King Alexander can’t get back in the the saddle / Robert the Bruce is handy with a knife

Dunbar, Sir Archibald H.  (1906). Scottish Kings A Revised Chronology of Scottish History 1005–1625 With Notices of the Principal Events Tables of Regnal Years, Pedigrees Tables, Calendars. etc. Second Edition. Edinburgh:  David Douglas.

Oram, David.  (2006.)  The Kings & Queens of Scotland.  Stroud, Gloucestershire:  Tempus Publishing Limited.

Sinclair, Alexander.  (1870).  Heirs of the Royal House of Balliol.  Edinburgh:  The Author.

Young, Alan.  (1997).  Robert The Bruce’s Rivals:  The Comyns, 1212–1314.  East Lothian: Tuckwell Press Ltd.

Robert the Bruce, or King Robert I of Scotland, the enigmatic character in Mel Gibson’s fantasy film “Braveheart,”  is Scotland’s great national hero. Gibson depicted William Wallace as a quasi-Joan of Arc figure.  Both were propelled into pivotal roles in Scottish history due to a failure:  King Alexander III of Scotland had no male heir.  On 18 Mar 1286, while riding to Kinghorn to meet his new French wife, Yolande de Montfort, he fell from his horse and was killed.  That left his young granddaughter Margaret, a Norwegian princess, heir to the throne, but she died in September 1290 during the voyage from Norway to Scotland. King Edward I of England had hoped to wed his son Edward (the future Edward II) to Margaret, thus effecting a union of the two kingdoms.

The succession crisis created by Alexander’s death is the backdrop of “Braveheart.” Edward I (nicknamed “Longshanks”) was already engaged in subjugating Wales and had similar plans for Scotland.  In 1292 he examined 13 candidates for the Scottish throne, among them Robert the Bruce (grandfather of the eventual King Robert I), John Balliol, and John Comyn the Black.  The Comyn family had a distant claim based upon descent from Donald III (Donald Bane), brother of Malcom III Canmore.

The 13 Competitors, in order of petition, were:

(1) Florent count of Holland; (2) Patrick of Dunbar; (3) William de Vesci; (4) William de Ros; (5) Robert Pinkeny; (6) Nicolas de Soules; (7) Patrick Galithly; (8) Roger de Mandeville; (9) John Comyn the Black; (10) John Hastings; (11) John Balliol; (12) Robert Bruce of Annandale (the “Old Competitor”); (13) Eric II King of Norway.

It’s of interest that 6 Competitors based their claims upon descent from illegitimate children of the most recent kings:  5  from King William the Lion, and 1 from King Alexander II. All of these claims were rejected.  The winning claimant, John Balliol, traced his descent from David I, the grandfather of King William the Lion, and g-grandfather of King Alexander II.  

The principle of succession is clear:  legitimate children of earlier kings are preferred to illegitimate children of later kings.  Eric II King of Norway based his claim in right of his wife Margaret, daughter of King Alexander III, and their daughter, the deceased princess Margaret; his claim was also rejected, because his wife and daughter were both deceased.  5 of the remaining 6 claims were by descendants of King David I’s son Henry, including the winning claimant, John Balliol, and 1 was by John Comyn, a descendant of Donald III (though Comyn’s line as given above is probably missing a generation); all of those 6 claims were through legitimate children.

(Click on image to enlarge.)

Edward I selected John Balliol.  Evidently, this is how Edward I based his decision:  He first rejected the Comyn claim through Donald III, because the other 5 claimants descended from a later king, David I.  3 of the claimants, Balliol, Bruce, and Hastings traced their descent from David I to Henry to Henry’s son David Earl of Huntingdon, while the other 2, Florent count of Holland and Robert Pinkeny descended from granddaughters of David I.  Of the remaining 3, all descended from daughters of David Earl of Huntingdon.  Balliol descended from the eldest daughter, Margaret, who married Alan of Galloway.  Next in seniority came Bruce, with Hastings in third place.  So while Edward I’s choice of Balliol proved disastrous, it was based upon sound principles of primogeniture and inheritance.

(King John Balliol of Scotland rendering homage to King Edward I of England.  Such depictions were highly stylized and not intended as actual portraits.)

Edward I’s choice of Balliol was unpopular.  Balliol’s submission to the English king as his liege man infuriated the Scots. Bruce, ancestor of King Robert I of Scotland, was stung by the rejection of his own claim, and began a campaign to drive Balliol from the throne. Balliol was the Comyn family’s man—John Comyn the Black was married to Balliol’s sister Eleanor.

