American Clan Cumming Association

A History of Clan Comyn

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A History of Clan Comyn

Forward by the author, Marlene L. Luyster

I wrote this article as a follow up to a speech I gave to the 'Canton Akron Scottish Heritage Association' (CASHA). I was president of this association for two years, 1998-2000, and during that time some of the members asked me if I would do a speech on the 'COMYNS' at one of our meetings. They knew I had a great grandmother named Agnes Cummings. I have been involved in family genealogy for a few years and it led me into research of the Scottish names in my ancestry.

I was reluctant to give a speech as I felt I wasn't well informed about this great historical family. I had heard a few unsavory mentions of the "Red"Comyn in the movie Braveheart. He was other than a hero in that movie. However, I was interested so I started my research into this important family of Scotland. I read many articles on the subject until my appetite for information on the family became insatiable. I found myself immersed in the subject and trying to find the truth, as it soon became evident to me that this family had been maligned by bad press in propaganda following the death of "Red"Comyn.

History is a living thing and changes with each generation of discovery. We have a different slant on history today as we have become more objective with time. We now know that people lived for the same values we hold dear today, freedom from tyranny. Freedom is the most important content of the story I have told in the following pages. Each person has his own measure of what it is and how to obtain it, but the most important part of the story is obtaining it.

In the 12 and 13 centuries of the British Isles, land was power. Those who owned land, called 'landed gentry' were the most powerful people in the country. Many of them were the power behind the throne. Land was granted to those who did great favors and deeds for the king. These earls and lords (landed gentry) amassed a great following of people for themselves and used this power to get what they wanted through battles with other landed gentry. It kept the country unstable for many years until a great king, Alexander III managed to keep peace throughout his reign. It was a great time in Scottish history and with his death my story begins.

This story is my own conclusion compiled from the many books and articles I read during my research. Remember there were eye witnesses to this story and they have now been heard. There will be and have been other conclusions to this story.

 

THE COMYNS
13th Century Power
Behind the Throne of
SCOTLAND 
by
Marlene L. Luyster
Co-Chairman, American Clan Cumming Association

I am hoping to bring to light the story of a clan that has been maligned and ignored by historians of the past. They did not have a Fordun or Barbour to bring their story to the people as did Robert the Bruce. In other words they had ‘bad press’. History is a living thing and therefore it changes with the advent of research. Over time we come to see each era differently as we gain a new perspective. I believed the propaganda written by Barbour and Fordun. It wasn't until I was assigned the job of giving a speech to my Scottish heritage society that I started to read the history of these two great families.

 

The Comyn’s family was not given their rightful place in Scottish history until recently, with the publishing of a book by Alan Young: “Robert the Bruce’s Rivals: The Comyns, 1212-1314”. The Comyns were not a political family and were happy to serve the 'throne' rather then sit on it. They were scholars, lawmakers and architects. They were royal by marriage and their heredity made them the cream of Scottish society in the 12th and 13th centuries.

 

Murder made Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. The Comyn family who served kings and made a century of Scottish history one of the most productive periods of that era, was left destroyed.

John “Red” Comyns could have been King of Scots. Robert the Bruce and his brothers murdered him. The greatest sadness is that he was not interested in the throne. His only crime was to want someone other then the Robert the Bruce to be king. Robert met John under the quise of negotiation and murdered him in the sanctuary of Greyfriar's church and with this murder the course of history was altered for the Comyn family.

While the family was ravaged and all but destroyed, it still survives today in all it's glory. Comyns, Cummins, Cummings all still exist and are descendents of Richard, John's uncle who was murdered along with him that fateful day.

 

Marlene L. Luyster

North Canton, Ohio                                         February 7, 2002  

 

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CHAPTER ONE

 

The story begins in the 9th century with Kenneth MacAlpin, first king of ‘Scotland’. He was considered so because he was the first king to serve a united community of Celts and the Picts. This was a small kingdom in the Highlands and not what we consider the kingdom of Scotland today. His heirs claimed the throne until the 11th century ending with 

the last of the celt/pict kings, Donald Bane.

Donald Bane or Ban was the son of Duncan I, king of Scots. Donald had a daughter, Bethoc, who married Uhtred of Tynedale, who in turn had a daughter, Hextilda.

Hextilda married Richard Comyn giving their descendants a legitimate, if not the strongest possible claim to the Scottish throne. Richard was not only the founder of the secular fortunes of the Comyns’ family but also of the claim of his great-great-grandson, John Comyn the Competitor, to the Scottish throne. This is important to the story of this family who served Scotland so well.

