Did Robert the Bruce Murder his Rival?

What a volatile question!  But first let’s examine the historical background to understand why Scotland erupted into a civil war at the end of the 13th century. Quite naturally, this internal divide weakened the country’s capacity to ward off its stronger, more aggressive neighbour.

England’s king was a past master at a ‘divide and conquer’ policy and he spent his considerable power and wealth and strategic resources temping the Scottish nobles with offers of land, titles and wealthy brides. Make no mistake, only a misguided fool would trifle with King Edward and the Scottish lords were caught upon a thorny divide. Historically, many of the lords had cross-border roles from the time King David had invited them to Scotland as his loyal mercenaries to tame the wilder parts of his kingdom more than a century earlier.

During Scotland’s first War of Independence, greed is often sited as a principal motivating factor for the nobles’ vacillation. I think it runs far deeper for their alliances ran between the two countries. These economic, political and social affiliations worked in peacetime but as relations deteriorated between Scotland and England, they were forced to choose with dire consequences. The fact that many had English wives and kinfolk, often through King Edward’s good will and  management, meant that they could not act in a clear cut manner.

Enter… the Bruce and Comyn families who were enemies for so many generations. Each of these families had their supporters – family and extended kinfolk as well as many friends and vassals scattered across Scotland and England.

Principal amongst the supporters of the Comyns was the Balliol family. After the death of Alexander III, John Balliol was chosen by King Edward of England to be Scotland’s king.

Let us step back in time. Here is an excerpt from Sisters of The Bruce…

‘In southwest Scotland, the earls of Carrick and lords of Annandale bordered that of their enemies, the Comyns. Legend tells that many generations before, Gilbert, son of Fergus, Lord of Galloway, bickered over land and power with his half brother, Utred. Believing he had been cheated of his inheritance, Gilbert ordered his blinding: an oft-used punishment in those times. The mutilation resulted in Utred’s death. For these ill-deeds, the English king levied an enormous fee on Gilbert. Much later at Gilbert’s death, the debt remained unpaid, and the king determined the land should be split. Roland, Utred’s son, became Lord of Galloway, and Duncan, the son of Gilbert, the first Earl of Carrick. Succeeding generations passed and the bitterness between the two families festered, not helped as their Celtic heiresses married into the Anglo-Norman families of Bruce and Comyn. Indeed, these families continued the feud with equal enthusiasm.

  Rivalry aside, the Bruce claim (to the Scottish throne) was held to be less substantive, coming as it did through a younger granddaughter of David I of Scotland. However, Robert Bruce, fifth Lord of Annandale, pleaded tanistry in the succession dispute. The Competitor believed his claim was strengthened by an event many years earlier when King Alexander named him as his heir. Such a legend, though well-known, was insubstantial, and only proven facts would do in such a controversial public arena. In Scotland, the ancient Celtic process of tanistry allowed kingship claims to be decided by the appointment of the best candidate. Failing that, bitter and often violent struggles between opposing families occurred. Deaths were a frequent outcome until only the most powerful protagonist would take on the crown. This custom highlighted a crucial difference between Anglo-Norman society and the Celtic tribal north. Within a tightly-organised feudal society, right of inheritance could only come through legitimate birth from father to son. Amongst the Celts, the clan was paramount, and the strongest person for the position could gain the throne by general acclaim.

  Behind the veneer of legal convention, there lurked the very real danger Scotland could pierce its own breast. The sharp thrust of political strife was as lethal as any warrior’s sword to a country’s peace and security. Engulfed as they were in the mire of Scottish politics, the Bruce family was embittered by John Balliol’s appointment as king.

  The English monarch took this unique opportunity to pass judgement in return for recognition of his suzerainty over Scotland. The guardians of the realm sought to deny him, but in the face of his overwhelming and manipulative power, the inevitable happened; King John Balliol and the magnates of Scotland succumbed and paid homage to Edward of England as overlord.

  At one time, canny Edward seemed to foster the Bruce cause, but as they grew in strength and purpose, the king’s mood darkened, and his support vaporised like a summer’s mist. Now, he chose to publicly ridicule and demean. Such humiliation was beyond bearing.’

In time, Robert the Bruce took on the mantle of his family’s claim to the throne of Scotland. After King John Balliol was defeated by Edward and stripped of his kingly rights and power, he was imprisoned in the Tower and much later placed in the ‘care’ of the Pope who eventually allowed him to return to his family’s lands in Normandy where he later died.

