July 2012 – The ‘deposition clause’ in the Declaration of Arbroath

Rereading the ‘deposition clause’ in the Declaration of Arbroath[1]

Dauvit Broun (Principal Investigator)


In late 1319 and early 1320 papal pressure on Robert I (Bruce) and his government to submit to Edward II of England was at its most intense.[2] The response, as is well known, included a letter to Pope John XII, dated 6 April 1320 at Arbroath, sent in the name of the barons of Scotland and the ‘whole community of the kingdom’. In modern times this has come to be known as the Declaration of Arbroath because of a famous, heart-stirring passage:[3]

‘Yet if he (King Robert) should 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 right 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 it is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life’.

Can anything new be said about this? Because these words are so famous, it is extremely difficult for us to imagine their original impact while the wax of each baron’s seal was still wet. There can be little doubt, though, that the threat to replace the king would have leapt off the page then, as now. For many today it represents a statement of popular sovereignty that has echoed down the centuries. Is that how it would have been understood in 1320?

Different approaches to the ‘deposition clause’

Historians have generally taken two approaches to this passage.[4] Some have examined it principally as a statement of constitutional significance, and have sought to explain it by setting it within the wider context of medieval political ideas. Seen in this light, it has been argued by Ted Cowan that the deposition clause ‘is the first national or governmental expression, in all of Europe, of the principle of the contractual theory of monarchy which lies at the root of modern constitutionalism’.[5] Other historians have sought to understand the Declaration as an example of a particular type of document found elsewhere in Latin Christendom: a letter sent by a king’s subjects to the pope. This has led Grant Simpson to ask whether it is ‘any more than an able piece of diplomatic pleading’.[6] In this Feature a different approach is taken, one that eschews the international perspective taken by Cowan and Simpson. Instead, the focus will narrow on immediate political circumstances as the key to understanding the most puzzling aspects of the deposition clause. Archie Duncan, in particular, saw the text as primarily a political document written not just for the papal curia, but for a domestic audience, too.[7] This Feature aims to develop this insight as a way of explaining the Declaration’s most celebrated passage.

A justification for Robert I’s coup?

This is not to say that historians who view the text chiefly in constitutional terms have not been aware that it might simultaneously have borne a political message. Ted Cowan and Sandy Grant have argued that the bold assertion of the right of the community of the kingdom to replace Robert I with another who would maintain Scottish independence was intended as a justification of how Robert Bruce became king back in 1306.[8] Certainly, at that time most barons would have regarded Robert’s seizure of the throne as questionable. John Balliol had been duly established as king in 1292. Although he never returned to Scotland after Edward I’s conquest of 1296, plans for his return reached an advanced stage in 1301. A government in King John’s name, led by John Comyn, had held out against Edward I until 9 February 1304. When Robert Bruce was inaugurated as king on 25 and 27 March 1306, he not only usurped King John’s residual claim to be king, but also the right of John’s son and heir, Edward Balliol. There was, therefore, a genuine need to justify why Robert Bruce should be accepted as king rather than John or Edward Balliol. John Balliol had, of course, abjectly failed to defend the kingdom. The assertion of the community of the kingdom’s right to depose a king in these circumstances looks at first sight, therefore, like a calculated strike at the most vulnerable part of any argument favouring Balliol rather than Bruce. By 1320 it was, of course, also playing to Robert’s most conspicuous strength: his destruction of English power in Scotland.

