On 6th April, 1320 a letter was sent to Avignon signed and sealed by 51 nobles and magnates of Scotland to state Scotland’s independence from England and their recognition of Robert the Bruce as the rightful King of Scots. It is a document that has often been used since its full translation in the 1700s as a sign of independence and a rallying cry for Scottish nationalists everywhere. But what was its importance at the time?
The declaration came six years after the Battle of Bannockburn, the battle which saw Edward II almost completely driven out of Scotland and freed Stirling from English control. In the years that followed, the War of Scottish Independence continued, with Robert the Bruce succeeding where previously he had failed. Indeed, the Bruce had managed to even invade as far as Northumberland on a campaign of pillaging and raiding to decimate English morale.
However, despite this, Edward II continued to maintain his father’s claim to overlordship of Scotland and Robert the Bruce-who had been excommunicated in 1306 for killing John Comyn- was facing further trouble from the Papacy and Scotland itself was facing being placed under an interdict. As such, there would have been a deep sense of desperation amongst the nobles of Scotland when they met in Arbroath Abbey to discuss what their next steps should be.
Consequently, it is no surprise that in the body of the Declaration itself the magnates took great pains to emphasise the history of Scotland. They started by claiming that the history of the Scottish people dated back to the Scoti some 1200 years ago who had come to Scotland via Spain, and that they had successfully driven out the Britons and destroyed the Picts. They stated how the Scots had resisted invasions by the Norse, the Danes and the English and how they had always managed to overthrow slavery where it was attempted. The declaration emphasised that Edward I had committed atrocities in Scotland and that Robert the Bruce had delivered the Scots from this atrocity.
Indeed, the most noted part of the text is the following passage:
“.. 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.”
Which highlights the angle from which the Scottish nobles were coming from.
The letter was sent in April of 1320 alongside two other letters-which unfortunately do not survive- and formed part of the Scottish effort to gain recognition and reconciliation with the Papacy. In the years and months that followed, The Papacy would reconcile with Scotland and Robert the Bruce-especially after Bruce made several very generous donations of land to the Church- whilst the English would recognise Bruce and his rule over Scotland after Edward II’s deposition and the signing of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1327-28.
This declaration helped shape the Scottish spirit in the years to come and that it has since become a leading light in the Scottish nationalist movement should come as no surprise. Whether or not that is a good thing, is for another time however, for now let us remember the brave men who signed the document and were willing to gamble all for freedom.