NOT the least of the disruptions to the lives of the Scottish people caused by Covid-19 is the loss of the chance to see the only remaining contemporary copy of the Declaration of Arbroath.

It was to have gone on display at the National Museum of Scotland from last week until April 26, but the museum has had to put the following announcement on its website: “The Declaration of Arbroath display will be postponed until further notice. We will make a further announcement once new display dates have been agreed.”

It is good that we will eventually be able to see the surviving Declaration, which is a medieval copy of a letter. The original was dispatched to Pope John XXII, then resident in Avignon in France, along with letters from Robert the Bruce and William de Lamberton, the Bishop of St Andrews – both their letters have long been lost.

Very few people ever point out the significance of John XXII being an “Avignon Pope”. Indeed he was the longest-reigning of the seven popes who resided in the French city, and who should not be confused with the Avignon anti-popes later in the 14th century following the Papal Schism of 1378. For, like the other six legitimate popes of Avignon, John XXII was a Frenchman. His name was Jacques Dueze, or d’Euse, and he became pope in 1316 at the instigation of the French king, Louis X. He was later very much under the influence of Louis’ successor Philip V – the son of Philip IV, who had signed the Auld Alliance with Scotland in 1295. There is no doubt that John XXII would have been aware of the alliance, and would have been very cognisant of Scotland’s situation during the reign of Robert the Bruce. However, he refused to lift the sentence of excommunication that had been placed on the Bruce for his murder of John Comyn in Greyfriars Church in Dumfries in 1306.

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The Battle of Bannockburn appeared to have won Scotland its independence, but King Edward II did not see it that way. He continued to want to be like his father, Edward Longshanks, and claim lordship over Scotland, hence the constant skirmishes between Scotland and England – most of then won by the Scots, it should be said.

Though he negotiated a two year truce with Edward II, the Bruce could have done without the internal strife within Scotland at the time. The followers of the Comyns and Edward Balliol, the son of Toom Tabard King John, had never accepted King Robert, and continued to agitate against him.

It was time for the Bruce to go on the diplomatic offensive to ensure his right to be called King of Scots, and that meant dealing with the Pope. This was something he was at first reluctant to do, as John XXII refused to recognise the legitimacy of his kingship. Hence the summoning of the nobility of Scotland to Newbattle Abbey in early 1320. Many of them would not have been able to read the Latin document put before them, but its content was made clear and one by one they queued up to attach their seals – either at Newbattle or at Arbroath, which was the abbey ruled over by Bruce’s great friend and ally, Bernard of Kilwinning. It was from here on April 6, 1320, that the Declaration of Arbroath was dispatched to Pope John XXII at Avignon.

First and foremost the Declaration is an open letter, like one of those round robins signed by Unionist celebs before the first independence referendum, only this was Scotland’s Declaration of Independence. The only copy is cared for by National Records of Scotland and it is so fragile that it can only be displayed on rare occasions to ensure its long-term survival. I have been fortunate enough to have seen it up close, albeit behind a screen, and it is a weirdly beautiful thing. 

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I am going to try some exegesis here to explain the text and in doing so I will use the accepted translation of Sir James Fergusson.

We know the exact date of the Declaration’s transmission: “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.”

The Declaration starts with the list of the signatories – note that no one “signed” it, they just attached their seals, including those of eight earls and around 40 barons. Some of the seals have been lost, so we don’t know exactly who was involved.

However, we can see plenty evidence of support for the Bruce, and some of the names are intriguing.

“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 Sinclair, John Graham, David Lindsay, William Oliphant, Patrick Graham, John Fenton, William Abernethy, David Wemyss, William Mushet, Fergus 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.”

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There can be seen the names of Bruce’s great allies such as James Douglas, Thomas Randolph, Gilbert Hay and Earl Malcolm of Lennox. But other names stand out for other reasons.

John Menteith is the same man that captured Sir William Wallace and turned him over to Edward I, but he had long switched his support to the Bruce. Ingram Umfraville had fought on both sides in the War of Independence and, perhaps wisely, he left for France shortly after signing. Roger Mowbray was arrested for treason against the Bruce two months after signing the Declaration and died in captivity before he could be tried. David, Lord of Brechin, had fought for the English and he, too, was arraigned on treason charges later in 1320 and executed for his conspiracy against the king. William Soules, or de Soules, met the same fate, dying in captivity in 1321. More than a few other signatories had also sworn fealty to the English crown in the past, as had the Bruce himself.

We can skip the section which traces the history of the Scottish people, the Scots who came from Ireland, because it’s medieval puffery which contains at least one untruth.

“The Britons it first drove out, the Picts it utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, it took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts; and, as the histories of old time bear witness, they have held it free of all servitude ever since. In their kingdom there have reigned one hundred and thirteen kings of their own royal stock, the line unbroken by a single foreigner.”

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Sorry, but the Picts were not destroyed, just assimilated into the kingdom that became Alba.

ONE section rings completely true: “Thus our people 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 a 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.”

It perhaps plays up the ravaging of the clergy – always a good line to push to the pope – but the savagery of Longshanks was undoubted since his annihilation of Berwick in 1296.

Now to the core of the letter, the section that contains the promotion of Robert the Bruce as a king worthy of respect.

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“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, bore cheerfully toil and fatigue, hunger and peril, like another Maccabaeus or Joshua. Him, too, divine providence, the succession to his right according to our 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 his right and by his merits that our freedom may be still maintained, and by him, come what may, we mean to stand.”

This leads on to the declaration of independence and the sovereignty of the people, even if at that time there was no universal suffrage.

“Yet if he should give up what he has begun, seeking 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 right and ours, and make some other man who was well able to defend us our King; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

I sincerely believe these words were the foundation of Scotland as we know it.

Then the special pleading: “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.”

The Scottish clergy knew that John XXII was desperate to mount a crusade, so next comes the very clever bit.

“Then rouse the Christian princes who for false reasons pretend that they cannot go to the 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 a readier advantage 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.”

Brilliant tactics by Abbot Bernard. He is saying “get Edward off our backs and you’ll get us on crusade” – a master stroke.

Next week I’ll tell what happened after April 1320, and how the Declaration made its mark.

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