Scotland’s cry for liberty: the Declaration of Arbroath

The Declaration of Arbroath – sealed 700 years ago – is hailed as a historic cry for Scottish self-determination in the face of English “barbarities”. Michael Brown explores its origins in Robert Bruce’s battles with Edward II and a hostile pope

Bernard, abbot of Arbroath, and Robert Bruce hold up the Declaration of Arbroath on a monument in the town. (Image by Getty Images)

“For so long as 100 of us remain alive, we will never give consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honours that we fight and contend for, but freedom alone, which no honest man will lose except with his life.”

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These words were written 700 years ago in April 1320, but they speak a language of liberty that resonates today. They represent the climax of a letter best-known as the Declaration of Arbroath. It was written on behalf of the barons and community of Scotland to Pope John XXII during the long conflict to secure the sovereignty and rights of their kingdom, known as the Scottish Wars of Independence. Six years after his triumph at Bannockburn, the letter supported the efforts of the Scottish king, Robert Bruce, to secure recognition in his ongoing fight with the English crown, now represented by Edward II.

In just over a thousand words the declaration articulated Scotland’s cause, its ancient pedigree as a European nation and a Christian land, and its endurance through “innumerable oppressions” and “barbarities” inflicted by English king Edward I (father of Edward II). It insisted the Scots were not simply fighting as subjects of a monarch. Although the declaration held up King Robert as the leader who had delivered his people “from the enemy’s hand”, it asserted that, should he “consent that we be subjected to the king or people of England, we will… expel him as our enemy… and make another king who will defend our liberties”. In these terms, Scotland’s struggle was for “freedom alone”, and would be upheld even in the teeth of their own ruler.

The power of these words and the ideas behind them underpin the modern fascination with the Declaration of Arbroath. Comparisons have been made between the declaration and Magna Carta, produced in England a century earlier in the struggle between King John and his English subjects. Both texts were written during conflicts in which the freedoms and status of communities were threatened by tyrannical rulers, internal or external. Both asserted the rights of subjects to resist misrule, and even to restrain or overthrow kings who failed to sustain their liberties. However, the declaration was very different from Magna Carta. It was not a detailed statement of legal rights but a piece of rhetoric. Rather than compelling the king to accept a series of specific limitations on his authority, the declaration was designed to persuade an external figure, the pope, of the justice of the Scottish cause.

The Declaration of Arbroath
The Declaration of Arbroath, sealed by dozens of earls and boards, was sent to Pope John XXII to moderate his hostility as the Scots attempted to resist English aggression. (Crown copyright. National Records of Scotland, SP13/7)

Moreover, while Magna Carta, in a curtailed form, rapidly became regarded as a touchstone of good law in English politics, the Declaration of Arbroath had no parallel significance for later generations of Scots. A contemporary copy was preserved but the declaration was primarily known from its inclusion, along with other diplomatic material from the struggle with England, in late medieval Scottish chronicles. It was only in 1680, 360 years after its composition, that the declaration was lifted from these and printed, bringing it to wider notice. Its language and ideas excited theorists and pamphleteers looking for historical evidence for ancient constitutions. The declaration was employed to justify the deposition of James VII of Scotland (II of England) in 1688–89, and during the next century was absorbed into arguments about Britain’s liberties and constitution evolving from a tradition of resistance to tyrannical monarchs.

A symbol of Scottish identity

Yet with its rejection of English rule, the dec laration never sat comfortably within this British framework. As movements to secure home rule or independence for Scotland developed in the 20th century, it became increasingly identified as a text which proclaimed the country’s right to self-determination. The name given to the text reflected this. Often described as a “letter” or “manifesto” before 1900, from the 1920s the titles “Declaration of Arbroath” or even “the Scottish Declaration of Independence” were preferred, reflecting its importance to contemporary politics. By the 1960s, when thoughts were turning to the 650th anniversary, the declaration was seen as a potent and widely recognised symbol of Scotland’s historical independence.

Questions over the commemoration of the anniversary were a political hot potato. Officials advised that “in view of the great effort nationalists will put forth to make the celebrations a rallying point, we should seek perhaps to make our offerings seem adequate, but not excessive”. The issuing of a commemorative stamp, which represented the main official response to the occasion, seems to have avoided accusations of excess.

Even in the 50 years since 1970, the significance of the declaration has shifted. Although Scottish politics has moved onto more contemporary ground, the Declaration of Arbroath has retained its importance in popular consciousness as a symbol of Scottish identity and as a statement of popular rights. The 6th April, the date of the declaration, was adopted as Tartan Day by the US Senate in 1998 as a means of celebrating Scotland’s contribution to North America. Furthermore, in 2016 the Declaration of Arbroath was added to the Unesco Memory of the World register, which cited the “universal value” of the text.

