Yesterday I listened to the Braveheart episode of the Best Pick podcast, and delighted in hearing their thoughts on a film which, if nothing else, has provided many people with a fine historical education of the period as they read about all the things it got wrong (personal favourite, the lack of a bridge at the Battle of Stirling Bridge). And from there I somehow ending up thinking about the murder of John Comyn and how it’s regarded. (It’s like two leaps away, it’s a perfectly normal train of thought, shusht.)
So, yes, this is not going to be a terribly jolly, festive post. But it is *interesting*!
The murder of John Comyn is as important, pivotal moment in Scottish history as Henry Tudor defeating Richard III was for English history, but it’s one that tends to get drowned out compared to William Wallace (I blame Braveheart for that, outside of Scotland anyway), Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn, the tragedy of Mary Stuart, or Charles bloody Stuart and the Jacobite Rebellion (thank you, Outlander*).
(I also got taught about Alexander III not listening to his dudes saying “it’s cold, wet, and misty out, maybe *don’t* go riding your horse in the middle of the night?” and Alex not listening, and then riding off alone, falling off his horse and breaking his neck. Which started off the whole succession crisis that started the Wars of Independence in the first place: his one surviving direct heir was a seven year old lassie – known as the Maid of Norway – died on the trip over from Norway. So maybe “not listening to your advisors when they say riding in the dark is a bad idea” is the *real* pivotal moment.**)
After the death of the Maid of Norway, there was no clear successor to the Scottish crown. Eventually the Scottish nobles decided that this Great Cause should be settled by Edward I of England (awesome plan! No flaws detected!). Edward agreed, on condition that the claimants would acknowledge him as overlord of Scotland. The claimants agreed, since they really wanted that shiny, shiny throne. The two strongest claims came from John Balliol and Robert de Brus. Balliol won and was crowned king in 1292.
This is all very relevant, very important background. I promise. Now we fast forward a bit:
The one thing about the murder that we know for certain: Robert the Bruce was responsible for the killing of John Comyn in Greyfriars Church, Dumfries, on 10 February 1306.
And six weeks after the murder, Bruce was crowned King of Scots.
English accounts of the period say Robert the Bruce lured Red Comyn to the church in order to kill him. Scottish accounts say Comyn betrayed Bruce, who killed him for his treachery.
Killing someone was, of course, A Big Deal. Killing someone in a church was A Very Big Deal. Killing *John Comyn* in a church, well…
Comyn was one of , if not *the*, most powerful noble in Scotland, and was descended on both sides from previous kings of Scotland. He was the nephew of John Balliol aka Toom Tabard (we like our nicknames), who’d abdicated as King of Scots a decade earlier. Comyn’s wife, Joan de Valence, was the cousin of Edward I, King of England.
Bruce was the grandson of Robert de Brus, the dude whose claim to the throne had been rejected by Edward I. Bruce was descended from David I via two of his great-grandparents. His grandfather, second cousin to King Alexander II, had served as regent during that king’s minority.
As you can probably guess, there was a touch of rivalry between the two families. And it went a bit beyond two nobles jostling for position. In the past, acting as Guardians*** of Scotland, they’d had a bit of a tiff while fighting the English together, and Comyn had grabbed Bruce by the throat.
Prior to that, they’d been on opposite sides of the war, with Bruce supporting Edward I, and Comyn supporting his uncle, John Balliol. Comyn was captured by the English in the one actual battle of 1296, the Battle of Dunbar. (Why did the war break out? Scottish nobles were furious at Edward treating Scotland as a vassal state of England. And they’d run out of patience with their weak king giving Edward whatever he wanted; Balliol abdicated shortly after Dunbar.)
(Why was Bruce fighting for Edward? A lot of Scottish nobles of the time, including Bruce and Comyn, held lands in both England and Scotland. So things could get a bit tricky when the two countries went to war.)
And, of course, the Bruce claim to the throne had been judged lesser than the one by Comyn’s uncle. That stung a bit.
Ten years after the Wars of Independence began, Bruce and Comyn met at Greyfriars church. This was after the death of William Wallace, and eight years before the victory at Bannockburn that secured Scotland’s independence. In the absence of a king, Scotland was still being governed by Guardians.
