Last Saturday, as part of Doors Open Day 2018, National Records of Scotland displayed the Wallace letter – a 700-year-old message from the King of France, one of only two surviving documents with a personal connection to Scottish historical icon William Wallace.
Discovered in the Tower of London in the mid-1800s and now part of the collection of The National Archives, this small and seemingly innocuous letter contains details that can tell us much about the people and politics of this turbulent era, and about one of the most famous figures in Scotland’s history.
Latin text and translation of letter by King Philip IV to his agents in Rome
National Archives, Ref: SC 1/30/81
(In this translation the line breaks seen in the original are inserted at the appropriate points; punctuation has been added in the translation)
Philip by the grace of God King of the French to our loved and faithful our agents appointed to the Roman Court, greetings and love. We command/ you to request the Supreme Pontiff to consider with favour our beloved William le Walois [Wallace] of Scotland, knight/ in those things which he has to transact with him. Given at Pierrefonds on Monday after the feast of All Saints. [7 Nov 1300]
Endorsement: Fourth letter of the king of France
(In this text the line breaks seen in the original are inserted at the appropriate points; punctuation has been omitted; capitalisation has been reduced to essentials).
Philippus dei gratia Francorum rex dilectis et fidelibus gerentibus nostris ad Romanam curiam destinatis salutem et dilectionem Mandamus/ vobis quatenus summum pontificem requiratis ut dilectum nostrum Guillelmum le Walois de Scotia militem recommen/datum habeat in hiis que apud eum habuerit expedire Datum apud Petrafontem die Lune post festum omnium sanctorum
Endorsement: Quarta littera Regis Francie
Medieval scribes wrote in a common form of shorthand to use less parchment and, like modern text messaging, to save time. This transcript expands the pen strokes, indicating certain missing letters were to be understood – for example, “Ph” becomes “Philippus”. The line breaks are marked, but no punctuation. Proper names have been capitalised.
Detective work has helped us to date the letter. All Saints Day is 1 November, and we know that Philip IV was in Pierrefonds, his palace near Compiegne in north-east France, in November 1300. The Monday after 1 November in 1300 was 7 November, so this letter was written on 7 November 1300.
“The Supreme Pontiff” was Pope Boniface VIII (c. 1235-1303), head of western Christendom. He wanted peace between nations so that he could launch a crusade. In 1299 he ordered Edward I to cease his war against Scotland.
William Wallace and the letter of 1300
William Wallace is one of Scotland’s best-known historical figures. In 1297 he helped lead the Scots to victory against the English at Stirling Bridge, and held the position of a “Guardian of Scotland”. In October 1297, he and the other Guardian, Andrew Murray, wrote the so-called “Lubeck letter” to German merchants, encouraging them to resume trade.
After being defeated by the English at the battle of Falkirk in 1298, Wallace resigned as Guardian. He travelled to France in 1299, a journey which provoked a clash between the supporters of Robert the Bruce and John Comyn in Scotland. When he arrived the French King Philip IV supported him financially, like other Scottish knights already living in France.
The Scots looked to Philip IV (1268-1314) for support in their struggle against the English, and in 1295 achieved a Franco-Scottish alliance. Now known as the “Auld Alliance”, the agreement of mutual support helped France’s war with Edward I of England.
Philip’s letter shows that in 1300 Wallace actually was in France, campaigning for the support of the Pope and the King of France, but in an unspecified cause. The clue may be that the deposed Scottish king, John Balliol, was then also living in France in Papal custody. Some Scots hoped that he could return to the throne, but it is unclear that Balliol agreed.
“Those things which he has to transact”: Was Wallace’s mission to work on behalf of John Balliol, or another claimant to the Scottish throne? We do not know, nor even whether he travelled from northern France to Rome, carrying this cryptic letter of recommendation.
It is known that by early 1303 Wallace was back in Scotland, once again leading raids against the English. In 1305 he was betrayed, captured and executed in London.
How the letter survived
A letter of recommendation would not normally be kept. Somehow this one escaped being lost or destroyed and came into English hands. It was preserved among a mass of diplomatic letters by European rulers in the English government archives stored in the Tower of London. After a scholar discovered it in the 1830s, it was transferred to the new Public Record Office in London, now The National Archives of the United Kingdom.
In 2011, a panel of expert historians and archivists concluded that the letter was likely to have been in William Wallace’s possession, although how and why remain unclear. It is currently on loan to National Records of Scotland from The National Archives.
We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of The National Archives in the display of the letter on Edinburgh Doors Open Day, 29 September 2018.
Translation and notes by National Records of Scotland. Crown copyright 2018.
Dr Tristram Clarke
Head of Outreach
National Records of Scotland