In this brilliant article, David C. Weinczok looks at an often unknown 14th century declaration in Scotland – and how it has influenced some of the most important revolutions in history as well as the modern world itself.
The evolution of Western political thought has been driven and accompanied by a pantheon of great works, documents not only of theory but of praxis that help to steer, redirect, or indeed even rebuild the ship of state. Beginning, perhaps, with Plato’s Republic, we can trace this pantheon through various points of political, and therefore historical, development and upheaval: Machiavelli’s The Prince and oft-neglected Discourses, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government being among the best known and most influential of them. Documents veering further from the realm of theory and grounded more firmly in concrete political incidences, such as the Magna Carta or the Declaration of Independence of the United States, are nonetheless heavily influenced by the philosophical environments in which they were conceived. There is one constant and notable absence from this assemblage, however, that deserves a restoration in the democratic consciousness – Scotland’s Declaration of Arbroath, written as a fervent assertion of national sovereignty and, most significantly, of the reciprocal relationship between rulers and the people.
Plea of a nation
The Declaration of Arbroath was one part of a diplomatic package of appeal sent by the Scots to Pope John XXII, whose court was in Avignon. Robert Bruce, King of Scots (1306-1329), had been excommunicated in 1319 after the Scots had broken a Papal truce by recapturing Berwick-upon-Tweed from the English the year before. This and other hostile actions against the northern shires of England were part of a concerted effort to bring the English king, Edward II, to the negotiating table concerning Scotland’s status as an independent nation, an effort which had so far been for naught. Bruce himself was summoned to appear before the pope in May 1320, but instead sent the Declaration alongside a personal letter stressing the longstanding relationship between the Papacy and Scotland, its ‘special daughter.’ The Declaration was signed by 49 Scots nobles in addition to Bruce himself, including Walter Steward, progenitor of the Stewart line of Scottish and later British kings, as well as the infamous James ‘the Black’ Douglas, the scourge of northern England.
Largely forgotten following its publication, the Declaration of Arbroath was only rediscovered in the 17th century, and it was not until the 19th and 20th centuries that it “acquired the status of a surrogate Scottish constitution” (Lynch, 111). In approximately 1,200 words the Declaration reinforced for its audience the mythological foundation of Scotland, its desperation in the face of relentless attempts towards its subjugation, and its right to be recognized once again as a nation of its own as it had been from the 9th century until 1296. It came at a delicate time – Scotland was reeling from the exhaustion of the Wars of Independence, which saw it struggling against not only the might of England but from internecine rivalries and civil war.
Many modern Scots know by heart the most famous passage from the Declaration:
…for as long as one hundred of us remain alive, we will never consent to subject ourselves to the English.
However, the passage that deserves international attention, and which earns the Declaration of Arbroath a place among the great documents in the evolution of political thought, immediately follows the defiant words above:
But after all, if this prince [King Robert] shall leave those principles which he hath so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the king or people of England, we will immediately endeavor to expel him as our enemy, and as the subverter of both his own and our rights, and will choose another king who will defend our liberties.
Robert Bruce, Scotland’s hero-king and champion of the Wars of Independence, put his name to a document declaring in no uncertain terms that he would be driven out just the same as the English if he betrayed his nation’s cause. How could such a thing be possible in the fourteenth century, an age of the Divine Right of Kings and absolute monarchy?
The Scottish Wars of Independence: Setting the stage for a social contract
The Scottish Wars of Independence were essential to the political and intellectual environment from which the Declaration of Arbroath would emerge. In 1286 the Scottish king, Alexander III, fell to his death during a terrible storm and so triggered a crisis of succession. The English king, Edward I, a respected Machiavellian monarch of the highest order, was brought in to arbitrate the dispute between the Scottish families vying for the crown. His choice was John Balliol, who proved to be an ineffectual leader hopelessly caught between the irreconcilable demands of Edward and the Scottish nobility and clergy. In 1296 Balliol bit the hand that fed him by forging what would become known as the ‘Auld Alliance’ with France, enraging Edward and resulting in Balliol being ceremonially stripped of his royal regalia and the Scottish throne itself. Edward had enough of puppetry – no longer willing to rule by proxy, he set himself upon the course for conquest.
