The 1320 Scottish Declaration of Independence

“For we fight not for glory nor riches nor honours, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.” The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 

In the fourteenth century, Scotland produced one of the most inspired political documents in medieval history. The fact that the Declaration of Arbroath was created during a historical period of darkness makes it all the more remarkable.  

Addressed to Pope John XXII, the Declaration of Arbroath was a letter signed by over thirty nobles, barons and freeholders on behalf of the community of the realm of Scotland (Cowan 2008: 3). Written on the 6th of April, 1320, this date is now recognized as Tartan Day in various countries around the world (Cowan 2008: 5). The Declaration of Arbroath emphasized Scotland’s independence, the nobilities support for Robert the Bruce to be the King of Scotland and called on the Pope to help halt the attempted domination of Scotland by Edward II, King of England.  

In part, the Declaration of Arbroath was sent as a response to the Pope’s decision to excommunicate Robert the Bruce – who had been crowned King of Scotland in 1306 – after Scotland disobeyed papal efforts to try and agree a peace treaty with England. 

Originally written in Latin, the Declaration of Arbroath was produced during the First Scottish War of Independence, which had started with the English invasion of Scotland in 1296 and ended in 1328 with the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton – a treaty where the independence of the Kingdom of Scotland was recognised, yet this was reneged upon in 1332 (Cornell 1986: 171).

This remarkable document is thought to have been written in Arbroath Abbey by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath, an administrator and bishop (Philip 1947: 76). One inspiration for the writing style and language used in the document was a book written by the Roman historian and politician, Sallust, called The Conspiracy of Catiline (Philip 1947: 75).

One of the most revolutionary aspects of the Declaration of Arbroath pertained to the perspective of the Scottish nobility towards Robert the Bruce. Even though they endorsed the legendary Scottish figure as the rightful King on one hand, they did so with a caveat that can be considered truly revolutionary in an age of the divine right of Kings. The writers state that they are “bound” to Robert the Bruce “both by his right and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.”

However, the writers add an inspired caveat:

“Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking 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 a subverter of his own right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King.”

It truly cannot be underestimated how politically enlightened this clarification was, given the dismal lack of individual rights and political freedoms in the fourteenth century. The pronouncement that the community of the realm of Scotland were willing to support their King only if he served their interests was centuries ahead of its time, as Kings were akin to gods in most other regions of the world. Daring to even whisper what the writers pronounced in practically any other region of the world seven hundred years ago would have been met with persecution and the sword; yet for the writers of the Declaration of Arbroath, absolute freedom was far more valued than absolute monarchy. In other words, liberty was King.

Sources:

BBC NEWS – Robert the Bruce (1274 – 1329) –http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/bruce_robert_the.shtml

Cornell, J. (1986) “Dark and Drublie Days”: The Black Death and the Growth of Scottish Nationalism (c. 1300-1500). Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, 6, 166-182.

Cowan, E. (2008) For Freedom Alone: The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 (Edinburgh: Birlinn).

Philip, J. (1947) Sallust and the Declaration of Arbroath. The Scottish Historical Review, 26:101, 75-78.

The Declaration of Arbroath (1320), National Records of Scotland – https://www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/learning/features/the-declaration-of-arbroath

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