Declaration of Arbroath – 700th Anniversary

Today marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the most important documents in Scottish History. Between 2009 and 2014, I completed both my degree in History and my MA in Medieval Islamic History, at Lisbon’s university, and I happened to have studied this document throughout the course of those years. It’s not only important to Scotland, but also as part of European history, and it really is an exceptional text of its time for numerous reasons.

As such, today I carefully wrote a thread, on Twitter, in which I poured all my past experience as a Medievalist, and as much knowledge as I could muster, about the crucial importance of this document, as well as its larger context in Medieval European History. I have decided to collate those tweets together into a single text and post it here too – so, bear in mind the media that it was written for (original thread here, if you care to like / retweet it: https://twitter.com/wgsaraband/status/1247099903781875713

Remember that if we are to make sense of our present and prepare ourselves for the challenges of our future, we must never forget the lessons of our past. History is a discipline that we all ought to pay attention to, read about and cherish.

Declaration of Arbroath

The only remaining copy of the Declaration of Arbroath, part of the National Archives of Scotland

Declaration of Arbroath – context

Today, 6th of April 2020, marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), one of the most important documents in Scottish history.

Here’s a wee thread, from someone who had to study this document at university, in Lisbon, as part of my degree in History:

The Declaration of Arbroath is a letter, written in Latin, and signed by almost 40 Scottish barons & earls, addressed to Pope John XXII.

The Pope was a major political figure throughout most of the Middle Ages, and this was a bit like sending a letter to the United Nations.

Calling it a Declaration of Independence isn’t exactly correct – to be precise, the Declaration of Arbroath makes it clear that Scotland had been a sovereign kingdom for many centuries, ruled by a succession of Scottish kings, and that no one else could claim sovereignty over it.
Hence, the document isn’t asserting Scotland’s newfound independence – it is making it clear, to the Pope and Europe, that it had long been an independent nation and that the English throne had no rightful claim to it. Fascinatingly, it tells the tale of how the Scots came to be.
The letter says that the Scotii were a people originally from Scythia, a place outwith the limits of the Roman Empire, who travelled across Europe, all the way to the Iberian Peninsula before journeying to the British Isles and settling in this lovely cold place we call home.
The most fascinating part of this tale of migration and survival is that it is corroborated by evidence of Celtic peoples travelling, indeed, from Anatolia and across Europe. Many went by my own native Portugal, leaving remnants of Celtic culture there, before heading North.

Whilst many countries have a foundational story based on biblical myths, Scotland presents here a uniquely realistic tale that shows how some elements of oral history from this time survived in the collective memory for long.

The Scotii were migrants who fought their way here.

The other fascinating part of the Declaration of Arbroath, and why Medieval academics across the world study it, is its assertion of sovereignty. It states that it lies with the people, rather than the King of Scots.

But who, exactly, are the “people”?

Well, it doesn’t have the same meaning as today. In the context of its time, the Declaration of Arbroath makes clear that the King of Scots must be supported by the nobility – the barons & earls who signed the letter. That’s who the people are – not the whole population.
This is not a new concept in Europe – after the fall of the Roman Empire, many elements of law from Germanic peoples became popular amongst many of the kingdoms that were born. For the sovereignty of the king to be decided by noblemen is one of these aspects, seen across Europe.
By asserting their sovereignty, these 39 noblemen write in the letter that they reject the rule of the English king, accusing him of committing atrocities against the Scots, and that Robert the Bruce is the legitimate Scottish king who has put a stop to said atrocities.
There are inevitable Biblical allusions in the text – impossible not to, in a document of this nature, in Medieval Europe. They include the comparison between Robert the Bruce and Judas Maccabeus, who led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucids.

In simple terms, what did the Declaration of Arbroath seek to achieve?

To recognise Robert the Bruce’s military victories and his rightful claim to Scotland, to reject Edward II’s claim to overlordship of Scotland, and for Scotland’s sovereignty to be legitimised by the Pope.

“Because, while a hundred of us remain alive, we will not submit in the slightest measure, to the domination of the English. We do not fight for honour, riches, or glory, but solely for freedom which no true man gives up but with his life.”
Many people know the above paragraph and a few other quotes, but the Declaration of Arbroath is a remarkable Medieval document in the context of great social and economic changes sweeping across Europe, in regards to the old Feudal structures, and the assertion of sovereignty.
More than once, the letter says that Scots merely want to be left alone, in peace, and unbothered by the armies of the English king. It claims that the Scots have survived many other invaders, like the Danes, breaking free from any attempts to enslave them.
The concept of “Nation”, as we know it, only begins to be formed a few centuries later, after the Renaissance. The Declaration of Arbroath represents a transition from what the old concepts of “Kingdom” and “People” meant, to what they will mean later on in our History.

Declaration of Arbroath today

Finally, it’s not the prerogative of Scottish Independence supporters, today, to be interested in this document. Every Scottish person should read it and study it. It’s one of the most important pillars of Scottish history and a key piece of our shared European history.
I’ve been disheartened by people who, because of their constitutional politics, make ill-informed remarks about the Declaration of Arbroath. This is not a political football. This is, no matter your views on the United Kingdom, part of the very DNA of Scottish identity & history.
Arbroath Abbey

Grounds of Arbroath Abbey, which I first visited in May, 2018

I was fascinated to have studied this letter, as part of my degree in History, which led me to my MA in Medieval Islamic History. I never imagined, at the time, that I’d later be living in Scotland – but, moving here, has been one of the greatest joys in my life.

Don’t let your ignorance become a blindfold. Don’t let your cringe stop you from valuing a fascinating piece of your own history.

If people from outwith Scotland can see the worth of your people, culture and history, then please ask yourself: what’s stopping you?

Scotland’s history is not exceptional or superior to anyone else’s, but, like the history of any other country, it is unique. And if we are to find our way into the future, we must never forget the paths in our past that we have trodden.

Read your history. #DeclarationofArbroath

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