Professor Minerva McGonagall is already everyone's favourite teacher and a certified war hero, but believe it or not, she didn't just flash into existence upon Harry Potter's arrival at Hogwarts. There is a complete, and often completely tragic, backstory behind the Head of Gryffindor House.
She grew up in Scotland, for example, where she encountered several obstacles before she even went to Hogwarts as an eleven-year-old girl. Even during the events of the Harry Potter series, McGonagall was facing her own personal demons, losing friends and family whom even book readers might not have heard of.
JK Rowling had McGonagall's life, from infancy to the years following the Battle of Hogwarts, mapped out from day one, and while little of her past is mentioned through the book series, the knowledge she has since shared makes perfect sense as to the way her character is portrayed both in the books, and in the films, where she is portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith. So, straight from the mind of Rowling herself, here are 15 Things You Never Knew About Minerva McGonagall.
15 She Is The First Magical Character Introduced In The Books
The only characters in the very first chapter of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to be introduced before McGonagall are the Dursleys. Before we even leave Privet Drive, and long before we meet Harry himself, Vernon Dursley is leaving for work when he spots a tabby cat reading a map.
Panicking about what it could mean, Vernon does a double-take and finds the map has vanished, but this sets into motion a series of peculiar occurrences on the day of Lord Voldemort’s defeat at the hands of his baby nephew.
We don’t know until Dumbledore and Hagrid arrive to leave Harry on the Dursleys’ doorstep that the literate tabby cat was actually a witch, and before we knew anything of wands, potions, or invisibility cloaks, McGonagall provides a suitably strange insight to the wizarding world.
Although Dumbledore actually shows up before her in the first film, she is at least introduced before the Dursleys; McGonagall is the first female character to appear and the second character overall.
14 She Is A Registered Animagus
We’ve all seen McGonagall in her Animagus form, but film-watchers and even some book readers might be unaware that she is one of only seven Animagi to be registered at the Ministry of Magic during the 20th Century.
This is perhaps due to the complex magic and time it takes to become an Animagi, which James Potter and Sirius Black were able to master during their time at Hogwarts, becoming Animagi to keep Remus Lupin company when he transformed into a werewolf.
Anyone wishing to become an Animagi must hold a mandrake leaf in their mouth for an entire month, using it to create a potion, which is brewed over a long time and requires skilled transfiguration skills. McGonagall’s affinity for transfiguration led to her desire to become an Animagus, and she sought help from Dumbledore in her final year at school to accomplish it.
An Animagus cannot choose the animal they will become, but it is determined by their values and personalities. McGonagall became a wise tabby cat, while unregistered Animagi James and Sirius became a stag and a dog, and Peter Pettigrew and Rita Skeeter defined their inner selves by transforming into a rat and a beetle respectively.
13 She Played Quidditch For Gryffindor
During her time at school, McGonagall was eventually sorted into Gryffindor, where she became a member of the Quidditch team (though her position on the team was unknown). In her final year, McGonagall was knocked from her broom by way of a blatant foul from a Slytherin player, leaving the pitch with a concussion.
It was this fall that gave her a lifelong desire to see Gryffindor crush Slytherin on the Quidditch pitch, and she was known to verbally spar with Snape, Head of Slytherin, on several occasions. Despite her insistence that Lee Jordan’s commentary is biased towards Gryffindor, she is not averse to hurling insults at the Slytherin team from the stands on particularly tense occasions.
Interestingly, when her brother Malcolm arrived at Hogwarts some years later, he would join the Gryffindor line-up alongside James Potter, who, contrary to popular belief, was a Chaser in the team, and not a Seeker like his son.
12 Her Sorting Took More Than Five Minutes
While Harry, Hermione, and Neville’s sorting upon their arrival at Hogwarts took a long time-- with Harry and Hermione almost being put into Slytherin and Ravenclaw respectively, while Neville actually asked the Sorting Hat to place him in Hufflepuff-- they did not quite reach the five-minute mark, which is a significant number in Hogwarts history.
Any witch or wizard whose sorting takes upwards of five minutes is traditionally referred to as a "Hatstall," a name given to someone due to their divisive character traits stalling the Sorting Hat into making a decision. There have been only two known Hatstalls in recent times. McGonagall was the first, as the Sorting Hat wavered between Gryffindor and Ravenclaw for almost six minutes. The Hat will take the student’s choice into account to break a tie, so despite her infinite wisdom and quick wit, McGonagall was placed into Gryffindor.
Peter Pettigrew is the second known Hatstall, almost being placed into Slytherin. The Hat eventually decided on Gryffindor, and despite Pettigrew’s betrayal of the Marauders, the Hat defended its decision even before Pettigrew’s self-sacrificial death.
11 she's named after A Greek Goddess
There’s a small backstory behind almost every name in Harry Potter, and while McGonagall is no exception, she does have what you might call a name of two halves. Minerva is a godly name, chosen specifically with forethought of character in mind, whereas McGonagall… not so much.
