Monday, 1 September 2014

1320 The Declaration Of Arbroath Part Seven And Last

Clauses Five and Six
Theories of Kingship

A great deal of ink has been spilt on the matter of how different elite’s dealt with the question of Kingship.  Whatever the theory, the historical practice suggests that it would have been more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Many of the Tsars and Tsarinas of Russia considered themselves to be elected, although the circumstances of many of the acquisitions of the throne are open to all sorts of questions.  The feudal Kingship of England does not have a history of seamless transition by right of descent.

The wise noble, knight, or leading churchman in 1320 would have made their bets each way.  One of the interesting aspects of the Declaration is the names that are missing from the roll.  Taking these together with a proportion of trimmers from the signatories does not alter the majority support for King Robert de Brus but is only an admission of the realities rather than the romance of politics.

Within the Declaration divine providence in the succession of Robert is praised and then is balanced with the bald threat of his displacement if he rats on the deal.  Who were the men that wanted such a statement built into the document?

It is an opinion, but my instinct would point to the men of the far north who had not forgotten their Norse and Viking links and connections.  Thane Thorfinn Skullsplitter was gone but not forgotten.

It is suggested that the theory of election is owed to a particular device of the ancient world, that of the tanistry employed by the earliest known chiefs.  The theory of election, however, applied just as much in many parts of Europe in the period.  Not only was the Pope elected, many principalities had Electors, and other arrangements were common.

The difficulty is the absolute requirement at the time for any statement of rights and procedures to be given credence by the claim of ancient history, learning, or that most elastic of commodities, custom.  This was so until the 18th Century when the push for pure reason and empiricism began to make headway.

But a great deal of political philosophy referred to ancient times, although the truth was unknown and a matter of guesswork and myth.  The Divines were obliged in their disputations to refer to the ancient fathers of their Churches, and even the 19th Century Temperance Movement was wracked by the debate over the Biblical evidence about the alcohol content of wine.

It was fortunate that the history of man has been such a varied and confused business that a precedent may be found for almost anything that is expedient at the moment.

So what exactly does “libertatem” mean in the context of the Declaration and its time?  It does not presage 18th Century enlightenment ideas about freedom and the Rights of Man, it is about the ability of the nobles to run their own affairs as they wish.

It is a theory of devolved absolutism that took time to dislodge.  Even into the 18th Century Scots coal miners under the Stuarts and their successor Hanoverians were employed on a basis of family contract that amounted to quasi-slavery for them and their families.

Clause Seven
Little Scotland And Making England Little

Essentially, stripped of the verbiage, this clause asks for the King of England and therefore his realm to be excommunicated.  Also, the Declaration flags the breakup of the Kingdom of England on the grounds that this would enable the Scots to live in peace.

Most probably, it is a bid for the Scots to take over the ancient Kingdom of Northumbria.  The action instigated by the Kings’ Edward was to protect their interests in the North of England and to curb the persistent Scots raiding by asserting an overlordship and control, in short, dog eat dog.

The Declaration refers to the Pope as the Vice Regent of God on earth, accepting Pope John’s own perception of the relationship between the Church and State.  This alone indicates the great influence wielded by the Church in Scotland.  The western mind today has difficulties in comprehending the nature of Islam and the meshing of religion and politics in its affairs, and, note, I put religion first.

So do modern generations have difficulty understanding the Medieval World and its constructs of mind.  Because for us politics is all we seriously underestimate the weight that the great churchmen of the time brought to bear on the secular elites.  In Britain, the Dissolution of the Monasteries meant the end of a Church, and the scattering of libraries.

Critically, it entailed the loss of the archives and consequently an understanding of the reality of the politics of the earlier age.  We can only be dimly aware of where the real balance of power lay and the age in which we live assumes secularity because of our own preoccupations.

Clauses Eight to Twelve
Oh Ye Of Little Faith

At this stage the voice of the Churches and the religious of Scotland is in full flow.  Quite whether all the Scots signatories would have sold their estates and marched off to the Holy Land to do their Christian Duty if the Pope had dished the King of England and broken up his realm is an interesting question.

I have doubts, and a suspicion, which is ignoble and cynical, crosses my mind that the Churchmen would have been the ones to benefit in that they would have been able to augment their growing possessions.

All this is wholly consistent with the Papal, and Dominican, world view.  One of the potent symbols of the Papacy is the Keys, those that gave admission to the Kingdom of Christ the All Powerful and Knowing.

Similarly the Province of York, the Archbishopric, also uses the Cross Keys as its heraldic device.  The Princes of the Church were the gatekeepers to the Gates of God, and the Kings and Princes of the Earth were subordinate in matters of belief, morals, ethics, laws and learning.