The most contemporary record of the murder comes from messages by Edward I who sends a couple of friars to Dumfries to find out about Comyn’s death. At the same time, Edward seems pretty meh about it. A few weeks later he’s *really* angry, possibly cause Bruce has had himself crowned king and is in open rebellion, and he’s accusing Bruce of the premeditated murder of Comyn. (And a lot about wickedness, treason, usurper…I mean, premeditated or not, Bruce had just committed a sacrilege, and broken an awful lot of oaths, and Edward I’s not exactly an easy-going guy.)
Notably, Edward only got seriously pissed off about Comyn’s murder *after* Bruce openly went after the throne. One Scottish lord killing another can’t have been too great a concern for him, but one Scottish lord killing another who was his main rival for the throne and then rebelling against England? Slightly different.
From the Flores Historiarum, a chronicle written in 1306, Bruce is said to have murdered Comyn because he stood in his way to the throne: Comyn refuses to rebel with Bruce. The following year, this account is expanded to add in some details, like Bruce drawing a sword on an unarmed Comyn, but Comyn managing to wrestle the sword from Bruce before he’s struck down by Bruce’s attendants.
Another chronicle has poor Comyn lured into a trap at Dumfries, where he’s accused of treachery by Bruce. And his denials mean his violent death. Later chronicles add more details: Bruce was wearing concealed armour, Comyn gets dragged back to the altar to be killed, he has a chance to confess and reaffirm his loyalty to Edward before he dies, there’s time enough between his wounding and death for Bruce to capture Dumfries castle (???).
The evolution of the chronicles is interesting in and of itself, but as accounts of what actually happened, they’re not very useful. The one thing they are consistent in is that the killing was premediated: Bruce planned to kill Comyn because Comyn could stop him becoming king. And that narrative *is* useful. To Edward.
All these chronicles also emphasise Comyn’s loyalty to Edward, and his refusal to betray his oaths of fealty. But this is also the man who was fighting with William Wallace against Edward long before Bruce. And, after being captured and agreeing to fight for Edward on the continent, Comyn deserted and went home to Scotland. Such facts however, were less helpful to Edward.
There are four existing later medieval chronicles that address the murder, all of them written decades after it happened. But they *do* draw on earlier sources that are now lost, and include evidence that there could have been support for Comyn as king, thus upping the rivalry between him and Bruce.
These accounts are by Scottish authors, written under Bruce’s descendants. So this time it’s Comyn who’s the villain: a traitor that agrees to aid Bruce and then betrays him. And this is how John Comyn continues to exist in our cultural memory today. Not as a great leader, or warrior. Not for his victories. Or his defeats. But for betraying our greatest hero to our oldest enemy.
(The chronicles are actually quite nice about Comyn’s victory over the English at Roslin; they’re not straight-up BAD COMYN BAD, but they do all use various means, secular and religious, to try and justify Comyn’s death. The religious justification is fascinating: Comyn was a necessary sacrifice to purge the country of the poison of its internal divisions so we could unite and become whole again under Bruce.)
(They were also where the “you give me all your lands, and I’ll support you as king” deal between the two first appears, and they say it’s the betrayal of *this* agreement that drives Bruce to murder Comyn.****)
The thing I remember being taught about these later chronicles was The Most Important Thing is that they were all written with a lot of hindsight: they all knew Bruce would be the victor. And they can’t look at the meeting with John Comyn except through that lens.
So, did Robert the Bruce go to the Greyfriars church with the intention of murdering John Comyn? We don’t know. We’ll never know. We can only explore and speculate, and bring our own biases and prejudices to the narratives we construct. (One reason I love this particular bit of history, I’m *very* aware of my own biases and how it affects my interpretation.)
But whether done in hot or cold blood, John Comyn’s murder was an act that changed the course of Scottish history. His death meant there was no going back for Bruce: he had committed to war with England and fighting for the throne and the independence of Scotland. And it was indeed very much A Game of Thrones in the George R R Martin vein: either Bruce would win, or he’d die.
(Spoiler: he won.)
Exciting bonus fact: The location of the murder is now a Greggs bakery. They put up a wee plaque commemerating it.
*I actually love Outlander.
**view not endorsed by any actual historians.
***Guardians is our cool Scottish word for regents.
****This is what they go with in the rather good Outlaw King (though it does portray the Comyn murder in one of the most forgiving lights it could plausibly have.)