John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch

John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch

John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch or John "the Red", also known simply as the Red Comyn, (died 10 February 1306), was a Scottish nobleman who was Lord of Badenoch. His father, another John Comyn, known as the Black Comyn, was one of the Competitors for the Crown of Scotland, claiming his descent from King Donald Bán, the brother of Malcolm Canmore. His mother was Eleanor Balliol, eldest daughter of John I de Balliol. The Red Comyn might thus be said to have combined two lines of royal descent, Celtic and Norman.

He had, moreover, links with the royal house of England: sometime in the early 1290s he married Joan de Valence, daughter of William de Valence, an uncle of Edward I.

John Comyn was to be Guardian of Scotland at a particularly crucial time in the country's history. His murder in 1306 removed an important obstacle to the political ambitions of Robert Bruce.

The Comyns of Scotland

On the eve of the Wars of Independence the Comyns were one of the dominant families of Scotland, with extensive land holdings in both the north and south of the country, and political influence and family connections with the crown. Of Norman-French origin, the family first made an appearance in Scotland during the reign of David I and made steady progress ever since. In the thirteenth century they acquired the lordship of Badenoch, with extensive landholdings also in Lochaber, as well as the earldom of Buchan. On the death of Alexander III, John Comyn's father was appointed to the panel of Guardians to await the arrival of the infant Maid of Norway, the last descendant of the Canmore dynasty. Her death in 1290 immersed the nation in crisis, finally solved in 1292 when John Balliol emerged as king, with the support of his Comyn kinsmen, a solution that was never accepted by the next best claimant, Robert Bruce of Annandale, grandfather of the future king. The Comyns were the principal supporters of King John, even after he was deposed by Edward I in 1296. As such they were foremost among the enemies of the house of Bruce.

Comyn at war

With the outbreak of war between England and Scotland Comyn, his father and his cousin, John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, crossed the border and attacked Carlisle, defended for King Edward by Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, the father of the future king. The Wars of Scottish Independence thus began in a clash between the Bruces and Comyns. With no siege equipment the Comyns drew off, subsequently to join the main Scottish host at Haddington, assembled to meet the advance of the English army along the east coast. On 27 April the Scots were overwhelmed at the Battle of Dunbar, John being among the many prisoners taken. While his father and cousin retreated north in the company of the king, he was sent south, to be imprisoned in the Tower of London.

John was to remain in prison for a number of months; but with the war in Scotland seemingly over he was finally released on condition that he took up service with Edward in Flanders, the main theatre of operations in his war against the French. While there he learned of the rising of William Wallace and Andrew de Moray and their joint victory over the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. In March 1298 John was among a number of Scots who deserted from the English, finally ending up in Paris, where they appealed for aid to Philip IV. The only help they managed to get was a ship back to Scotland, arriving sometime before the summer.


Earlier that year William Wallace had emerged as Guardian, Moray having died at Stirling or shortly after. The main task facing the Guardian was to gather a national army to meet an invasion by Edward, anxious to overturn the verdict of Stirling Bridge. For cavalry, by far the weakest element of the Scottish host, Wallace depended on the Comyns and the other noble families. On 22 July Wallace's army was destroyed at the Battle of Falkirk, the light horse being driven off at an early stage by the heavy English cavalry. It is possible that John Comyn was present at the battle, though the evidence is far from conclusive. The main Scottish sources, the chronicles of John Fordun and John Barbour, were composed decades after the event, long after the Comyns had been expelled from Scotland. The important thing to remember about Fordun and Barbour is that they were not composing detached historical narratives, but manifestos, so to speak, with a specific agenda in mind, namely to magnify Robert Bruce and diminish John Comyn. In Fordun John and his kin move on and off stage like operatic villains. Hating Wallace, they seem only to have appeared on the battlefield with premeditated treachery in mind—"For, on account of the ill-will, begotten of the sprig of envy, which the Comyns had conceived towards the aforesaid William, they, with their accomplices, forsook the field, and escaped unhurt." This is set alongside a commendation of Robert Bruce, the future king, who, in Fordun's account, fought on the side of the English and "was the means of bringing about the victory." Set against the partisan Scottish accounts we have the contemporary English record of the "Lanercost Chronicle", partisan in a different way, which simply blames the inadequacy of the Scottish cavalry in general. Soon after the defeat John Comyn was to emerge as Guardian in place of Wallace, hardly possible if his alleged treachery had been so manifest.


