For freedom alone…

“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.”

Declaration of Arbroath, April 6, 1320

These are the most famous lines from one of Scotland’s best-known historical documents, The Declaration of Arbroath.

Written 700 years ago and dated April 6, 1320, the Declaration of Arbroath was one of three letters sent to Pope John XXII in Avignon as part of diplomatic correspondence during the Scottish Wars of Independence. Coming after King Robert the Bruce’s victory against Edward II of England at Bannockburn, the letter was part of King Robert’s efforts to gain recognition from the Pope of his right to rule and of Scotland’s independence. After 1314, King Robert was widely recognised internationally as Scotland’s lawful ruler, but not by England or the papacy.

Image credit: Scottish Government on Visualhunt CC BY-NC

The Declaration is the only one of the three letters to survive. The document carried the seals of eight earls and some 40 barons but was instigated by the king. Its author is unknown but it may have been written under the supervision of the king’s chancellor Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath. While its historical importance has been much debated, the ideas it conveys of the sovereignty of the people and an enduring commitment to the nation’s self-determination have captured modern imaginations.

“But… we have been set free… by our most tireless prince, king and lord, the lord Robert. He, that… divine providence… and the due consent and assent of us all have made our prince and king.”

“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; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English.”

Declaration of Arbroath, April 6, 1320

The letter is the first known expression by a national government in Europe of the idea that a monarch, who fails to keep his (or her) end of the constitutional bargain, could be replaced by the people. This idea of a contract between monarch and people seems surprising at a time when most believed in the ‘divine right of kings’, but there was already something of a precedent in Scotland. King Robert’s predecessor, King John (Balliol) was relieved of governmental responsibility by his subjects in 1295 because of his failure to stand up to Edward I of England. A council of bishops, earls and barons was appointed to manage the nation’s affairs instead.

However, the manner in which Robert Bruce came to the throne was a barrier to his acceptance by the papacy despite his military successes and the support he gained among the ‘community of the realm’ of Scotland.  

After being stripped of the right to rule by his subjects, John Balliol remained king. Even after Edward I forced his abdication and imprisoned him, and he was later exiled in France, many considered John’s restoration a realistic prospect. When Robert Bruce had himself crowned in 1306, following his murder of John Comyn, a rival claimant to the throne, he was therefore widely regarded as a usurper because King John was still alive. John died in 1314, a few months after the Battle of Bannockburn. But the Pope still failed to recognise Robert Bruce as King of Scots. From the Pope’s perspective, Robert Bruce was a murderer and usurper. He had also refused to meet papal representatives, receive papal letters and had broken a papal truce by taking Berwick. At the same time, England’s diplomats had enjoyed some success in persuading the Pope to take their part in the continuing conflict with Scotland.

This statue commemorating the Declaration sits near the entrance to the town of Arbroath. Holding the letter to the Pope are King Robert I (right) and his chancellor Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath.
I am grateful to photographer and blogger Jez Braithwaite for permission to use his photograph of the statue. You can see more on his blog here.

What the Pope really wanted was for Christian kingdoms to stop fighting each other and prosecute a crusade in the Holy Land instead. But his attempts to bring King Robert into line had failed. By the time the Declaration of Arbroath was written, Pope John XXII had excommunicated the king, absolved his subjects of their allegiance to him, summoned the bishops of St Andrews, Dunkeld, Aberdeen and Moray to appear before him and excommunicated them when they failed to do so, summoned the king to appear before him, renewed accusations against the king and placed Scotland under interdict so suspending ceremonies such as weddings, baptisms and some acts of worship. These and other communications, according to historian Edward J Cowan, amounted to “a hailstorm of threatening papal letters” descending on Scotland in the first few weeks of 1320. King Robert’s response was the Declaration of Arbroath.

It took a further three years for a formal truce to be agreed but this letter, and its two companion letters, marked a turning point in Scotland’s diplomatic efforts. The Pope suspended the sentences of excommunication on the king and bishops, recognised Robert as King of Scots and urged Edward II of England to make peace in a letter which quoted directly from the Declaration of Arbroath. Perhaps the Pope also took to heart the closing sentences of the Declaration which warned that if he continued to side with Edward of England, further bloodshed would be his responsibility.

“But if your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English tell and will not… 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.”

Declaration of Arbroath, April 6, 1320

The surviving Declaration is a copy of the letter, made at the same time. It is among the state papers kept by the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh. For more detail about the Declaration, its history and significance, try this short film made to mark its 700th anniversary.