Essays on the Nobility of Medieval Scotland

By K. J. Stringer | Go to book overview

6
THE POLITICAL ROLE OF WALTER COMYN,
EARL OF MENTEITH, DURING THE MINORITY OF
ALEXANDER III OF SCOTLAND

Alan Young

The political role of the baronage in medieval Scotland, especially before about 1300, has been a strangely neglected subject. As a result, the view that Scottish barons in the earlier Middle Ages — and Anglo-Scottish barons are included in this category — were at best politically irresponsible aggressors and at worst political anarchists1 has not been seriously contested. Concentration on periods of political crisis in Scotland has tended to emphasise the view that these barons played a largely disruptive role. This has been the case with studies of the minority of Alexander III, where emphasis has been laid on the Anglo-Scottish baronial family of Comyn performing 'the more fearful role of overmighty subjects'.2 However, such judgements have generally been reached by viewing baronial activities in crisis from outside the baronial milieu. In order to achieve a more complete picture it is surely necessary to attempt an examination of a political crisis from inside. It is with this purpose in mind that the present study has been undertaken.

Several factors make the study of the role of Walter Comyn, earl of Menteith, during Alexander III's minority especially suitable for such treatment. The Comyns were one of the most powerful and politically influential families in thirteenthcentury Scotland. An accurate assessment of their political role, however, has long been obscured by the anti-Comyn writings of Scottish annalists such as John of Fordun, or literary historians such as George Buchanan, who wrote when Stewarts had long held the throne and the traditions of Bruce and Wallace were deep-seated. The role of Walter Comyn, earl of Menteith, has especially suffered from extreme interpretations, largely as a result of his involvement in the minority crisis which both dominated and shaped his career between 1249 and 1258. In the attempt to understand his actions in these years two main views have emerged. Either Earl Walter has been seen as an unscrupulous and lawless political aggressor,3 or else he has been regarded as the leader of a 'national' or 'patriot' party.4 To look at Alexander III's minority from inside the baronial milieu, and especially from inside the Comyn family, is clearly desirable in order to put these interpretations into a proper perspective.

The sudden and unexpected death of Alexander II in 1249 brought a dangerous situation in Scotland because the heir, the late king's son by Marie de Coucy, was a boy of only eight years. One of the leading figures in the political crisis emanating from this situation was Walter Comyn, earl of Menteith. By 1237 Walter Comyn

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