The ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’ was sealed by Robert the Bruce and the Earls and Barons of Scotland on the 6th of April, 1320.
After defeating Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn, the people in Scotland might have hoped for some peace and quiet. They surely deserved it. Robert the Bruce, on the other hand, believed the best form of defence was offence, and he made sure the English were kept under pressure. He made frequent raids and invasions, down into the heart of England as far as Yorkshire, on occasion. Along with his brother, he also invaded Ireland, albeit Edward Bruce commanded most of that campaign. In such manner, under the leadership of the Bruces, Thomas Randolph and James Douglas, the First Scottish War of Independence continued. In fact, it continued up until the time of Bruce’s death, when the Second Scottish War of Independence began. Nope, there wasn’t much peace and quiet in those days. The only respite folks got was when they were laid to rest, if they were lucky enough to have that privilege.
Apart from the fighting, much like happens today, there was also a propaganda war. However, things moved a bit more slowly in the 14th Century as there was no Internet and letters often took weeks, if not months, to deliver. From 1308, when Bruce was crowned in Scone, several letters were written to the Pope. One very important letter is commonly referred to as ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’, however, it is more accurate to refer to that famous document as a ‘Letter from the Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII’. The letter was written in Latin, the language of the European Church, and is dated the 6th of April, 1320. It was most probably inscribed by skilled clerics in the scriptorium of the Abbey of Arbroath as with many official documents, but without a doubt, under the direction of the Abbot of Arbroath. That tonsured cleric, Bernard de Linton, was also the Chancellor of Scotland and the head of the Bruce’s administration.
The Scots were at a disadvantage in relation to the influential power of the Pope, who was more interested in Edward II supporting yet another Crusade to the Holy Land. Any sign of concession or compliance from the English and the Pope was likely to side with them; never mind the rights and wrongs of any dispute. The notion of Papal infallibility had its advantages – for the Pope, that is. And that notion helped folks to conveniently ignore the fact that the Papacy’s spiritual integrity was already compromised at the time, due to the seat of the Pope having been moved from Rome to Avignon. A further complication arose because Pope John XXII had already excommunicated Robert the Bruce, in 1308. That followed, not unreasonably, Bruce’s murder of The Red Comyn, a rival to the throne, on the altar steps of a Franciscan priory in Dumfries, in 1306. In addition, prompted by the English King, the Pope had also excommunicated all the people of Scotland. “This of excommunication,” as Nigel Tranter might have written, was taken very seriously in 1320 – it was a bad thing for 14th Century Scotland and its people.
The Scottish Barons’ letter had several motives or objectives. It was intended to abate papal hostility i.e., get the Pope off their backs. It tried to explain and justify why they were still fighting England, when all Christian Princes were supposed to be united in crusade against the Muslims. A primary goal was to persuade the Pope to lift the sentence of excommunication, not only on the Bruce, but on the population as a whole. It also sought to have the Pope pronounce that Scotland was a nation in its own right, wholly independent from England. It demanded that everyone recognise the Scots as an independent and united people. And finally, its other primary purpose was to have the world universally accept that Robert the Bruce was rightfully King of the Scots. The letter was sealed by eight Earls and thirty-eight of the Barons of Scotland. Intriguingly, it sets out a long, contrived history of Scotland as an independent state and cleverly tries to persuade the Pope of the legitimacy of the ancient nation’s case.
The ‘united’ part was a bit of a stretch, considering the divisions and squabbling for the right to the throne at the time of the Interregnum and the intervention of Edward I. Nevertheless, the Declaration was ahead of its time as it sets out that the King (previously regarded [by Normans anyway] as appointed by God) could be driven out if he did not uphold the freedom of the country. In addition, the Scots clergy had produced, not only one of the most eloquent expressions of nationhood, but a prototype of contractual kingship in Europe. It later became a model for the American Declaration of Independence, probably because of its famous passage about fighting for ‘liberty alone’.
A favourite passage is the ingenious section that sets out Scotland’s ancient origins and heritage. It includes: “…we know …the Scots …journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain …Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the coming of the Israelites out of Egypt, to their home in the west ...having expelled the Britons and entirely rooted out the Picts, …(repulsed) frequent assaults and invasions …from the Norwegians, Danes, and English …free from all manner of servitude and subjection ...governed by an uninterrupted succession of 113 kings, all of our own native and royal stock, without the intervening of any stranger.” Top that! Of course, there’s a lot you could easily challenge there, particularly, the seeming denial of Bruce’s Norman descent, but it is of its time and shouldn’t be given a 21st Century interpretation.
The Barons’ letter was carried to the papal court at Avignon in France by Sir Adam Gordon. Now known as the Declaration of Arbroath, the letter is undoubtedly a national treasure – arguably Scotland’s most famous historical record – and is cared for by the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) in Edinburgh. A contemporary copy is held in Register House, Edinburgh. As an explanation, it failed to convince Pope John XXII to immediately lift his sentence of excommunication on Scotland. However, the Pope did so eventually and, in May of 1328, King Edward III signed the Treaty of Edinburgh (aka the Treaty of Northampton), which finally recognised Scotland as an independent kingdom, and the Bruce as its King.