Canmore, aka King Malcolm III of Scotland.

He ran an uncouth court but Margaret quickly nicked its ‘un’. This ‘Pearl of Scotland’, this ‘Perfect Queen’ sought no jewels, in fact she wanted nothing for herself.

She connected two little towns separated by the Firth of Forth. They became North Queensferry and South Queensferry and you don’t need to be Miss Marple to detect how she achieved that!

Margaret provided Malcolm with eight children and heirs, including several born to be king.

Her story ends in tragedy: King Malcolm and his eldest son were killed when they fought William Rufus at the Battle of Alnick (Northumberland) in 1093. Within three days, his heart-broken Queen, weakened by fasting, died after saying this last prayer: “I thank you, Almighty God, for sending me so great a sorrow to purify me from my sins.”

Margaret was buried at Dunfermline Abbey but her story inspired the whole of Europe. Pope Innocent IV canonized her in 1150 as St Margaret of Scotland. The oldest chapel in Edinburgh Castle is dedicated to her.

Back to north Bucks and Biddlesden’s Abbey of St Mary built by del Bosco (see if you can work out what job he had done for the king!) in 1147.

Its monks, inspired by news from Rome of a new Anglo-Hungarian-Scottish saint, went into the grounds and made a little chapel in brick with a “tyled roof”.

It was just 30ft by 18ft in size. They dedicated it to the blessed St Margaret of Scotland. When the ruined abbey church (blame King Henry VIII) was razed by Henry Sayer to make room for Biddlesden Park house, he built a new church for Biddlesden villagers in 1735, probably on the site of the tiny chapel.

This church of St Margaret of Scotland remains in the private grounds of Biddlesden Park beautifully situated above a lake.

It’s accessible for services; two or three times a year these are choral with the talented West Buckingham Benefice Choir conducted by me!