The 6th April 2020 is the 700th anniversary of the date of the Declaration of Arbroath. It was seeking to persuade the Pope to recognise Scotland as a separate Kingdom in itself, rather than a feudal land controlled by King Edward II of England; to recognise Robert the Bruce as the rightful King; and to tell Edward II to leave Scotland alone.
In this article, we examine it from a British Unionist perspective.
WHAT WAS IT?
It was a document dated 6 April 1320, upon which 8 Earls, 31 named nobles, and a further 11 nobles (who were not named at the top of the Declaration), added their seal; and which was delivered to Pope John XXII in Avignon (now in France), from Arbroath Abbey.
The Declaration was part of an on-going diplomatic campaign involving several communications by letter and personal audiences with the Pope, in order to try to persuade him of the following:
WHAT DID THEY WANT
1. The Pope to recognise Scotland as a separate Kingdom in itself, rather than a feudal land controlled by King Edward II of England.
The word "kingdom" – referring to Scotland – is mentioned 4 times in the text. The word "independent" was not used, since that was not understood as a political concept in the way we understand it today. (1)
They made their separate Kingdom case by claiming a Scottish heritage descending from Scythia; of Scotland having 113 Kings of royal stock "the line unbroken a single foreigner"; that the Scots were "almost the first" to be called to Christianity; that the Scots were called by Saint Andrew himself who was, with his brother Peter, "the first of His Apostles"; and that God wanted Saint Andrew to look after the Scots.
They claimed all was "freedom and peace up to the time" when Edward I stuck his oar in.
2. The Pope to recognise Bruce as the rightful King.
It was God and Robert the Bruce who had helped "set free" Scotland from "these countless evils" inflicted by Edward I.
It was Bruce, who "that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabaeus or Joshua."
(Note the name "Maccabaeus" – as further explained below.)
3. The Pope to tell Edward to leave Scotland alone.
They asked the Pope to "admonish and exhort the King of the English" to "leave us Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland".
"May it please you to admonish and exhort the King of the English, who ought to be satisfied with what belongs to him since England used once to be enough for seven kings or more, to leave us Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland, beyond which there is no dwelling-place at all, and covet nothing but our own."
WHAT WOULD THE SCOTS GIVE IN RETURN?
Diplomatically, the Declaration was timed carefully because the Pope was trying to raise support for a Crusade and had approached the Scottish nobles. The Scottish angle was that we could only help out if he could get the English off our backs:
"But how cheerfully our lord the King and we too would go there if the King of the English would leave us in peace".
Furthermore, God would be disapproving of the Pope when inevitable turmoil ensued from his inaction:
"But if your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English tell and will not give sincere belief to all this, nor refrain from favouring them to our undoing, then the slaughter of bodies, the perdition of souls, and all the other misfortunes that will follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them, will, we believe, be surely laid by the Most High to your charge."
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TODAY?
The Declaration is one of the key documents in the evolution of the British Constitution.
It could be said to have helped introduce "democratic" ideas into these Islands, in the sense that the Monarch was said to rule via the approval of the people.
For example, referring to Bruce it stated:
"To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound 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. 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".
The Declaration wasn't the first in these Islands of that nature. The Magna Carta, in England, had said essentially the same thing to King John, 105 years earlier at Runnymede, in 1215.
By the way, as we've pointed out (on our Legacy Site), Magna Carta was a British, not just English, affair. Nobles attended that event from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and even France.
Unlike the Magna Carta, however, the Declaration of Arbroath has more of an "edge" to it because of all the "fighting words" which it uses.
Consequently, it sounds more revolutionary, and therefore appeals to a certain kind of person.
"THE BIT" THE NATIONALISTS LOVE...
"for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself."
If it wasn't for that bit, it is questionable whether the Scottish Nationalists would be particularly interested in this aspect of history. There is no question that paragraph helps to encourage a thinly-veiled Anglophobia today!
THE GENESIS OF "THE BIT"
Firstly, note above where Bruce is compared to "like another Maccabaeus".
Historian Geoffrey WS Barrow states that the author of the Declaration was inspired by the literature of the time:
"With notable confidence its author pillaged the account of the Catiline Conspiracy by the Roman historian Sallust and the books of holy scripture, especially the Maccabees, for apt quotations which might be rearranged and even reworded to meet not merely the technical requirements of the papal cursus (rhythmic prose) but also the message he wished to convey." (2)
Referring to the historian Sallust, Barrow states:
"Sallust makes an ally of Catiline say that, denied the laws of their ancestors, the conspirators fight neither for dominion nor wealth but for freedom, which no honest man gives up but with his life".