The remaining clauses are a Friar Preacher’s reiteration of the basis of the Declaration as a text about authority, submission, and overlordship.  The “libertas” is about the freedom of a few to be local autocrats and not remotely to do with any ideal of personal freedom and rights for all men, or women.

The “Liberties” in that age were defined areas and peculiars with separate arrangements, very often allotted to the Church, as a patch of ground free from the general law applicable in the vicinity.


Clearly it is a submission to the Pope, those are the rules of engagement.  As a submission to the Pope for his guidance, support, and authority it has to be to be on the basis of his vision of Christendom and his political philosophy and perceptions of power.  If that is the case it is not a Declaration of Independence, it is an homage, in the full sense of the understanding of the period.

In essence the Scots Church and magnates were asking for “poor little Scotland” to be a papal State, albeit under the indirect rule of the acknowledged King as the subordinate agent of the Pope, to act as the hereditary Guardians of the Holy Places of early Christianity in the Atlantic Archipelago.  The submission is wholly consistent with the Thomist theology of the Dominican order, and refers back to the thinking on the structure of Heaven and Earth as set down by St.Augustine, one of the major influences on the Benedictines.

Even in the 14th Century, a document of this importance would not have been created simply by the local Abbot writing a document at the behest of his King, them then calling in the rest of the team to sign it and then sending it off, hoping for a favourable reply by return of post; preferably with a cheque.

If in the hands of the Religious, especially the Dominicans, the genesis would have been a more complicated matter, not to say tortuous.  I would expect that the origins of the document would have been some months previously.

What event or circumstance in 1318-1319 may have triggered the accession to the Pope about the status of Scotland?  From the Scottish side the breakdown in negotiations with England in 1318 and the sheer confusion in England would have been enough, let alone the other imperatives facing them.

My personal judgement is that the Declaration shows the hallmarks of a document that has been cleared with whoever is due to receive it before it is put in place.  In short it is not a simple submission to the Pope, but the Pope and the Curia at least would have been aware of what was happening and so the Declaration had to fit their own particular vision of the needs of the time.

The Pope had not long beaten off the claim of the ambitious King Louis of Bavaria, aspirant to the title of King of Germany, and the richest monarch in Europe, to determine who should appoint the Imperial Vicar of Italy.  The successful assertion of the City of God over the City of Earth in the matter of worldly jurisdictions would have been enough to persuade the King of Scots and most of his nobles to sign the Declaration.

Structurally the Declaration is interesting and in many respects is a sermon from the mind of Friars Preacher.  It is in the form of a Dialogue with the questions absent, but implicit in the layout and thrust of the text.  For most of the passages, the hand of the Dominicans can be detected, although clearly there are additions and embellishments.

As men of the religious orders occupied almost all the senior administrative positions in the Courts of Kings and Princes it is expected that their mark will lie on most documents.  But the Declaration is clearly not a legal plea over points of law; it is a supplication to God, for His Blessing and Mercy, through the agency of his Vicar and Vice Regent on Earth.

It is understandable that the Scots magnates and landowners would be wary of any English system, with self-governing boroughs, Parish administration, and the common law.  Equally, if the intention of the Kings of England, in contrast, was to impose direct rule through appointed Sheriffs and Bailiffs, that would be less welcome.

The feudal law and the King’s courts would seriously limit and impede their local powers.  Certainly there would be a substantial risk of a King of England wanting to adopt the practice of the dispersion of holdings, used elsewhere, as policy to reduce the large coherent territories of the Scots nobility.

They would see this as an emasculation of their power and authority.  They wished to retain the personal absolutism and administration of law in their districts; that is to continue as local autocratic war lords instead of becoming managers of property and incomes under an obligation to bear arms for the King.

Given all the factors involved the Declaration is a document of its time, if not of its place, that being the context of the major centres of power in continental Europe.  Essentially, it is about religious as much as temporal power in the uncertain world of the early 14th Century.

The Ascendancy Of The Northmen and their Norman cousins in Scotland wanted a clear break from those of England, and the opportunity had arisen for it to be done for sound reasons for both the religious and secular power groups in Scotland.
Contemporary commerce and finance played its part, although not a great deal is known about the complex of Scotland’s trading at the time.

It is unlikely that the Scots would have seen themselves benefiting from coming under the sway of the rising dominance of the polyglot London of the early 14th Century that already had most of England in its commercial grasp.

Even allowing for the economics, which King ruled and how, then it was still largely a matter of faith and the Will Of God, that most changeable of minds.

The picture above is the Papal Palace at Avignon across the river from the camp site we visited so many times on our travels.  It was a cross roads of Europe at the time.


  1. A lovely series, most interesting. Thank you.

  2. "Thane Thorfinn Skullsplitter was gone but not forgotten."

    With a name like that he never will be forgotten either.