It is 700 years since a letter left Arbroath Abbey on a long journey to Pope John XXII at his palace in Avignon, France. That letter is now known as the Declaration of Arbroath.
Dated 6 April 1320, it came from Scotland’s ‘barons’ – the noblemen and landowners – and claimed to represent ‘the whole community of the realm’.
The letter was written in an elaborate, formal style of Latin known as the papal cursus, but its message was straightforward: Scotland asked to be recognised as an independent country, with Robert the Bruce as its legitimate king.
The letter was accompanied by two others – from Bruce himself and from his ally William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews – though these have now been lost.
So this message to the Pope was endorsed by all the social tiers of the realm: king, church, nobles and ordinary people.
King Robert and the English threat
Bruce had become King of Scots in 1306, and in 1314 had triumphed over a vast English army at Bannockburn, driving out the occupying power. But attempts by the English to gain control of Scotland continued.
Edward II of England saw Scotland as part of the birthright he had inherited from his father.
Hammer of the Scots
Edward I had been a shrewd and dynamic king. When Scotland suffered a succession crisis in 1286–92, Edward had been invited to arbitrate over the ‘Great Cause’ to choose a new king.
He had used this opportunity to assert overlordship over the successful candidate. After endorsing John Balliol, Edward then steadily undermined the new king, leading to an uprising of Scottish nobles. Edward invaded in 1296, soon earning his nickname ‘Hammer of Scots’, and King John abdicated.
Bruce’s grandfather had been Balliol’s closest rival in the Great Cause – both were descended from King David I. The younger Bruce based his claim to the throne not just on that, but also on his rejection of Scotland’s allegiance to King Edward.
Bruce had asserted his claim by violent means: in 1306, he murdered John Comyn, Guardian of Scotland, who had yielded sovereignty to the English king.
This might have destroyed Bruce’s eligibility, but with the backing of Bishop Lamberton and other Scottish churchmen, he had then seized the throne.
Almost Bruce’s first act as king was the ‘herschip of Buchan’ a ruthless military offensive to wipe out the Comyns in their north-eastern homelands. Few people can have seen this is as the action of a just and peace-loving king.
Edward I responded to Bruce’s actions by planning another invasion in 1307. But the English king died before his army reached Scotland. He was succeeded by his son, Edward II – weaker but no less warlike.
A struggle for recognition
In the years that followed, Bruce gradually built up popular support, through a long campaign of guerrilla warfare, coupled with a political programme of bestowing lands and titles on his allies. But his right to govern was still disputed by the English, and by the papacy. This enraged him so much that he had refused to acknowledge letters from Pope John calling for truce between Scotland and England.
As a result, he had been excommunicated: he was officially excluded from the Church, and therefore from Christian salvation. But he continued to ignore the papal truce, and in 1318 captured the crucial border port of Berwick from the English. Edward II appealed to the Pope to apply more pressure.
The home front
Meanwhile, the loyalty of Bruce’s own subjects was in doubt. Many Scots still believed their rightful monarch was Edward Balliol – son of King John, who had died in exile in 1314. And Edward Balliol was poised to claim the Scottish throne, with English support.
An exclusion clause
Bruce and his advisers responded to the Balliol threat when they drafted the Declaration of Arbroath. The letter declares that the Scots will depose any king ‘seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English’.
This statement clearly excludes the English-backed Balliol. It also helps justify Bruce’s own seizure of the crown in 1306, to prevent it falling under English control. And crucially, it invites the reader to hold Bruce to his word. If he ever did yield to the English, he would be inviting his people to depose him.
Legacy of the letter
The Declaration of Arbroath (as it later became known) was an important milestone in Scotland’s long struggle for independence and recognition. It greatly improved relations with Pope John, who put Bruce’s excommunication on hold and referred to him as to ‘the illustrious man Robert, who assumes the title and position of king of Scotland’.
But the conflict was not over yet. Peace talks were planned for August 1320, but cancelled by Edward. A conference at Bamburgh in 1321 went ahead but no treaty was agreed. A truce was established in 1323, but it was not until 1328 that the Treaty of Edinburgh brought a temporary halt to the Wars of Independence. And it was only in 1357 – nearly 30 years after Bruce’s death – that peace was finally achieved with the Treaty of Berwick. The Declaration of Arbroath had not brought an end to Scotland’s troubles, but it had been an important step in the process.
© Historic Environment Scotland.
Why bother with the Declaration of Arbroath?
The Declaration of Arbroath is ‘the most eloquent statement of the case for a nation’s claim to freedom produced anywhere in medieval Europe.’
Immediate context: – In 1318 Pope John XXII declared a truce between Scotland and England, urging both kingdoms to stop fighting each other and go on Crusade. With Berwick in his sights, King Robert ignored the truce, so Edward II put pressure on Pope John not only to keep up Bruce’s own excommunication but to absolve his subjects of their allegiance to him. With Edward Balliol at hand in England, this was an unsubtle English attempt to re-open the Scottish civil war temporary settled at Bannockburn. Early in 1320 King Robert summoned his full council to Newbattle to begin the process of constructing the Scottish response to the pope.
What the Declaration says: – The essence of the surviving letter of the barons was first and foremost to emphasise the universal right of a nation to be independent, to steer whichever course it sees fit free of the threat of violent outside interference. The arguments used, some of them previously articulated by the Scots, were intended to show that Scotland had long been an independent nation, that England’s conquest was unjust and unprovoked and that even the Scottish king would be held accountable for his ability, or not, to keep his kingdom independent, regardless of his strict ‘right’ to rule. This last was a deliberate dig at Edward Balliol, who could only become king at England’s behest, but also reflects evolving Medieval thought as to the limits of princely or papal power and the ability of ‘the people’ (whatever that meant in more undemocratic times) to constrain their rulers.
What the Declaration has come to mean: – The Declaration became one of a handful of iconic Scottish documents known to scholars. Its fundamental emphasis on the right of the nation to be free attracted a degree of reworking to strengthen this point in the later Middle Ages, an aspect of the document’s history that awaits further research. The appearance of the first English translation in 1689 meant that it began to attract a wider audience. It featured regularly in Scottish histories over succeeding centuries where its meaning was also discussed, leading to evolutions in how it was perceived. The most important element of this was the wider dissemination of the belief that the document was a very early advocate of the idea of contractual monarchy. (The exact implications of this is keenly debated.) In the nineteenth century, the term ‘Declaration’ began to be used, presumably as a nod to the more famous Declaration of Independence of 1776, though even then a range of names was current until ‘Declaration of Arbroath’ became the most usual term from the late 20thcentury. Finally, in 1975, it began to be argued (originally from the US) that the Declaration of Arbroath was the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence, a claim that scholars have difficulty accepting.
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