Barons' Letter of 1301

The Barons' Letter of 1301 was written by seven English earls and 96 English barons to Pope Boniface VIII as a repudiation of his claim of feudal overlordship of Scotland (expressed in the Bull Scimus Fili), and as a defence of the rights of King Edward I of England as overlord of Scotland. It was, however, never sent. The letter survives in two copies, known as A and B, both held in the National Archives at Kew under the reference E 26. Historically they were held amongst the documents in the Exchequer, Treasury of the Receipt department.

The seals of the signatories to the letter survive in excellent condition. Although they are now detached from the document, they form the earliest contemporary group of true coats of arms, the rules of heraldry having only been established at around the start of the 13th century, and were stated for that reason by Lord Howard de Walden to be of very great value to students of heraldry.[1] Many of the armorials also appear in the near contemporary Falkirk Roll of Arms made before the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and in the near contemporaneous stained glass shields in Dorchester Abbey, Oxfordshire.[2] Many are also blazoned in verse in the Roll of Caerlaverock of 1300.

The letter was written by English barons (mainly feudal barons and a few barons by writ) as a repudiation to the pope of his claim to feudal overlordship of Scotland, which he had expressed in a papal bull dated 27 June 1299 at Agnani. The bull was addressed to King Edward I of England and it was delivered by Robert Winchelsey, Archbishop of Canterbury at Sweetheart Abbey in Galloway, Scotland, on 26th or 27 August 1300. The bull is preserved in the National Archives at Kew under reference SC 7/6/10.

The king sought the advice of William of Sardinia, a former Dean of Arches to the Archbishop, as to what his response should be, and was presented with various options set out in a letter preserved in the National Archives (C/47/31/15). The Papal bull had been delivered to the king at a sensitive moment, just after the hard-won English victory at the Siege of Caerlaverock Castle over the Scots. Following their defeat at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 the Scots had appealed to the pope for his protection, yet the English had fought to subject their northern neighbour and were not about to release it from under their control, perhaps only to rise up again against them.[citation needed][clarification needed]

The French were the real movers of the pope's claim, having suggested the move to him as a means to effect protection of the Scots, then their allies under the Auld Alliance,[3] and were themselves allied with the Scots against the English. An English attack on a kingdom the feudal overlord of which was the pope would be virtually unthinkable in political and religious terms.[citation needed] There was thus no question of the English even considering the pope's claim, and the tone of the barons' reply to him is one of anger and open defiance, devoid of almost any of the diplomatic niceties with which the papal bull was replete.[citation needed]

In the event, the Barons' Letter was never sent to the pope, as events changed rapidly to such an extent that it appeared superfluous.[4] A letter to the same effect from the king had however been sent to the pope; it is now held in the Vatican Archives with a copy in the National Archives at Kew under reference C 54/118. It was stored away within the archives of the Exchequer, where the two copies of it remained for several centuries until transferred to Public Record Office under the custody of the Master of the Rolls before 1903[5] and more recently transferred to the National Archives at Kew.

See full text on wikisource s:Barons' Letter, 1301 (English); la:s:Baronum epistola, 1301 (Latin)

The letter was composed and sealed at the parliament specially convened for the purpose of replying to the Pope's letter held at Lincoln between 13–20 January 1301.[6] To it were summoned 9 earls and 80 barons, yet 7 earls and 96 barons are recorded in the letter itself as co-authors. Those barons who did not answer the summons sealed the letter later.

The seals appended by hempen cords to Exemplar B were "tricked" (i.e. reproduced by drawing) by Lancaster Herald Nicholas Charles in 1611.[7] He also made a transcript of Exemplar B., which clearly was then in a better state of preservation than today.[8] Whilst his drawings provide much detail which is otherwise difficult to see in photographs of the seals themselves, some of his transcripts of the legends are inaccurate.[9]

In 1903 Lord Howard de Walden published Charles' drawings and a facsimile of his transcript, and also two sets of photographic images of the seals from Exemplar A; firstly of all the surviving individual cords of seals in colour (showing one face only of each seal), and secondly black and white images of each constituent seal on the cord, obverse and reverse (where existing). The number of surviving seals (series unspecified) is given as 95 by the National Archives catalogue entry, and as 72 (7 earls and 65 barons) by Brian Timms. Photographic images were published by Brian Timms on his heraldry website.[10]