Sir James Balfour Paul’s The Scots Peerage Vol. 1 gives a good account of the Comyn Lords of Badenoch, and of John Comyn, the Red Comyn No. 2., who married Joan de Valence, daughter of William de Valence, Earl of Pembroke.  “On 19 August 1299 [John Comyn] had a meeting with other nobles at Peebles; there were some dissensions between them, ending in a scuffle, when Comyn seized Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, by the throat, but finally they agreed and Comyn was elected one of the three guardians of the Kingdom.” Comyn may have been involved in the betrayal of William Wallace to the English, but many Scottish nobles, including Robert the Bruce, switched sides as the winds of military fortune shifted. Edward I’s low opinion of the Scots, at least at this juncture, seems justified.

“Bruce’s plotting and the savage execution of William Wallace on 23rd August 1305, which undoubtedly raised the political temperature in Scotland, form the background to the infamous murder of John Comyn [son of John Comyn the Black] by Robert Bruce in the Greyfriars’ church at Dumfries on 10th February 1306.

“According to tradition, first recounted by Scottish chroniclers of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Bruce approached John Comyn ‘who was then the most powerful man in the country’ with his own ‘kind hearted plan’ to end ‘the endless tormenting of the people.’  Robert gave Comyn the choice of two courses of action:  either Comyn should reign with Bruce gaining all of Comyn’s lands or Bruce should become king with all Bruce’s lands going to Comyn.  According to Fordun, Comyn preferred he latter course and a solemn covenant was made between them but ‘John broke his word; and, heedless of the sacredness of his oath, kept accusing Robert before the king of England, through his ambassadors and private letters, and wickedly revealing that Robert’s secrets.’  After being confronted with his treachery in the Greyfriars’ church at Dumfries, ‘the evil speaker is stabbed and wounded unto death.’  According to tradition in both Scotland and England, John Comyn was killed in two stages, with Bruce’s men returning to the church to finish off the deed.  Bruce returned to Lochmaben Castle and reported to his kinsmen, James Lindsay and Roger Kirkpatrick, ‘I think I have killed John the Red Comyn.’  Bruce’s men returned to the church to end any doubt that the deed had, in fact, been done, with Roger Kirkpatrick, according to a wholly fabulous tale, exclaiming ‘I mak siccar.’  [Evidently what is meant is:  “I make sicker,” as in “I finished him off.”]  The murder of John Comyn was such a dramatic and important event in Scottish history and in its effect on Anglo-Scottish relations that it is hardly surprising that both Scottish and English traditions developed.”

Comyn was found dead at the altar.  The site of the murder is across from the present Greyfriars’ church in Dumfries, marked by a plaque on the wall between a travel agent and a discount shop. Bruce was heavily censured for his murder of Comyn—because it took place in a church.

Less than two months after the murder, Robert the Bruce was inaugurated as King of Scotland in a ceremony at Scone—minus the Stone of Scone.  The Stone of Scone was in the hands of Edward I, who would place it beneath the seat of his coronation chair, symbolizing Scotland’s submission. That submission didn’t last long, although the English regularly ravaged Scotland for the next two centuries.

And while King John Balliol is not fondly remembered by the Scots (he abdicated in 1296 and died an exile in France in 1313), his parents, John de Balliol and Devorguilla of Galloway, were the founders of Balliol College in Oxford University.  Devorguilla was the 2nd great-granddaughter of David I, King of Scotland (d. 1153). David I was the son of Malcolm III Canmore.

The Bruce claim to the Scottish throne ran through the same grandson of David I.  Thus both the Balliol and Bruce claims were superior to that of John Comyn the Black Comyn, as they were based upon descent from a son of Malcolm III Canmore, David I, rather than through a daughter of his brother Donald III.  The irony is that John Comyn the Red Comyn No. 2, whom Bruce dispatched in the church at Dumfries, had the same claim to the throne as John Balliol, the winning Competitor, because his father John Comyn the Black Comyn had married Balliol’s sister Mary.  Seen in this light, the scenario of Bruce and Comyn carving up Scotland makes perfect sense.  And whatever the actual events leading to Bruce’s murder of Comyn may have been, Comyn had a better claim to the Scottish crown than Bruce.  Perhaps there was more self-interest in this deed than later partisans of Bruce care to admit.


Joan, daughter of the murdered John Comyn, married David of Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl.  They are ancestors of Diana (Skipwith) Dale.

Revised Aug. 22, 2016

~ by Jeffrey Thomas Chipman on January 7, 2014.