The Black Dinner and the Massacre at Glencoe are dark shadows in Scottish History. It was infamy and betrayal at its blackest: murder in violation of the Ancient Scottish Common law requiring hospitality to be shown to all guests. It was from these events that George R.R. Martin drew his inspiration for the shocking atrocity of the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones.
With a history spanning some 2,000 years, Edinburgh Castle is one of the oldest fortifications in Europe. It can boast that it has been besieged more than another other building in Britain and at times it seemed that its very walls were swathed in blood. However, one bloodstain has sunk deeper into Castle Rock than any other. It is the blood of two young boys, brutally betrayed in front of their king, a mere boy himself, on a night that is remembered as the Black Dinner.
The Assassination of James I
James II, King of Scots, ascended to the throne at the age of six. His father, James I, had been viciously assassinated. In 1437, a desperate James I had fled into the sewers below his lodgings at Blackfriars Monastery in Perth. His heart pounded as he waded through the filth, but it was to no avail. The tunnel had recently been blocked off to prevent tennis balls from getting lost. There would be no escape tonight from Sir Graham of Kinport and his band of conspirators. They came, thirty men with swords and daggers raised. It descended into a bloody frenzy. When the King’s body was recovered, there were no less than sixteen stab wounds.
Queen Joan’s retribution was swift and furious. It was apparent that a rival branch of the Stewart clan was behind her husband’s killing. Thus, they were mercilessly hunted down and killed. But the bloodletting would not end there.
The Boy King James
James II was known as ‘James of the Fiery Face’ as a result of a red birthmark which dominated the left side of his face. It seemed that he had a red temper to match his face. He spent most of his youth as a pawn while rival factions sought to control the boy king. Meanwhile, Archibald Douglas, the 5th Earl of Douglas, had become the de facto ruler of Scotland following the murder of James I, presiding as both Lieutenant General of Scotland and co-regent for James II. It stuck in the nobility’s throats. The Douglases had become too powerful!
The Rise of Clan Douglas
James ‘the Black’ Douglas was perhaps Robert the Bruce’s ablest lieutenant during the Scottish Wars of Independence. He had supported Bruce through his darkest hours when the King had been a fugitive and hunted across the length and breadth of Scotland by Edward I of England. It was small wonder that Bruce and Douglas became firm friends and the King’s generosity knew no bounds. This favoured position led to the meteoric rise of Clan Douglas. Douglas’ progeny could boast of power centres in the Selkirk Forest in the Borders, Galloway in the South-west and Abercorn on the shore of the Firth of Forth to name a few. As a result, Clan Douglas could field the most potent fighting force in Scotland aside from the king. There were those who looked on with envy. As it was, fate would give them the opportunity they were looking for.
The Fall of Clan Douglas
Archibald Douglas suddenly died of a fever. His rivals stood in the wings, waiting with bated breath. As his 15-year-old son, William Douglas, become the 6th Earl of Douglas, too young to be a threat, the rival faction headed by William Crichton and Alexander Livingston rubbed their hands in glee.
William Crichton was a powerful man in his own right. He was the Chancellor of Scotland and the Keeper of Edinburgh Castle. Sir Alexander Livingstone of Callendar was the Justiciar and the Keeper of Scotland’s other great fortification, Stirling Castle. No doubt, James Douglas of Avondale was complicit with the plot. He was William’s great uncle and would become head of the Douglas Clan in the wake of his nephews’ murders. James would gain the epithet ‘The Gross’ as a result of his corpulence. A trap was set; Crichton duly made arrangements for a feast.
The Black Dinner
The young Earl, along with his younger brother David, was invited to Edinburgh Castle to dine with the ten-year-old boy king. Nobody knows what really happened that night. No doubt, over the centuries which followed, accounts of what became known as the Black Dinner became embellished. One fact is certain, once William Douglas and his party entered Edinburgh Castle on the 24th November 1440, they would never draw another breath beyond its walls.
According to legend, the children were having a good time, enjoying food, entertainment and talking until the end of the dinner, when the head of a black bull was dropped on the table. This was a symbol of death, the death of the Black Douglas. The two Douglas boys were dragged out into the night and given a mock trial. There would only be one outcome: they were found guilty of high treason and beheaded in the castle courtyard despite the protests of the King.
Sir Walter Scott wrote this of the horrific event:
“Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.”
The Aftermath of The Black Dinner
James ‘the Gross’ became the 7th Earl of Douglas. Predictably, Clan Douglas laid siege to the castle but later surrendered it to the king. Despite, or maybe because of that, the Douglases would stay at the heart of power in Scotland during James’ minority.
But the gruesome story has a dark finale. In 1457, the 27-year-old king invited the Eighth Earl of Douglas, another William and son to James ‘the Gross’ to dinner at Stirling Castle. There he accused the Earl of conspiring against him and forging links with his rivals. Then he drew his dagger and stabbed the Earl twenty-six times.
In short, is it any wonder that George R.R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones stated “No matter how much I make up, there´s stuff in history that´s just as bad, or worse.”
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