Saturday, April 04, 2020

1320 - Declaration of Arbroath

2020 is not 1320 and 700 years makes a big difference to the meaning of language and the intent of the Declaration of Arbroath which tens of thousands of Scottish nationalists are commemorating this month. Scotland in 1320 was a very different country to the Scotland of today therefore we should not give to the medieval mind-set of the authors, an interpretation of a later modern age.

The Declaration of Arbroath, or to give its proper title, "Letter of Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII, should be seen for what it really was – primary as an expression of the interests of nobles determined to protect their privileges against the king.

According to the historian Neil Davidson, a key passage in the Declaration :
‘Yet if he [Robert the Bruce] shall give up what he has begun, seeking to make us or our kingdom subject to the king of England or to the English, we would strive at once to drive him out as our enemy and a subverter of his own rights and ours, and we would make some other man who was able to defend us our king; for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we will never on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English. For we fight not [for] glory, nor riches, nor honours, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up without his life’.

Stirring patriotic stuff but rather than represent the prototype for modern nationalism, historian Neil Davidson suggests it describes the function of the noble estate ‘as the defender of the kingdom against the claims of the individual monarch in a way that was entirely typical of absolutist Europe.’ Neil Davidson also observes, ‘The sonorous wording of the Declaration is in fact a clear statement of, among other things, the fact that the feudal ruling class still considered themselves to be a nation in a racial rather than the modern sense.’

It was putting out two messages. The first was directed at the English king, Edward II, informing him that it was pointless for him to attempt to depose Robert the Bruce with a more subservient king, since the remainder of the Scottish aristocracy would not cease its resistance. Secondly, it was addressed to Robert the Bruce, making it clear that, considering his dubious past record, they would not brook his jeopardising their interests – which lay in their god-given right to unhindered exploitation of the peasants – through making concessions to Edward.

The claims that the Declaration challenged the traditional belief in the Divine Right of Kings and promoting in its place the notion that the nation itself was foremost and the monarch merely its steward, is argued solely to justify Bruce usurping the rightful king John Balliol. The section of the Declaration reading “if this prince [Bruce] shall leave these principles he hath so nobly pursued, and consent that we or our kingdom be subjected to the king or people of England, we will immediately endeavour to expel him, as our enemy and as the subverter both of his own and our rights, and we will make another king, who will defend our liberties” should be read as a cautionary warning and a veiled threat to Robert the Bruce himself for he had switched his allegence several times in previous years.
The preamble to the Declaration traces the wanderings of the ‘Scots nation’ from ‘Greater Scythia to Scotland, celebrates its triumphs over Britons and Picts, and survival from attacks by ‘Norwegians, Danes and English. In a propaganda war, the Scots were at a disadvantage. The Pope in Rome had excommunicated Bruce who had decided to being more than just an English lord and to achieve that goal murdered his chief rival in a church. He sent three letters to the Pope. The first was a letter from himself, the second from the Scots clergy, and the third from the nobles of Scotland that became known as the Declaration of Arbroath.

The lesser-known earlier 1310 Declaration of the Clergy (the clergy being usually the younger sons of the nobles) proclaimed the Kingship of Robert. It begins by stating that John Balliol was made King of Scots by Edward Longshanks of England, but goes on to criticise Balliol’s status, because an English King does not have any authority to determine who will be the King of Scots. Such authority rests with the Scots themselves and alone, ignoring the fact that the Scottish nobles had given up that right in negotiations with Edward over twenty years beforehand.

That Declaration stated: ‘The people, therefore, and commons of the foresaid Kingdom of Scotland,...agreed upon the said Lord Robert, the King who now is, in whom the rights of his father and grandfather to the foresaid kingdom, in the judgement of the people, still exist and flourish entire; and with the concurrence and consent of the said people he was chosen to be King, that he might reform the deformities of the kingdom, correct what required correction, and direct what needed direction; and having been by their authority set over the kingdom, he was solemnly made King of Scots...And if any one on the contrary claim right to the foresaid kingdom in virtue of letters of time past, sealed and containing the consent of the people and the commons, know ye that all this took place in fact by force and violence which could not at the time be resisted.’

Like a lot of such grandiose statements we've seen down through the ages, the Clergy's declaration was nothing more than misleading propaganda, which sought to disguise the facts of history.
Those medieval signatories to the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath were merely feudal barons asserting their claim to rule and lord it over their own tenants and serfs, not leading any ‘liberation struggle’. In fact, John de Menteith, who turned William Wallace over to Edward of England put his seal to the Declaration of Arbroath. 

Not long after the signing, the document was forgotten for a few hundred years until it was rediscovered by Sir George Mackenzie in 1680, who viewed it not really as an expression of nationalism but as support for those who wished to curtail royal power. It was only later that the Declaration of Arbroath came to be seen in purely nationalistic terms. 

What did the signatories of the document actually mean by ‘we’ and ‘freedom’? The ‘we’ who attached their seals to the document were all noblemen. And it was their ‘freedom’ that it concerned. The authors when they spoke of the ‘people’ they meant ‘people like us’, not the peasant in the fields. The ‘people’ of Scotland were the nobles, the majority of whom at that time were still fairly much culturally Anglo-Norman, despite inter-marriage within the indigenous Scoto-Gael ruling families and ownership of the land. No-one who signed the Declaration believed that the common-folk of Scotland had any say in the issue. Or in anything else, for that matter. The Declaration signatories certainly had no concept of popular sovereignty.

A modern myth persists that the Declaration of Arbroath inspired the American Declaration of Independence because both enshrined that sovereignty rests with the people. Firstly, it was not a ‘declaration’ in the sense of the American Declaration of Independence or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man but a plea to the Pope.

If true ‘freedom-fighters’ are required then Scottish workers should look to those brave weavers who rose up five hundred years later on April 1820, in what was known as the Radical War, not the winners and losers of aristocratic family feuds over the throne of Scotland.

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