“For as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we, on any conditions, be subjected to the lordships 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.”
The Declaration of Arbroath
Two things are missing from that oft-repeated, soul stirring quotation from Scotland’s Declaration of Arbroath, three if you count the patches lost because of poor storage down the ages.
The first is any mention of women; back in the day they didn’t hold power, an omission corrected now we have so many running Scotland’s governance. Women are in the ascendency and men pray they do not govern badly, or as badly as men do.
The second is harmful, the inability to foresee that a long period of peaceful co-existence with the kingdom next door would convince swathes of Scots to trust their duplicitous neighbour, a fact exploited by every English politician with a swagger stick and a colonial mentality.
Fools rush in
As soon as one dares mention the document on Twitter, or on this social platform, you can guarantee some venomous descendant of Longshanks – denying all Norman blood in his veins, of course – will pop up to claim the Declaration has no meaning today. He will argue it was written solely to receive the Pope’s blessing, His Holiness’ recognition, but as it never received as much as an autographed photo of Priest of the Month in reply, it survives only as a worthless piece of torn paper.
The Pope did not write back, but he did as the document asked, he wrote to Edward I and asked him to desist from land grabbing, plundering, and generally being a bastard, which is as good as an endorsement.
Tell a patriotic Englishman Magna Carta is a soiled rag barely fit to clean a parking warden’s boots, eons distant from England’s corrupt institutions, crooks and thieves given legitimacy in law, and you had better stand well back to avoid the Alien spit burning your eyes out of their socket.
The Declaration is really a fancy letter hung with the seals of Scotland’s powerful earls and barons – eight earls and probably forty barons – written in Latin, sent to Pope John XXII in April or May 1320.
It was most likely drafted in the scriptorium of Arbroath Abbey by Abbot Bernard on behalf of our nobles and barons, one of the few moments in Scotland’s history when a strong, democratically-minded war leader, Robert the Bruce, managed to convince our bickering clans and septs to unite as one, for a bigger prize, Scotland sovereignty and their liberty.
Our right, not their right at our expense
As its contents presuppose, the Declaration was written during the struggle for our rights – the same rights we treat so casually today in No votes – human rights embodied in the war of independence begun in 1296 with England and Edward I’s attempt to have Scotland be North England, permanently. By that era, England’s powers were well on their way to assuming the mantle of a burgeoning empire building state.
With the death of Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway, Scotland was left without a head of state. In 1306, a fearless Robert the Bruce, grasped the thistle to secure his position.
Like now, England was not Bruce’s only murderous bete noir, there was Scotland’s own naysayers to fight, the plotters, fair weather pasties, and turncoats. Some could be far more treacherous than his English opponents in what they could do to undermine his plans and his authority. Lined up on a battle field, his external enemy, the world’s most fearsome and best trained army, the invading English regiments, could be seen and assessed easily, their foot soldiers, superb archers, and horsemen.
A duplicitous confederate could do greater harm to the cause of Scotland’s autonomy than Edward’s refusal to recognise Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge, a battle most presumed put the final seal on rescuing and protecting Scotland’s self-governance.
Peace and goodwill
Pope John wanted peace in both kingdoms. No pope likes their theologian property and wealth the casualty of warring skirmishes. Like any other small country harassed by a larger neighbour, Scotland disliked unwanted interference in its affairs. On the other hand, England was not bothered by a Pope hundreds of miles away.
At that time Scotland’s relationship with the Catholic Church was at an all-time low. Displeased at Scotland’s rejection of a papal edict demanding a truce with England – the Sturgeon Gold Standard of its day – Bruce and his supporters felt it good psychology to offer renewed respect to Pope John by asking him to endorse the Declaration, a sly counter-diplomatic offensive, if you like. The Pope on your side removes him from the other side.
Call it by its name
Scots know of the Declaration’s existence but most nothing much of its contents beyond the paragraph quoted at the start of the essay. This is a shame. It ought to be standard curriculum in Scottish schools.
To study only one central paragraph is enlightening. The authors of the document were marvellously adept at ingratiation, and spin. They knew how to construct a sentence that went from the factual to an outright cri de cœur. Making sure the wording showed due deference to England’s place, and skillfully taking care to get the Pope up-to-date with events and names without patronising him, guide him toward his prelates sufferings, the letter emphasises the Declaration is about people, not possessions.