How Robert became king, according to the Declaration

Does this fully capture the intentions of those drafting the ‘deposition clause’? Is this what the barons at that time would have understood as its subtext? An explicit statement of Robert’s right to kingship is, in fact, to be found elsewhere in the Declaration. There we are told that he was made king by both ‘rightful succession and the due consent and assent of us all’. According to this formulation, it was not enough merely to be approved by the ‘community of the kingdom’; it was assumed that their assent and consent would naturally be given to whoever was identified as the rightful king by the laws of succession. There had, of course, been a bitter dispute between Robert’s grandfather and John Balliol in the ‘Great Cause’ of 1292 about how these laws were to be interpreted. All had agreed, however, that being the nearest blood-relative of the previous king was an essential criterion: the point at issue had been how to define this in the complex circumstances following the death of Alexander III’s last remaining heir of his body, Margaret the Maid of Norway, in 1290. This is important to bear in mind when looking again at the ‘deposition clause’ in the Declaration. There we are told, simply, that if Robert were to submit to the English king’s overlordship, he would be replaced by ‘some other man who was able to defend us’. There is no mention of ‘rightful succession’—for a good reason. By 1320 King Robert had lost all his brothers before they had had any legitimate offspring: the last survivor had been Edward, recognised as Robert’s heir in 1315, and killed in battle at Dundalk in Ireland on 14 October 1318. Robert’s only child by his first wife, his daughter Margaret, had died in 1317, and in 1320 any offspring he may have had by his second wife—who had been held a prisoner until after Bannockburn—would have still been infants. His son and eventual successor, David II, was not yet born. Robert I’s acknowledged heir, Robert Stewart (the future Robert II), son of his daughter, Margaret, was only four years old in 1320. In short: there was no-one capable of defending the realm who shared the Bruces’ royal blood. King Robert’s nearest adult male relative, Thomas Randolph, had all the credentials to be king—a victorious captain in war and lord of strategically important regions—apart from blue blood: Robert I’s mother, Marjorie, was Thomas’s grandmother. There can be little doubt that Thomas would have been the most likely person to have filled Robert I’s boots in a crisis. He had already been given the ancestral Bruce lordship of Annandale, been created earl of Moray with royal powers, and been installed as lord of Man, which old men would have remembered as having once been a kingdom. In the settlement of the succession before Edward Bruce’s departure for Ireland in 1315, and in 1318 following his death, it was stated that Thomas Randolph was first choice as governor of the kingdom in the event of the accession of an underage king.[9] If the ‘deposition clause’ was intended as a statement of constitutional principle, this would have served to justify Thomas Randolph as king, not Robert Bruce.

Robert I seeking to submit to the English: a bizarre idea

But surely there was no possibility of Thomas Randolph replacing Robert I? The most puzzling aspect of the ‘deposition clause’ is the idea of King Robert seeking to submit to Edward II and the English. As it stands this seems absurd. There was not the slightest chance that Robert would do this. Why, then, was it stated at all?

To answer this, we should start by reminding ourselves how the Declaration came to be written. Professor Archie Duncan argued convincingly that the text was initiated at a full council at Newbattle in mid-March.[10] Robert I and his advisers decided to deploy a tactic that kings of England and France had used before when they had wished to defy the pope. They wrote a letter in the name of the barons of the realm in which the barons stated that they would not permit their king to comply with the pope’s demands.[11] There is a striking difference between these letters and the Declaration of Arbroath, however. They spoke of restraining their king; only in the Declaration is the king threatened with deposition. Why did Robert I and his council think this was appropriate? It is astonishing for a king to encourage the idea that his barons had the right to replace him.

The chief intended audience for the ‘deposition clause’

In order to explain this, we need to ask for whose eyes Robert I and his government wrote these words. The letter was to the pope, but would it have mattered to him whether the barons were presented as threatening to depose rather than simply restrain their king? In order to find the intended audience for these words we should look not at the beginning of the letter where the pope is addressed, but the bottom where baronial seals fixed on tabs dangle chock-a-block from the parchment.[12]

Before anyone appended their seal to a document, they would presumably have asked someone they trusted (such as their chaplain) to tell them what it said. It would be exceptionally rash to do otherwise, especially if you felt under pressure to do so. This means that the Declaration was almost certainly written not only for the pope’s eyes, but for the ears of the Scottish barons.[13] Not all of them would have regarded Robert I as Scotland’s saviour. Some had strong connections with the Balliol and Comyn families, and would not have forgotten that Robert Bruce had killed the head of the Comyns in Greyfriars’ Church, Dumfries, on 5 February 1306, before seizing the throne. Others, no doubt, may have been undecided about Robert I, and were prepared to support him—but only as long as he was clearly in charge.[14] This was the problem. After Edward Bruce’s death in October 1318 the future of Bruce kingship hung on the thread of Robert I’s own life. Were he to die, would Bruce’s adherents be able to control the country in the name of the infant Robert Stewart? Would they, in particular, be able to prevent not only those with Balliol and Comyn connections, but some of the ‘neutrals’, too, from gathering round the banner of the adult Edward Balliol and reopening the civil war?

Meeting the threat from Edward Balliol

Such concerns were fully justified. Only four months after the Declaration was sealed some barons were accused of trying to kill King Robert. The ‘official’ version was that they sought to put William Soules on the throne, but this seems improbable. It has been argued that their real intention was to make Edward Balliol king.[15]

