Special Delivery: the Wallace Letters

The Scottish Parliament’s current exhibition, running until 8 September, is ‘Special Delivery: The William Wallace Letters’.  The centre-pieces are the only two original letters with a direct link to William Wallace.

After the deaths in 1286 ofAlexander III and the Maid of Norway, Scotland had no monarch.  England’s Edward I selected John Baliol as King of Scots but in 1296 Baliol renounced his allegiance to Edward.  Civil war followed.  In 1297 Wallace enteredhistory, killing the English sheriff of Lanark and defeating the English, then also at war with France, at Stirling Bridge.

Wallace and his fellow Guardian, Andrew Murray, wrote to Lübeck encouraging German merchants to trade with Scotland.  The letter, owned by the City of Lübeck archives, was last shown in Scotland in 2005 and is the first of the two original exhibits.

After Stirling Bridge, Wallace and Murray,seeking European support, considered a trip to France but they suffered defeat at Falkirk in July 1298.  Wallace then resigned as Guardian of the Kingdom.

In 1299 Philip IV of France leant Wallace and other Scottish lords 2000 livres and around 1300 provided a letter of introduction from Wallace to the Pope.  This is the second original exhibit: 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 in those things which he has to transact with him.  Given at Pierrefonds on Monday after the Feast of All Saints.”

It remains uncertain whether Wallace ever travelled to Rome but by 1301 church representatives put both the English and Scottish cases to the Papacy.

Pope Boniface however wanted peace so that an Anglo-French Crusade could be launched and “re-asserted Papal claims that Scotland belonged rightfully to the church”.  England and France’s 1303 peace treaty seriously undermined the cause for independence.  Facing only one enemy, England easily defeatedthe Scots who were forced to submit in February 1304.  The conditions of peace explicitly excluded Wallace’s safety.

On the 3 August 1305, Wallace was betrayed by Sir John Menteith.  English vengeance was rapid.  On 23 August 1305 Wallace was “drawn, hanged, beheaded, his entrails burned and his body quartered whose four parts were dispatched to the four principal towns of Scotland, (the costs of all of which amounted to) 61 shillings and 10 pence.”

This exhibition does not play on Braveheart myths.  It explains the period in a clear but accessible manner.  It also puts the manoeuvrings of the great powers, so similar to contemporary diplomacy, into perspective.  Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the exhibition is the fragility of these brief notes which have survived seven centuries and which illuminate the past. History requires careful protection if truth is to emerge.

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