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Declaration of Arbroath

In the early 1300s, Scotland's independence was under threat from the schemes of Edward I of England. But they fought back under two national heroes, William Wallace and Robert Bruce, and produced this defiant and rousing statement of national liberty

Detail of Declaration of Arbroath, Scotichronicon, 1385

Declaration of Arbroath in the Scotichronicon, 1385
Royal 13 E. X, ff. 207v-208r
Copyright © The British Library Board

 

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What were the events leading up to the Declaration?

In 1290 Margaret, heir to the Scottish throne, died with no natural successor aged only seven. The Scots turned to Edward I of England to pick a leader, in the hope of avoiding civil war.

But his choice, John Balliol, rebelled in 1296. Edward marched into the heart of Scotland, defeated him, and seized the symbol of Scottish nationality, the Stone of Destiny, at Scone.

(Edward had it incorporated within the Coronation Throne in Westminster. It remained there until 1996, when to the delight of many Scots it was returned to Edinburgh Castle.)

How were William Wallace and Robert Bruce involved?

The Scots fought back against Edward, the most famous rebel being William Wallace. He trounced the English at Stirling in 1297 and was declared Guardian of Scotland. He was severely defeated the following year at Falkirk and stayed on the run until 1305, when he was captured, hanged, disembowelled, beheaded, and quartered.

Robert Bruce saw Wallace's death. He was of Norman ancestry and had sworn allegiance to Edward - but when he supported Wallace's revolt, Edward destroyed Robert's land.

They made their peace and Robert became one of the Regents of Scotland. However, in 1306, while Edward planned to take control of Scotland, Robert was wondering how to defeat him. He tried to collaborate with his nearest rival to the throne, John Comyn. But, unable to agree, Robert ended up killing Comyn during a heated argument.

Robert had to act quickly for fear of arrest. On impulse he had himself crowned king of Scotland. It was a high-risk tactic, knowing what had happened to Wallace.

Where did the spider come into it?

At first Robert's luck failed. He was defeated several times and sought refuge, a fact which was later embroidered into the famous story of Robert and the spider. According to the story, he was hiding in a cave in 1306 and watching the creature trying to build its web. Inspired by its persistence ("if at first you don't succeed, try, try again") Robert came back with renewed success. He was helped when Edward I died, and his son Edward II virtually abandoned Scotland; Robert took all but two of its castles.

In 1314 Edward II brought his army to Stirling and was defeated at Bannockburn, one of the Scots' greatest victories. The fighting was not over but eventually, in 1328, the Treaty of Northampton recognised Scottish Independence.

What was the Declaration for and what does it say?

In 1320 Robert sent an embassy to Rome bearing a 'Letter from the barons and freeholders, and the whole community of the kingdom of Scotland to Pope John XXII' , better known as the Declaration of Arbroath, asking the Pope to recognise Scottish sovereignty.

Originally in Latin, it is one of the most rousing documents ever written in support of a nation's freedom, arguably even more powerful than Magna Carta. It details the ancient history of the Scottish people and lists the oppressive activities of the English. At its heart is the following defiant, stirring and justly famous section.

. 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.

Who wrote it?

The Declaration of Arbroath's authorship is usually attributed to Bernard de Linton, the Chancellor of Scotland. But it was more likely composed by the up-and-coming canon of Dunkeld, Alexander de Kininmund, working for the Abbot of Arbroath.

What does this page show?

The original Declaration of Arbroath is a one-page document which bears the seals of eight earls and 45 barons, each on a thin strip of paper hanging from the bottom of the document. The text shown here however is a copy of the Declaration, made about 65 years later. It appears in a history of Scotland called the Scotichronicon, started in about 1385 by John of Fordun, an Aberdeen priest. Walter Bower or Bowmaker, abbot of Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth, continued Fordun's unfinished work around 1445. This copy of the text is known as the Black Book of Paisley because it was written at Paisley, to the west of Glasgow.

Did the Declaration work?

Yes. The Pope thought things over for eight years, but in 1328 he finally recognised Robert as King of Scotland. The nation remained independent for another 379 years, until the Act of Union. However, it continued to have legal independence, even during the years it was ruled from Westminster (from 1707 to 1999, when the new Scottish parliament had its first session). Some see the Declaration as fundamental in establishing that independence; others see it as less pivotal.

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