As a medieval document able to inspire modern readers, the Declaration of Arbroath is remarkable. It was not, however, a declaration of independence. It was not a unique, standalone statement of the rights of the Scottish people. What it was was a skilfully composed and targeted diplomatic weapon, created for a specific goal in very specific circumstances. To understand the text is to understand these circumstances.

An embattled king

In the spring of 1320, Robert Bruce had been King of Scots for 14 years. He had spent all of this period fighting to secure his royal title against numerous enemies. These enemies were led by the kings of England, whose efforts to bring Scotland into their realm had AL started the wars 25 years before. However, they also included many Scottish lords who saw Robert as a traitor and criminal (see box, right). In late June 1314, Bruce had won his great victory at Bannockburn. His army had out-thought and out-fought the host of King Edward II of England. The victory won Robert control of Scotland and was taken by many as proof of God’s support for his claim to be king. Bannockburn did not, however, win the war. Edward II would not recognise Robert Bruce as King of Scots. To force his hand, Robert’s armies invaded northern England and Edward’s Irish lordship. Despite successes, Robert was no nearer compelling the English to make peace, and in October 1318 the Scottish army in Ireland was wiped out at Faughart near Dundalk.

It was not a declaration of independence. It was, however, a skilfully composed and targeted diplomatic weapon

In this disaster Robert’s last surviving brother, Edward Bruce, king of Ireland, was killed. Edward was the designated heir to Scotland. His death meant the next in line was Robert’s infant grandson, Robert Stewart. The shakiness of the dynasty and the continuation of the gruelling war left King Robert still insecure and embattled nearly six years after Bannockburn. His vulnerability was heightened by the growing hostility of the papacy. Though Scottish churchmen had been powerful advocates for Scotland’s sovereignty, and previous popes had criticised English actions, Bruce’s relations with the papacy were tense, and from 1317 Robert faced the increasing antagonism of Pope John XXII.

The pope’s goal was to end the wars between Christian rulers and to unite them in a common cause to recover the Holy Land, which had been lost three decades earlier. To achieve this, John sent cardinals to proclaim a truce between England and Scotland. While Edward II accepted it, Robert did not.

As the papal letters did not address him as king, Robert refused to open them. Intent on the capture of Berwick on the English border, he would not let the English off the hook, and on 1 April 1318 his men took the town by stealth. Bruce’s commander, the grimly humorous James Douglas, joked that he entered Berwick as happily as if he had entered paradise. Two months later, his chances of paradise diminished when Douglas and his master were excommunicated by Pope John. John severed the links between the king and other Christians, and also suspended the duties of the clergy in Scotland through an interdict. These moves were a threat to a ruler who, despite his military successes, could not be certain of the loyalty of his subjects.

Small country, big ideas

The need to moderate the pope’s hostility prompted a concerted response. Having finally agreed a truce with England, in spring 1320 Robert dispatched a mission to the papal court. His emissaries carried letters probably from the king and clergy, and one from the barons and community of the realm. This last letter was the Declaration of Arbroath. (Although the letter cited Arbroath as the place from which it was issued, it had probably been crafted elsewhere in the royal chancery.)

It was a text with a very specific purpose. It laid out the justice of the Scottish cause to a hostile audience. It also demonstrated that it was not Robert’s individual ambition that lay behind the struggle but the will of the Scottish people, who would continue to fight for their liberties even if Robert abandoned them. This goal underpinned the passage that captured the attention of modern readers, but it was not the culmination of the letter.

This was no defensive or apologetic text. Having stated their cause, the letter’s authors questioned the pope’s position

Despite its aims, this was no defensive or apologetic text. Having proclaimed their own cause, the authors proceeded to question the pope’s position. Why did he chastise the Scots for their defence of their liberties rather than “admonish and exhort the king of England who ought to be satisfied with what he has and leave us in peace”? If Pope John’s stubborn attitude to Scotland persisted it would leave Christendom exposed to daily attacks and “tarnish the memory of your holiness”.

Did the declaration achieve its goal? There was no reversal of papal policy, but the sentences on Bruce and his kingdom were suspended and Robert’s royal title was employed in papal correspondence.

As a diplomatic device written by Bernard, abbot of Arbroath, and a group of clerks in the king’s chancery – and drawing on classical texts and historical precedents – the declaration can seem mundane. However, this context should not diminish the letter. Produced at a moment of real crisis, it contains a daring argument being articulated via powerful language.

Both the argument and language speak beyond the events of 1320. Even if it was not meant as a template for popular sovereignty when it was written, it did express the idea that the cause was not simply about the claims and ambitions of rival rulers. The authors saw the struggle as something bigger and more universal. Though they spoke in the declaration of the threat to “poor little Scotland”, they were confident that, from a small country, big ideas could emerge.

Michael Brown is professor of Scottish history at the University of St Andrews. He is the author of The Wars of Scotland, 1214–1371 (Edinburgh, 2004)

Listen to the episode of BBC Radio 4’s Making History that covered the Declaration of Arbroath.

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This article was first published in the April 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine