A Royal Foundation | The Abbey Church and Monastic Buildings | The Declaration of Arbroath | The Reformation and after
A Royal Foundation
Arbroath Abbey is a testament to the integration of piety and politics by Scotland’s medieval monarchs. It was founded in 1178 by King William I ‘the Lion’, ostensibly as a memorial to his childhood friend Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was murdered in 1170. It also helped him to expand his authority in the north-east of Scotland, and to demonstrate his right to rule.
William invited the Tironensian monks from Kelso Abbey, near the English border, to establish the monastery. When he died in 1214, his body was buried before the high altar. Traditionally, Scottish monarchs had been laid to rest at the royal mausoleum at Dunfermline Abbey.
The legacy of William’s efforts is an outstandingly beautiful building. It has suffered much damage, but remains an important symbol and landmark.
The Abbey Church and Monastic Buildings
The abbey church lay at the heart of the monastic complex. It consisted of a presbytery, monks’ choir, transepts, chapel aisles and a nine-bay aisled nave. The presbytery, sacristy and south transept survive to a considerable extent, but the most complete part is the strikingly beautiful west front. This is a captivating expression of European twin-towered church façade design.
The domestic buildings were grouped around a small cloister on the south side of the church and, unusually, a second cloister further south. Most of these survive only as foundations.
There are two notable exceptions. The abbot’s house is one of the most complete abbots’ residences in Britain. Standing close by it are the gatehouse, the guesthouse and a substantial stretch of precinct wall.
The Declaration of Arbroath
Arbroath Abbey is best known for the Declaration of Arbroath, arguably the most famous document in Scottish history.
Although Robert the Bruce defeated Edward II of England at Bannockburn in 1314, the Wars of Independence continued. King Robert had been excommunicated in 1306, after he murdered his rival John Comyn at Greyfriars monastery in Dumfries, then seized the crown. He had been absolved by Bishop Wishart of Glasgow, but in 1318, he captured Berwick from the English while a papal truce was in place. The English persuaded Pope John XXII to renew his excommunication.
In response, 39 Scottish nobles, barons and freemen dispatched a letter to Pope John – the document now known as the Declaration of Arbroath. This was an apologia – a formal defensive argument – which eloquently set out Scotland’s case that it was an independent, sovereign kingdom.
It was probably drafted by Abbot Bernard of Arbroath, King Robert’s chancellor, and was sent from the abbey in April 1320. Its most famous lines are:
‘… it is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom
– for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’
The Reformation and after
Religious life in the abbey continued until the Scottish Reformation in 1560. In 1580 parts of the abbey were dismantled to build a new burgh church. By 1700, the buildings were in much the same condition as they are now.
The abbey’s famous ‘Round O’ – the circular window in the south transept gable – became a landmark for shipping. Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, rebuilt it in 1809.
In March 1951 the abbey came into the national spotlight once more when the Stone of Destiny was found deposited beside the high altar, three months after its removal from Westminster Abbey.