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Medieval Britain

The Declaration of Arbroath

Diane MacLean, The Scotsman, 4 February 2005

When Robert the Bruce defeated the English at Bannockburn in 1314 this did not end the twenty-year War of Independence. England wanted Scotland, and Edward II was determined to take it.

Scotland may have been in a strong position at home, but it was weak abroad. It did not enjoy good relations with the papal power base, unlike England, which persuaded the pope to excommunicate the whole of Scotland.

Bruce had already been excommunicated for his part in the murder of John Comyn in a church.

Papal involvement

Although Pope John XXII subsequently sent two cardinals to England in 1317 in an attempt to negotiate a truce, Edward II was stubborn and peace looked a dim prospect.

In response to the papal intervention Robert the Bruce wrote two letters to the pope. Accompanying these letters was the Declaration of Arbroath, a document drawn up by Scottish barons, clergy, and other nobles, which formally set out Scotland's case for independence. It was drawn up at Arbroath Abbey (in what is now the local council of Angus) on 6 April, 1320, probably by the abbot, Bernard de Linton, chancellor of Scotland.

The declaration explains Scotland's struggle to become an independent state, and tries to persuade the pope of the legitimacy of Scotland's case. It also warns the pope that unless he accepts the Scottish argument the war will continue, and any deaths will be his responsibility.

To modern eyes the history is ludicrous, but what comes across even today is the sincerity of the men who wrote it: 'It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.'

May it please you to admonish and exhort the King of the English, who ought to be satisfied with what belongs to him... to leave us Scots in peace.

The declaration was sent to Pope John XXII in Avignon along with two letters from King Robert Bruce. It does not seem to have unduly influenced the pope, although it could have persuaded him to intervene between the two countries and prepare the way for the Treaty of Northampton in 1328, when the English finally relinquished their claim to Scotland.

A unique document

What makes the Declaration of Arbroath so different from anything which had gone before is that for the first time it sets the will and wishes of the people above the king. By doing so, it marks the first expression of the idea of a contractual monarchy, which became the prototype of contractual kingship in Europe.

It also must surely be counted as one of the most eloquent expressions of nationhood ever written, promoting the right of freedom for all men and man's right to defend this freedom to the death. It is interesting that it records an idea of Scottish nationalism which rises above the feudal obligations which had characterised the country less than a quarter of a century before.

It influenced the American Declaration of Independence (ratified on 4 July 1776), but was mostly forgotten in Scotland after the seventeenth century. It was only rediscovered popularly in the nineteenth century and is now used as a political tool by nationalists and is quoted by proud Scots everywhere.



Images and text copyright © The Scotsman. Reproduced with permission.