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Arbroath Abbey

Foundation of the Abbey

King William the Lion founded the Arbroath Abbey in 1178 in honour of the murdered St. Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was placed in the hands of the Tironensian order based in Kelso. King William granted his new Abbey independence from the mother house. He also showered it with endowments. These included the income from 24 parishes, a toft of land in every royal burgh, lands, fisheries, salt pans, ferries and of course Arbroath itself. The monks were permitted to set up a burgh, hold a market and to build a harbour. Even King John of England granted the Abbey the privilege of buying and selling goods anywhere in England, except the City of London, toll free.

The function of Arbroath and every other Abbey was to provide an ordered way of life based on the Gospel’s teachings under which the monks could serve God and sanctify their souls. The monks did not work outside the Abbey. Their chief function was to perform the Divine Office.

The Declaration of Independence

Arbroath Pageant Society
Photo courtesy of Arbroath Pageant Society

Arbroath Abbey hosted the most significant event in Scottish history. On 6 April 1320 the Scottish Declaration of Independence was signed by the assembled Scottish nobility in Arbroath Abbey. The Declaration was addressed to the Pope who had given his support to Edward II and excommunicated Robert the Bruce. The nobles had to intervene in the dispute between the Bruce and the Pope. The Declaration explained how the Bruce had rescued the country from a dreadful situation and for this they would support him in all things.

The Declaration was an inspiration for future generations. The most famous quote is this:

"For, so long as a hundred remain alive, we will never in any degree be subject to the dominion of the English. Since not for glory, riches or honours do we
fight, but for freedom alone, which no man loses but with his life."

A reconstruction of this event was staged by the Arbroath Abbey Pageant Society during the 1940’s to the mid 1980’s.

The Abbey after the Reformation

The Abbey fell into decline and after the Reformation it fell into ruin also. Many of the monks remained in the declining monastery. For a number of years the Lady Chapel was used as a parish church. In 1590 Arbroath Town Council granted the stones and timbers from the old dormitory to be used to build a proper church. The Abbey became a quarry for cash conscious burgesses. Many houses still have interesting carved details which started life in the Abbey. It was not until 1815 that any steps were taken to preserve the ruins.

photo of the Stone of Destiny
Stone of Destiny

The Stone of Destiny

Arbroath Abbey has one more important date in its history. On Christmas Day 1950 the Stone of Destiny was stolen from Westminster Abbey. On the morning of 11 April 1951 it was deposited on the site of the high altar where it was discovered by the Abbey custodian. Many believe it was not the original stone that was returned or that now sits in Edinburgh Castle.

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