Scotland's History Articles In Depth: The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320

In Depth: The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320

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"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." Extract from the Declaration of Arbroath, 1320.

The Declaration of Arbroath is without doubt the most famous document in Scottish history. Like the American Declaration of Independence, which is partially based on it, it is seen by many as the founding document of the Scottish nation. It was drafted on the 6th April 1320 - a day the United States of America has declared to be Tartan Day.

The Declaration is a Latin letter which was sent to Pope John XXII in April/May 1320. It was most likely drafted in the scriptorium of Arbroath Abbey by Abbot Bernard on behalf of the nobles and barons of Scotland. It was one of three letters sent to the Pope in Avignon, the other two being from King Robert Bruce himself and from four Scottish bishops, attempting to abate papal hostility. The document received the seals of several Scottish barons and it then was taken to the papal court at Avignon in France by Sir Adam Gordon.

There is considerable debate over the Declaration's significance. For some it is simply a diplomatic document; while others see it as a radical movement in western constitutional thought.

It could be viewed as a cunning diplomatic ploy by the Scottish barons to explain and justify why they were still fighting their neighbours when all Christian princes were supposed to be united in crusade against the Muslims. All this, just at the point when they were about to retake Berwick: Scotland's most prosperous medieval town. As an explanation, it failed to convince the pope to lift his sentence of excommunication on Scotland.

Others analyse what the Declaration of Arbroath actually says. The Scots clergy had produced not only one of the most eloquent expressions of nationhood, but the first expression of the idea of a contractual monarchy.

"Yet if he (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 a 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. 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." Extract from the Declaration of Arbroath.

The threat to drive Bruce out if he ever sold Scotland to English rule was a fantastic bluff. There was nobody else to take his place. The point is that the nobles and clergy are not basing their argument to the pope on the traditional notion of the Divine Rights of Kings. Bruce is King first and foremost because the nation chose him, not God, and the nation would just as easily choose another if they were betrayed by the King. The explanation also neatly covers the fact that Bruce had usurped John Balliol's rightful kingship in the first place.

In spite of all possible motivations for its creation, the Declaration of Arbroath, under the extraordinary circumstances of the Wars of Independence, was a prototype of contractual kingship in Europe.

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