Having soundly defeated King Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn after nearly 20 years of war, King Robert the Bruce and the Scottish people might have reasonably hoped to be left in peace. But the English king did not give up so easily and the Scottish Wars of Independence continued. In the propaganda war, the Scots were at a disadvantage in relation to the influential power of the Pope in Rome – he was more interested in gaining support for another Crusade to the Holy Land from the English king. The Pope had excommunicated Robert the Bruce, not unreasonably, following Bruce’s murder of a rival to the throne on the altar steps of a Franciscan priory. But prompted by the English king, the Pope also excommunicated all the people of Scotland.
The Declaration of Arbroath (sometimes called the Declaration of Independence) was Scotland’s response to the excommunication. It is one of the great icons of Scotland and is in the form of a letter (in Latin) to the Pope from eight earls and 31 barons of Scotland asking him in rousing terms to acknowledge Scotland as an independent nation and to reject the claims of the English king. The Declaration was ahead of its time as it sets out that the king (previously regarded as appointed by God) could be driven out if he did not uphold the freedom of the country. It later became a model for the American Declaration of Independence.
It sets out the long history of Scotland as an independent state and cleverly tries to persuade the Pope of the legitimacy of Scotland’s case. It’s most famous and most quoted passage is:
“For so long as there shall but one hundred of us remain alive we will never give consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honours, but it is liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life.”
The Declaration of Arbroath is more correctly entitled “Letter of Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII”. It is dated 6 April, 1320. While the original Declaration was delivered to the Pope, a contemporary copy is held in Register House, Edinburgh. The translation below of the full text is based on one published in 1689.
A copy of the Declaration on its own, without the above text can be found here if you wish to print this out. You will then need to use the “Back” button on your Browser to return to this page.
Most holy Father and Lord, we know and gather from ancient acts and records, that in every famous nation this of Scotland hath been celebrated with many praises: This nation having come from Scythia the greater, through the Tuscan Sea and the Hercules Pillars, and having for many ages taken its residence in Spain in the midst of a most fierce people, could never be brought in subjection by any people, how barbarous soever: And having removed from these parts, above 1,200 years after the coming of the Israelites out of Egypt, did by many victories and much toil obtain these parts in the West which they still possess, having expelled the Britons and entirely rooted out the Picts, notwithstanding of the frequent assaults and invasions they met with from the Norwegians, Danes, and English; And these parts and possessions they have always retained free from all manner of servitude and subjection, as ancient histories do witness.
This kingdom hath been governed by an uninterrupted succession of 113 kings, all of our own native and royal stock, without the intervening of any stranger.
The true nobility and merits of those princes and people are very remarkable, from this one consideration (though there were no other evidence for it) that the King of Kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, after His Passion and Resurrection, honoured them as it were the first (though living in the outmost ends of the earth) with a call to His most Holy Faith: Neither would our Saviour have them confirmed in the Christian Faith by any other instrument than His own first Apostle in calling (though in rank the second or third) St Andrew, the most worthy brother of the Blessed Peter, whom He would always have to be over us, as our patron or protector.
Upon the weighty consideration of these things our most Holy Fathers, your predecessors, did with many great and singular favours and privileges fence and secure this kingdom and people, as being the peculiar charge and care of the brother of St Peter; so that our nation hath hitherto lived in freedom and quietness, under their protection, till the magnificent King Edward, father to the present King of England, did under the colour of friendship and alliance, or confederacy, with innumerable oppressions infest us, who had in mind no fraud or deceit, at a time when we were without a king or head, and when the people were unacquainted with wars and invasions. It is impossible for any whose own experience hath not informed him to describe, or fully to understand, the injuries, blood and violence, the depredations and fire, the imprisonments of prelates, the burning, slaughter and robbery committed upon holy persons and religious houses, and a vast multitude of other barbarities, which that king executed on this people, without sparing of any sex or age, religion or order of men whatsoever.
But at length it pleased God, who only can heal after wounds, to restore us to liberty, from these innumerable calamities, by our most serene prince, king, and lord Robert, who, for the delivering of his people and his own rightful inheritance from the enemy’s hand, did, like another Joshua or Maccabeus, most cheerfully undergo all manner of toil, fatigue, hardship, and hazard. The Divine Providence, the right of succession by the laws and customs of the kingdom (which we will defend till death) and the due and lawful consent and assent of all the people, made him our king and prince. To him we are obliged and resolved to adhere in all things, both upon the account of his right and his own merit, as being the person who hath restored the people’s safety in defence of their liberties. But after all, if this prince shall leave these principles he hath so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the king or people of England, we will immediately endeavour to expel him, as our enemy and as the subverter both of his own and our rights, and we will make another king, who will defend our liberties: For so long as there shall but one hundred of us remain alive we will never give consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honours, but it is liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life.
For these reasons, most Reverend Father and Lord, We do with earnest prayers from our bended knees and hearts, beg and entreat Your Holiness that you may be pleased, with a sincere and cordial piety, to consider that with Him whose Vicar on earth you are there is no respect nor distinction of Jew nor Greek, Scots nor English, and that with a tender and fatherly eye you may look upon the calamities and straits brought upon us and the Church of God by the English; and that you may admonish and exhort the king of England (who may well rest satisfied with his own possessions, since that kingdom of old used to be sufficient for seven or more kings) to suffer us to live at peace in that narrow spot of Scotland beyond which we have no habitation, since we desire nothing but our own, and we on our part, as far as we are able with respect to our own condition, shall effectually agree to him in every thing that may procure our quiet.
It is your concernment, Most Holy Father, to interpose in this, when you see how far the violence and barbarity of the pagans is let loose to rage against Christendom for punishing of the sins of the Christians, and how much they daily encroach upon the Christian territories. And it is your interest to notice that there be no ground given for reflecting on your memory, if you should suffer any part of the Church to come under a scandal or eclipse (which we pray God may prevent) during your times. Let it therefore please Your Holiness to exhort the Christian princes not to make the wars betwixt them and their neighbours a pretext for not going to the relief of the Holy Land, since that is not the true cause of the impediment: The truer ground of it is, that they have a much nearer prospect of advantage, and far less opposition, in the subduing of their weaker neighbours. And God (who is ignorant of nothing) knows with how much cheerfulness both our king and we would go thither, if the king of England would leave us in peace, and we do hereby testify and declare it to the Vicar of Christ and to all Christendom.
But if Your Holiness shall be too credulous of the English misrepresentations, and not give firm credit to what we have said, nor desist to favour the English to our destruction, we must believe that the Most High will lay to your charge all the blood, loss of souls, and other calamities that shall follow on either hand, betwixt us and them. Your Holiness in granting our just desires will oblige us in every case where our duty shall require it, to endeavour your satisfaction, as becomes the obedient sons of the Vicar of Christ.
We commit the defence of our cause to Him who is the Sovereign King and Judge, we cast the burden of our cares upon Him, and hope for such an issue as may give strength and courage to us and bring our enemies to nothing. The Most High God long preserve your Serenity and Holiness to His Holy Church.
Given at the Monastery of Arbroath in Scotland, the sixth day of April in the year of Grace 1320, and of our said king’s reign the 15th year.