The Declaration of Arbroath is a declaration of Scottish independence, made in 1320. It is in the form of a letter in Latin submitted to Pope John XXII, dated 6 April 1320, intended to confirm Scotland's status as an independent, sovereign state and defending Scotland's right to use military action when unjustly attacked.
Generally believed to have been written in the Arbroath Abbey by Bernard of Kilwinning, then Chancellor of Scotland and Abbot of Arbroath, and sealed by fifty-one magnates and nobles, the letter is the sole survivor of three created at the time. The others were a letter from the King of Scots, Robert I, and a letter from four Scottish bishops which all presumably made similar points.
The Declaration was part of a broader diplomatic campaign which sought to assert Scotland's position as an independent kingdom, rather than being a feudal land controlled by England's Norman kings, as well as lift the excommunication of Robert the Bruce. The Pope had recognised Edward I of England's claim to overlordship of Scotland in 1305 and Bruce was excommunicated by the Pope for murdering John Comyn before the altar in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries in 1306.
The Declaration made a number of rhetorical points: that Scotland had always been independent, indeed for longer than England; that Edward I of England had unjustly attacked Scotland and perpetrated atrocities; that Robert the Bruce had delivered the Scottish nation from this peril; and, most controversially, that the independence of Scotland was the prerogative of the Scottish people, rather than the King of Scots. In fact it stated that the nobility would choose someone else to be king if Bruce proved to be unfit in maintaining Scotland's independence. Some have interpreted this last point as an early expression of 'popular sovereignty' â" that government is contractual and that kings can be chosen by the community rather than by God alone.
It has also been argued that the Declaration was not a statement of popular sovereignty (and that its signatories would have had no such concept) but a statement of royal propaganda supporting Bruce's faction. A justification had to be given for the rejection of King John in whose name William Wallace and Andrew de Moray had rebelled in 1297. The reason given in the Declaration is that Bruce was able to defend Scotland from English aggression whereas, by implication, King John could not.
To this man, in as much as he saved our people, and for upholding our freedom, we are bound by right as much as by his merits, and choose to follow him in all that he does.
Whatever the true motive, the idea of a contract between King and people was advanced to the Pope as an excuse for Bruce's coronation whilst John de Balliol still lived in Papal custody.
There are 39 names (eight earls and thirty one barons) at the start of the document, all of whom may have had their seals appended, probably over the space of some weeks and months, with nobles sending in their seals to be used. (On the extant copy of the Declaration there are only 19 seals, and of those 19 people only 12 are named within the document.) It is thought likely that at least 11 more seals than the original 39 might have been appended.) The Declaration was then taken to the papal court at Avignon by Bishop Kininmund, Sir Adam Gordon and Sir Odard de Maubuisson.
The Pope heeded the arguments contained in the Declaration, influenced by the offer of support from the Scots for his long-desired crusade if they no longer had to fear English invasion. He exhorted Edward II in a letter to make peace with the Scots, but the following year was again persuaded by the English to take their side and issued six bulls to that effect. It was only in October 1328, after a short-lived peace treaty between Scotland and England, the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton (which renounced all English claims to Scotland and was signed by the new English king, Edward III, on 1 March 1328), that the interdict on Scotland and the excommunication of its king were finally removed.
The original copy of the Declaration that was sent to Avignon is lost. A copy of the Declaration survives among Scotland's state papers, held by the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh. The most widely known English language translation was made by Sir James Fergusson, formerly Keeper of the Records of Scotland, from text that he reconstructed using this extant copy and early copies of the original draft. One passage in particular is often quoted from the Fergusson translation:
...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 â" for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.
- Declaration of independence
- Claim of Right for Scotland
- List of signatories of the Declaration of Arbroath
- Barons' Letter, 1301, refutation by English barons of Pope's claim to Scottish suzeraignty.
- Declaration of Arbroath on National Archives of Scotland website (includes full Latin text and English translation)