Now we find Robert sharing the role of Joint Guardian of the realm with his nemesis, John the Red Comyn. I assume the title, ‘red’, means he either had red hair and/or a fiery nature. He and Robert were familial enemies with a past history of misdeeds and a deep distrust that could not be resolved.

‘Sisters of the Bruce’ takes up the story with a letter from Robert to his sister, Isa – a member of the royal family in Norway.

16 February 1306

  Well Isa lass – it is done! The game is afoot and this time there can be no turning back. Either Scotland stands free as in the past – its own kingdom, or it disappears into the swirl of English possessions. Either Bruce rises to resurrect the crown of Scots or Bruce will lie destroyed. And I am heartily glad of it. There will be no more playing with talk of constitutional reform to suit the English perspective. No more pretending to answer the summons of Edward Longshanks when he calls. In the name of the dead and murdered Wallace, I swear to resurrect the ancient kingdom of Scots and restore the ancient freedoms and rights to the people. I am to be crowned within weeks and then no doubt, Isa, we will need your help and support, and that of our good friends in Norway, against Edward of England.

  As you know, I had been spending more time in England after Father’s death a couple of years ago. It was clear Edward knew of my connections with Wallace. Things began to go badly for our family at the English court. At the New Year festivities, Edward ignored my presence. I began to suspect Comyn had betrayed me, because we had signed a bond in October which promised Comyn all the Bruce lands in Scotland in return for his support for me as King of Scots. Comyn had signed this when Edward was sick, but he had recovered and, now, I began to wonder if Edward knew of our plans.

  Ralph de Monthermer, acting as Earl of Gloucester for his stepson Gilbert Clare, sent me word treachery was afoot. John Comyn had revealed the agreement to Edward and was sending south his copy as evidence. I was in our London house. Gloucester sent me a purse of twelve silver pennies and a set of spurs. My arrest was imminent and Ralph was repaying me for our long friendship as boys, when we were squires together. With just a few retainers, we rode for home. After five days, we were fifty miles south of Carlisle when we spied a messenger heading south on the same road. I could see he wore Comyn colours and spurred across him. He had an axe and swung at me, but one of my men intercepted the blow and I killed him with one thrust. In the man’s saddle-bag I found the agreement and, also, a request for all Bruce lands in Scotland and England to be given to Comyn after my execution. We made for the safe haven of Kildrummy.

  Accordingly, I sent a message to Comyn to meet me at Greyfriars Kirk in Dumfries. When he appeared, all swagger and fawning friendship, we withdrew to the area of the High Altar for privacy. I then took out the bond and threw it at his feet. His treachery was clear and his immediate response was to draw his dagger and lunge at me. I swayed backwards and then struck him under his arm. John Comyn fell to the ground, bubbling blood, and Robert Comyn rushed towards me with his sword drawn. Luckily, Chris Seton was faster and the uncle fell beside his nephew. We left the church, and Roger Kilpatrick and James Lindsay ran towards us seeing the blood on our clothes. I said to Kilpatrick I thought I had killed Comyn. His only reply was: “Then I’ll mak siccer.” And he did make sure. The die was cast. Our party rode for Dumfries Castle, seized it and ejected the English garrison. All is now in play. Our Church remains loyal to Scotland’s cause, and, now, I have the backing of the bishops of St Andrews, Glasgow and Moray. While I can count on the earls of Atholl, Lennox, Menteith and Mar, as well the Clan Donald in the Hebrides, the friends of Comyn and Balliol are many and there will be a violent reaction from London. The old lion is not yet dead and will want the Scots utterly crushed this time.

  I aim to be crowned king at Scone on 25 March 1306, which is ten years to the day since we first took up arms in defence of our community of Scotland. Ten unhappy years, it has proven to be. Now, pray for us all in our time of need. If Scotland is not to disappear, except as a legend of an ancient people sorely troubled by a more powerful neighbour, then we will require many prayers indeed. I hope you have not forgotten all your Gaelic: Alba gu brath!

Your brother


It is clear that Robert and his enemy came face to face and their enmity ended in a violent clash. You will have to decide whether the Bruce murdered his rival. I am of the opinion that the outcome was unplanned for Robert was an intelligent and pragmatic man. To meet in a sacred place would aim to prevent the very thing that happened – but for these volcanic personalities, the enmity could not be contained. Who threw the first insult or drew the first dagger? No one will ever know. But Robert paid dearly – branded a murderer by his detractors and excommunicated by the Pope.

What intrigues me is that the Scottish Celtic church threw their considerable weight behind Robert the Bruce. Would these esteemed clerics have supported a murderer?