The Declaration of Arbroath
After the battle of Bannockburn was fought, although Scotland was once again a free country, the English king Edward II stubbornly refused to acknowledge that fact. Edward was beset at home by baronial opposition and wished to appear strong. For a long time the Scots and English had also battled with each other in the diplomatic arena and specifically at the court of the pope which, in those days, was the equivalent of the United Nations for European Christians. The Scots were now on the offensive and wished to step up the pressure on the pope so that he would recognise the kingship of Robert I and his heirs. To this end King Robert caused an important diplomatic letter to be drawn up by Bernard de Linton.
This letter informed the pope that Scotland was an ancient kingdom under the protection of Saint Andrew and had always been ruled by its own native kings. The English king, the Scots told the pope, had come at a time when the throne was vacant, and had attempted to conquer what did not belong to him, committing all kinds of crimes and sacrilege in the process. The Scots had chosen Robert I to be their king and would resist all attempts at English conquest even if just one hundred of them remained alive. But the Scots went further and declared that if King Robert ever gave into the English they, the Scots, would depose him and choose another king. The idea that kingship could be contractual and, coupled with such strong expressions of national identity, makes this not only a document well before its time, but an outstanding text in European and world history.
An assembly of the barons at Newbattle in March 1320 had probably agreed the contents of the letter and their names were listed when the letter was dated from Arbroath on 6 April 1320. In those days most people – even barons and lords - did not read or write so they did not ‘sign’ the letter. Instead their personal seals – showing their family shields of arms – were stamped into red wax leaving a cast to be attached to the document. The letter, which was written in Latin, the international language of diplomacy, was then sent to Pope John XXII at Avignon in France. Eventually, in 1328, the pope recognised the kingship of King Robert I and his heirs.
It was only at the beginning of the 20th century that the letter began to be generally called a declaration in English and since then a number of translations have been made. Below you will find a PDF file with a translation of the letter into Scots.