 

The first Comyn appeared in British history, with the Norman invasion of William the Conqueror in 1066. His name was Robert De Comyn and he was the uncle of   William Comyn. William was the first of the family to serve the throne and become part of Scottish history.

William Comyn appears on most of the documents and records of Scotland as he served King David.

King David’s reign is considered one of the greatest monarchies in Scotland and the first of those serving what we now call Scotland ( united Celt, Pict, Anglo, Brit, Norse and Norman as one people called the Scots).

William was a clerk, from Normandy and much valued as an advisor to David, who made him Chancellor of Scotland and the founder of the Comyns' family in Scotland. His son Richard Comyn became the first titled landowner (Walwick, Thornton, Staincroft, Henshaw) upon his marriage to Hextilda, granddaughter of Donald Bane. With this marriage he also inherited the descendancy to the throne. He was bestowed many titles in addition to the land holdings, earl of Buchan, Lord of Lenzie, Lord of Kirkintilloch, Sheriff of Forfar and earl of Monteith.

Richard Comyn was also made Justiciar of Scotland .

 

William and his son Richard continued the family’s growth in landed power and influence in administrational and judicial affairs of the kingdom. The 13th Century was called ‘The Comyn Century’.  By this time the Comyn influence was so powerful in Scotland that a party called the ‘Comyn Party’ was in existence, this set the stage for Comyn influence to be felt on the political scene. They signed  important documents, made and enforced laws, made policies and designed and built castles.

 

By this time Alexander III was king of Scotland and he used the Comyns' service as had his predecessors. Their names were virtually on every document issued by the crown. Now, rivals to the Comyn party started to band together and gather power of their own. The crown had been giving out lands and titles for services rendered to these families who joined together against the ‘Comyns' Party’. These families were well established in their own power when Alexander III died suddenly in 1286.

He died leaving the kingdom with only one living heir to the throne of Scotland, his granddaughter Margaret, called ‘Maid of Norway’. She was less then 3 years old at the time. Edward I of England, was asked to step in and become mediator for Scotland and a provisional government made up of six ‘Guardians’ was set up.

The guardians named were Alexander Comyn, 'earl of Buchan', Duncan, 'earl of Fife', William Fraser, 'bishop of St.Andrews', Robert Wishart, 'bishop of Glasgow',

John Comyn, 'barron of Badenach', James Steward, 'steward to the throne'.

 

The ‘Guardians’ basic role was to maintain peace and stability in Scotland and to support the succession of Margaret, Maid of Norway.  Edward I of England had been waiting for an excuse to get into the affairs of Scotland and the Scots themselves served the opportunity to him on a silver platter. He used his power to divide the kingdom, which had been secure in its' unity for so many years. He pitted one lord against the other and gave them each a glimpse of the opportunity that each wanted, by dangling the kingdom of Scotland in front of them in return for fealty to him as King of England.

 

He asked permission of the ‘Guardians’ to betroth his son, Edward II, to Margaret, assuring him a future involvement in the government of Scotland. The ‘Guardians’ gave permission and Edward II was betrothed to Margaret, the Maid of Norway.

 

 

                        CHAPTER TWO

 

Robert Bruce, lord of Annandale, in defiance and disregard for the ‘Guardianship’, made a pact called the ‘Turnberry  Pact’. Involved in this pact were:

        1. James Steward: his brother and a ‘Guardian’

2. Robert Bruce: ‘earl of Carrick’ his son

3. John Steward of Jedburgh

4. Walter Steward: 'earl of Mentieth'

5. Patrick: 'earl of Dunbar'

6. Angus Macdonald: ‘lord of Islay’

7. Angus' son, Angus

This pact was an indication of a deliberate bid by the Bruce for the Scottish throne. The fact that a member of the ‘Guardians’ was involved in the pact, was direct defiance of the community of the realm. The actions of the Bruce were clearly aimed at the dominance of the Comyns and their relatives in the regency government. This was the beginning of the rivalry between the two great families.

The fanaticism of Robert Bruce, 'lord of Annandale' became the ruling force behind his life and purpose for living.

 

The Maid of Norway was named queen of Scotland and was summoned to come to Scotland and hold state with her ‘Guardians’. She became ill on her trip to Scotland and died in the Orkney’s in 1290 at the age of 7 years old. This left the throne vacant and the battle for the crown began.

