Declaration of Arbroath goes on display for the first time in 18 years

02 June 2023
Dr Alice Blackwell and Dr Alan Borthwrick © Duncan McGlynn
The Declaration of Arbroath goes on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh on 3 June 2023 for the first time in almost two decades.

The Declaration of Arbroath was last displayed 18 years ago at the Scottish Parliament. The iconic and fragile 700-year-old document, which is cared for and preserved for future generations by National Records of Scotland, can only be displayed occasionally in order to ensure its long-term preservation.

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The Declaration was due to be displayed in April 2020 to coincide with its 700th anniversary, but this was postponed due to the pandemic. The new summer date has been chosen to give as many people as possible the rare chance to see one of Scotland’s most important historical documents.

What is the Declaration of Arbroath?

The Declaration of Arbroath is a letter dated 6 April 1320, written by the barons and freeholders of Scotland, on behalf of the Kingdom of Scotland, to Pope John XXII asking him to recognise Scotland's independence and acknowledge Robert the Bruce as the country's lawful king.

The letter also asks the Pontiff to persuade King Edward II of England to end hostilities against the Scots, so that their energy may be better used to secure the frontiers of Christendom.

Diagonal view of the Declaration of Arbroath. Mike Brooks © King's Printer for Scotland, National Records of Scotland, SP13-7

The Declaration was probably drafted at a meeting of the King and his council at Newbattle, then written up in the scriptorium of Arbroath Abbey. Written in Latin, it was sealed by eight earls and about 40 barons. It was authenticated by seals, as documents at that time were not signed. Only 19 seals now remain.

A rare opportunity

Alice Blackwell, Senior Curator of Medieval Archaeology and History at National Museums Scotland said:“It is great to be able to display the Declaration of Arbroath here at the National Museum of Scotland, the home of our nation’s material history and the country’s most visited attraction. We look forward to welcoming many visitors to enjoy the rare opportunity of seeing this hugely significant document in person.”

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Declaration of Arbroath © Duncan McGlynn-7

Dr Alan Borthwick, Head of Medieval and Early Modern Records, National Records of Scotland, said:

“The Declaration of Arbroath is one of the most significant documents we have in our collections. At National Records of Scotland we are hugely proud of the role we play in conserving it to ensure it is still here for future generations to see and study. We hope people from Scotland and beyond will take this rare opportunity to see it for themselves.”

 The Declaration was written during the long Wars of Independence with England when, despite the Scots’ success at the Battle of Bannockburn, Robert I had not been recognised as king by either Edward II or by the Pope, and had been excommunicated by the latter. At this time, the Pope desired peace between England and Scotland, so both could help in a crusade to the Holy Land. The Declaration sought to influence him by offering the possibility of support from the Scots for his long-desired crusade if they no longer had to fear English invasion. 

After receiving the Declaration, the Pope urged reconciliation between the warring sides and a truce was agreed in 1323.  A peace treaty was signed between England and Scotland in March 1328 and the following year the Pope issued a papal bull permitting the anointing and crowning of a King of Scots.  The peace was short-lived, however, as the Second War of Independence broke out in 1332 and went on for 25 years.

See the Declaration of Arbroath

Venue: National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EH1 1JF; website. Entry is free.

(report courtesy National Museum of Scotland)