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.
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 that 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 that rises above the feudal obligations that 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