 

  

                        CHAPTER THREE

 

There were 13 claimants to the throne called ‘Competitors’. Many of them were also ‘Guardians’.  Edward I of England also had an eye on the throne of Scotland and was in a position to assert much power over the ‘Guardians’. He asked the ‘Guardians’ to give him reign over the realm, and was granted it on a temporary basis, until the issue of descendancy to the throne was decided. John Comyn, leader of the Comyn Party at that time, wrote a letter to Edward I informing him that Bruce, 'lord of Annandale', was forming a large army and asked for Edward’s support in defending the realm. He added the recommendation:

‘ IF JOHN BALIOL COMES TO YOUR PRESENCE, WE ADVISE THAT YOU TAKE CARE TO TREAT WITH HIM, THAT IN ANY EVENT YOUR HONOUR AND ADVANTAGE BE PRESERVED….LET YOUR EXCELLENCY DEIGN, IF YOU PLEASE, TO APPROACH TOWARDS THE MARCHES FOR THE CONSOLATION OF THE SCOTTISH PEOPLE AND TO SAVE THE SHEDDING OF BLOOD, AND SET OVER THEM, FOR KING, WHO OF RIGHT OUGHT TO HAVE SUCESSION, IF SO BE THAT HE WILL FOLLOW YOUR COUNSEL ‘.

This letter showed that he wanted political stability and assistance in securing the royal succession. Comyn was backing the claim of John Baliol to the succession and they were both well aware of the importance of the support of the king of England in their quest. Bruce was also aware that he needed the support of England and asked Edward I to back his claim for the throne.

 

 

                        CHAPTER FOUR

 

The appeals of the two rival parties opened up an opportunity for  Edward I to insist he be named ‘ lord superior of Scotland’. In June 1291 the ‘Competitors agreed that he should be the rightful overlord and they should abide by his judgement on the succession. On June 6, Edward promised that he would maintain the customary laws and liberties of the kingdom until a decision would be made within Scotland about the rightful king.

 

Just one year after the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway, a court was appointed to decide which ‘ Competitor’ had the greatest claim on the Scottish throne. A lawsuit had begun called ‘ The Great Cause’ in the 13th century. A drama unfolded with John Baliol and Robert the Bruce, 'earl of Carrick', son of the 'lord of Annandale', being the central figures of the events which have propagated a great legend.

 

Bruce’s propaganda was that John Baliol was a puppet of Edward I, who was interested in the country of Scotland. Edward countered saying that if Baliol was a puppet, it was a puppet of the family of Comyns and not of himself. However, Edward did believe that John Baliol would have the greater support of the political realm of Scotland, bringing greater stability to the country. He wanted to rule a country with which was stable in it's support of the masses.

 

The rivalry began to heat up and legal maneuvering started with Bruce making pacts with other “Competitors’ to support his claim, promising great positions and land holdings for them when he took the throne. This brought about a separation between the North and the South of Scotland, which hadn’t been divided since the reign of King David. Bruce used force and legal means to strengthen his political position. In the Winter of 1291, Bruce presented himself, rightful heir of Scotland. However, the court went in favor of John Baliol who was eventually enthroned on St. Andrew’s Day, 1292. This made the Comyns' Party happy, even though they had their own claim to the throne, John 'Black' Comyn, 'lord of Badenach'. The Comyns did not press their claim although it was the strongest and most legitimate of them all, descending from two lines of Scottish royalty.

John "Black"Comyn, 'lord of Badenach', said, ‘ he did not want to compete or prejudice the claim of his brother-in-law, John Baliol.’ However, John 'Black' Comyn, did make his claim for the future saying that 'if the main line of Baliols died out his own descendants would have a double claim to the throne' (from the sister of John Baliol, Eleanor Baliol, mother of his son, John 'Red' Comyn, 'earl of Buchan').

 

It was important that the Comyn side be put on record now.

At this time the aging Bruce the Competitor 'earl of Annandale', resigned his claim and gave it to his son and heirs, in turn.

 

 

                                CHAPTER FIVE

 

The Comyns had won the battle with the Bruces for power and the 'Baliol realm' began. It was to be a fated reign and Baliol found that he was now the king of a much weakened and divided country. He tried to fight the domination of the English king, Edward I, but found that the 2 years of intervention by Edward, in Scottish affairs, had given him a firm hold on the country and it’s policies. Baliol tried to rally support, but with the division of the North and South and Edward’s control, he could not bring his kingdom back to the glorious years of his predecessor, Alexander III. He fell in battle to Edward I and ended up in the Tower of London in 1296 and left an empty and much sought after throne in Scotland. Edward pursued the throne for himself, but was defeated by an unexpected adversary, William Wallace.

 

  

                        CHAPTER SIX

 

I will mention Wallace only briefly, as most of us know  his roll in the battle for the sovereignty of Scotland. While he won many battles and had much support for his cause, it was not enough and the country was not yet ready to fight for freedom for 'freedom's' sake. He was finally defeated at Stirling Bridge by Edward I, but the people of Scotland had found in him an inspiration and a new view of 'freedom for freedom's sake'. However, the country was left in a turmoil such as had never been seen. It was torn apart by the rival parties of Comyn and Bruce and by the dominance of Edward I.

