The Declaration of Arbroath
The Declaration of Arbroath
2020 marks the 700th anniversary of the Declaration of Arbroath, widely seen as Scotland’s most iconic document. Written 700 years ago, this fragile document and its evocative sentiments of medieval sovereign independence have given it special distinction, not just in Scotland, but around the world. To mark the anniversary National Records of Scotland in partnership with National Museums Scotland are putting the document on display in the National Museum of Scotland, 27 March – 26 April 2020. National Records of Scotland are hosting a series of free talks which examine aspects of the Declaration of Arbroath in more detail. Please see our events page for further information.
"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".
These are the best known words in the Declaration of Arbroath, foremost among Scotland's state papers and the most famous historical record held by National Records of Scotland. The Declaration is a letter written in 1320 by the barons and whole community of the kingdom of Scotland to the pope, asking him to recognise Scotland's independence and acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the country's lawful king.
The Declaration was written in Latin and was sealed by eight earls and about forty barons. Over the centuries various copies and translations have been made, including a microscopic edition.
The Declaration was written during the long war of independence with England which started with Edward I's attempt to conquer Scotland in 1296. When the deaths of Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway, left Scotland without a monarch, Edward used the invitation to help choose a successor as an excuse to revive English claims of overlordship. When the Scots resisted, he invaded.
Edward refused to allow William Wallace's victory at Stirling Bridge in 1297 to derail his campaign. In 1306 Robert the Bruce seized the throne and began a long struggle to secure his position against internal and external threat. His success at Bannockburn in 1314, when he defeated an English army under Edward II, was a major achievement, but the English still did not recognise Scotland's independence or Bruce's position as king.
On the European front, by 1320 Scottish relations with the papacy were in crisis after the Scots defied papal efforts to establish a truce with England. When the pope excommunicated Robert I and three of his barons, the Scots sent the Declaration of Arbroath as part of a diplomatic counter-offensive. The pope wrote to Edward II urging him to make peace, but it was not until 1328 that Scotland's independence was acknowledged.
The Declaration was probably drawn up by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath. It was authenticated by seals, as documents at that time were not signed. Only 19 seals now remain of what might have been 50 originally, and many are in poor condition.
Zoomify Image of the Declaration of Arbroath
Transcription and translation of Declaration of Arbroath, 6 April 1320 (National Records of Scotland, SP13/7) (209KB PDF)
Versions, copies and facsimiles
The document in National Records of Scotland is the "file copy" of the Declaration: the only version to survive in its original form. It was kept with the rest of the national records in Edinburgh Castle until the seventeenth century. When work was being done on the castle, the Declaration was taken for safekeeping to Tyninghame, the home of the official in charge of the records. While there it suffered damage through damp and it returned to the custody of the Deputy Clerk Register (the predecessor of the Keeper of the Records of Scotland) in 1829. Conservation staff at the NRS monitor the Declaration to ensure it survives for many centuries to come.
Although the Declaration was damaged during its absence from Edinburgh Castle, the full text was known from an engraving made in the early eighteenth century, which was re-engraved around 1815 by William Home Lizars and Daniel Lizars.
1. Sir James Fergusson, The Declaration of Arbroath (Edinburgh, 1970).
2. A. A. M. Duncan, 'The Making of the Declaration of Arbroath', in D. A. Bullough and R. L. Storey (eds.), The Study of Medieval Records, essays in honour of Kathleen Major, (Oxford, 1971), pp.174-188.
3. A. A. M. Duncan, The Nation of Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320) (London, 1970).
4. E. J. Cowan, 'For Freedom Alone': The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 (East Linton, 2003).
5. G. W. S. Barrow (ed.), The Declaration of Arbroath: History, Significance, Setting (Edinburgh, 2003).
6. G. W. S. Barrow, Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm (various editions from 1965).