Written in 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath asked the Pope to recognise Scotland’s independence.
Declaration of arbroath
The Declaration of Arbroath, a letter from the barons of Scotland to the Pope, thought to be written by Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath Abbey and Chancellor of Scotland, was delivered to the papal court at Avignon, France.
Entrusted with the delivery were: Sir Adam Gordon a loyal follower of Robert the Bruce, Sir Odard de Maubisson, admiral of the French fleet and Alexander Kinnimonth a papal chaplain with experience of the curia.
The ruins of Arbroath Abbey, founded in 1178 by King William the Lion in memory of the murdered Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, are an incongruous sight in today’s urban setting.
The Abbey once home to the Tironensian monks from Kelso, offers visitors a glimpse into the pious world of medieval Scottish kings.
Its surviving stones, present a strong sense of medieval form and style and include one of the most complete abbot’s houses in the country, parts of the presbytery, monk’s choir, chapel aisles and an impressive west front described by Historic Environment Scotland (HES) as, “A captivating expression of European twin-towered church façade design.”
The abbey’s remaining elements, say the agency tasked with its preservation, combine to make “An outstandingly beautiful building”.
However, despite its obvious appeal, it is a document written almost seven centuries ago that Arbroath Abbey is best remembered for.
Penned on 6 April 1320, it began, “To the most Holy Father and Lord in Christ, the Lord John [Pope John XXII], by divine providence Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman and Universal Church, his humble and devout sons…”
Revive the Crusades
The Declaration, conceived and scribed in a time of bitter conflict, implored the Pope to persuade the King of England to be content with his own land and stop persecuting the Scots.
It argued that should this happen Christian princes would more readily come together to defend the Holy Land, indeed the King of Scotland would “Joyously go on crusade.” It was a skilful piece of writing designed to exploit the Pope’s desire to revive the Crusades.
The resolution to send this impassioned address to the Pope was made at a Great Council held by the king at Newbattle Abbey near Edinburgh only weeks before the document was sent from Arbroath.
Why the document was written and sent from Arbroath when presumably all the details were agreed at Newbattle is today still a matter of some discussion among scholars.
The Declaration of Arbroath was eloquently composed
In the 14th century the formal language of the government, the law and the church was Latin. Consequently, according to distinguished writer and historian Caroline Bingham, the Declaration of Arbroath was eloquently, “Composed in the rhythmic Latin employed by the papal curia for bulls and other papal letters.”
However perhaps the best-known passage, “Yet if he [Robert Bruce] should give up what he has begun, and agree to make us or our kingdom subject to the King of England or the English, we should exert ourselves at once to drive him out as our enemy and subverter of his own rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule…”
At least three copies of the Declaration of Arbroath were made in 1320.
The one sent to the pope was lost, the second, a draft, was also lost but the text survives in a transcript made by Walter Bower in the 1440s for his Scotichronicon (a work started by earlier historian John of Fordun) the most elaborate medieval work of Scottish history to survive.
The third described as a file copy is now in the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Christian armies in the Holy Land
The text has been pored over, analysed and debated by scholars and other students of the period.
The document is celebrated by most as a powerful expression of independent nationhood.
Others argue that it seeks to explain to the pope the Scot’s conflict with their southern neighbours when Christian armies were expected to be in the Holy Land supporting the Crusader cause.
Scotland’s Wars of Independence
To set the Letter of Arbroath in some sort of context is important.
Yes, it was a plea to the Pope but it was also one of the very few surviving primary documents that reflect a rare burst of self-belief in the country during a time of violent upheaval that became known as the Scottish Wars of Independence.
The death of King Alexander III in 1286, is often seen as the starting point of this bitter period in Scotland’s history. The king’s untimely demise brought to an end a relatively stable period in Anglo-Scottish relations, creating, in the process, a dangerous air of uncertainty.
In the ensuing dynastic crisis, the vacuum was filled by a group of nobles and bishops collectively known as the Guardians of Scotland elected at a ‘parliament’ following the king’s death.
With no male heirs, the Guardians turned to Alexander’s granddaughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, an infant at the Norwegian court, as the rightful successor to the Scottish throne.
According to the strict conditions specified in the Treaty of Birgham (1290), which set out a vision of an Anglo-Scottish dynastic union, arrangements were made for Margaret’s betrothal to Prince Edward of Caernarvon, son of King Edward I of England.
However, Margaret’s death en route from Norway to Scotland brought an end to the proceedings.
As there were no direct legitimate survivors from the previous three generations of Scottish kings there was now a real danger of civil war in the country.
In a period known as the Great Cause (1291-2) Scotland’s Guardians turned to Edward to investigate each of the 13 claimants who sought the Scottish throne.
Only three had a serious claim, all descendants of the daughters of David the Earl of Huntingdon, himself a descendant of King David I of Scotland.
Edward however was not content to be a mere ‘kingmaker’ he wanted more, demanding suzerainty over the country, forcing each claimant to accept this condition.
Finally, John Balliol was chosen and crowned King of Scots in 1292 after duly swearing loyalty to King Edward.
Edward’s constant interference in Scotland’s affairs undermined Balliol’s authority. He encouraged Scottish appeals to English courts and demanded that Scotland take up arms, on his behalf, against the French.
Ditchburn and Macdonald Medieval Scotland 1100-1560, argued that “This was not a mere gesture of political submission, but an unwelcome imposition on the higher nobility of Scotland.”
Despite Balliol’s oath of loyalty to Edward it was politically unsustainable for a king of Scotland to impose on his subjects foreign service at the command of another monarch.
Ditchburn and Macdonald also remind us that even if making war on the French was politically possible, it was economic suicide, for the French monarch Philip IV controlled Flanders the main source, through the sale of wool, of foreign revenue for Scotland.