With no independent power base Wallace, whose prestige had always been based on the success of the army, had little choice but to resign as Guardian after Falkirk, though inevitably Fordun has him stepping down because of the "wickedness of the Comyns." In his place came one of the more unusual, and difficult, balancing acts in Scottish history: John Comyn and Robert Bruce the younger, who had now joined the patriot party. The Scots were still fighting on behalf of the absent King John, so Bruce must have paid some lip service to the cause, though his royal ambitions were openly known. The records give little or nothing in the way of insight into the feelings and motives of these men, but it seems reasonably clear that hatred and suspicion of the one for the other were uppermost. At a meeting of a council of the magnates at Peebles in August 1299 an argument broke out, during which Comyn is said by an English spy to have seized Bruce by the throat. Seemingly to act as a mediator William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews, was appointed as a third Guardian, not the best of arrangements as Lamberton was politically closer to Bruce. Bruce resigned sometime before May 1300, when the restoration of King John was looking increasingly likely, leaving only Comyn and Lamberton, but even this was too much. When parliament assembled at Rutherglen it learned that "the bishop of St Andrews and sire John Comyn were at discord and the Stewart of Scotland and the earl of Atholl took the part of the bishop, and sir John Comyn said that he did not wish to be a guardian of the realm along with the bishop. But at length they were in accord and they elected Sir Ingram d'Umphraville to be one of the guardians of the realm in place of the earl of Carrick."

This was obviously an arrangement that suited Comyn, because Umphraville was a close political associate and a kinsman of King John. With the Guardianship taking Scotland one way Robert Bruce went the other, making his peace with Edward by February 1302 in a document in which he expressed the fear that "the realm of Scotland might be removed from the hands of the king, which God forbid, and delivered to John Balliol, or to his son."

The new triumvirate lasted to May 1301, when John de Soules emerged as sole Guardian, seemingly appointed by Balliol himself pending his return. The following year, with Soules leaving for France on a diplomatic mission, Comyn became sole Guardian, occupying the position for the next two years. Sometime in the course of that same year his father died, John becoming Lord of Badenoch in his place.

Defiance and surrender

There was a certain inevitability to the Comyn domination of Scottish government in the years before 1304: not only were they the most powerful of the noble families, but their heartlands to the north of the Forth had been untouched ever since the campaign of 1296. English invasions in 1298, 1300 and 1301 had been confined to the south of the country, leaving the north as the chief recruiting ground, and supply base, of the Scottish army. The Guardian's prestige increased still further when he and Sir Simon Fraser defeated an English force at the Battle of Roslin in February 1303. For once Fordun recognised the achievement:

"There never was so desperate a struggle, or one in which the stoutness of knightly prowess shone forth so brightly. The commander and leader in this struggle was John Comyn, the son... John Comyn, then guardian of Scotland, and Simon Fraser with their followers, day and night, did their best to harass and to annoy, by their general prowess, the aforesaid kings officers and bailiffs... the aforesaid John Comyn and Simon, with their abettors, hearing of their arrival at Rosslyn and wishing to steal a march rather than have one stolen upon them, came briskly through from Biggar to Rosslyn, in one night, with some chosen men, who chose rather death before unworthy subjection to the English nation; and all of a sudden they fearlessly fell upon the enemy."

Politically, however, the outlook was bleak. Philip entered into a final peace with Edward, from which Scotland was excluded. John Balliol, whose star had risen briefly above the horizon, now sank into the twilight of history. In a mood of desperation the Scottish diplomats in Paris, who included Comyn's cousin Buchan, wrote words of encouragement; "For God's sake do not would gladden your hearts if you would know how much your honour has increased in every part of the world as a result of your recent battle with the English." However, for the first time since 1296 Edward was preparing an offensive that would take him deep into the north of Scotland. Unable to mount an effective resistance, and with his main base threatened with destruction, Comyn entered into peace negotiations, concluded at Strathord near Perth in February 1304. However, this was no abject surrender, unlike that of King John in 1296. Comyn laid down clear terms, insisting that there should be no reprisals or disinheritance, which Edward accepted, with some notable exceptions. Edward maintained his particular hatred for one former Guardian. Comyn was thus obliged to adhere to a condition in which he and other named individuals were to "capture Sir William Wallace and hand him over to the king, who will watch to see how each of them conducts himself so that he can do most favour to whoever shall capture Wallace..." There is no evidence to suggest Comyn made any effort to fulfill this condition, though this does not imply that he would have failed to hand over Wallace if he had the opportunity.


