The Declaration of Arbroath: your guide to Scotland's historic document
More than 700 years ago, a group of Scottish nobles put their name to a letter addressed to the pope in which they called for an acknowledgement of their nation's independence. Nige Tassell explores what led to this bold move and what the impact of the Declaration has been on Scottish history
What was the Declaration of Arbroath?
The Declaration of Arbroath was a letter written in April 1320 at Arbroath Abbey, on the east coast of Scotland. Around 1,000 words long, and written in Latin on a sheep’s skin, it was addressed to Pope John XXII and outlined particular grievances that the Scots held, including the recent excommunication from the Church of their king Robert I, aka Robert the Bruce.
While not directly asking for the lifting of the excommunication, the letter did request that the pope make an appeal to the English king, Edward I, to cease his invasions of Scotland.
In this, the letter emphasised the proud tradition of Scottish independence – “one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner”. As such, the document remains one of the most significant artefacts in the country’s long and storied history.
Who signed the Declaration of Arbroath?
No one actually put ink to sheep’s skin, but the names of 39 Scottish nobles – eight earls and 31 barons – are listed at the head of the letter. The seals of many, if not all, were applied to the Declaration ahead of it being delivered to the papal court in Avignon.
Robert’s seal wasn’t affixed to it; it was felt that the letter would have greater impact if the king himself – the injured party, as it were – wasn’t one of the authors. It is strongly suspected, though, that he was at least its co writer, especially as it was penned at Arbroath Abbey residence of Bernard of Kilwinning, who was also the king’s chancellor. Robert did send his own letter to Avignon, too, as did the Bishop of St Andrews, but neither of these survive.
What is the background to the Declaration of Arbroath?
In 1290, the child queen Margaret of Norway died, leaving no obvious successor to the Scottish throne. A two year interregnum followed, after which 13 candidates staked their claim to the throne, the most prominent of whom were John Balliol and Robert the Bruce. Edward I was appointed to oversee the arbitration of the claims and to select the most credible contender, a duty he agreed to as long as the Scots swore allegiance to him as overlord. Unsurprisingly, Balliol, the candidate most sympathetic to England, was selected to be the next king of Scots.
Even as a puppet king, Balliol was a weak monarch and was forced to abdicate in 1296, less than four years into his reign. For the next 10 years, an ever shifting cast of Guardians governed the country, among them Robert the Bruce, the fearsome leader William Wallace and John Comyn III, Balliol’s nephew and the husband of Edward I’s cousin.
During this time, the English king – later known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – launched a succession of attacks north of the border, seeking to expand his kingdom by annexing Scotland. He forced all Scottish nobles to submit to him, bar Wallace, who was captured and hanged, drawn and quartered in London.
How did Robert the Bruce become king?
Despite being rivals for the throne, Comyn and Robert hatched a secret plan whereby the former would renounce his claim to the throne in return for the latter’s not-inconsiderable land holdings across Scotland. But when Comyn appeared to renege on the deal, Robert summoned him to a clear-the-air meeting at the church of Greyfriars in Dumfries. In the heated exchange that ensued, Comyn was fatally stabbed in front of the altar.
Despite being excommunicated from the Church (for the first time) for the murder, it didn’t stop his passage to the throne, and six weeks later, in March 1306, Robert was crowned king of Scots. In response, Edward once again unleashed the might of his troops in Scotland, forcing Robert to go into hiding and to use guerrilla warfare tactics over the next few years to recapture large swathes of his homeland.
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He and his troops laid siege to the English-held Stirling Castle, tempting the English army – by now under the command of Edward II, following his father’s death – northwards and inflicting a severe defeat on them at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
Were there other efforts to broker a truce before the Declaration of Arbroath?
Edward II’s defeat at Bannockburn, where he only just escaped with his life, had neither chastened him nor dented English expansionist ambitions. A papal effort to negotiate a truce between the warring factions failed when, in 1318, Robert recaptured the strategically significant town of Berwick-on-Tweed, located right on the border of the two countries. The following year, the pope issued an edict to the Scots king, instructing him and four of his bishops to visit him in Avignon. When they refused, Pope John XXII excommunicated all five, as well as threatening to do likewise to the entire Scottish population.
What did the Declaration of Arbroath ask of the pope?
While outwardly the language appears reverential towards the pope, its words carried a gentle threat. The Scottish nobles warned Pope John XXII that should he continue to favour the English to the detriment of the Scots, “then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe, be surely laid by the Most High to your charge”.
It was a confident gambit, the implication that not only would the pope have blood on his hands, but that he would also be subject to divine judgment. The Declaration sets out a history of Scottish subjugation at the hands of the English, particularly their treatment by Edward I, who “came in a guise of a friend and ally to harass them as an enemy”.
The letter’s authors issue a lengthy charge sheet against the late king, making sure to include his crimes against the Church: “imprisoning prelates, burning down monasteries, robbing and killing monks and nuns and yet other outrages without number”.
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How is Robert the Bruce portrayed in the Declaration of Arbroath?
Alongside Edward I’s character assassination, the Declaration contains a glowing reference for Robert, complete with biblical comparisons: “He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabaeus or Joshua.”
However, rather intriguingly, the authors do stress that their admiration and adoration of the king would be withdrawn if he were “seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or the English”. They went further: “as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English”.
The pope will have been in no uncertainty about the ardour of their beliefs. When it came to demands for action, the Declaration was more direct. “With our most earnest prayers and suppliant hearts”, the earls and barons request the pope to warn the English king that he should leave the Scots in peace. “[He] ought to be satisfied with what belongs to him since England used once to be enough for seven kings.”
How successful was the Declaration of Arbroath?
Only partially. The letter did provoke the pope to write to Edward II to request the cessation of hostilities, but he continued to refuse to recognise Robert as the legitimate occupant of the Scottish throne – and the excommunication remained in place.
What the Declaration did do was contribute to the wider campaign for Scottish self-governance. Eight years after the three-man deputation delivered the letter to Avignon, a peace accord was finally signed – the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton of 1328.
Still, the importance of the Declaration wasn’t acknowledged until it was translated from Latin into English at the tail end of the 1680s. Only then was it revealed to be an extraordinarily worded document. As the historian Agnes Mure McKenzie would later observe, “the whole thing is magnificently lucid”, possessing a clarity that “is shot through with quiet implications”.
Is there a link between the Declaration of Arbroath and the Declaration of Independence?
Some believe the translated letter to have been a heavy influence on the American Declaration of Independence, another document calling for freedom from English rule.
Nige Tassell is a journalist specialising in history
This article was first published in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed