The William Wallace Letter is to be returned to Scotland this coming January following a successful six year campaign during which a parliamentary petition played a pivotal role.
The letter was written by King Philip IV of France commanding his agents in Rome to recommend ‘our beloved William le Wallace of Scotland’ to the Pope.
Historians believe the letter dates to 1300 and was written to assure Sir William Wallace would receive safe passage as he journeyed through Europe on his way to Rome.
Sir William Wallace, having led resistance to the English king, Edward I, travelled to the court of Philip IV of France in 1299 to try to persuade him to support the Scots against Edward. On 7th November 1300, a year after Wallace’s arrival in France, Philip wrote a letter to his agents in Rome concerning Wallace.
This document is often described as a safe–conduct, passport, or a grant of safe–passage for William Wallace, but is, in fact, a letter from King Philip to French agents in Rome, commanding them to ask Pope Boniface VIII to support Wallace in (unspecified) business.
It is recorded that three safe conducts (from the Kings of France, Norway and Scotland) were taken from Wallace when he was arrested in 1305; however the last time they were known to be in the custody of the English Crown was in 1323 in an inventory of records contained in the Exchequer (document reference E 36/268, pp. 238–40). No trace of the safe–conducts has been found after that date.
It is thought the letter was later confiscated when the Scottish hero was betrayed by the Scottish nobleman and Governor of Dumbarton castle, Menteith – earning him the title ‘fausse Menteith’ (false Menteith) – and delivered into English hands at Robroyston resulting in the barbaric execution of Wallace, an act that horrified all Scotland.
The letter was discovered in the 1830s in the Tower of London and subsequently kept at the national archives in Kew, in Surrey, remaining largely under the radar until the Society of William Wallace launched a campaign in 2005 for the Letter to be returned to Wallace’s homeland.
Gary Stewart, vice convenor of the society said: "We do not have a lot of tangible links with Wallace, as most of the documentation has been destroyed".
"We felt it would be a massive boost for Scotland and for the tourist industry to have something that Wallace actually touched. For people to see this document and feel a connection to Wallace is something they could never get by seeing a copy of the letter on a computer screen."
Christine Grahame MSP, lodged a parliamentary motion which called for the document to be returned to Scotland, this combined with a petition to bring the document back to Scotland helped focus political and public attention on the demands.
Historians Dr Fiona Watson and Professor Geoffrey Barrow gave evidence in favour of returning The William Wallace Letter to Scotland, and as the petition continued to gain support, Fiona Hyslop, the Culture Minister, called for an academic research group to be assembled to consider the case. They agreed it was likely that the document had been in William Wallace's possession.
The Scottish Government submitted a written request to the Ministry of Justice for the letter to come to Scotland – it is now to be loaned to Scotland from January 2012 until at least December 2014.
The letter itself will not be on display immediately because it is very fragile and can only be shown for a few weeks at a time per year. It will initially be kept by the National Archives of Scotland in Edinburgh – a summer exhibition is intended for The William Wallace Letter which will also include the Lübeck letter, written by Wallace, in the summer.
After 2014, the document’s future is as yet unclear but as it stands the Scottish public will be able to view the famous historical document that was until now unavailable to them.
The William Wallace Letter (translatation)
'Philip by the grace of God, king of the French, to his beloved and loyal people appointed at the Roman Court, greetings and favour. We command you that you ask the Supreme Pontiff to consider with favour our beloved William le Wallace of Scotland, knight, with regard to those things which concern him that he has to expedite. Dated at Pierrefonds on the Monday after the feast of All Saints [7 November 1300].'