Places to Visit in Scotland
- Arbroath Abbey

Arbroath Abbey

Founded by William the Lion
Moneymusk Reliquary King William the Lion found out the hard way the power of prayer. He was a frequent visitor to the court of King Henry II of England and became a close friend of Thomas Becket, who eventually became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. But Becket began to assert himself as head of the Catholic Church in England, instead of doing the king's bidding. The king at last lost patience with Becket (who had been his friend from childhood and a long-time supporter) and is believed to have ordered the murder of the archbishop in 1170. The killing sent a tremor through Europe and only three years later Becket was made a saint by the Pope. Henry, meantime, was having problems with his nobles both in England and in Normandy where the King of France had invaded his territory (which at that time included not just Normandy but all the way to the border with Spain). While he was in France, King William invaded the north of England (which Henry had recovered from Scotland only a dozen years earlier).

King William the Lion On the return of King Henry to England in July 1174, he entered Canterbury barefoot, clad as a simple pilgrim and spent the night at the shrine of St Thomas, praying and weeping and seeking absolution. It is said that at the very moment he left the cathedral, King William of Scotland was being captured at the Battle of Alnwick...

William spent five months as a prisoner of Henry II while the English army plundered the south of Scotland as far as Edinburgh. Three years after his release, he founded a monastery dedicated to Saint Thomas Becket in Arbroath. He lavished land and patronage on this new outpost of the Benedictine monks and in 1211 William placed in their care the "Brecbennoch of St Columba", now known as the Moneymusk Reliquary (see illustration). This is a small 8th century wooden box shaped like an oratory and covered in bronze and silver plates. It is decorated with semi-precious stones and enamel and it was believed to contain a bone relic of St Columba. The Reliquary was to be kept available to bless the royal army before battle - and was later used to good effect in this way before the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

It takes time to build an abbey, but when William the Lion's rein of nearly 50 years came to an end on 4 December 1214, Arbroath Abbey was well enough established for the monarch to be carried from Stirling to be buried at Arbroath. His son, King Alexander II and his brother David helped to carry the body from Perth to its final resting place.

A Magnificent Building
Model of Arbroath Abbey Although much of the abbey is now a ruin, there is enough still standing to show what a magnificent gothic building it must have been. And the model (seen in the illustration) in the new visitor centre also helps to give a scale to the abbey. The large church with its high, circular windows and presbytery with the high altar must have made a big impression on a population who often lived in wooden hovels with earth floors.

Of course, the abbey provided accommodation for the monks and the abbot's house is one of the best preserved parts of the building today - mainly because it was put to a number of practical uses after the Reformation and the dissolution of the Catholic church in Scotland in the 16th century. Although much altered (it was used as a thread factory at one stage), it is one of the very few ecclesiastical residences to survive in Scotland.

Declaration of Arbroath
Arbroath Abbey The Declaration of Arbroath (sometimes called the Declaration of Independence) is more correctly entitled "Letter of Barons of Scotland to Pope John XXII". It is dated 6 April, 1320. It was Scotland's response to the excommunication of King Robert the Bruce (for murdering a rival on the steps of a Franciscan priory) and then the entire population of Scotland. It is one of the great icons of Scotland and is in the form of a letter (in Latin) to the Pope from eight earls and 31 barons of Scotland. It asks the Pope in rousing terms to acknowledge Scotland as an independent nation and to reject the claims of the English king. The Declaration was ahead of its time as it sets out that the king (previously regarded as appointed by God) could be driven out if he did not uphold the freedom of the country.

It sets out the long history of Scotland as an independent state and cleverly tries to persuade the Pope of the legitimacy of Scotland's case. It's most famous and most quoted passage is:

"For so long as there shall but one hundred of us remain alive we will never give consent to subject ourselves to the dominion of the English. For it is not glory, it is not riches, neither is it honours, but it is liberty alone that we fight and contend for, which no honest man will lose but with his life."

The declaration was drafted by Bernard de Linton who became abbot of Arbroath in 1309, although the terms of the letter were probably agreed at a council held earlier in 1320, at the Cistercian abbey at Newbattle in Lothian.

Decline and Destruction
Arbroath Abbey on FireArbroath Abbey suffered both natural disasters and destruction at the hands of invading armies and Protestant zealots during and after the Reformation. Early in 1272, for example, a fire broke out which destroyed the great bells and the towers in which they hung. Then in 1296 King Edward I arrived in Arbroath, looting anything that was of value and taking it back to England. It was at this time that the Stone of Destiny at Scone was taken to Westminster Abbey. English sea raiders were frequent "visitors" in the 14th century and the abbey became ruined almost beyond repair. In 1380 another fire did even more damage.

In the 14th and 15th centuries the monastic ideals of piety and rejection of worldly goods were often not upheld. From the second half of the 15th century abbots were chosen by the king rather than the Pope and the appointees were often more interested in the income that could be squeezed out of the church lands than in religious matters. The post became so lucrative that later kings often appointed their relatives - including illegitimate children.

In 1606 Parliament enacted that the lands and income of Arbroath Abbey should pass to James, marquess of Hamilton. The remaining monks continued to live in the precincts but no new monks came to join them. The abbey, stripped of its altars and statues, was used for a time as a local Church of Scotland parish church but it was too large for that purpose. Local citizens subsequently found the dilapidated buildings to be a useful source of free building material.

Visitor Centre
Arbroayh Abbey In the early 19th century there was a gradual realisation about the importance of historic buildings and steps were taken to preserve what was left. But it was not until 1924 that central government took over responsibility for the upkeep of the abbey and its precincts from the local Arbroath Town Council. The area is now administered by Historic Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

In recent years, Historic Scotland has undertaken not only preservation at many of the properties under their control but has added to the tourism potential by constructing first class visitor facilities. Arbroath Abbey has certainly benefited from this policy and the modern but not intrusive visitor centre presents much of the history and architecture of the building. From the first-floor gallery, visitors can see what the abbey once looked like, while at the same time looking out over parts of what remain.

How to Get There
Arbroath is on the east coast, in the county of Angus, less than 20 miles from Dundee. The coastal A92 road is being upgraded, not before time. The abbey is well sign-posted within the town and there is a small car park (also sign-posted) a short distance away. See also the Location Map for Arbroath (you can enlarge the scale of this map, if required).

Return to Index of Places to Visit


Where else would you like to go in Scotland?








Separator line