United We Stand: The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320

‘For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we under 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’.

These words, first put to parchment 700 years ago this April, echo out of the mists of time. They are as stark, pointed and poignant as they were when first written. They remain to this day, perhaps the most recognisable political statements in Scottish constitutional history. Enshrined in a document, which only became known as ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’ in the nineteenth century, is as important to us as other great constitutional documents such as the Charter of the Forest of 1217, the Oxford Provisions of 1258 and the Ordinances 1311. They make up the canon of historical items that capture in their texts, something bigger, something more important and long lasting than perhaps even their authors first intended.

In the year 1320, King Robert I of Scotland, the infamous Bruce, was set outside of the Holy Church. As an excommunicate he ruled over a kingdom that lay under the harsh penalty of Interdict, papal anathema so severe that it prohibited the saying of masses and the other offices around the kingdom, placing the people of Scotland beyond spiritual redemption. The great churches, monasteries, abbeys and priories were closed, their great doors barred to all comers. How had it come to this? Brought on by years of opposition to Edward II, King of England, who despite his defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, stubbornly refused to acknowledge Robert as legitimate king of an independent Scotland, free from the claims of English overlordship. Decades of war, and later famine since 1315, had stalked the British Isles. Its peoples were worn down by a conflict without a foreseeable end, patience among the general populace increasingly threadbare. Just when salvation was needed more than ever for those living in the Kingdom of Scotland, it may have seemed to many, too far out of reach. It was a perilous state to be in, for in the highly spiritual and superstitious medieval world, dying outside the laws of the church damned your soul and the possibility of resurrection at Judgement Day. It was a harsh papal penalty meted out which had followed Robert’s seizure of the English town of Berwick-upon-Tweed from Edward II in 1318, breaking a temporary papal peace between the two kings that had been endorsed by Pope John XXII. As Scotland laboured under papal penalties, King Robert knew he was in a precarious position. His people were still with him, but the longer he and the kingdom remained outside the church, the more likely the populace would grow disgruntled and turn against their leader who had, in the last fourteen years, already sacrificed so much.

King Robert I (r.1306-1329)

In March 1320, King Robert ordered a meeting of the Great Council at the Cistercian Abbey of Newbattle near Edinburgh, the business to be divided around the Easter week, which fell on the 30 March.[1] Here it was decided that an olive branch should be laid down to turn papal disapproval into support, which came in the form of a series of letters setting out the Scottish position in a somewhat more holistic yet targeted way. The first letter would come from Robert himself, the second from the prelates and the third from the magnates of Scotland. These letters were indeed written, and later sealed at the abbey of Arbroath on 6 April. Only the third survives which is known as ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’. The Declaration is an expertly crafted document, destined to appeal to the pope and written in the rhythmic Latin used by the Papal Curia, designed to be read aloud in front of a full papal court. Its form, written by an eloquent Latinist – perhaps Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath or Alexander Kinninmonth, who would later become the Bishop of Aberdeen – goes to the heart of Robert’s, and indeed Scotland’s determination to assert and defend its independence from its over mighty neighbour, England.[2]

The Declaration set out a version of Scots prehistory which made clear to the intended audience that its people had come from Greater Scythia, occupying Scotland, withstanding the Romans, the Danes and the English over a period in which they had been ruled by 113 successive kings, a great line which had, until 1290, remained unbroken until the premature death of Margaret, Maid of Norway. Before arriving in Scotland, it claimed, the people had been converted to Christianity by St Andrew, and as a consequence the papacy had always extend to the Scottish people its special protection in veneration of the martyred saint. The document went on to describe how Scotland’s ancient liberties and independence had been threatened by the advances of Edward I, who, despite being invited to help as a respected diplomatic friend, had turned instead enemy, pillaging the nation.[3] From there, and in need to reassert their king’s claims of legitimacy, the author sets out the justification for Robert’s kingship:

‘But from these countless evils we have been set free, by the help of Him [God] who though He afflicts yet heals and restores, by our most tireless Prince, King and Lord, the Lord Robert. He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of our hands of our enemies, met toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabeus or Joshua and bore them cheerfully. Him, too, divine providence, his right of succession according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of all of us, have made our Prince and King. To him, as the man by whom salvation has been brought into our people, we are bound both by law and by his merits that our freedom may still be maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand’.[4]

The assembly were making it very clear in their writings to the pope that they both had the right to appoint Robert and had faith in him as their king. Following in the tradition of his ancestors, Robert has been, and remained, their champion. Given they claimed they would stand by him, the authors of the Declaration were effectively rebuffing the pope’s more recent proclamation to the cardinals and prelates from the year earlier to absolve Scottish subjects of their allegiance to their king, something Robert had not allowed them to proclaim for good reason. Whatever the papal censure, the people of Scotland would stand by Robert just as he stood by them. They went on;

