Declaration of Arbroath

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Declaration of Arbroath

Every Scot knows that the Declaration of Arbroath was one of the greatest and most important statements of human rights ever written.

But very few people are aware that it had as powerful an influence on the USA as it did on Scotland - and that its magnificent words helped inspire the Americans to become the greatest and most powerful nation on earth.

This historic document was first written in 1320 - six years after Robert the Bruce's historic victory against Edward II at Bannockburn - as a plea to the Pope to stop supporting the English and recognise Scotland's independence.

The appeal worked, but the most profound impact of the declaration of Arbroath came nearly 500 years later when it was used as the basis for the American Declaration of Independence.

The rousing, central words of the American statement of July 4, 1776 that it was breaking its ties with Britain almost exactly mirror the bold sentiments and cry for justice and human rights made in Scotland by the Bruce's nobles and bishops.

The original Declaration of Arbroath tells the Pope that the Scots nobles would even be prepared to cast out their beloved Robert the Bruce as king if he were ever to sell them out to the English.

It famously says: "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition be brought under English dominion. It is in truth not for glory, nor for riches, nor for honour that we are fighting, but only and alone for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life."

America's own independence declaration is similarly lofty in tone, and its own central words ring with exactly same magnificent confidence and respect for the rights of man found at Arbroath.

Its most famous paragraph says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Why should the founding fathers of modern America use as their guiding light a document drawn up on another continent 356 years earlier? Because more than half of them were of recent Scots descent, and knew the importance the Arbroath document had on the old country they hailed from.

Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, was the son of an Aberdonian. The only clergyman to sign it was the philosopher John Witherspoon, who hailed from St Andrews. And Islay-born Alexander McDougall was the first American imprisoned for speeches in favour of independence.

Cathy Hurst, who is the Principal Officer at the US Consulate General in Edinburgh, explains: "When you read the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence, you can see the parallels dispersed throughout the text.

"It is very clear in most historians' minds that one document was modelled on the other. In terms of learned opinion on political matters at the time, a lot of the input came from people with experience of Scotland. Scottish influence in the creation of the United States cannot be overstated."

And Simon Newman, Director of the Centre for American Studies at Glasgow University, says: "The Scottish ideas about human rights are likely to have been an incredibly strong force in the minds of some of the founding fathers. When you look at the writings of people like Jefferson, it's clear that they were imbued with these ideas."

Given that Robert the Bruce was still basking in the warm glow of his stunning victory over the English king Edward II at Bannockburn when the Declaration of Arbroath was drawn up, it makes sense to ask just why he needed to ask the Pope to curtail Edward's power.

The reason was simple and straightforward. Bannockburn did not end tensions between Scotland and England - far from it. The Bruce - also known as Robert I - invaded and captured Berwick in 1318, and a series of raids into the north of England inflicted great damage.

However, while Scotland was starting to exert is authority and military muscle against the English, the Pope of the time, John XXII, did not - unlike some of his predecessors - accept that Scotland was an independent nation at all.

This was partly because wily Edward , who did not have the statesmanship or military talents of his father Edward I, asked the Pope to come down on his side. His Holiness did so, giving Edward the formal respect of his position as English king while simply referring to the Bruce was "governing in Scotland."

Robert, whose excommunication after killing his rival John Comyn to seize the Scottish throne in 1306 may also have been a factor in the Pope's decision to rule against him, was furious.

When two Papal envoys turned up at the Abbey of Arbroath where he was staying in 1317, he sent them packing, saying: "Among my barons there are many named Robert Bruce, who share in the government of Scotland. These letters may possibly be addressed to them but they are not addressed to me, who am King of Scotland."

This kind of light-hearted and dismissive response by the Bruce simply angered the Pope, who stoked up the tension further by threatening the whole Scottish nation with excommunication if it did not accept Edward as overlord.

The Bruce and his nobles realised at this stage that matters were getting out of hand, and that something had to be done. So they gathered at Arbroath - one of the most important religious and political centres in Scotland at that time - and put the declaration together.

