On 6 April 2023, NRS is celebrating the 703rd anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath – one of Scotland’s most famous historic documents.
The Declaration of Arbroath will be displayed at the National Museum of Scotland from 3 June this year but before you get a chance to see it for yourself, we asked NRS archivist Dr Alan Borthwick to tell us about the document’s long and surprising history, and more about its significance…
The Declaration of Arbroath is widely considered to be Scotland’s most iconic document. Its evocative sentiments of medieval sovereign independence have given it a special distinction, not only in Scotland but around the world.
The Declaration is a letter from the barons and the community of the realm of Scotland to Pope John XXII, dated 6th April 1320. It sets out Scotland’s status as an independent kingdom, supporting Robert the Bruce’s title as King of Scots and asking the Pontiff to persuade the English King (Edward II) to end hostilities against the Scots.
Despite the Scottish victory over Edward at the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314 and continued Scottish raids on the north of England, Edward would not drop the long-standing English claim to overlordship of Scotland. Neither Edward nor the Pope recognised Robert I as King of Scots.
A papal attempt to secure peace failed when King Robert recaptured the border town of Berwick in 1318. The Pope summoned the King and four Scottish bishops to attend the papal court by letters issued in November 1319, a summons which was ignored and led to their excommunication. The Declaration was their diplomatic counter-offensive.
There were actually three letters sent from Scotland to the Pope in early 1320: appeals from Robert I, the bishop of St Andrews and the barons and community of the realm. Unfortunately, none of those three letters have survived in the papal archives but the Scottish file copy of the barons’ letter did – the document now known as the Declaration of Arbroath.
It did not resolve the Anglo-Scottish conflict, the Pope urging a reconciliation between the warring sides. Following the deposition of Edward II in 1327 and consequent discord in England, an opportunity arose to negotiate a settlement.
The treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in March 1328 was supposed to effect a “final and perpetual peace”. It included the recognition of Robert I as king and Scottish independence. In 1329, the Pope granted a bull – a papal charter permitting the anointing and crowning of the king of Scots by the bishop of St Andrews as the Pope’s representative, a very important concession.
The Declaration on its own did not cause all this, but its stirring language, and its evocative sentiments of nationhood and freedom have given it a special distinction over the centuries since then.
The name “Declaration of Arbroath” is relatively modern, probably inspired by a perceived connection with the United States Declaration of Independence of 1776. The link between the two Declarations continues to be argued by historians and in 1998, the US Senate passed a resolution stating that 6th April “has a special significance for all Americans, and especially those of Scottish descent”.
The Senate resolution noted that almost half of the signers of the US Declaration were of Scottish descent. As a result, 6th April has been designated Tartan Day in the USA.
Dr Alan Borthwick
Head of Early Modern and Medieval Records
National Records of Scotland
This summer, watch out on Open Book and follow NRS on Twitter for more on the Declaration of Arbroath.
You can also find more information about the Declaration of Arbroath, and the role of National Records of Scotland as its custodian at our website.