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John III Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, lived from around 1270 to 10 February 1306. A man with links to both the Scottish and English royal families, he became a Guardian of Scotland at a crucial moment. He is best known for being murdered by Robert the Bruce in front of the high altar of the Greyfriars Church in Dumfries.The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
John III Comyn was also known as Sir John Comyn, John the Red, or just the Red Comyn, to distinguish him from his father, also John Comyn, who was referred to as the Black Comyn. The Black Comyn had been one of the 13 "Competitors" for the Crown of Scotland who had been subject to adjudication by Edward I of England in 1292. The Red Comyn's mother (and the Black Comyn's wife) was Eleanor Balliol, the eldest daughter of John Balliol, who had been appointed by Edward I to the throne of Scotland at the end of the competition. To complete this complex web, in the early 1290s the Red Comyn married Joan de Valence, daughter of William de Valence, a cousin of Edward I.
The Comyns were one of the most important families in Scotland. They were Lords of Badenoch and the Earls of Buchan, and owned extensive estates elsewhere in the country. When Edward I invaded Scotland in March 1296, the Red Comyn, together with his father, and his cousin, John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, responded by attacking Carlisle, held for Edward I by Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, the father of the future Robert the Bruce. It is highly significant that the Wars of Scottish Independence should begin with a fight between the Bruces and Comyns.
On 27 April 1296, the Red Comyn was among the Scots captured in the English victory at the Battle of Dunbar, and he was subsequently imprisoned in the Tower of London. Later in 1296, after all resistance in Scotland had been overcome by Edward, the Red Comyn was released, on condition he fight with the English army in Flanders against the French. He was among a number of Scots who deserted the English after the 1297 uprisings of William Wallace and Andrew Murray and their defeat of the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. In March 1298 he was in Paris, asking the French King Philip IV for assistance for the Scots against the English: all he got was a passage home, where he arrived some time in the middle of 1298.
On 22 July 1298, William Wallace was defeated by the English at the Battle of Falkirk. It is possible that the Red Comyn was present, perhaps among the Scottish cavalry whose alleged desertion from the field of battle later spin-doctors blamed for the loss at Falkirk. It is unlikely he was seen by Scots at the time as in any way responsible, however, because after William Wallace resigned the Guardianship of Scotland, the Red Comyn was appointed in his place, albeit as joint Guardian with Robert Bruce the younger. The hatred between the Bruces and Comyns was undimmed: at a meeting of prominent Scots at Peebles in August 1299 an argument erupted, during which the Red Comyn is said by an English spy to have seized Bruce by the throat. In order to act as a mediator, William Lamberton, the Bishop of St Andrews, was appointed as a third Guardian in 1299.
Bruce resigned from the Guardianship in May 1300, and in May 1301 John Balliol appointed John de Soules as Guardian of the Kingdom. de Soles went to France in 1302, and the Red Comyn was appointed sole Guardian, a position he was to hold for two years. Comyn's prestige increased significantly after he and Sir Simon Fraser defeated an English force at the Battle of Roslin in February 1303. But by the end of that year the outlook for Scotland was bleak. The English and French had agreed peace terms, and Edward I was preparing for his largest invasion of Scotland since 1296. Comyn entered negotiations with the English that resulted in a fairly equitable peace deal being agreed in February 1304, albeit one that at English insistence specifically named William Wallace as a wanted man and led to his later capture and execution.
By 1306 William Lamberton, Bishop of St Andrews, was sole Guardian of Scotland, but it was clear to everyone that King John Balliol was never going to return. Robert Bruce had long held ambitions to become king himself, and it seems he entered into an agreement with Lamberton, and with Robert Wishart, the Bishop of Glasgow, under which the Scottish monarchy would be restored. There were only two credible candidates to become King of Scotland, Robert Bruce himself, and the Red Comyn. On 10 February 1306 the two met to discuss their differences in the safe and neutral Church of the Grey Friars in Dumfries. It seems they disagreed, either because both wanted the Scottish crown for themselves, or because Comyn refused to lend his support to Bruce's planned uprising against the English. Robert Bruce drew a dagger and stabbed Comyn in front of the high altar of the church. Bruce fled the church, telling waiting comrades outside what had happened. One of them, Sir Roger Kirkpatrick, went back in and finished off the seriously wounded Comyn.
It is unlikely that Bruce had gone to the meeting intending to murder the leading member of the most powerful family in Scotland: and certainly not in a place that caused revulsion in an age well used to savagery. But the die was cast and Bruce had no choice but to press on with his plans, in very different circumstances to those he had hoped for. His first move was to attack the strongholds of the Comyns in Southern Scotland. His second was to confess his crime to his supporter, Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, and receive absolution: on condition that as King he would be suitably respectful of the church (he was, nonetheless, later excommunicated by the Pope for his murder of Comyn). There is strong evidence that Bruce's plans - the murder of Comyn aside - were supported in advance by many in the Church in Scotland. On 25 March 1306, Robert I, or Robert the Bruce, was inaugurated at Scone. He went on to become what many believe to have been the greatest King of Scotland who ever reigned: though there is no reason to believe that John III Comyn would not have done equally well.