“From my hand”: A letter written by King William III enters Swem Library Special Collections

The letter written and signed by King William, showing the address on the left hand side.

The letter written and signed by King William, showing the address on the left hand side.

On the fourth of July, 1698, an expedition set out from Scotland. The small group of ships set a course for the Isthmus of Darien in modern-day Panama, intending to create a Scottish colony that would be an overland trading link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans–a seventeenth-century Panama Canal.

Outside the enthusiasm of the Scots, there was a distinct lack of support for the plan. English and Dutch investors had been forced out by English East India Company pressure, and the Spanish were less than pleased about a colony in an area they claimed to own. So funding was withdrawn, English colonies were ordered not to help the Scots, and Spain prepared military intervention.

Naturally, the Scottish people, many of whom had invested in the expedition, were unhappy. They attempted to have the Scottish Parliament pressure the English for help. In order to appease English and Dutch commercial interests and to avoid war with Spain, King William III of England (who was also King William II of Scotland and founder of the College of William and Mary), stalled.

William’s first language was Dutch, and his second French, so when communicating with his English and Scottish advisors he generally wrote and spoke in French.

William’s first language was Dutch, and his second French, so when communicating with his English and Scottish advisors he generally wrote and spoke in French.

The man he put in charge of running the Parliament in Scotland, James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry, delayed the opening in May by saying that the carriages, horses, and so on needed for the ceremony were not yet ready. When Parliament finally met, the king’s supporters began with religious matters, which kept the business of providing support to the Darien colony from coming up for several days. Finally, Queensberry claimed that he had a sore throat and also needed to consult the king, and adjourned the session until the 20th of June. By the 28th of that month, news arrived in Edinburgh that the colony had surrendered to the Spanish–it was too late. The damage done to the Scottish economy was considerable, and historians attribute the passage of the Act of Union in 1707, which created the United Kingdom, in part to payments made to cover these debts.

These events explain the letter just acquired by Special Collections through the Thomas G. and Louise Rowe Pullen Fund. In it, William tells Queensberry that he is sending a long official letter, but wants to send this one in his hand to say how happy he is with Queensberry’s conduct. The King assures him of his friendship and esteem, and promises not to miss an opportunity to prove it. We can read this letter as offering congratulations and gratitude for Queensberry’s success in dealing with the Scots, so incensed by the English sabotage of their colony in the Americas. And we also know that the King rewarded Queensberry the next year with the Order of the Garter, the highest order of knighthood. In England.

In this part of the letter William says that “I wanted to add from my hand how satisfied I am with your conduct,” indicating that unlike the official letter which he had signed and sent to Queensberry, he had actually written this himself.

In this part of the letter William says that “I wanted to add from my hand how satisfied I am with your conduct,” indicating that unlike the official letter that he had signed and sent to Queensberry, he had actually written this himself.

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