Such a position left Balliol with little choice; he had to stand up to the English.
To this end, he formed a closer alliance with the French, negotiated in Paris in October 1295.
For both Scotland and France, it was a matter of political expediency, a union against a common enemy.
The treaty with France had little initial impact in Scotland although over the decades to come the relationship between countries became stronger.
While this Franco-Scottish bonding was welcomed by many in Scotland it enraged Edward who despite his fighting in France and trouble in Wales took immediate steps to make war with the Scots.
Defeat at Dunbar in 1296
By the spring of 1296, Berwick the main Scottish port and leading wool centre was taken.
Defeat at Dunbar followed but that was only the beginning of Edward’s march through great swathes of Scotland which saw the castles and their garrisons at Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Stirling overwhelmed.
In the words of a contemporary scribe, “He [Edward] conquered the Kingdom of Scotland and searched it through in twenty-one weeks.”
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At Brechin Castle, John Balliol was stripped of his royal vestments and forced to abdicate before being taken, along with his closest advisers, to the Tower of London.”
Edward’s reaction was characteristically blunt, “A man does good business when he rids himself of a turd.”
With Balliol went the kings’ regalia, the official Scottish records, the Black Rood of St Margaret and the Stone of Destiny, taken from Scone Abbey.
Content, Edward returned home leaving Scotland to be governed by the Earl of Warenne and a team of English administrators, with an exchequer, based on the Westminster model, established in Berwick.
Scotland was now no longer an independent kingdom but a land subject to the English crown.
England’s war with France
By 1297 Edward’s war with France was going badly, ongoing problems in Wales and the stirrings of resistance in Scotland added to his troubles.
Sources at the English court acknowledged that there were “Conspiracies in many parts of the land.”
Although Alexander’s death a decade earlier sowed the seeds of unrest, the events of 1296 began a tumultuous period in Scotland.
While the Wars of Independence were protracted and bitter, two particular events, William Wallace’s defeat of an English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297 and Robert the Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn in 1314 stand out.
They were examples of moments when Scottish self-confidence rose and people believed that there might be a better future.
Documents written, after these two famous victories, offer valuable evidence of a determination to succeed.
They sit comfortably alongside the Letter of Arbroath as primary examples of heightened national self-confidence during a time of protracted conflict.
After Stirling Bridge, William Wallace and Andrew Murray (Moray), both Guardians of Scotland, wrote what became known as the Lubeck Letter named after the German town of that name and sent it to the mayors of Lubeck and Hamburg.
It is the only remaining document to bear Wallace’s seal.
The letter began, “Andrew Murray and William Wallace leaders of the army of the kingdom of Scotland and the community, to their worthy and beloved friends, the mayors and citizens of Lubeck and Hamburg, greeting…”
The Lubeck Letter is in essence a notice to Scotland’s trading partners that following Stirling Bridge, Scotland was open for business.
It announced to the merchants of Lubeck that, “The Kingdom of Scotland, thanks be to God, has been recovered by war from the power of the English…”
William Wallace’s authority stemmed from military success
Of course, so many years later it’s difficult to measure, in terms of increased trade, the impact of the letter. However, to consider the document from a Scottish political perspective quite clearly shows a restoration of national self-confidence.
We are reminded by Dr Alan Borthwick of the National Archives of Scotland that, “Wallace’s authority stemmed from military success. Defeat could (and would) end it.”
Joining the debate over the letter’s significance, the ebullient Professor Ted Cowan of the University of Glasgow reminded us that the document is the only surviving object that Wallace actually touched.
Cowan also remarks on the seal which shows a bow and arrow, its inscription points to Wallace’s place of birth as Ellerslie near Kilmarnock rather than the previously thought Elderslie in Renfrewshire.
During World War Two, Lubeck was heavily bombed by Allied aircraft and Wallace’s letter along with other important medieval documents were deposited in a deep mine for safekeeping only to be removed by the advancing Russian army.
It wasn’t until 1990 that the letter, found in a Soviet archive was returned to its German home.
In 1318, four years after Bannockburn the Ayr Manuscript, which took its name from the Scottish town of Ayr, documented the proceedings at a fledging parliament held by Robert I in Scone.
The parliament, despite the continuing hostilities, looked ahead, discussing trade and other economic matters, law and justice, recognising the rights of all sections of society – “The Lord King wishes and orders that common law and common justice be done as well to poor people as to rich people according to the old laws and liberties justly used before these times.”
The important subject of succession to the throne and matters of war were discussed too.
Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton
The signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328 saw the English finally recognize the independence of Scotland and King Robert as the legitimate king. To cement the agreement and intended as a “harbinger of peace” David the four-year-old son of Bruce was married to Joan Plantagenet the six-year-old daughter of Edward II.
However, despite the agreement, the Anglo-Scottish war continued with much of the 14th century punctuated with bitter fighting. The Letter of Arbroath, Lubeck Letter and the Ayr Manuscript, by this time, were mere snapshots of brief periods of rising national self-confidence, fleeting shafts of light in the dark days of cross-border conflict.
Today while the Lubeck Letter and the Ayr Manuscript have been largely forgotten, that letter originally scribed in a remote Scottish abbey has become a hugely significant document in both Scotland and the United States.
U.S. Senate resolution
In 1998 the U.S. Senate passed a resolution designating every 6 April, the date the Declaration of Arbroath was signed, as Tartan Day.
A Senate spokesperson said, “The Declaration of Arbroath, the Scottish Declaration of Independence was signed on 6 April 1320 and the American Declaration of Independence was modelled on that inspirational document.”
Historic Environment Scotland – Arbroath Abbey Visitor Information
For information on opening hours, cost of entry and other tips to help you plan your visit, go to the Abbey website.