For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never
will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is 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.
From The Declaration of Arbroath 1320.
The Declaration of Arbroath 1320
by John Prebble
The Declaration of Arbroath was and has been unequalled in its eloquent plea
for the liberty of man. From the darkness of medieval minds it shone a torch
upon future struggles which its signatories could not have foreseen or
The author of this noble Latin address is unknown, though it is assumed to
have been composed by Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of
Scotland. Above the seals of eight earls and forty-five barons, it asked for
the Pope's dispassionate intervention in the bloody quarrel between the Scots
and the English, and so that he might understand the difference between the two
its preamble gave him a brief history of the former. The laughable fiction of
this is irrelevant. What is important is the passionate sincerity of the men
who believed it, who were placing a new and heady nationalism above the feudal
obligations that had divided their loyalties less than a quarter of a century
In its mixture of defiance and supplication, nonsensical history and noble
thought, two things make the Declaration of Arbroath the most important
document in Scottish history.
Firstly it set the will and the wishes of the people above the King.
Though they were bound to him 'both by law and by his merits' it was so that
their freedom might be maintained. If he betrayed them he would be removed and
replaced. This remarkable obligation placed upon a feudal monarch by his feudal
subjects may be explained in part by the fact that Bruce was still a heather
king to many of them, still a wild claimant ruling upon sufferance and success.
But the roots of his kingship were Celtic, and a Celtic tradition was here
invoked, the memory of the Seven Earls, the Seven Sons of Cruithne the Pict in
who, it was believed, had rested the ancient right of tanistry, the elevation
of kings by selection. This unique relationship of king and people would
influence their history henceforward, and would reach its climax in the
Reformation and the century following, when a people's Church would declare and
maintain its superiority over earthly crowns.
Secondly, the manifesto affirmed the nation's independence in a way no
battle could, and justified it with a truth that is beyond nation and race.
Man has a right to freedom and a duty to defend it with his life. The natural
qualifications put upon this by a medieval baron are irrelevant, as are the
reservations which slave-owning Americans placed upon their declaration of
independence. The truth once spoken cannot be checked, the seed once planted
controls its own growth, and the liberty which men secure for themselves must
be given by them to others, or it will be taken as they took it. Freedom is a
hardy plant and must flower in equality and brotherhood.
From The Lion in the North: One Thousand Years of Scotland's History
The Declaration of Arbroath 1320 — English Translation
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 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 Mushet, Fergus of Ardrossan, Eustace
Maxwell, William Ramsay, William Mowat, Alan Murray, Donald Campbell, John
Cameron, Reginald Cheyne, Alexander Seton, Andrew Leslie, and Alexander
Straiton, 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 our own, the Scots, has 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 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
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 ally 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 Macabaeus or Joshua and bore them cheerfully. Him, too,
divine providence, his right of succession according to or 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 may, 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 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.
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 privation 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 inward 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 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 profit 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 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
of April in the year of grace thirteen hundred and twenty and the fifteenth
year of the reign of our King aforesaid.
Endorsed: Letter directed to our Lord the Supreme Pontiff by the community
Constitution Society |
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