Declaration of Arbroath, Great British Constitutional Document

Declaration of Arbroath statue courtesy of Wikipedia

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.


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:


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."


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."


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.


"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!


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".