The aim of the document was to assert in the politest possible terms that Scotland was a free country in its own right and that the Bruce was in place as king of Scots because the people themselves wanted him to rule. It asked the Pope to recognise this fact and give his blessing to Scotland's independence.

The declaration pleaded with the Pontiff not to take the English claim over Scotland seriously. It suggested somewhat threateningly that if the Scots did not win the Pontiff's favour, the wars of independence would continue and the burden of future deaths would fall on the Holy Father's shoulders.

The idea of drawing up sending the declaration proved that the Bruce could be every bit as wily as the English. He knew that if the Pope agreed with the Scots, then Edward would be asked to make peace and if he failed to do so, he could be excommunicated for disobeying the Pope.

After being signed and sealed by 38 Scots nobles, the document was sent on its way. The plan worked. Edward was called to see the Pope but somewhat foolishly refused, leaving the door open for the Pope to accept the Scottish nobles' plea.

Professor Geoffrey Barrow, Emeritus Professor of Scottish history at Edinburgh University and a biographer of the Bruce, says: "The Pope didn't immediately recognise Robert as King, but began to make noises in that direction and eventually finalised the decision in 1324.

It was a very important change of heart. The declaration itself was written in royal Latin with lots of biblical references and that probably impressed him."

At the same time as recognising Scotland's independence, the Pope ordered Edward to stop attacking Robert and his forces and instead to "direct his aggression at the Infidels in the Holy Land" - on other words, to embark on a crusade.

In fact, the English accepted the Pontiff's ruling only churlishly and belatedly. It was not until 1328 that the Treaty of Northampton was signed between the Bruce and Edward II's successor, Edward III. This finally acknowledged the Bruce's complete and unambiguous rule of Scotland, with no subjugation whatsoever to England. Robert had won game, set and match.

The new treaty was sealed - as was so often the case in those days - with a marriage between Robert's son David, who became David II of Scotland, and Edward's sister Joanna.

By now, the Bruce's work was over. He had established Scotland's freedom, led his country into a golden era of justice and relative prosperity, and was well-loved by his subjects. He was plagued by ill health in his later years and died at Cardross in present day Dunbartonshire.

Although dead, however, the Bruce had not yet made his last journey. His body was taken east and buried in Dunfermline Abbey, but his heart was removed on his own instructions, embalmed and taken on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Why did this happen? Bruce is said to have always wanted to go on a crusade and in this rather bizarre way, he finally managed it. Bruce's favourite knight, Sir James Douglas, was chosen for the honour of carrying the relic, but was killed in combat by Moorish cavalry in present day Spain.

Amazingly, the heart is said to have survived the return journey to Scotland - it was brought back along with Douglas's body by Sir William Keith of Galston - and was buried at Melrose Abbey. The story would appear to be true, because in 1921 a small lead casket containing a heart was found under the chapter house floor.

Three years ago, a team from Historic Scotland once again removed the lead container from the ground to check its condition, which was found to be remarkably good. This time the heart itself was not examined, and it was buried again at Melrose Abbey in June last year.

How do we know that the historic relic inside really belongs to the Bruce? Well, no-one else's heart is ever reported to have been buried in Melrose, and the legend has survived for centuries. As one of the members of the Historic Scotland investigating team, Richard Welander, puts it: "We can say that it is reasonable to assume that it is."

Even today, then, the presence of Scotland's greatest ever warrior king is real, and the legacy he left us can be witnessed today

Just, in fact, as it can in the archives of the United States of America.


Meanwhile...

  • 1315 Italian immigrants develop the silk industry in Lyons, France
  • 1317 Salic Law is adopted in France, excluding women from succession to the throne
  • 1323 Thomas Aquinas is canonized
  • 1324 Marco Polo dies
  • 1325 The development of No Theatre begins in Japan
  • 1327 The Great Fire of Munich
  • 1328 The sawmill is invented

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