On 10 February 1306 Robert Bruce participated in the murder of John Comyn before the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries. Robert the Bruce called the Comyn to a meeting, Robert the Bruce stabbed the Comyn then rushed out to tell Roger de Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick went in to finish the job uttering "You doubt! Ise mac siccar", or (I make sure). This much we know for certain; the rest is either fabrication or speculation. The later Scottish sources all try to justify the crime by amplifying earlier accusations of malevolence and treachery against Comyn. For the English sources the villain is Robert Bruce, who lured Comyn into a church—taken as a guarantee of safety—with the intention of committing premeditated murder. We will never know the complete truth, because none of those present ever provided an account of what happened. One thing all the sources agree on, both English and Scottish, is that Bruce could never move his cause forward for as long as John Comyn was alive.

We know that by early 1306, either from the records or subsequent events, that Bruce had secured the support of leading Scottish churchmen, like Lamberton and Robert Wishart, the bishop of Glasgow, for some kind of political "coup", most likely involving the revival of the Scottish monarchy. Balliol was obviously never going to return—not that Bruce would have worked for such an outcome—so the only two realistic candidates for the office were either himself or John Comyn. Some of the sources suggest that Bruce offered a pact, whereby one would take the crown in return for the lands of the other; but it does not seem credible that he would have hazarded his long-cherished claim so lightly. The essential truth is probably contained in a list of charges later drawn up for Edward against William Lamberton;

"When Lamberton was made chief Guardian, Bruce rose against King Edward as a traitor, and murdered Sir John Comyn, lord of Badenoch, in the church of the Friors Minor of the town of Dumfries, by the high alter, because Sir John would not assent to the treason which Robert planned against the king of England, namely, to resume war against him and make himself king of Scotland."

The murder of John Comyn took Edward by complete surprise. It was to be some thirteen days after the event that a garbled version of the facts reached his court at Winchester, where the murder was reported as "the work of some people who are doing their utmost to trouble the peace and quiet of the realm of Scotland." Once the picture became clear he reacted in fury, authorising Aymer de Valence, Comyn's brother-in-law, to take extraordinary action against Bruce, who had since been crowned king. He also emphasised his blood relationship with the Comyns by ordering his cousin, Joan, to send John's young son and namesake to England, where he was placed in the care of Sir John Weston, guardian of the royal children. John Comyn the younger grew to manhood in England, not returning to Scotland until 1314, when he was killed at the Battle of Bannockburn. The death of his father plunged Scotland into a brief but bloody civil war, largely concluded by 1308, but with political reverberations that were to last for decades.


Documentary and narrative

* Barbour, John, "The Bruce", trans. A. A. H. Duncan, 1964.
* Bower, Walter, "Scotichronicon," ed. D. E. R. Watt, 1987-1996.
* "Calendar of Documents Relating to Scotland," ed. J. Bain, 1881.
* "Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough", ed. H. Rothwell, Camden Society, vol. 89, 1957.
* Fordun, John of, "Chronicles", ed. W. F. Skene, 1871-2.
* Gray, Sir Thomas, "Scalicronica," trans. H. Maxwell, 1913.
* "Lanercost Chronicle", trans. H. Maxwell, 1913.
* Palgrave, F., ed. "Documents and Records Illustrating the History of Scotland," 1837.
* "Pluscarden, the Book of", ed. F. J. H. Skene, 1877-80.
* Wyntoun, Andrew, "Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland", ed. D. Laing, 1872-9.

econdary works

* Barrow, G, "Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland", 1976.
* Barron, E. M., "The Scottish War of Independence", 1934.
* Scott, W. W. C, "Bannockburn Revealed", 2003. [ link to book]
* Scott, W. W. C, "Bannockburn Proved", 2006. [ link to book]
* Young, A., "Robert the Bruce's Rivals: the Comyns, 1212-1314," 1997.

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