So began eighteen years of English military occupation of Scotland, beginning with the horrendous sack of Berwick, then a part of Scotland, in which most of the city’s 15,000 inhabitants were put to the sword, and ending with Robert Bruce’s resounding victory over the English army under Edward II at Bannockburn. Before Bruce’s controversial coronation in 1306 (the controversy being due to his murder of his main rival to the throne, John Comyn, at the high altar of Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries only weeks before), many Scots still thought of Balliol as the rightful king of Scotland despite his political failings. In 1302 William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, sought a legal justification for renouncing Balliol in favor of a more assertive king. He found the crux of his argument in the teachings of Duns Scotus, a philosopher-theologian, whom he met with in Paris. Scotus argued that:
The real root of royal authority…had nothing to do with inheritance. A king whose power was legitimate was king because his people granted him their consent, and if that consent were to be withdrawn for any reason then the man was king no more. (Oliver, 126-127)
A king (or queen) was therefore not one thanks to any ‘right’ attained through wealth, title or divine assent, but because of their service to their people and community. The failure of Balliol to act as a steward for Scotland’s best interests, combined with the disasters that befell Scotland during the Wars of Independence, gave Duns Scotus’ conception of a custodian-king a great deal of appeal. It helped, of course, that there was one ready made in the person of Robert Bruce.
For the Scots, one of the consequences of the Wars of Independence was an emergent sense of a single political community and national identity. The publication of several works in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries amounting to an ‘official’ history of Scotland, including John Barbour’s Brus and Walter Bower’s Scotichronicon, helped to instill a hitherto unprecedented level of Scottish self-awareness (Lynch, 112-113). This self-awareness came alongside vigilance, not only against external enemies but internal ones as well. Scots had learned the hard way that the national interest, that being the wellbeing of the people, must be preserved against the constant threat of the waywardness and ambitions of those chosen to rule.
The legacy of Arbroath
This notion of kingship would largely recede during the reign of the Stewart kings of Scotland (and later Britain), which, especially during the reigns of James IV, V and VI, entrenched absolute monarchy back into the depths of the Scottish political mindset. One would not be remiss in asking, then, to what extent the Declaration of Arbroath changed the political scene at all, given its fall into obscurity very shortly after its reception at the Papal court. There remained, however, a telling difference between Scottish kings and other European monarchs throughout the Medieval period, one that harkened back to the kingly ideal put forward by Duns Scotus. The King of Scots, until the Union of Crowns in 1603, was precisely that – the King of Scots, rather than the King of Scotland. It was a subtle difference, but in an age dominated by kings who asserted their authority over the very earth upon which their nations were built, it is one that warrants further attention.
The Declaration of Arbroath would influence the minds and pens of those men and women who set their hearts to the work of democracy in the modern age. For instance, as many as one third of the signatories to the American Declaration of Independence were Scotsmen or of Scottish descent. Thomas Jefferson, who claimed Robert Bruce as an ancestor, was undoubtedly affected by the Declaration of Arbroath due to his education at the college of William and Mary under the Scotsman William Small, who Jefferson would describe as being “as a father” to him (Caledonian Mercury, 2011). More fundamentally, though, the Declaration of Arbroath was a deep chink in the armor of any system that sustained itself through the self-interested actions of the individual(s) in charge. Hence its sentiments, whether consciously or not, would emerge again and again in struggles such as the French and American Revolutions, as well as in the general popularization of accountable political structures that would ultimately be expressed through the spread of democratic governance.
In such ways has the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter from a king to a pope at the height of the Medieval world, shaped the modern one. In so doing, it has surely earned a place among the standard works to be studied by learners of politics, history, ideas and power.
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Caledonian Mercury. ‘The Scottish influence on the US Declaration of Independence, from Arbroath to the Enlightenment.’ Feb. 2011. Web. http://caledonianmercury.com/2011/02/10/the-scottish-influence-on-the-us-declaration-of-independence-from-arbroath-to-the-enlightenment/0013857
Caroline Erskine, Alan R MacDonald & Michael Penman (Eds.). ‘Scotland: The Making and Unmaking of the Nations c.1100-1707.’ Dundee University Press in association with The Open University in Scotland: Dundee, UK. 2007.
Lynch, Michael. ‘Scotland: A New History.’ Pimlico: London, UK. 1992.
Neil Oliver. ‘A History of Scotland.’ Phoenix: London, UK. 2010.