Minerva is the Roman name of Athena, a Greek goddess, who stood for courage, justice and strategy. Not only are these traits of McGonagall’s, they’re also characteristics she shares with Hogwarts founder Godric Gryffindor, whose house she would eventually head, proving that she was indeed sorted correctly. Moreover, Minerva was a wise goddess of schools and learning.
McGonagall, meanwhile, derives from the Celtic name Conegal, which translates as "son of the bravest." However, that’s not how she got her surname. McGonagall comes from Scottish poet William Topaz McGonagall, considered across the UK to be one of the worst writers ever to put ink to paper. This has nothing to do with her personality, according to JK Rowling-- it was only that Rowling liked the name, and that it revealed the character’s Scottish heritage.
10 She Is A Half-Blood
McGonagall was born to muggle minister Robert McGonagall, and Isobel Ross, a talented witch who had given up her powers to marry Robert, and therefore uphold the International Statute of Secrecy.
Named after her witch grandmother, Minerva displayed signs of magic from birth (even showing some level of control over her abilities), which was a disaster for Isobel, who had never told Robert of her magical powers.
She eventually told her husband, who rather than abandon her, agreed to the terms of the Statute of Secrecy, although he never knew the extent of his children’s powers. The couple later had two sons, Malcolm and Robert Jr., and Isobel, with Minerva’s help, covered up the accidents their magic would cause.
Isobel supposedly broke down when Minerva left home for Hogwarts, as her daughter was free to exercise her magical talents among her own kind, while Isobel remained home with a husband who never understood what she was capable of.
9 She Went To School With Professor Sprout
McGonagall and Pomona Sprout were close friends at Hogwarts, as Sprout actually arrived at the school while McGonagall was in her sixth year. The pair kept in contact after McGonagall’s seventh and final year, and would both return to Hogwarts as teachers and Heads of House. Sprout returned to Herbology and later became Head of Hufflepuff house, while McGonagall, of course, took on Transfiguration and led the Gryffindor house.
Although it was never explicitly mentioned in either the book or the film series, their relationship is hinted at in brief instances. These shared a commiserating side-eye when the odious Dolores Umbridge was appointed as professor of Defence Against the Dark Arts and gave a boring speech in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Following McGonagall’s duel with Snape in The Deathly Hallows, Sprout comes to her aid, forcing Snape to flee. The pair, with Flitwick’s help, go about protecting the castle from Voldemort, and despite Flitwick’s protests, Sprout supports McGonagall’s decision to protect the castle, and the two friends share a “look of grim understanding.”
8 She's won awards in transfiguration
Unsurprisingly, McGonagall was one of the outstanding students of her year at school. She received Prefect and Head Girl badges, and top grades in her O.W.L and N.E.W.T exams. She also left school with the Transfiguration Today: Most Promising Newcomer award.
McGonagall excelled in Transfiguration from her very first year. Even her wand – a fir stick with a dragon heartstring core – was noted by Ollivander as particularly suited to Transfiguration. She was taught the subject was Albus Dumbledore-- a previous winner of the award and regular subscriber to the magazine, who later oversaw her transformation into an Animagus.
Dumbledore was also an expert in Transfiguration, writing papers for the magazine during his time at Hogwarts. Bathilda Bagshot is another known subscriber to the magazine, and her acquaintance with the Dumbledore family was down to her admiration for his work. Both Dumbledore and McGonagall are seen to be reading the magazine in the Harry Potter series, while it also appears in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
7 She Was Engaged To A Muggle
Despite her academic achievements, McGonagall was not so lucky in her personal life. Following her graduation, she returned home to Scotland for one last summer. There, an 18-year-old Minerva met Dougal McGregor, the muggle son of a local farmer, and fell in love.
The couple became engaged the same summer, when McGregor proposed on a ploughed field, but Minerva cancelled the marriage the next morning. Unwilling to live a lie like her mother, and turn her back on her career, she considered telling McGregor that she was a witch.
Instead, she upheld the International Statute of Secrecy, aware that she risked exposing her kind if McGregor didn’t accept the truth. She gave no reason for her decision, and she left for London a few days later, never to see McGregor again.
McGregor died during Voldemort’s first revolution, killed in the crossfire of an anti-muggle Death Eater attack. It was a loss McGonagall would never live down.
6 Her First Job Was At The Ministry
When McGonagall arrived in London, she was offered a job at the Ministry of Magic by Elphinstone Urquart. She was assigned to the Department on Magical Law Enforcement, the largest department at the Ministry. The division in which she worked is unknown, but she might have been a part of the Auror Office-- where Harry and Ron would later work-- or the Misuse of Muggle Artefacts Office-- where Arthur Weasley worked during the series.
McGonagall was offered the job of Transfiguration teacher by Dumbledore, presumably when he took over from Armando Dippet as Hogwarts Headmaster, and she left the Ministry after two years.
However, she continued to work with the Aurors well into the First Wizarding War, otherwise known as the rise of Voldemort. Refusing to join the Order of the Phoenix at the time due to the Ministry's disapproval of the organization, she spied on Death Eaters in her Animagus form, bringing the Ministry information on Voldemort’s followers.
