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Wednesday 22 February 2017

Feature: The Wallace document

This web feature looks at some examples of original documents referring to Sir William Wallace, the Scottish patriot (died 1305). There are alas very few. Other references to Wallace are to be found in chronicles, some contemporary and some written much later.

Letter by King Philip IV to his agents in Rome (The National Archives (London) ref. SC1/30/81)

Documents issued by Wallace
There are only four documents now known which were issued by Wallace. Two exist only as fourteenth-century transcripts. A third is known from an eighteenth-century engraving, the original document having been lost some time thereafter. A fourth, the only one still in existence as an original document just as it was issued, is held by the city of Lübeck in its archives. This Wallace web-site feature will eventually provide images of the two for which there exist either an engraving or a photo, and texts and translations of all of them.

Wallace document in the The National Archives, London

Even rarer than documents issued by Wallace are those that might once have been possessed by him. One example could be a letter held in the National Archives in London under reference SC 1/30/81. It is a letter of 1300 by which the French king Philip IV recommends to his agents at the papal court that they assist Wallace with whatever his business may be with the pope. It is a very small document: only three lines long, written in Latin, and the sort of document that frequently does not get kept long as it would have short-term value only. Fortunately for historians it became caught up with a mass of other miscellaneous royal letters from a wide variety of European monarchs, held within the Tower of London among the English Chancery records where it was discovered in the 1830s. When the National Archives was created in 1838 under its then guise as the Public Record Office, this letter was transferred there. This is its catalogue entry:

Here is what you can do to view the document:

View a Zoomify image of the letter of King Philip IV (requires Flash Player 9 or higher)

View the Latin text and English translation - Rich Text Format, 100KB, new window

Historical context

In late 1299 Wallace left Scotland to travel to the court of the French king, Philip IV. He had ceased to be the Guardian of Scotland, but it may well be that he was attempting to further Scottish interests in France. John Balliol, king of Scots 1292-1296, was in exile in France from July 1299, after his release from English custody following an Anglo-French truce concluded in June 1299. He was formally transferred to papal custody while in France. Philip IV was not necessarily likely to favour Wallace: his sister Margaret had married the English king Edward I in September 1299, and indeed one English chronicle asserts that Philip arrested Wallace and offered to surrender him to Edward. Nevertheless, Wallace was evidently able to secure some support from Philip, as this letter shows.

There definitely were Scots in Rome in early 1301. There, they presented to the pope a rebuttal of Edward's claim to lordship over Scotland, an important stage in the Wars of Independence. Wallace's movements at this time are not at all clear, but he seems to have returned to Scotland by 1303.

Dating the document
You may see that there is no date in the modern sense in the document. It simply states that it was 'given at Pierrefonds on Monday after the feast of All Saints'. To work out what this means in practice, we need to use other evidence. First, we have to establish when Philip IV was known to have been at or near Pierrefonds in early November, as All Saints day is 1 November. The year where he is known to have been there at that time and which fits with Wallace’s activities is 1300, so that must be the year. Next, the actual day of the month can now be established. The Monday after 1 November in 1300 was 7 November, which allows us to date this document as 7 November 1300.

Other published resources for the document
A text and translation of this document have been available for study for more or less all the time that it has been known to exist. The first readily available printing of it was in the Maitland Club volume, 'Documents illustrative of Sir William Wallace, His Life and Times', published in 1841. A facsimile of the letter, together with the text in Latin and a translation, was printed in 'Facsimiles of the National Manuscripts of Scotland' volume 1, published in 1871; and the same facsimile plus text and translation were printed in the Grampian Club publication 'The Book of Wallace', volume 2, published in 1889. There is some comment in each of these publications about the document. Amongst the many modern historical assessments of the Wars of Independence which refer to Wallace and his visit to France, one of the most recent is Amanda Beam,'The Balliol Dynasty 1210-1364' (Edinburgh, 2008).


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