As it happened, it was not until 1332—three years after Robert I’s death—that Edward Balliol managed to raise enough military support to take the throne. Within months he had been chased out of the kingdom. When he returned the following year he had secured the support of Edward III of England. But at a cost. On regaining the throne he ceded southern Scotland to England. Presumably there were many in 1320 who would have feared that Edward Balliol, were he to become king, and his supporters would be so dependent on English assistance that they would sacrifice Scottish independence, at the very least. This would provide a context for the striking statement that, should King Robert surrender to the English, he would be replaced. There was no risk that Robert I would do this. But there was every chance that, should Edward Balliol ever be king of Scots, the inevitable price would be the restoration of English overlordship. Seen in this light, the ‘deposition clause’ can readily be interpreted as a statement directed against anyone thinking of making Edward Balliol king. The message was not only that he was wholly unsuitable, but in particular that the Bruce party would not hesitate to make ‘some other man’ king in order to preserve what Robert I had achieved. That ‘other man’ would, no doubt, have been understood by the barons to be Thomas Randolph, the man who had been approved in parliament as guardian of the country if Robert I’s heir was a minor. It may have been posturing to imply that Thomas could, if need be, become king. But that was all it needed to be. It was meant to make those questioning the Bruce party’s long term future think again: a piece of bravura that was intended to confound plotters, frighten doubters and assure supporters.

The significance of the ‘deposition clause’

This explanation of why the ‘deposition clause’ was written does not make it any less remarkable. It does, however, raise questions about its constitutional significance. The authors of the Declaration—ultimately Robert I and his government—were, indeed, keen to show that Robert I was rightfully king. They did this elsewhere in the text. There the constitutional norm was expressed not by referring to the possibility of deposition, but by stating that Robert had been made king by a combination of the laws of succession and the agreement of the community of the kingdom (see appendix for the text).[16] To our modern mind the principle of heredity seems incompatible with contractual monarchy, far less popular sovereignty. As far as Robert I and his government were concerned, the two went together hand-in-hand—so much so that ‘contractual’ may not be the most helpful term to use in describing the relationship that was envisaged between ruler and ruled. It was inconceivable that the rightful king by blood would not naturally receive the assent of his people. It may be inferred from this that the interests of king and people were expected to be identical. Such an umbilical bond may also be inferred elsewhere in the Declaration where the Scots are defined by their line of 113 kings unbroken by a foreigner.

It was only when (in their terms) the kingdom was subverted, breaking this relationship, that Robert I and his government countenanced a different scenario, where a king would be deposed and another chosen in his stead. The reference to Robert I’s potential deposition seems at first sight to be absurd. If it is read in its immediate political context, however—the risk of an attempted comeback by Edward Balliol, and the precariousness of the succession to Robert I—then its intention may have been to make clear that, in the event of Robert no longer being king, his most powerful supporters would be ready, come what may, to find another king if this was the only way to preserve Scottish independence. Far from being a based on established constitutional principle, therefore, the ‘deposition clause’ makes most sense if it is seen as a powerful statement of a government’s determination to take extreme measures in order to maintain its authority and the kingdom’s integrity. The Declaration was, after all, a letter written chiefly for a specific occasion, rather than a treatise, statute or chronicle intended purely for repeated reference in the future. As far as constitutional norms are concerned, Robert I and his government in the Declaration were far from encouraging the barons to think of themselves as ever being in a position where they might be entitled to resist King Robert himself, far less depose him.



Two versions of the explanation of how Robert I became king in the letter of Scottish barons to Pope John XXII (the ‘Declaration of Arbroath’). Arbroath. 6 April 1320.

(i) National Records of Scotland, State Papers 13/7 (the duplicate original retained in Scottish royal archive)

This is damaged: material in angled brackets is illegible in the facsimile in the National Manuscripts of Scotland, vol. ii.

<… quem [Robertum] eciam diuina dispos>icio et iuxta lege<s> et consuetudines nostras, quas usque ad mortem sustinere volumus, iuris successio et debitus nostrorum omnium consensus et assensus nostrum fecer<unt> princ<ipem atque regem>.

‘… whom [Robert I], moreover, divine providence, rightful succession, and the due consent and assent of us all have made our ruler and king to his right, according both to our laws and customs, which we intend to maintain to the death.’

(ii) The rewritten version found in Scotichronicon, XIII. 3[18]

Scotichronicon by Walter Bower in Latin and English, gen. ed. D. E. R. Watt, vol. vii, ed. A. B. Scott and D. E. R. Watt with Ulrike Morét and Norman F. Shead (Edinburgh 1996), 6.

quem [Robertum] eciam divina disposicione [et][19] iuxta leges et consuetudines nostras, quas usque ad mortem sustinere volumus, et iuris successio, et debitus nostrorum omnium consensus et assensus nostrum fecerunt principem atque regem.

‘… whom [Robert I], moreover, both rightful succession, and the due consent and assent of us all, have made our ruler and king, by divine providence, and according to our laws and customs, which we intend to maintain to the death.’

