July 2011 – The Attempted Restoration

The Attempted Restoration:

Wallace’s Support of King John, 1299–1302

Amanda Beam, Research Associate


This month’s feature focuses on several documents that will not be included in the project’s database because – as they related to events beyond the kingdom of Scotland – they fall outside our categories. The documents and the events described in them are nevertheless important to our understanding of the period following King John Balliol’s abdication of the Scottish throne, and of the efforts to reinstate him as king of Scots.

The first document is the so-called Wallace Letter, addressed by Philip IV of France to his agents at the Roman curia, commanding them to ask ‘the Supreme Pontiff to consider with favour our beloved William Wallace of Scotland, knight, with regard to those things which concern him that he has to expedite.’ This document, dated 7 November 1300, has recently been in the news because the Scottish Government wishes to see it transferred from the National Archives at Kew to the National Records of Scotland (until very recently the National Archives of Scotland) in Edinburgh, on the conviction that the letter was in Wallace’s possession when he was captured. The Wallace Letter itself draws attention to wider efforts to have Balliol, who formally abdicated in July 1296, restored to the throne. At the time of its production, Balliol was staying at Gevrey-Chambertin, near Dijon, and had probably been actively seeking his own restoration. Indeed, this was the third residence to which Balliol had been assigned, and the terms of his custody were much stricter than they previously had been. The terms of Balliol’s custody, which I shall discuss below, are preserved in documents at the Vatican Archives.

Since July 1299, John had been in papal custody in France, having been released by Edward I into the custody of the bishop of Vicenza, a representative of Pope Boniface VIII, by terms of an Anglo-French truce. Upon receiving news that their king had been freed from English hands, the Scots – led especially by Wallace, John Comyn of Badenoch and Baldred Bisset, a spokesman for the Scots at the papal court in Rome – began a more intense diplomatic campaign to secure his return. His release led to Wallace’s almost immediate departure for the French court that summer. The mission essentially had two main objectives: to gain military support against England, and to procure the release of King John.

When Wallace arrived in Paris, in early November 1299, Balliol was resident eighty miles away at Cambrai. The location of King John is known from the documents in the Vatican Archives, already mentioned, concerning his papal custody. These sources were first published by Joseph Stevenson in 1870, and later re-examined and translated by Annie Cameron in 1931. Although the documents have been known to the public for some time, they have not, until recently, been fully considered in the context in which they were written. The documents underscore Balliol’s own efforts for his restoration, and the increasing likelihood that this could become a reality.

A week after Wallace arrived in Paris, Balliol – still addressed as ‘king of Scotland’ – was sternly ‘required and warned’ by the bishop of Vicenza to follow the regulations of his custody and not leave his assigned residence without permission, a statement which implies that John had already been disobedient. Further to this, however, the bishop of Vicenza commanded that ‘no one, of whatsoever station, order or dignity he be, dare under pain of excommunication in any way to hinder him, his commands, orders and directions concerning these matters, or to seek the contrary.’[1] Of course, one can assume this was directed at Wallace himself, as his appearance at the French royal court would provide a perfect opportunity for Balliol to seek out ways to contact him, and perhaps gain an escort back to Scotland. There is also evidence of a lost safe-conduct issued by Balliol to Wallace around this time, further fuelling speculation that the two men had been in contact.[2]

Within weeks, however, Balliol was transferred twice, each time further away from Wallace. By September 1300 he was being held in custody at the castle of Gevrey-Chambertin, near Dijon, two hundred miles southeast of Paris. Upon his transfer, the bishop of Vicenza once again commanded Balliol in strict terms not to leave the said castle by himself, ‘without the permission and company’ of named members of the bishop’s household; and ‘if he should at any time go out to take a walk with the said permission and company’, he is commanded ‘not to leave the said castle before sunrise, and to return and enter the said castle before sundown, under pain of all his goods, and the oath taken to the said lord bishop, and of excommunication which he may automatically incur…’[3] These frequent transfers and strict conditions of custody certainly suggest the pope’s urgent need to keep Balliol away from Wallace and the Scots at Philip’s court.

