The mistake that we most frequently make about history is that the past is like the present. Scottish nationalists for instance think that the Declaration of Arbroath tells them something about Scotland in 2020. This is partly because too many of them are stuck in a badly understood version of medieval Scottish history where England and Scotland fought battles resembling Old Firm Derbies. More importantly it’s because they fail to even understand the context of those battles, who they were between and why various Scottish nobles decided to write to the Pope in of all places Avignon.
The most important thing to realise about the disputes and battles that took place in Britain after the Norman Conquest in 1066 is that they were fundamentally feudal disputes between Norman kings and barons. William the Conqueror conquered not merely what we today called England, but he and his fellow Normans became the dominant forces across much of the British Isles.
In 1072 Malcolm III of Scotland signed the Treaty of Abernethy where he paid homage to William the Conqueror acknowledging him as his feudal overlord. So, the Normans conquered Scotland too. Disputes continued between the successors to these kings, battles were fought, peace treaties signed. With the Treaty of Falaise in 1174 William I of Scotland accepted that Scotland would be subordinate to the English crown. It was this context that led Edward I of England to suppose that he had a role in Scottish affairs. This was not least because the Scottish nobles invited him to arbitrate when the Scottish crown fell vacant in 1290. Edward did so on condition that he be considered Lord Paramount of Scotland taking us back to 1072 and the conquest.
This was not so much a dispute between countries, let alone nations. People in 1314 did not think in those terms not least because they rarely left the villages in which they were born. A kingdom and the concept of feudal allegiance was a very different thing to a modern nation state. This is why it is senseless to apply nationalism to a period when it didn’t exist.
The struggle in Scotland in this period was a feudal battle for supremacy between kings and barons. The cause of the various battles so celebrated by Scottish nationalists was primarily a dispute about who should succeed to the Scottish crown. Scots fought against Scots just as much as we fought against the English and anyway the nobles and the kings were all Normans anyway.
There was wrong on all sides. Robert the Bruce was excommunicated for the murder of John Comyn in 1306. This was in time lifted, the Pope threatened to excommunicate Bruce again if he did not make peace with England in 1317 and did indeed re-excommunicate him in 1320 for his failure to make that peace. The Pope had already recognised the English crown’s overlordship over Scotland in 1305. The Scottish nobles wrote to the Pope in 1320 from Arbroath both to appeal against Bruce’s excommunication and to assert that the Scottish crown was not feudally subordinate. They did so by appealing to history.
The story that they give about the Scots journeying from Scythia to Spain and then to Scotland via Ireland is a rather garbled history of the migration of the Celts. The Scottish nobles claim then that “Britons it [i.e. the Scots] first drove out, the Picts it utterly destroyed”, but who do we suppose these Britons and Picts were if not also Celts. They too followed the same journey as the Scots from somewhere in Europe or perhaps Asia. Their language at some point branched off from that of the Scots, but they were of the same family.
The whole of Great Britain had probably once been settled by people speaking a language like Welsh (Brittonic) while at some point the language in Ireland had diverged (Goidelic). But when the Scoti migrated to present day Scotland they didn’t slaughter the Ancient Britons (i.e. Picts), living there to the last man. Rather they merged, just as in England the Anglo-Saxons merged with the Ancient Britons who lived there.
But what was most ignored by the Scottish nobles is that they themselves were rather distantly related to their ancestors from “Scythia”. If we read the names of those who signed the Declaration of Arbroath, we find that a good number of them use the prefix “de” as indeed did Robert de Brus. The Scottish Nobility was no more Scottish than the English nobility was English. The Anglo-Scottish wars were not fundamentally between England and Scotland at all. They were a family dispute between various Normans who bore next to no relation to the people who had originally inhabited either England or Scotland.
It is this which makes modern depictions of English kings with posh accents fighting Scots speaking like Glaswegians so ridiculous.
The Norman Scottish Barons were not asking the Pope for independence. They write “for, as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be subjected to the lordship of the English.” It is meaningless to interpret this in modern SNP terms. The Scottish Barons did not want to be feudally subordinate to the English crown. This has nothing to do with independence, because concepts of independence were not thought of at this time because we were talking of kingdoms rather than nation states. The only sovereignty was the sovereign. Only he was independent.
The whole letter is about feudalism. The barons claim that the Scots have held the land “free of all servitude ever since” they arrived, but they are talking about being feudally subordinate not about freedom or slavery. Most Scots were serfs at this time and these Barons were not about to free their slaves no matter what the Pope said. Thus, too when the barons argue that “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” they are only talking about themselves and their king not being feudally subordinate. They simply do not mean the freedom that we all take for granted today in Scotland.
It is bizarre then that Scottish nationalists appeal to a letter written to a Pope about a feudal dispute between Anglo-Norman barons and kings and Scoto-Norman barons and kings. No one had freedom, nor independence in the modern sense at this point in the British Isles apart from the kings and to a lesser extent the barons. The hundred who remained alive, would be fighting for someone else’s freedom and if they won would be returned to slavery.
Anyone marching virtually to Arbroath should realise he already has more freedom than almost anyone in 1320.
Why were they writing to the Pope anyway? The reason was that everyone in Britain at that time would have seen themselves as subordinate to the ruling of the Pope and the Church. But it is the distinguishing feature of British history that we rejected this in the Reformation. It is this event not a letter in 1320 that made us what we are today.
In the long run the Scoto-Norman barons who wrote the Declaration of Arbroath won their battle. The Scottish crown is not subordinate to the English crown, rather it took it over. When Elizabeth I died childless, the Scottish King James VI became the English King James I. He was the overlord.
If the Pope who replied to the Scottish nobles could have seen into the future he would have been delighted for this was exactly what he advised
Wherefore we ask … that you take into the most careful consideration the countless dangers and the losses of lives and goods which have been caused by the strife of the said king and Robert in times past and which, it is to be feared, will arise likewise from it in future unless it be bound up by union and concord; that you turn your minds to the profit of this unity and peace; and that, as far as in you lies, you do not allow the day thereto appointed (as aforesaid) to pass without it’s firm establishment.
The Pope answered that England and Scotland should be united and at peace. It is hard to see therefore what Scottish nationalists have to complain about. Both the wishes of the barons and the Pope were fulfilled though we took a few centuries to achieve it. Neither Scottish kings nor people are subordinate we are all equally British citizens with the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else. Instead of dwelling on ancient battles about feudal supremacy it might be wiser to unite in fighting a present battle that needs all of our energy.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2020/04/some-holes-in-letter-from-arbroath.html