‘Yet if he [Robert] should give up what he had begun, and agree 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 rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we under 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’.[5]

The passion that jumps out of this document makes it clear that the Scots were bound by a simple determination to reassert themselves, and that they viewed Robert as the man to lead them. However, the document also warned of outside interference in the royal succession, perhaps a targeted nod, making it clear that Scotland would vehemently reject any attempt by either Edward II or the pope to bring Edward Balliol, King Robert’s surviving rival for the crown, to the Scottish throne. Balliol, residing in England, was Edward’s man, not theirs, the son of the former King John Balliol, whom Edward I had crowned King of Scots over twenty years earlier, before promptly deposing him four years later and claiming Scotland for himself; Scottish politics in this period both complex and politically and legally charged. They would not have him then or now, especially if he was under the tutelage of an English king.

‘The Declaration of Arbroath’ – the only surviving letter of three. This one is from the magnates of Scotland, sealed on 6 April, 1320 at the Abbey of Arbroath; some of the seals still attached.

The letter ended by entreating the Holy Father to admonish Edward II, King of England for his interference in Scotland and for the English king be content with is own dominions. The Scots took the pain to state that they would also joyously go on Holy Crusade if they were free of their enemies at home – something the Pope was determined that European rulers would do under one unified papal banner – but if the pope persisted in believing the English versions of events as daily outlined by Edward’s envoys at Avignon, then he alone would be to blame for the continued carnage and destruction of Christian souls in Scotland.[6] Cheeky! The Declaration was dignified in its arguments yet bold and provocative where it needed to be in reminding the Vicar of Christ of his role as an impartial leader of Christendom.[7]

King Robert’s letter, which is only known to us because of the papal reply which survives, complained that the Holy Father still failed to address him by his royal title – without it Robert was not formally recognised on the international stage as an independent and legitimate king. This significantly undermined his status and political and constitutional argument against the English. King Robert also sought to have his sentence of excommunication revoked, and probably took the opportunity to highlight his commitment to crusade. The second letter, composed by the prelates, probably reflected many of the points set out by the king and barons.[8]

The Declaration itself was issued at Arbroath in the names of eight earls, thirty-one barons and all the ‘freeholders and whole community of the realm of Scotland’. Despite absent seals from lords in the Western Isles or the south-west, excepting Fergus of Ardrossan, the letters were handed over to three envoys, among them Alexander Kinninmonth, whose task it was to safely deliver them to the Curia. They arrived at the end of June 1320.[9]

Pope John XXII
Pope John XXII

With the letters sent, Robert and his council as an insurance policy wrote to King Philip V of France in the hope of gaining his assistance both at Avignon where the pope held his court, and in his upcoming meeting with his brother-in-law Edward II, who was due to arrive at Amiens to perform homage for the English held duchy of Aquitaine and Ponthieu. It is telling that Philip made Odard de Maubission, his papal envoy, available to the Scottish delegation. However, Edward II, shrewd as ever on the European diplomatic stage – foreign royal policy was an arena in which he excelled if not in a domestic sphere – was quick to respond, instructing his envoys in Paris to apply pressure on the King of France to proclaim Robert’s excommunication throughout his French kingdom.[10] Despite the temporary two year truce between England and Scotland, war could still be fought in the realm of diplomacy and in the corridors of power.’

The King of Scots may also have written a letter to Edward II himself at this time, a copy of which would have likely been included in the same bundle sent to the Papal Court to highlight to the pope Robert’s ongoing commitment to a reasonable peace and therefore a focus on crusade.[11] Although undated and written in Latin, the letter expressed Robert’s desire for a permanent peace:

‘Since while kindly peace prevails the minds of the faithful are at rest, the Christian way of life is furthered and all the affairs of Holy Mother Church and of all kingdoms are everywhere carried on more prosperously, we in our humility have judged it right to entreat of your highness most earnestly that having before your eyes the righteousness you owe to God and to the people, you desist from prosecuting us and disturbing the people of our realm, so that there may be an end of slaughter and shedding of Christian blood. Everything that we ourselves and our people by their bodily service and contributions of wealth can do, we are now and shall be prepared to do sincerely and honourably for the sake of good peace and earn perpetual grace for our souls. If it should be agreeable to your will to hold negotiations with us upon these matters, let your royal will be communicated to us in a letter by the hand of the bearer of the present letter’.[12]

With this attempt to create a broad canvas of support now complete, Robert could only wait for the pope’s response, hoping all the while that he may have engineered some kind of breakthrough in his fourteen year struggle to be recognised as Scotland’s legitimate king and the independence of his kingdom from England. In the same year, King Robert faced an internal conspiracy led by William de Soules, Hereditary Seneschal of Scotland, which saw Soules and his co-conspirators rounded up and imprisoned, executed or sent into exile. News from the pope could not have come at a better time. As the events surrounding the conspiracy were drawing to an uneasy close, the pope’s reply to Robert’s suite of letters arrived in Scotland on 28 August.