Two months after King John’s transfer to Gevrey-Chambertin, however, Wallace obtained Philip’s letter of recommendation, and may have set off for Rome. The Wallace Letter must have surely related in some way to an attempted restoration of King John, although the wording is vague. The issue of a Balliol restoration was, however, a sensitive one, and Philip’s caution in not openly supporting it is understandable. Balliol’s return to Scotland would have caused problems between Philip and Edward I on account of their recent truce; and in fact, it was already creating a further strain on the relationship between Pope Boniface and the French king, who had been having their own jurisdictional disagreements. That being said, the Wallace Letter underlines Philip’s interests in and support of Balliol’s release from the custody of Pope Boniface.

We do not know whether or not Wallace made it to Rome in late 1300, but his efforts prompted new diplomatic missions by the Scots both in Scotland and in Rome. In Scotland, peace talks were underway between John Comyn of Badenoch, his kinsman the earl of Buchan, and Edward I. These talks, which Wallace may have influenced, proposed that King John be restored, with recognition of his son, Edward Balliol, as heir to the throne; and that Scottish nobles be allowed to buy back their English estates which had been forfeited. The terms, of course, were rejected. Baldred Bisset and others at Rome had also been pleading their case before the papal curia, insisting that Balliol had not committed treason against Edward I and that his 1296 surrender was invalid.

These efforts appeared to have worked, at least at first glance. By unknown terms in the summer of 1301, the exiled King John was released and allowed to return to his ancestral lands in Picardy. Although Balliol may have celebrated his liberation as a first step towards his restoration because he was released to his private estates rather than to Philip’s court in Paris; nevertheless, any hopes of an immediate restoration to Scotland would not be realised. As time went on, the French and the Scots met with more defeats, both diplomatic and military, which ultimately ended the efforts towards a restoration.

The events of 1299 to 1301, as revealed by these documents, show that the possibility of a Balliol restoration was a real concern for the pope and Edward I, especially with the appearance of Wallace and other Scots in Paris and Rome. These concerns are shown in King John’s frequent transfer of residence while in custody and the perceived need to keep him restrained, as well as in the rejection of terms allowing for his restoration. The involvement of the English, the French and the papacy illustrates the significance of the figure of King John Balliol outside Scotland, and the impact of his short reign on medieval European politics.[4]


Further Reading

For the Wallace Letter: TNA SC 1/30, no. 81; see also [http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/williamwallace.asp]

The papal documents can be found in print in J. Stevenson, ed., Documents Illustrative of the History of Scotland, 1286-1306 (Edinburgh, 1870), ii, 382-6, 390-2, 402-4, 406, 420-1; and in A. Cameron, ‘Two Groups of Documents Relating to John Baliol, from the Vatican Archives’, reprinted from the Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. XII, 1931 (NAS GD439/142), 34-39.

For further discussion of these events see: G. W. S. Barrow, Robert Bruce and the Community of the realm of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1988), Chapter Seven; A. Beam, The Balliol Dynasty, 1210-1364 (Edinburgh, 2008), Chapter Six; F. Watson, ‘Sir William Wallace: What we do – and don’t – know’, The Wallace Book, ed. E. J. Cowan (Edinburgh, 2007), Chapter Two.

For background reading on the arguments of Philip IV and Boniface VIII, see Duc de Lévis-Mirepoix, L’Attentat d’Anagni: le conflit entre le Papauté et le Roi de France, 7 septembre 1303 (Gallimard, 1969); Histoire du differend d’entre le Pape Boniface VIII et Philippe le Bel, Roy de France…sous les pontificats de Boniface VIII, Benoist XI et Clement V, eds. S. Vigor and P. Dupuy (Paris, 1665; reprinted 1963).


[1] Vatican, Archivum Secretum Vaticanum, MS Arm. XXXV.4, fol. 290r-v; Cameron, ‘Documents Relating to John Baliol’, 37-8; Stevenson, Documents, ii, 402–4. Dated 11 November 1299.

[2] Handlist, no. 414; The Antient Kalendars and Inventories of the Treasury of His Majesty’s Exchequer, ed. F. Palgrave (London, 1836), i, 134

[3] Vatican, Archivum Secretum Vaticanum, MS Arm. XXXV.4, fols 289v-291; Cameron, ‘Documents Relating to John Baliol’, 36-8; Stevenson, Documents, ii, 406, 420-1; Original Papal Documents, no. 3229; Les Registres de Boniface VIII, ii, no. 3274

[4] I would like to thank Dr John Reuben Davies for his comments and suggestions on a draft of this feature.


This entry was posted in Feature of the Month. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  • © 2011 The Breaking of Britain
  • Design by DDH
Facebook logo