William Wallace and Andrew de Moray wrote a famous letter to the Mayors and citizens of Lübeck and Hamburg on the 11th of October, 1297.
When he wasn’t fighting the English, William Wallace and his northern compadre, Andrew Moray, found time to write the odd letter or two. In addition to the usual missives to friend and family, they found time to write a letter that would become famous. In those days BF (before Facebook) folks used to write proper letters and some clever guys, like Wallace and Moray, were even able to write in Latin. Not many artifacts still exist pertaining to Wallace, but sandwiched between the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which the Wallace and Moray won, and Falkirk, which Wallace lost, occurred an event that is represented today by one of the few remaining relics of Scotland’s great hero. The event was the writing of a letter and the relic is that famous letter. It became known as the ‘Lübeck letter’, because for a long time, it was kept in ‘das Archiv der Hansestadt’ in a museum in that northern German City.
In 1296, the year before the battle at Stirling Bridge, the English were in possession of many Scottish towns and ports, which was a major blow to Scotland’s economy. Leading up to the defeat of Surrey and Cressingham at Stirling, the only places of note that remained in English hands were Stirling Castle and the port of Berwick. In fact, the English army had marched on Stirling due to the success of the Scottish guerilla forces in recapturing many of the towns north of the Forth and regaining access to their sea ports. So, with the victory at Stirling, and despite not having access to Berwick, Wallace and Moray felt secure enough to attempt to re-establish trading links with the Hanseatic League towns of Hamburg and Lübeck. The Hanseatic League was an economic alliance of cities and their guilds that dominated trade along the coast of northern Europe during the Late Middle Ages; between the 13th and 17th Centuries. It stretched from the Baltic to the North Sea and inland to a variety of Major towns and cities in various ‘Hanseatic circles’. Those included the likes of Hamburg, Lübeck, Kiel, Braunchweig, Hannover, Kraków, Danzik (now Gdańsk), Berlin, Minden, Dortmund, Antwerp, Berwick upon Tweed, Aberdeen, and Hull, to name just a few. The Hanseatic cities had their own legal system and furnished their own protection and mutual aid. In that way, they established a sort of political autonomy and in some cases, created political entities of their own.
Originally, there were two letters; one to Lübeck and one to Hamburg. The contents were identical and the letters were scribed within a month of the Scots’ success at Stirling Bridge. In the letter, the victorious commanders informed their erstwhile European trading partners that Scottish ports were open for business and once again safe to approach. Here is an English transcript of the letter, originally written in Latin on a now faded parchment by a medieval Monk as they used to call Civil Servants in the Middle Ages:
“Andrew Moray and William Wallace, leaders of the army of the Kingdom of Scotland and the Community, to their worthy and beloved friends, the Mayors and citizens of Lübeck and Hamburg, greeting. We have been told by trustworthy merchants of the Kingdom of Scotland that you are giving help and favour in all business concerning us and our merchants for which we thank you. We ask that it be made known among your merchants that they will now have safe access to all ports in the Kingdom of Scotland, since Scotland, blessed be God, has been rescued from the power of the English by force of arms. Given at Haddington in Scotland, on the 11th day of October in the year of grace one thousand two hundred and ninety seven.”
The ‘Lübeck letter’ is the only surviving original document issued by Wallace, but as the Hamburg letter was destroyed in the Second World War, most historians assumed the copy sent to Lübeck had suffered a similar fate. However, it was recently found intact in ‘das Archiv der Hansestadt’ in a Lübeck museum. The document is a vitally important piece of Scotland’s cultural heritage and when news of its existence emerged, a campaign was begun for its return to Scotland. In February 1999, the ‘Daily Telegraph’ reported that the letter was put on display in Scotland for the first time ‘on loan’. However, it has in fact been exhibited three times in Scotland in the past hundred years. It was exhibited in 2005, at the National Archives of Scotland’s ‘For Freedom Alone’ exhibition in the Scottish Parliament. Earlier, in 1999 as reported by the ‘Telegraph’, the new National Museum of Scotland borrowed for its opening exhibition. And in 1911, well before it was believed lost or destroyed, it was borrowed for the Glasgow ‘Palace Of History’ exhibition. Recently, in 2009, Murdo Fraser, the MSP for mid-Scotland and Fife raised a parliamentary motion for the permanent return of the document to Scotland. He said, “I would welcome the day when Scots are able to see the ‘Lübeck letter’ …[it] is a link to a pivotal point in Scotland's history and gives an insight into William Wallace as the statesman and politician. …this letter reveals another side to [Wallace] which is not always mentioned in the history books.” The document is very old and fragile and at present is quite safe in the hands of the National Archives of Lübeck.
Significantly, the letter carries the only known impression of William Wallace's personal seal, which shows the Scottish Lion Rampant on the front and on the reverse, a strung bow with a protruding arrow. The inscription appears to read ‘William, son of Alan Wallace’, which is interesting in relation to determining just who Wallace was exactly. An Aleyn Waleys – described as ‘tenant le Roi du counte de Are’ – signed the 1296 ‘Ragman Roll’ and he is quite possibly William Wallace’s father.
The final piece of the jigsaw is the controversy over the death of Moray. There is evidence the Moray was ‘slain at Stirling against the King (Edward I)’, but if that were true, he couldn’t have signed the Hamburg and Lübeck letters, let alone the one addressed to the Prior of Hexam on the 7th of November, 1297. The Hexam letter has not survived, but it is known that Moray’s name appeared on it, however, his name does not appear on any subsequent, surviving document. The interpretation of most historians is that Moray was injured at Stirling Bridge and died sometime after the 7th of November. There is no record of his having been present at Hexam, which fits with his being mortally wounded, but surely Wallace would have been entitled to include his name as long as he remained alive.