5 She Was Attacked By Ministry Aurors
McGonagall's relationship with the Ministry did not last. During Professor Umbridge’s reign as Hogwarts High Inquisitor in The Order of the Phoenix, she and a band of Aurors attacked Hagrid in an attempt to evict the (in her eyes) unnatural half-giant from the Hogwarts grounds.
While the fifth year students, including Harry, Ron, and Hermione, watched on from atop the Astronomy tower, where they were in the middle of their O.W.L exam, McGonagall rushed in to intervene on Hagrid’s behalf. Before she drew her wand, however, she was hit by four stunning spells to the chest.
The quadruple spell almost killed her, and she spent a brief spell at St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries. Hagrid knocked out two of her attackers before fleeing, while Madam Pomfrey, Hogwarts matron, stated that not a single one of them would dare attack McGonagall in broad daylight. She returned to Hogwarts good as new, except for the fact that she needed a walking stick from them on.
4 She Married Her Former Boss
McGonagall remained good friends with Elphinstone Urquart even after she joined the Order following Voldemort’s disappearance. Urquart frequently holidayed in Scotland, where he would meet with his former employee. He proposed to McGonagall in Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop, but McGonagall, in love with McGregor-- who was still alive at that point-- politely turned him down.
But that was hardly his last proposal. Undeterred, Urquart continued to visit Scotland, where he proposed to McGonagall several more times. A little while after McGregor’s death, McGonagall finally accepted when he popped the question during a summertime stroll around the Hogwarts grounds.
Urquart and McGonagall, who kept her surname, were happily married for three years. Urquart bought a cottage in Hogsmeade, and McGonagall’s nieces and nephews visited often. But her luck would not last. Their marriage was cut short when Urquart was killed by a Venomous Tentacula bite, after which she abandoned the cottage and returned to her Hogwarts chambers, where she saw out the rest of her life.
3 She Duelled Voldemort
McGonagall led the rebellion during the Battle of Hogwarts; taking out Alecto Carrow, evacuating the underage students (and the Slytherins), animating the Hogwarts statues to defend the castle, and just generally being awesome.
McGonagall was present when Voldemort paraded Harry’s "dead" body to his remaining allies, and when the battle resumed after the Centaurs attacked the Death Easters, the fighters were forced into the Great Hall. She then actually faced the Dark Lord directly. Alongside Kingsley Shacklebolt and Professor Slughorn, McGonagall held her own against Voldemort for a while. Once Molly killed Bellatrix, however, the three Order of the Phoeninx members were blasted to the ground by Voldemort's fury.
When Harry revealed himself and asked that everyone stay out of his way, McGonagall and the rest watched from the sidelines. When Harry’s disarming charm reversed Voldemort’s Kill Curse, McGonagall and her fellow teachers were some of the first to hug the Boy Who Lived.
2 She Was Awarded The Order Of Merlin: First Class
That’s Minerva McGonagall, O.M. (First Class) to you. The Order of Merlin is an award handed out by the Ministry for outstanding acts of bravery, discovery, and entertainment within the wizarding community.
Other known recipients include Albus Dumbledore, who won the First Class award for his defeat of the dark wizard Grindelwald; Newt Scamander, whose Second Class honor was awarded for his services to the study of magical beasts; and Remus Lupin, who received a posthumous First Class honour, becoming the first werewolf ever to do so. Like Lupin, McGonagall won for her contribution to the Battle of Hogwarts and her allegiance to the Order of the Phoenix.
The Order of Merlin has a controversial history, however, as Cornelius Fudge awarded himself a First Class honor, while Peter Pettigrew won the First Class award for his "heroic confrontation" with Sirius Black (it was later proved that Pettigrew killed 13 muggles during this confrontation), and Sirius’s ancestor Arcturus Black III reportedly paid the Ministry a large sum of money for his First Class award.
It is perhaps for this reason that McGonagall has shown to be prouder of her subsequent appearance on the Chocolate Frog cards.
1 She Was Appointed Hogwarts Headmistress Following The Battle Of Hogwarts
Unsurprisingly, McGonagall was reinstated as Hogwarts Headmistress following Voldemort’s defeat. She had previously held the position in The Chamber of Secrets, when Dumbledore was sacked as a result of Lucius Malfoy’s meddling, and at the end of The Half-Blood Prince, when she briefly took Dumbledore’s office after his death.
Her contributions as Headmistress include hiring former student and Battle of Hogwarts legend Neville Longbottom as Herbology Professor, while she allowed Dumbledore’s notes on The Tales of Beedle the Bard to be officially published.
She remains at Hogwarts for the enrollment of each of Harry and Ginny’s three children, and featured prominently in the events of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where Harry’s second son Albus-- now a fourth-year Slytherin student and best friend of Scorpius Malfoy-- uses a Time-Turner to travel back to the year 1995 in an attempt to save Cedric Diggory from Lord Voldemort.
When the boys fix their mistakes and return to the original timeline, they are greeted by McGonagall, and they reveal to her what they had done. Because you don’t lie to Professor McGonagall.
Do you have any McGonagall trivia to share with us? Drop it in the comments!
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