HOPE is growing that a letter widely believed to have been in the possession of William Wallace when he was captured by the English could finally be on its way home.
A team of academics called in by the Scottish Government to examine the “Safe Conduct” has concluded the document is genuine.
And a member of the group has revealed they believe there is a high probability it was in Wallace’s possession.
The preliminary findings will increase the pressure on the National Archives of England and Wales to return the letter from a locked drawer in Surrey to Scotland.
The Kew-based organisation has long argued the letter may be an English copy and that there is no evidence it was held by Wallace.
The case is set to inflame cross-border tensions in a manner befitting Wallace himself. Some campaigners for the return of the “Safe Conduct” predict Kew will fight tooth-and-nail to hang on to the document.
The letter is crucially important because it is one of very few surviving possessions of Wallace, whose battles with the English inspired the movie Braveheart.
It is said to have been written by King Philip IV of France, granting Wallace safe passage to visit the Pope.
But Wallace was betrayed by the Earl of Menteith and arrested in Robroyston, near Glasgow, in August 1305.
He was taken to London, found guilty of treason, stripped, dragged through the city, hung, drawn and quartered. The letter he is said to have been carrying has been in English hands ever since.
Last year, the Scottish Government said it was considering making a formal request for the return of the Safe Conduct.
Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop asked a team of historians and experts from north and south of the border, including Kew, to investigate the matter.
Notes of their first meeting, seen by by this newspaper, reveal they are now ”unanimous in judging that the letter itself, far from being a ‘copy’, is an ‘original’ produced in the French royal chancery”.
The experts take issue with the term “Safe Conduct”, saying the document is a writ In Latin ordering the French King’s representatives to request the “Pope to favour William ‘le Walois’ of Scotland, knight, in the (unspecified ) business that William had to expedite”.
The team put the date of the letter as “almost certainly” November 7, 1300.
The group say there are a number of possible explanations but the letter “might” have been in Wallace’s possession.
They say: “As Wallace had at least three letters of safe conduct on him at the time of his arrest, it is likely that he would have kept this document had he had it in his possession after it was written, and like the safe conducts it would have come into English possession after his arrest.”
One member of the team, who asked not to be named, said: “There is a very good chance it was in Wallace’s possession. I would put it at 70/30.”
The expert group will now complete its investigation and is due formally to report its findings to Ministers in the spring.
But Nationalist MSP Christine Grahame, who has petitioned the Scottish Parliament to have the “Safe Conduct” returned, said the case had been proven.
She said: “To say there is a 70/30 chance of it being in Wallace’s possession is proof on the balance of probability.
“How else would it have got into English hands?”
Grahame claimed Kew’s refusal to return the document was “not founded in anything vaguely academic”.
She said: “It was wilful distortion for political reasons. The establishment did not want the letter to return to Scotland.
“I think the Scottish people would want it returned. Wallace was one of the greatest men in Scotland’s history and something that was in his possession is kept in a drawer and does not see the light of day.”
Duncan Fenton, chairman of the Society of William Wallace, said the academics’ findings were a “huge leap forward”.
He said: “Kew kept fobbing us off with ‘It’s an English scribe’s copy’.”
But Fenton predicted a huge fight ahead. He said: “I think they will hang on to it tooth-and-nail.
“Someone at Kew told us unofficially: ‘There is no way we are letting it go.’”
He added: “England seems to have this ‘British Empire, you’re not getting it back’ attitude.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said they were looking forward to receiving the group’s final report “which should help establish the letter’s place in Scottish history”.
The spokeswoman said: “There has always been tremendous interest in this letter and repeated claims that it should rightfully reside in Scotland’s National Archives.
“However, its origins and precise link to William Wallace is a mystery, one which this expert group is working to solve.”
A spokeswoman for the National Archives at Kew said: “As announced last year, a panel of experts met in August to try to establish where and why the letter was produced. Following the meeting, additional research and analysis was required and the findings will be presented at the next meeting in March. After which, a report of the panel’s conclusions will be published on The National Archives of Scotland’s website.”