The Papal Curia

The Holy Father had listened attentively to the beautifully crafted Declaration read out in his papal court at Avignon by Alexander Kinninmonth, and had to some degree been moved. In his response, Pope John XXII began his address by saluting Bruce as ‘that illustrious man Robert, who assumes the title and position of King of Scots‘. While still not an affirmation, it was a step in the right direction and a gesture that Robert was glad to accept.[13] The pope expressed his personal commitment to exhorting the King of England to make peace with Robert and his realm, and to that effect would send envoys to Scotland, including the Archbishop of Vienne, and also encourage the King of France to do the same.

The papal and French envoys arrived a month later, joining the Scottish and English negotiators, and peace talks took place at Newcastle, Berwick and Bamburg between January and April 1321. But like so many times before, Edward II refused to relinquish his rights to Scottish overlordship, which the Scots vehemently opposed, and so without the possibility of securing the permanent independence of Scotland, the talks broke down without meaningful resolution. Despite all the hard work, The Declaration of Arbroath was as good as a dead letter. Yet again, at a critical moment, King Robert had been unable to engineer the outcome that he most desired. However his relationship with the papacy at Avignon was beginning to soften.

So while the Declaration may have failed, the legal arguments, sentiment and constitutional importance of these letters (one surviving) are fundamental to the history of Scotland. The Declaration embodied the heart and spirit of Scottish opposition to perceived tyranny and subjugation, and was forever laid down as a marker for those seeking salvation and recognition of their political and sovereign rights. While King Robert would take another eight years following the drafting of the Declaration at Arbroath to achieve a permanent peace with England, marked by the Treaty of Edinburgh in 1328 (also known as The Treaty of Northampton where it was ratified), he had won through diplomacy, eloquent words and petition, increasing European recognition of his plight and status as an independent king on the European stage. From here on in, Robert could not be ignored, even if Edward II doggedly tried to do so.


For those readers who are interested in reading a full translation of The Declaration of Arbroath, please see below:

‘To the most Holy Father and Lord in Christ, the Lord John, by divine providence Supreme Pontiff of the Holy Roman and Universal Church, his humble and devout sons Duncan, Earl of Fife, Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, Lord of Man and of Annandale, Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March, Malise, Earl of Strathearn, Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, William, Earl of Ross, Magnus, Earl of Caithness and Orkney, and William, Earl of Sutherland; Walter, Steward of Scotland, William Soules, Butler of Scotland, James, Lord of Douglas, Roger Mowbray, David, Lord of Brechin, David Graham, Ingram de Umfraville, John Menteith, guardian of the earldom of Menteith, Alexander Fraser, Gilbert Hay, Constable of Scotland, Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland, Henry St Clair, John Graham, David Lindsay, William Oliphant, Patrick Graham, John Fenton, William Abernethy, David Wemyss, William Muschet, Fergus of Ardrossan, Eustace Maxwell, William Ramsay, William Mowat, Alan Murray, Donald Campbell, John Cameron, Reginald Cheyne, and the other barons and freeholders and the whole community of the realm of Scotland send all manner of filial reverence, with devout kisses of his blessed feet.

Most Holy Father and Lord, we know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations of our own, the Scots, has [have] been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today. The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the historians of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all bondage ever since. In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.

The high qualities and deserts of these people, were they not otherwise manifest, gain glory enough from this: that the King of kings and Lord of lords, our Lord Jesus Christ, after His Passion and Resurrection, called them, even though settled in the uttermost parts of the earth, almost the first to His most holy faith. Nor would He have them confirmed in that faith by merely anyone but by the first of His Apostles – by calling, though second or third in rank – the most gentle Saint Andrew, the Blessed Peter’s brother, and desired him to keep them under his protection as their patron for ever.

The Most Holy Fathers your predecessors gave careful heed to these things and bestowed many favours and numerous privileges on this same kingdom and people, as being the special charge of the Blessed Peter’s brother. Thus our nation under their protection did indeed live in freedom and peace up to the time when that mighty prince the King of the English, Edward, the father of the one who reigns today, when our kingdom had no head and our people harboured no malice or treachery and were then unused to wars or invasions, came in the guise of a friend and allay to harass them as an enemy. The deeds of cruelty, massacre, violence, pillage, arson, imprisoning prelates, burning down monasteries, robbing and killing monks and nuns, and yet other outrages without number which he committed against our people, sparing neither age nor sex, religion nor rank, no one could describe nor fully imagine unless he had seen them with his own eyes.