Well, that seems a pretty obvious case of plagiarism!
Barrow states that the "a hundred of us remain alive" line is based upon "Judas Maccabaeus' last battle" where there "remained but eight hundred men".
Our research suggests this must refer to 1 Maccabees, Chapter 9, Verse 6. This Book appeared in the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) and is one of the books left out of the Protestant Bible, but which is still accepted by Catholics.
This language, therefore, while blood-thirsty and somewhat alien to modern ears, would be intended to trigger well-known historical and religious associations in the mind of the Pope, in order to make him look favourably upon the content of the document.
LESSONS FOR US TODAY
The Declaration is an important document in Scotland's history, and plays a key role in Britain's constitutional history.
It also reminds us to be grateful that Scotland and England are no longer at war, and to be grateful to the Union for bringing us together.
Indeed, while some may use it to remember Scotland fighting against England 700 years ago, we remember Scotland and England fighting together within living memory!
For example, 75 years ago this 8th May 2020, is VE Day; Victory in Europe Day – the day in 1945 when the War in Europe ended, and Germany unconditionally surrendered.
The Declaration reminds us of how far we have come. We are reminded that it is the Union between Scotland and England which has moved us beyond physical conflict. It reminds us that the Union has ensured we can be Scottish and British together.
The days of Scotland and England fighting against each other must remain in the past.
Where there was war, there is now peace.
That is something for which to be grateful, and that's something for which we thank the Union.
Thank goodness the political Union of 1707, has created peace between Scotland and England and, as a consequence, much positive social and cultural interaction.
ICONIC BRUCE STATUE, SCULPTED BY ENGLISHMAN
And it is not just Scottish people having an impact on England and the rest of the British Isles. The process has also worked the other way.
For example, the famous statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn (pictured) – which also appears on the Clydesdale Bank £20 notes – was sculpted by the Englishman, Charles d'Orville Pilkington Jackson, from Cornwall.
During WW1, Pilkington Jackson served in the Ayrshire Field Artillery, in both Egypt and Palestine.
He was the "Supervising Sculptor" for the Scottish National War Memorial; within Edinburgh Castle between 1919 and 1927.
During WW2, at the age of 52, he again joined the Army, serving in Scotland as a Gun Operations Room Officer for coastal defence guns.
He created the statue of Robert the Bruce in 1964 at the age of 76.
He also created the attractive Royal Scots Fusiliers monument, outside the County Buildings in Wellington Square, Ayr, which was erected in 1960.
We make these points because we want to emphasise the extraordinary cultural interaction which has happened throughout the British Isles as a result of us being politically integrated. These are things which can only happen within a political Union.
Take away the political Union and all the shutters will come down over our land, shutting us out from each other. In some ways we can see it happening already, under the current regime.
THE ROYAL FAMILY, DESCENDANTS OF BRUCE
It is also the Regal Union of 1603 which has helped over time to create the bonds which have led to the peace.
For example, the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and his children are all descendants of Robert the Bruce. As such, they are a living example of how the British Royal Family is able to embody the history of all parts of our Islands, and thereby help reconcile conflict, in its person.
This Family Tree shows the line of descent from Robert the Bruce to Prince William. (3)
A "DECLARATION" WE PREFER!
The "bit" in the Declaration which some of the Scottish Nationalists love, belongs in the past – and in the past it must remain. We much prefer these modern words, as more fitting for our time today! (4)
In 1324, the Pope recognised Bruce as King.
In 1327, the English deposed Edward II in favour of his son. In 1328, Edward III renounced all claims to sovereignty over Scotland in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton.
1. Translation used is the National Records of Scotland translation at
2. Quotes from Geoffrey WS Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, (Edinburgh University Press, 1988) at pp. 306-307.
3. Picture from the inside back page of the book by Jean Goodman in collaboration with Sir Iain Moncreiffe of that Ilk, BT, Debrett's Royal Scotland, (Exeter and London: Webb and Bower, Debrett's Peerage Ltd., 1983).
4. We brought these thoughts together in our Facebook Live broadcast of 4 April 2020 which you can listen to as a Podcast here.
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