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Friday 6 January 2017

Feature: the Declaration of Arbroath, 6 April 1320

"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".

This is a translation of part of the Declaration of Arbroath, foremost among Scotland's state papers and perhaps the most famous historical record held by the National Records of Scotland (NRS). The Declaration is a letter from the barons and whole community of the kingdom of Scotland to the pope in 1320, asking him to recognise Scotland's independence and acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the country's lawful king.

The Declaration was in Latin and was sealed by eight earls and about forty barons. Over the centuries various copies and translations have been made, including a recent microscopic edition.

Here is what you can do to view the document:

Declaration of Arbroath

The Declaration of Arbroath and Scottish independence

The Declaration was written during the long war of independence with England which started with Edward l'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 they defied papal efforts to establish a truce with England. When the pope excommunicated the king and three of his bishops, the Scots sent the Declaration of Arbroath as part of a diplomatic counter-offensive. The original letter, delivered to the pope in Avignon, is lost, but we know it reached him. He 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.  We have created separate images of each of the seals, with some biographical notes about the seal owners.

Versions, copies and facsimiles of the Declaration of Arbroath
The document in the National Records of Scotland is the only surviving copy of the Declaration. It was kept with the rest of the national records in Edinburgh Castle until the early 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 around 1815, produced by the engraver William Home Lizars (1788-1859).

Find out more about the Scottish Wars of Independence, William Wallace, King Robert I of Scotland and the Declaration of Arbroath in our 'For Freedom Alone' education resource on the Scottish Archives for Schools website.

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