Comment: The alterations seem slight—disposicio is changed from nominative to ablative, disposicione,[20] and et is added before iuris successio—and make the prose clumsier. The effect, however, is to place more emphasis on rightful succession and the ‘consent and assent of us all’. In the original, divine providence joins rightful succession and consent and assent as the elements which together made Robert king. In the rewritten version, divine providence and ‘our laws and customs’ are coupled as general factors, leaving rightful succession with consent and assent as the specific elements. This may, therefore, be an attempt to sharpen this as a statement of what makes a king a king. Although it loses a little cogency as prose, it gains more force intellectually.

[1] I am very grateful to David Carpenter and Amanda Beam for comments on this.

[2] G. G. Simpson, ‘The Declaration of Arbroath revitialized’, Scottish Historical Review, 56 (1977), 11–33, at 18, refers graphically to a ‘hailstorm of threatening papal letters, issued between mid-November 1319 and early January 1320’.

[3] The most accessible translation is that by Alan Borthwick’s based on previous translations at http://www.nas.gov.uk/downloads/declarationArbroath.pdf.

[4] A more wideranging discussion of the reception of the Declaration in academic, cultural and popular circles is provided by Terry Brotherstone and David Ditchburn, ‘1320 and a’ that: the Declaration of Arbroath and the remaking of Scottish history’, in Terry Brotherstone and David Ditchburn (eds), Freedom and Authority. Historical and Historiographical Essays presented to Grant G. Simpson (East Linton 2000), 10–31. The ‘deposition clause’ is discussed briefly at 22.

[5] Edward J. Cowan, ‘For Freedom Alone’. The Declaration of Arbroath, 1320 (East Linton 2003), 62. Note also G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland, 4th edn (Edinburgh 2005), 400, referring to this as king and community combining ‘to produce a clear statement of their mutual relationship’.

[6] Simpson, ‘The Declaration of Arbroath revitialized’, 33.

[7] A. A. M. Duncan, ‘The making of the Declaration of Arbroath’, in D. A. Bullough and R. L. Storey (eds), The Study of Medieval Records (Oxford 1971), 174–88.

[8] Alexander Grant, ‘Aspects of national consciousness in medieval Scotland’, in C. Bjørn, A. Grant and K. J. Stringer, Nations, Nationalism and Patriotism in the European Past (Copenhagen 1994), 68–95.

[9] The Records of the Parliaments of Scotland to 1707, K.M. Brown et al eds (St Andrews, 2007-2012), 1315/1, 1318/30. Date accessed: 29 November 2012. http://www.rps.ac.uk/mss/1315/1; http://www.rps.ac.uk/mss/1318/30.

[10] A. A. M. Duncan, ‘The making of the Declaration of Arbroath’, in D. A. Bullough and R. L. Storey (eds), The Study of Medieval Records (Oxford 1971), 174–88; see also A. A. M. Duncan, The Nation of Scots and the Declaration of Arbroath (1320), Historical Association Pamphlet (London 1970)

[11] Simpson. ‘The Declaration of Arbroath’, 22–4.

[12] Duncan, ‘The making of the Declaration of Arbroath’, brought this aspect of the Declaration to life.

[13] Cowan, ‘For Freedom Alone’, 76–7, makes a similar point.

[14] Cowan, ‘For Freedom Alone’, 79–80.

[15] A. A. M. Duncan, ‘The war of the Scots, 1306-23’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 2 (1992), 125–51; Michael Penman, ‘A fell coniuration again Robert the douchty king: the Soules conspiracy of 1318–1320’, Innes Review, 50 (1999), 25–57; Amanda G. Beam, The Balliol Dynasty 1210–1364 (Edinburgh 2008), 204–6, who shows that Edward Balliol only arrived in England in July 1320.

[16] In the appendix the weighting of other elements—divine providence and laws and customs—is considered in the original version and in a later version. See Simpson, ‘Declaration of Arbroath’, 12-16, and Scotichronicon by Walter Bower in Latin and English, gen. ed. D. E. R. Watt, vol. vii, ed. A. B. Scott and D. E. R. Watt with Ulrike Morét and Norman F. Shead (Edinburgh 1996), 165-6, summarises the different versions. Simpson explains why Sir James Fergusson’s edition, published in 1970, is a failure.

[17] I am very grateful to John Reuben Davies for his comments and suggestions.

[18] For a brief account of the relationship between the various extant versions, see Scotichronicon, gen. ed. Watt, vii. 165–6.

[19] Corrected from ut in Bower’s manuscript (as indicated in Watt’s edition).

[20] This is also found in the copy of the Declaration of Arbroath in the manuscript of Fordun’s chronicle (book V and Gesta Annalia) known now to scholarship as FD: Dublin, Trinity College, MS 498. See Scotichronicon, gen. ed. Watt, vii. 173.

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