In Robert the Bruce’s day, battles were short but wars were long. The First War of Scottish Independence, with England, lasted thirty-two years, from 1296 until 1328. Scotland, which had long understood itself as independent, kept having to repel the English, who disagreed. The Second War of Scottish Independence, still with England, ran for another twenty-five years. During these decades, the Pope served as a mediating figure, handing out punishments for unruly rulers. Pope John XXII would have liked the two kingdoms to stop fighting and to join him on the Crusades. (Did he have to do everything?) In 1317, he imposed a shaky truce on Scotland and England: no more fighting. It didn’t last. In 1318, Bruce recaptured a Scottish trading town that had been held by the English. The Pope—not angry, just disappointed—excommunicated him.
By 1320, things were not looking good for Bruce at home, either. His brother Edward, briefly—and bloodily—the king of Ireland, had been killed in battle, leaving Bruce without an adult heir. (His grandson, next in line, was four years old, and rubbish with a sword.) Making matters worse, there were rumors of a conspiracy against him: the son of John Balliol, a former king of Scotland, was drumming up support for his claim to the throne. Meanwhile, both the Pope and England still refused, for various reasons, some of them murder, to recognize Bruce as the legitimate king of Scotland. Under mounting pressure at home and abroad, with his rivals circling, Bruce felt compelled to act. He wanted recognition, respect, and for England to back off. So he did what many of us might under duress: he wrote a strongly worded letter.
The Declaration of Arbroath has existed for a staggering seven centuries, and it looks its age. Physically, it resembles something a child might draw if she were asked to imagine an important document from a long, long time ago. It is written on sheepskin parchment, now the colour of dust, with ink made from oak apples. There are two large holes, obscuring portions of the text, damage inflicted in the eighteenth century, “possibly from damp,” a curator told me. The Declaration is conventionally broad and rectangular until the signature portion, which, instead of signed names, consists of long strips of parchment bearing the wax stamps of each signatory.
For most of its lifetime, the Declaration has been held and cared for by the National Records of Scotland, or its predecessors, in Edinburgh. The version we know today is a file copy of the letter sent in 1320, which has since been lost. It is kept in an undisclosed storage site, one of five around the country.
Later this month, however, the Declaration will make a rare appearance in honour of the seven hundredth anniversary of its signing. It will be displayed beneath a glass case alongside the medieval holdings of the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh. The Declaration of Arbroath is best understood as an official letter to Pope John XXII from Robert the Bruce’s government. Between forty and fifty Scottish barons and freeholders added their seals as signature, but the sentiment, if not the exact wording, is widely believed to have come from Bruce’s office. (Some historians have wondered whether the Scottish noblemen who added their names did so under pressure, as proof of loyalty.) It’s around a thousand words long and written in Latin, and begins, after flattery for the Pope (“devout kisses of his blessed feet”), with an overview of Scotland’s glorious past.
The most famous passage in the document, where much of its enduring power comes from, is one that many Scots know by heart. It is a stirring and potent declaration of Scottish independence, one that has resurfaced through the centuries at critical junctures. “As long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English,” the passage goes. “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.”
The Declaration of Arbroath is a letter Robert the Bruce sent to the Pope to affirm the independence of Scotland in the face of a war against England. Robert the Bruce tours – the outlaw King of Scotland
the 700th anniversary of the signing of the The Declaration of Arbroath is widely acknowledged as one of Scotland’s most important documents, and the Declaration was sent from Arbroath Abbey to Pope John in Avignon on 6 April 1320. It was a major influence on the wording of America’s Declaration of Independence 400 years later
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