But from these countless evils we have been set free, by the help of Him Who though He afflicts yet heals and restores, by our most tireless Prince, King and Lord, the Lord Robert. He, that his people and his heritage might be delivered out of the hands of our enemies, met toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabaeus or Joshua and bore them cheerfully. Him, too, divine providence, his right of succession according to our laws and customs which we shall maintain to the death, and the due consent and assent of us all have made our Prince and King. To him, as to the man by whom salvation has been wrought unto our people, we are bound both by law and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what way, we mean to stand.

Yet if he should give up what he has begun, and agree 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 rights and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition 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.

Therefore, it is, Reverend Father and Lord, that we beseech your Holiness with our most earnest prayers and suppliant hearts, inasmuch as you will in your sincerity and goodness consider all this, that, since with Him Whose vice-gerent on earth you are there is neither weighing nor distinction of Jew and Greek, Scotsman or Englishman, you will look with the eyes of a father on the troubles and privations brought by the English upon us and upon the Church of God. May it please you to admonish and exhort the King of the English, who ought to be satisfied with what belongs to him since England used once to be enough for seven kings or more, to leave us Scots in peace, who live in this poor little Scotland, beyond which there is no dwelling-place at all, and covet nothing but our own. We are sincerely willing to do anything for him, having regard to our condition, that we can, to win peace for ourselves.

This truly concerns you, Holy Father, since you see the savagery of the heathen raging against the Christians, as the sins of Christians have indeed deserved, and the frontiers of Christendom being pressed inwards every day; and how much it will tarnish your Holiness’s memory if (which God forbid) the Church suffers eclipse or scandal in any branch of it during your time, you must perceive. Then rouse the Christian princes who for false reasons pretend that they cannot go to the help of the Holy Land because of wars they have on hand with their neighbours. The real reason that prevents them is that in making war on their smaller neighbours they find quicker profits and weaker resistance. But how cheerfully our Lord the King and we too would go there if the King of the English would leave us in peace, He from Whom nothing is hidden well knows; and we profess and declare it to you as the Vicar of Christ and to all Christendom.

But if your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales of the English tell and will not give sincere belief to all this, nor refrain from favouring them to our prejudice, 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.

To conclude, we are and shall ever be, as far as duty calls us, ready to do your will in all things, as obedient sons to you as His Vicar; and to Him as the Supreme King and Judge we commit the maintenance of our cause, casting our cares upon Him and firmly trusting that He will inspire us with courage and bring our enemies to nought.

May the Most High preserve you to His Holy Church in holiness and health and grant you length of days.

Given at the monastery of Arbroath in Scotland on the sixth day of the month in April in the year of grace thirteen hundred and twenty and the fifteenth year of the reign of our King aforesaid’.[1]


Stephen Spinks is author of a medieval series of works focussing on the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. His books, available globally, include; Edward II the Man: A Doomed Inheritance and Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation


The words and content of this article are drawn extensively from Spinks, Stephen. Robert the Bruce: Champion of a Nation (Stroud, 2019), 208-212, 216-17, 301-2.

Further Reading

The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320. ed & trans, Sir James Fergusson (Edinburgh, 1970).

Stephen Spinks. ‘Loyalty & Ambition: The Heritage of Robert the Bruce’ (18 September 2018, Fourteenthcenturyfiend.com(click here)

Stephen Spinks. ‘The Enemies Within: Robert the Bruce & the Soules Conspiracy, 1320’ (15 September, 2019, Fourteenthcenturyfiend.com(click here)

Stephen Spinks. ‘The Maid of Norway: The child Queen of Scots, 1286-90’ (5 January 2019, Fourteenthcenturyfiend.com(click here)

Extended Evidential Footnotes

[1] RPS, 1320/3/1. G.W.S. Barrow. Robert the Bruce & the The Community of the Realm of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1988), 304. Caroline Bingham, Robert the Bruce (London, 1998), 271.

[2] G. Barrow, ed. The Declaration of Arbroath: History, Setting, Significance (Edinburgh, 2003). Bingham, 271.

[3] Bingham, 271. Michael Penman, Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots (London, 2014), 216. The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320. ed & trans, Sir James Fergusson (Edinburgh, 1970), 9.

[4] Ibid, 9.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bingham, 272.

[7] Ibid.

[8] RRS, vol v, n0 440. Penman, 215.

[9] Barrow, 308-9. Bingham, 273.

[10]Penman, 218.

[11] Ibid, 214-5.

[12] Scotichronicon, vol 7, 3. Penman, 199. Bingham, 274.

[13] G. Donaldson, ‘The Pope’s Reply to the Scottish Barons in 1320’, SHR XXIX, 119-20.

[14] The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320. ed & trans, Sir James Fergusson (Edinburgh, 1970), 5-11.

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