The Most Holy Fathers,
Your predecessors, gave careful heed to these things and strengthened the same kingdom and people with favours and numerous privileges, as being the special charge of the Blessed Peter’s brother. Thus our people under the protection did indeed live in freedom and peace up to the time when when that mighty Prince, the king of English, Edward, the father of 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 top 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 eye.
The Declaration goes on to plead that English should be happy with their lot and stop coveting the land and wealth of its neighbour nation, a statement which contains the same power of truth today as then. “Leave us in peace” ends one paragraph, a phrase you can read every day in social sites dedicated to Scotland rights.
The penultimate paragraph ends with the document stating a similar situation as now, that the news disseminators of the day favoured the English point of view, not Scotland:
“But if your Holiness puts too much faith in the tales the English tell and will not give sincere belief to all of this, nor refrain from favouring them to our undoing, then the slaughter of the 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.
And so, with an audacious flourish effectively making obvious the Pope will carry the can of continued violence if he fails to condemn hostilities on both sides, the equivalent to ‘on your watch be it’, followed by the expected respect appended to the end of any letter in which you seek support for your plans, “May the Most High preserve You and His Holy Church…” the Declaration of Scotland’s sovereignty in the people was sent on its journey to France.
And yet here we are, in the 21st century, saying the same thing and for the same reason. “Exhort the king of England to be satisfied with what belongs to him”, says the letter, which just as easily could be said about Westminster’s avaricious power grab today.
Records indicate the letter was delivered to the Pope in Avignon and then lost, however, he did write to England’s new monarch, the less able or smart, Edward II, urging him to drop hostilities, and in reality, be nice to Scotland, a quality unknown in a nation intent on territorial ownership.
Signatories to the Declaration, some autographs omitted but known by their seals, read like a Who’s Who of of the day, patriots and unionists. Many seals are missing – the document must have been carried in a wooden box, so bulky was it with all the seals and tassels – and the majority are missing now, the Declaration stored so badly a large portion of it rotted away. In alphabetical order they are:
Sir David Brechin: Untrustworthy supporter of Bruce, hanged, used his wife’s seal.
Arthur Campbell: Campbells of Strachur, supporter, Constable Dunstaffnage Castle.
Reginald le Cheyne: Lord of Duffus and Inverugle, land in West Lothian, supporter.
Patrick Dunbar: Eighth earl of Dunbar, supporter after Bannockburn ‘convinced’ him.
John Duraunt: Unknown, probably landowner in south-west.
Sir Gilbert Hay of Erroll: Supporter, granted heritable office of Constable of Scotland.
Sir Alexander Fraser: Married Bruce’s sister, Mary, became king’s chamberlain.
David Graham: Supporter, received from Bruce land of Old Montrose in Angus.
John de Inchmartin: Sheriff of Perth, later knighted.
Sir Edward Keith: Supporter, subsequently Marischal of Scotland.
Alexander de Lamberton: Landowner in Angus, former supporter of Edward Balliol.
Malcolm Lennox: Fifth earl of Lennox, received sheriffdom of Dumbarton.
Thomas de Menzies: Lands in Perthshire and Dumfriesshire, strong supporter.
Thomas de Morham: Stirlingshire and East Lothian landowner, last of his lineage.
Sir Roger de Moubray: English supporter,turncoat, involved in 1320 conspiracy.
Sir William Oliphant: Lord of Dupplin and Aberdalgie, awarded land grants.
Sir Alexander Seton: Made king’s household steward, owner of land in East Lothian.
Malise Strathearn: Earl of Strathearn, strong adherent of the Cause, mother was not.
Sir Ingram de Umfraville: Fought for English, made peace with Bruce, went home.
If that list does not give the reader a strong flavour of Scotland in the 14th century, its divided loyalties, the argumentative and the vacillator, they will not understand why some Scots argue for Westminster rule forever though the Union has been a fraudulent institution for most of its length since 1707, and is now wholly unfit for a recycle bin.
I have a beautiful, full-sized, framed copy of the Declaration hanging on my office wall. It reinforces friends and relations that they enter an independent republic when they step inside my property, my domain, and they had better respect it. My currency is friendship, my passport, a saltire. Moreover, I defend my borders if the need arises!