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Wednesday 22 February 2017

The seals on the Declaration of Arbroath

The version of the Declaration held by the National Archives of Scotland is the file copy.  The original sent to the pope has long been lost.  We cannot be sure that the format of the NAS copy is the same as the lost version.
The NAS copy has the normal deep fold at the bottom through which the seal tags were threaded.  It is unusual (but not unique) in having many seals attached.  There are 39 names (eight earls and thirty one barons) at the start of the document. Presumably their seals were all to be appended, but it is too difficult to tell now if that did happen.  Some seal tags are now short stumps only.  There were to have been three rows of seals attached, which if they had all survived would have made the document difficult to carry around and protect without damage.  Above the slit through which the seal tag was threaded was written the name of the sealer. 

As it now survives, there are only 19 seals, and of those 19 people only 12 are named within the document.  Indeed, it is thought likely that at least 11 more seals than the original 39 might have been appended.

The images of the seals are accompanied by some short biographical notes about the sealers.

View the seals (requires Flash Player Version 9 or higher)

The 1320 conspiracy and Edward Balliol
In troubled times loyalties were well-stretched.  Robert I’s murder of John Comyn in 1306, when he seized the throne, had caused dissent amongst Scots.  Robert had not only to defeat the English to secure his throne but also beat off internal threats.  Of those whose seals remain on the Declaration, seven were belated converts to the king’s cause, in some cases clearly having fought for the English up to Bannockburn at least.

Three of the sealers were involved in the important, though curious, conspiracy against King Robert I which was discovered shortly after the Declaration was compiled.  His government’s view was that the conspirators intended to oust him and install as king William Soules (one of the barons named in the Declaration, whose seal is now missing).  There is a view that someone very interested in the conspiracy was Edward Balliol (c1281-1364), son of King John Balliol (c1248-1314), who had lost his throne in 1296.  Edward Balliol had lived in England and France, but had continued contact with those who had lost Scottish lands to which they had a claim (commonly called the disinherited).

Although the Treaty of Edinburgh/Northampton, 1328, seemed to have established Scottish independence recognised by England, on Robert I’s death in 1329 his successor was his five-year-old son David Bruce. Too young to rule in person, a guardian of the realm was appointed.  King Edward III took the opportunity to encourage the ambitions of Balliol and the disinherited. They invaded Scotland in summer 1332, and won a crushing victory at the battle of Dupplin Moor, 11 August 1332.  Two of the Declaration sealers supported Edward Balliol afterwards.  He was crowned king of Scots the following month; the young David II fled to France.  For the rest of the decade there was intermittent warfare until Balliol was forced to leave Scotland in 1339, though David II did not return till 1341.

All in all the surviving seals on the Declaration are testimony to the divisions which existed in Scotland in the early 14th century.

Further reading
The following are just a very few of the publications which provide the context for the Declaration.

The best biography of Robert I is G W S Barrow, Robert the Bruce and the Community of the Realm (various editions from 1965)

M Penman, ‘A fell coniuracioun agayn Robert the douchty king: the Soules conspiracy of 1318-1320’, in Innes Review vol. 50 (1999) pp. 25-57

G W S Barrow (ed.), The Declaration of Arbroath: History, Significance, Setting (Edinburgh, 2003) - a series of essays based on talks at a Society of Antiquaries of Scotland conference in Arbroath in 2001


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