 

Bruce approached John “Red” Comyn, the most powerful man in the country, with his own ‘kind hearted plan’ to stop ‘ the endless tormenting of the people’. Robert gave Comyn the choice of two courses of action: either Comyn should reign and Bruce gain all of the Comyn’s land or Bruce reign and all his land go to Comyn. Comyn agreed to the pact but later rescinded it as he grew more suspicious of the Bruce’s intentions. He felt that the Bruce was not interested in the country but in his own self-serving interests.

 

The trend between lords and earls of this time period was to hold lands in both Scotland and England wavering their fealty between countries for their own purposes. They would change sides between the political powers as they moved in and out of favor with the leaders of each party or country. The time had come to make Scotland the primary reason for taking the throne.

 

Bruce sent his brothers Nigel and Thomas to the Comyns' castle at Dalswinton and asked the Comyn to meet him at Greyfriars church in Dumfries to discuss certain business; the church being selected because Comyn did not believe his well known enemy would betray the sanctuary of a church. Comyn, not trusting Bruce, and feeling the treachery of his rival and adversary, made them swear Bruce would not be accompanied by his armed companions. He did so and Comyn agreed to meet Bruce.

 

It is time to mention that the greatest issue in Scotland at this time was civil war rather then the Anglo-Scottish problem. The factions were, the all powerful Comyns and the claimant Bruce. Edward I was the ally of the Comyns through the major landholdings of the Comyns and marriages with royals. Bruce himself had sworn fealty to Edward I on 3 separate occasions to protect his land holdings in England. However, Bruce was once again plotting against Edward I and the Comyn wouldn’t go along with him. He was tied to his own lands and obligations with the English king and would not agree to the treachery of  the Bruce.

(Please note that both had obligations to the king of England. It was the way of things for the lords and landholders of the time to swear fealty to the king in which country they held land. They both held land in England).

 

John 'Red' Comyn kept his date with Robert the Bruce, 'earl of Carrick'. Believing that the meeting would be on safe ground. He brought only a small company with him. The meeting took place with only the friars as witnesses. The Bruce stabbed the Comyn then left him to die in the sanctuary of the church and then went out of the church proclaiming to his men who were hiding in the bushes,‘ I have mortally wounded the Comyn’. Robert Comyn, uncle of John 'Red' Comyn, jumped up and started to run to the aid of his nephew, when he was stabbed and mortally wounded by Bruce’s men. The men entered the church and the Comyn was being tended by the friars who had placed him on the altar believing him to be dead and a martyr. Bruce's men found that he wasn't dead so they stabbed him repeatedly, making certain that he was finished.

 

The rest of the story is a matter of common knowledge. Bruce proclaimed himself king of all Scotland and had himself crowned two weeks after the murder. There are some who say that this murder was well planned and had been well into the making, declaring himself king before the murder. The friars, the only witnesses, declared it a murder. Bruce declared it was not murder but self defense. Bruce was excommunicated from the church and wasn’t exonerated until many years into his reign. At this time he had established himself as king and made the country into a great kingdom once more (it must be noted that his power came from the Scots themselves who were now hungry for freedom from the persecution of the English kings). He finally defeated the English king, Edward II, who was the son of Edward I, at the 'Battle of Bannockburn'

in 1314. Bruce died of leprosy and always claimed that the disease was God’s punishment for murdering the 'Comyn'.

 

The Comyn family survived, with the aid of Edward I and has long been a revered family in the North of England.

The Scots, however well intentioned have forgotten the great contribution of the Comyn family to Scotland and it’s history. They ran the country when a small boy was king and made the country a lawful place to live. They were the great advisors from David to Alexander III and are the people who helped make their reigns great ones. They are descendants of royalty many times over, yet it should be noted that they preferred to 'serve nobility then to be nobility'. The title was not the driving force, but the greatness of the minds should be revered. They made laws, set policies and built castles. Many of these are remaining to this day.

 

It wasn’t until 1329, after many battles and defeats on both sides, that England finally recognized Scotland as an independent country. The Bruce was dead and his heirs were on the throne of Scotland.

 

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Bibliography

 

1. Robert the Bruce by: G.W.S. Barrow

2. The Comyns: Rivals of the Bruce by: Alan Young

3. Robert the Bruce by: Nigel Tranter

4. Regesta Reum Scottorum II, The Acts of William I edited by: G.W.S. Barrow

 

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