Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 6 April 2020

The Declaration of Arbroath 1320

Today is the seven hundredth anniversary of the Letter of the Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII, better known as the Declaration of Arbroath.

Although I have no Scottish ancestry as far as I know I have long had an interest in the history, particularly the medieval history of the northern kingdom. 

There is a piece about the Declaration and the history of it as a text on the BBC News website: Declaration of Arbroath: The most famous letter in Scottish history?

The current situation has led to the postponement of planned commemorations such as the exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland of the sole surviving copy. For this see https://www.nms.ac.uk/.../exhibitions/national-museum-of-scotland/declaration-of-arbroath

Arbroath Abbey itself had been founded for Tironensian Benedictines in 1178 by King William I (1165-1214) and was the wealthiest and one of the most prestigious foundations in Scotland. There are online histories from Wikipedia at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arbroath_Abbeyand at Arbroath Abbey Feature Page on Undiscovered Scotland

The meeting to send the letter was doubtless held at Arbroath because the abbot, Bernard of Kilwinning, was the Chancellor of King Robert I, but other factors  added to the significance of the choice.

The writers and signatories of the letter were   doubtless aware of the historic  irony of sending it to the Pope from the abbey which commemorated an English saint, St Thomas of Canterbury, but one who was a victim of an English monarch in conflict with the  rights of Church. King Henry II was the great great grandfather of King Edward II.

Furthermore the abbey had been given by its founder the formal custody and oversight of the Brecbennock, a relic of St Columba which was carried into battle as a national talisman as at Bannockburn in 1314. This was  apparently kept further north by tenants of the abbey and from the nineteenth century it has been identified with the Monymusk reliquary. I do not know if these aspects of Arbroath’s traditions have been investigated with regard to the 1320 meeting but it might an interesting line to pursue.

Originally there were three letters to Pope John - from one from King Robert, another from four bishops, who like the King had been excommunicated by the Pope and this from the nobles of the realm. It was not until it was printed and published at the end of the seventeenth century that it began to acquire its modern status as an expression of Scottish identity and nationhood. Terming it the Declaration of Arbroath is a modern development - the Letter of the Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII is closer in spirit to its intention in 1320.

The Wikipedia article about the Declaration is good in putting it in context and in its interpretation. It has useful links to biographies of most of the signatories, and points out that not a few had changed sides or were to again in the swirling politics of those years. It can be seen at 

There is a good account of the actual text from the National Records of Scotland at

What the nobles meant in their letter may not be what their words have been construed to mean by later generations since the text was first printed in 1689. In particular the text’s most famous passage about national freedom.

The Letter is elegant, uses Biblical and classical allusions, displays a strong sense of history and a vivid sense of national community. It is stylish, skilfully trying to get Pope John onside, although that was to take time.

It is also part of the antidote to seeing medieval Scotland as backward or primitive. The authors and signatories saw themselves as part of the comity of Christendom, well able to stand alongside other national communities. It is all very different from the of the country in the utterly appalling film "Braveheart" where it seems to languish in sub-Iron Age squalor.

The text is really well worth reading through and I have added a translation. Like Magna Carta a lot of it surprising or unexpected to the modern reader who might not be prepared, or for those just concentrating on the better known, and perhaps misapplied, extracts.

As the Wikipedia article about the Letter points out the eminent historian and biographer of King Robert I G. W. S. Barrow has shown that one passage in particular, the most famous with its sonorous assertion of freedom, and often quoted from the Fergusson translation, was carefully written using different parts of The Conspiracy of Catiline by the Roman author, Sallust (86–35 BC) as the direct source:

"... for, as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on 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."

1320 Letter of Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII

(Declaration of Arbroath)

To our most Holy Father in Christ, and our Lord, John, by Divine Providence chief Bishop of the most holy Roman and Universal Church, your humble and devoted sons: Duncan Earl of Fife, Thomas Randolph Earl of Moray, Lord of Man and Annandale, Patrick of Dunbar, Earl of March, Malise Earl of Strathearn, Malcolm Earl of Lennox, Wilham Earl of Ross, Magnus Earl of Caithness and Orkney, William Earl of Sutherland, Walter, Steward of Scotland, Wilham of Soulis, Butler of Scotland, James Lord of Douglas, Roger of Mowbray, David Lord of Brechin, David of Graham, Ingelram of Umfravil, John of Menteith, Guardian of the earldom of Menteith, Alexander Fraser, Gilbert of Hay, Constable of Scotland, Robert of Keith, Marischal of Scotland, Henry of St Clair, John of Graham, David of Lindsay, William Oliphant, Patrick of Graham, John of Fenton, William of Abernethy, David of Wemyss, William Muschet, Fergus of Ardrossan, Eustace of Maxwell, William of Ramsay, William Mowat, Allan of Moray, Donald Campbell, John Cambrun, Reginald le Cheyne, Alexander of Seton, Andrew of Leslie, Alexander of Straton, and the rest of the barons and freeholders, and whole community, of the kingdom of Scotland, send all manner of filial reverence, with devout kisses of your blessed and happy feet.

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.

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