On the 6th of April 1320 the nobility of Scotland gathered in the Abbey of Arbroath on the windswept east coast, and penned a letter to the Pope in Avignon that would come to symbolise Scottish independence, its indefatigability and the liberties and freedoms of her people. The Declaration of Arbroath came against the backdrop of decades of brutal war against England and her attempts to conquer Scotland; and it was as much about the legitimacy of Robert the Bruce as king, as it was for the sovereignty of the people. Yet, across oceans of time and space it would influence they way countries would govern themselves; the very birth of the concept of the nation state itself.
It is often said that Britain, and by extension Scotland has no constitution; no set of rules or articles that define how the nation is to be governed and what limits are placed upon those doing the governing. Some countries, like America or India are famous for their constitutions and while it is the case that the United Kingdom has no written document in this sense, it does still have a constitution; and one flexible enough to bend with the times, or pliable to meet the demands of modern government.
Rigid constitutions, like the American one, have to be routinely amended otherwise their legislative programmes get hacked to pieces in the courts. Britain doesn’t have this issue, because the Crown acts as legislature, executive and judicial all rolled into one. This means that any arrangement to guarantee freedom, democracy and the liberty of the individual from tyranny begins with limiting the Royal Prerogative, and indeed defining the relationship between Crown and people itself. And, it is a raft of documents, checks and balances, and conventions that form the British Constitution.
The process by which England, Scotland and ultimately Britain evolved from autocratic monarchy to liberal democracy took centuries, punctuated by the odd civil war here and there, and a slow ebbing of power either to parliament or to the cabinet and Prime Minister. In England the road begins with King John’s submission to the barons at Runnymede and the Magna Charta in 1215; in Scotland the fundamental document is the Declaration of Arbroath.
For centuries, kings of England had claimed overlordship of Scotland; and pointed to a number of occasions down through the years where Scottish kings had paid homage or submitted themselves at the English court. The problem was that the English kings took these rituals seriously, while the Scots were simply paying lip service until such time as they could regroup and head back to war. Scottish kings also protested that such submission was only ever for lands and titles they held in England; but that the English king had no writ over Scotland itself. The matter was essentially academic as the Scots fought hard to maintain their sovereign independence: until 1296 that is.
In middle ages Europe a country was simply as much land as a king got away with ruling; there was no sense of a nation state, or a national collective; no notion that a country was something abstract and beyond the writ of the royal decree. The king sat at the apex of a feudal system, which placed him as the sole arbiter and owner of the state; and by 1290 the English king, Edward I, had stretched his national and personal rule across half of France, half of Ireland, all of Wales and all the way to the historic border with Scotland. The Scots too had a powerful king, Alexander III, but his untimely death in 1286 precipitated a succession crisis and civil war. Edward was asked to adjudicate on the rightful king; but in the time honoured tradition and as a lever he demanded that whoever chosen would submit to him as overlord of Scotland.
The successful candidate, John Balliol enthusiastically accepted the crown and gave his due homage as vassal to Edward; Scotland was now officially a satellite of England and her king. John rebelled in 1296 and Edward invaded, stripped him of the throne, stole the regalia and symbols of the Scottish monarchy and proclaimed himself king. Without going into the detail of the Wars of Independence, and the backdrop of civil war between the Bruce, Balliol and Comyn factions still fighting each other for scraps from Edward’s table; the struggle for freedom was felt at all levels from peasant to prince and it had a galvanising effect.
The Robert Bruce of fame and glory was the third generation of his family to claim the Scottish throne since the death of Alexander, and he probably did have the strongest case. He was a clever tactician and a brilliant swordsman; but even he struggled to convince large sections of the population and nobility to follow him. In 1305, while in an advantageous position over his rivals he lured John Comyn to a church in Dumfries and murdered him in cold blood. For this act, the Bruce was excommunicated by the Pope, and neither he nor the Church would recognise Bruce as king, or Scotland as anything other than an English appendage. It was a dark hour, but with the deed done the way was clear, and ignoring the Pope, defying Edward and against the will of many Scots, Bruce was crowned in secret in 1306.Scotland once again had a king; but there was a long way to go.
Over the course of the following decade there were victories and setback, highs and lows, but finally in June 1314 Robert the Bruce defeated a huge English army led by Edward II just outside Stirling at Bannockburn. It was a massive victory, and not only ended English occupation, but cemented Bruce’s position as the rightful and free king. But, there remained the problem of the Pope and the excommunication.
Bruce acknowledged that he could not have won without the support of the nobles and the people themselves; and understanding the need to keep his country together (and his dynasty in power) he went off on a marketing campaign. He held parliaments, dispensed useful patronages, and above all he called himself King of Scots, not King of Scotland – an unspoken agreement that he ruled the people but not the land; the sovereignty was held both by king and his people. The long wars had steeled the people and made them determined that the Scotland that emerged would be for all the people, built by the people and in partnership with the crown. It was the emergence of what became known, and is still known as the Community of the Realm; it’s the dawning of the concept of nationhood.
These were the sentiments that were sprinkled through the Declaration of Arbroath. Although principally a plea to Pope John XXII to re-communicate the Bruce and recognise Scottish independence it also laid out how the future Scotland would be governed at a fundamental level – the right of the people to remove a king if he was unfit, and that he sat by their consent and in covenant with them. This is in medieval Scotland hundreds of years before the French and American revolutions. It is no coincidence that its message of freedom for all men, and the notion that power is held in trust for the people and that the people are sovereign is echoed in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. Many nations around the globe hold these values dear, first aired in Arbroath Abbey: it is an incredible legacy, and not to be forgotten even if only one hundred of us remains alive.
This article was written by David McNicoll, owner of Vacation Scotland – which specialises in vacations and travel packages to Scotland. For more information on their tours – http://www.vacationscotland.biz