The community of the realm in Scotland, 1249–1424
History, law and charters in a recreated kingdom

The earliest occasion when the Declaration of Arbroath was copied after 1320?

by Dauvit Broun,

Dauvit Broun explains how the Declaration of Arbroath became part of a dossier of documents all about Scottish independence, which provides crucial insight to the Declaration's history in the fourteenth century.

The earliest copy of the Declaration of Arbroath that survives today—apart from the file copy itself (Edinburgh NRS SP13/7)—can be dated to no earlier than 1427. This is the seventh item in the book of correspondence and other documents associated with John of Haldenstone, prior of St Andrews Cathedral Priory from 1417 to 1443.[1] It is unlikely, however, that this was the first occasion when the Declaration had been copied.

The prime candidate for what would have been an earlier (now lost) copy is a dossier of documents associated largely with the case for Scottish independence that was prepared for presentation before the pope in 1301. This is, of course, too early for the Declaration. What we are interested in, however, is when and how the dossier assumed its current form. It is not simply a raw copy of a series of documents used in 1301, but a carefully curated collection on the theme of Scottish independence.

The dossier only survives today because it was copied at some point into a manuscript that contained Fordun’s history of the Scots, a work that can be dated to the mid-1380s.[2] As a result, it can be found intact today in four manuscripts whose chief item is Fordun’s history, followed by a number of much smaller-scale texts relating to Scottish history—including the dossier.

By this stage the dossier has acquired a significant extra text: the Declaration of Arbroath. The Declaration is, in fact, the only item in the dossier that has no association with the case prepared for the Curia in 1301. Instead of being tacked on at the end, however, the Declaration has been placed first. Because the dossier is all about Scottish independence, this suggests that whoever added the Declaration regarded it as a key text on the kingdom’s freedom that should not be ignored.

When was the Declaration added to the dossier? There is circumstantial evidence that points to sometime before 1371. We begin with another text that is found in manuscripts of Fordun’s history as one of the other smaller-scale items following Fordun’s magnum opus. It is a chronicle covering the years 1285 to 1363 (extended in two manuscripts to 1385), known to scholarship by the unprepossessing title of ‘Gesta Annalia II’. (Gesta Annalia means ‘yearly deeds’: it is ‘II’ because in the same manuscripts there is a separate text, referred to as Gesta Annalia I, which runs up to 1285.[3]) Gesta Annalia II includes a genealogical account of the English royal descendants of St Margaret and her husband Mael Coluim III, which is given a chapter-title that refers to David II and Edward III as if they were reigning at the time.[4] David II died in 1371.

This is relevant because Gesta Annalia II has a passage that appears to refer to the dossier as the libellus (‘booklet’) of Alan of Montrose. (Unfortunately Alan of Montrose has yet to be traced.) We are told in Gesta Annalia II that, in 1300, John Soules (the guardian of the realm appointed by King John Balliol) sent Baldred Bisset and William Eaglesham as procurators and special ambassadors to Pope Boniface VIII in order to present the case for Scottish independence at the Curia. The dossier includes what must have been the bundle of documents they used and prepared at the Curia in 1301. Crucially, however, the dossier as we have it today is more than this. It includes a number of linking passages that attempt to provide some context, beginning with the reference to how John Soulis sent Bisset and Eaglesham to the Curia.

These linking passages are important because (as Donald Watt has shown) they misinterpret the nature of one of the main documents. Watt argued that this was an initial draft of the case being presented to the Curia. In a linking passage, however, it is referred to as the ‘instructions’ given by the Scottish government to Bisset and Eaglesham at the Curia—which Watt has explained is impossible.[5]

Armed with this knowledge, we can now turn to the passage in Gesta Annalia II where the booklet of Alan of Montrose is given a name-check. After we are told about the commission (commissio) of Baldred Bisset and William of Eaglesham to present the Scottish cause to the pope, it is said that ‘a copy of it (the commission) together with Baldred’s pleading (processus) against the king of England and many other documents (littere) relating to the case is in a booklet (libellus) written by Alan of Montrose’.[6] Baldred Bisset’s pleading is one of the most compelling documents in the dossier. The reference to the ‘commission’ as an actual text in Alan of Montrose’s booklet, moreover, suggests that the author of Gesta Annalia II is thinking of the item that is mistakenly understood, in one of the dossier’s linking passages, as the ‘instructions’ (instructiones) given to Bisset and Eaglesham by the Scottish government. There is nothing else that it can be. (The fact the different terms are used—‘commission’ and ‘instructions’—is of little significance.)

It follows from this that Alan of Montrose’s booklet was not the original collection of documents used and prepared by Bisset and Eaglesham in 1301, copied as they stood, but was the carefully packaged copy with link passages that is found in the dossier in four manuscripts of Fordun’s history. This does not prove that Alan of Montrose’s booklet contained the Declaration of Arbroath. There is, however, no tangible reason to doubt that it did—for example, if the Declaration was at the end of the dossier, then it would be difficult to argue that it had not simply been tacked on at some point. The Declaration, however, has been given pride of place at the beginning.

To conclude. The dossier, as it stands in manuscripts of Fordun’s history, is a carefully curated collection of documents relating to Scottish independence that can be identified as one-and-the-same as Alan of Montrose’s booklet. It is more than likely that the Declaration of Arbroath was chosen by Alan of Montrose himself to be the first—and by implication the leading—document in his booklet. The dossier-booklet was referred to in Gesta Annalia II, a text datable to before 1371. Although the original copy of Alan of Montrose’s booklet does not survive, it can claim to be the earliest traceable occasion when the Declaration of Arbroath was copied after 1320. With only one exception, every surviving post-1320 medieval copy of the Declaration derives ultimately from it via manuscripts of Fordun’s history. The one exception is the book of documents associated with John of Haldenstone, prior of St Andrews Cathedral Priory from 1417 to 1443.

[1] James H. Baxter, (ed.), Copiale Prioratus Sancti Andree, the Letter-book of James Haldenstone, Prior of St. Andrews (1418–1443) (London 1930), 17–18 (abbreviated). The fifth item was originally written in 1427 (see ibid., 10 note, and comment at 387).

[2] Dauvit Broun, Scottish Independence and the Idea of Britain from the Picts to Alexander III (Edinburgh 2007), 225, 233 n.39.

[3] Dauvit Broun, ‘A new look at Gesta Annalia attributed to John of Fordun", in B. E. Crawford (ed.), Church, Chronicle and Learning in Medieval and Early Renaissance Scotland: Essays presented to Donald Watt on the completion of the publication of Bower’s Scotichronicon (Edinburgh 1999), 9–30.

[4] William F. Skene (ed.), Johannis de Fordun Chronica Gentis Scotorum, The Historians of Scotland vol.1 (Edinburgh 1871), 318–19.

[5] D. E. R. Watt, (ed.), Scotichronicon by Walter Bower in Latin and English, 9 vols (Aberdeen / Edinburgh 1987–98), 260–1.

[6] Skene (ed.), Johannis de Fordun Chronica, 332.

Cite this piece: D. Broun, 'The earliest occasion when the Declaration of Arbroath was copied after 1320?', The COTR Blog, 20 January 2019, The Community of the Realm in Scotland, 1429-1424: history, law and charters in a recreated kingdom', online at: