Arbroath Abbey shows how Scotland’s medieval monarchs mixed piety and politics.
William I – also known as William the Lion – founded the abbey in 1178. He asked the Tironensian monks from Kelso Abbey to establish the monastery.
The abbey was intended:
- as a memorial to William’s childhood friend Thomas Becket, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury
- to help the king to expand his authority in the north-east of Scotland
- to demonstrate the king’s right to rule
The king was buried in front of the abbey’s high altar following his death in 1214. Before this, Scottish monarchs had traditionally been laid to rest in the royal mausoleum at Dunfermline Abbey.
William’s legacy was an outstandingly beautiful building. Though badly damaged, it remains an important symbol and landmark.
The abbey church and monastic buildings
The abbey church at the heart of the monastic complex comprised:
- a presbytery
- a monks’ choir
- two transepts
- chapel aisles
- a nine-bay nave with aisles
The presbytery, sacristy and south transept survive to a large extent. But the most complete part of the abbey is its strikingly beautiful west front – a captivating example of European twin-towered church façade design.
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, except for:
- the abbot’s house – one of the most complete abbot’s residences in Britain
- the gatehouse, the guesthouse and a substantial stretch of precinct wall
Declaration of Arbroath
Arbroath Abbey is best known for the Declaration of Arbroath. The most famous document in Scottish history was a letter to Pope John XXII sent by 39 Scottish nobles, barons and freemen in response to the renewed excommunication of Robert the Bruce.
Although Robert I defeated Edward II of England at Bannockburn in 1314, the Wars of Independence carried on. Robert I had been excommunicated in 1306 – after murdering his rival John Comyn and seizing the crown – but was absolved by Bishop Wishart of Glasgow.
Robert I went on to capture Berwick from the English in 1318, during a papal truce. The English persuaded Pope John to renew his excommunication.
The letter to Pope John was an ‘apologia’ (formal written defence) setting out Scotland’s case that it was an independent, sovereign kingdom. Abbot Bernard of Arbroath – chancellor to Robert I – likely drafted the letter, which 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.”
Religious life in the abbey continued until the Protestant Reformation of 1560. Parts of the abbey were dismantled in 1580 to build a new burgh church. The condition of the buildings has been much the same since 1700.
The abbey’s famous ‘Round O’ – the circular window in the south transept gable – became a landmark for mariners. Robert Stevenson, grandfather of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, rebuilt it in 1809.
The Stone of Destiny was found beside the high altar in March 1951, three months after its removal from Westminster Abbey. The event put Arbroath Abbey in the national spotlight once more.
White stonecrop, a plant commonly found in southern England, grows on the abbey’s stonework. It once had medicinal uses.
Culpeper’s Complete Herbal (1649) says of white stonecrop: “It resists pestilential fevers and is good for tertian agues [a form of malaria in which the fever occurs every third day]. Bruised and applied outwardly, it helps the King’s-evil [a form of tuberculosis, formerly held to be curable by the royal touch]. But it should be used with caution when given internally. The juice causes vomiting.”