Robert the Bruce
The Declaration of Arbroath
Every Scot knows that the Declaration of Arbroath was one of the greatest and most important statements of human rights ever written. Few people are aware that it had as powerful an influence on the USA as it did on Scotland.
This historic document was first written in 1320 - six years after Robert the Bruce's historic victory against Edward II at Bannockburn - as a plea to the Pope to stop supporting the English and recognise Scotland's independence. The appeal worked, but the most profound impact came nearly 500 years later when it was used as the basis for the American Declaration of Independence.
The rousing, central words of the American statement of July 4, 1776 almost exactly mirror the bold sentiments and cry for justice and human rights made in Scotland by the Bruce's nobles and bishops.
The original Declaration of Arbroath tells the Pope that the Scots nobles would even be prepared to cast out their beloved Robert the Bruce as king if he were ever to sell them out to the English.
It famously says: "As long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any condition be brought under English domination. It is in truth not for glory, nor for riches, nor for honour that we are fighting, but only and alone for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life."
Why should the founding fathers of modern America use this as their guiding light? More than half of them were of recent Scots descent and knew the importance the Arbroath document had on the old country they hailed from. Scottish influence in the creation of the United States cannot be overstated.
Given that the Bruce was still basking in the warm glow of his victory over the English king Edward II at Bannockburn when the Declaration of Arbroath was drawn up, why did he need to ask the Pope to curtail Edward's power? The reason was simple. Bannockburn had not ended tensions between Scotland and England. The Bruce - also known as Robert I - invaded and captured Berwick in 1318 and a series of raids into the north of England inflicted great damage. However, the then Pope,
John XXIV, did not accept that Scotland was an independent nation. Robert, whose excommunication after killing his rival John Comyn to seize the Scottish throne in 1306 may also have been a factor in the Pope's decision, was furious. The Pope stoked up the tension further by threatening the whole Scottish nation with excommunication if it did not accept Edward as overlord. The Bruce and his nobles realised matters were getting out of hand. So they gathered at Arbroath, then one of Scotland's most important religious and political centres, and put the declaration together. The aim was to assert that Scotland was a free country in its own right and that the Bruce was in place as king of Scots because the people themselves wanted him to rule. The declaration pleaded with the Pontiff not to take the English claim over Scotland seriously. It suggested that if the Scot's did not win the Pontiff's favour, the wars of independence would continue and the burden of future death's would fall on the Holy Father's shoulders. Bruce knew that if the Pope agreed with the Scots, then Edward would be asked to make peace. If he failed to do so, he could be excommunicated for disobeying the Pope.
Signed and sealed by 38 Scots nobles, the document was sent on its way. The plan worked. Edward was called to see the Pope, but refused, leaving the door open for the Pope to accept the Scots plea.
It was not until 1328 that the Treaty of Northampton was signed between the Bruce and Edward II's successor, Edward III. This finally acknowledged the Bruce's complete and unambiguous rule of Scotland, with no subjugation to England. Robert had won game, set and match.
The new treaty was sealed with a marriage between Robert's son David, who became David II of Scotland, and Edward's sister, Joanna.
The Bruce's work was over. He had established Scotland's freedom, led his country into a golden era of justice and relative prosperity and was well loved by his subjects. He was plagued by ill health in his later years and died at Cardross in present day Dunbartonshire. His body was taken east and buried in Dunfermline Abbey, but his heart was removed on his own instructions, embalmed and taken on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Bruce's favourite knight, Sir James Douglas, was chosen for the honour of carrying the relic, but was killed in combat by Moorish cavalry in present day Spain.
The heart was brought back and buried at Melrose Abbey.
In 1921, a small lead casket containing a heart was found under the chapter house floor. Three years ago, a team from Historic Scotland once again removed the lead container from the ground to check its condition, which was found to be remarkably good. This time the heart itself was not examined and it was buried again at Melrose Abbey last June.
Even today the presence of Scotland's greatest warrior king is real and the legacy he left us can still be witnessed.
Just, in fact, as it can in the archives of the United States of America.
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