The Black Dinner

Serving as inspiration for the notorious Red Wedding from Game of Thrones, what became known as the ‘Black Dinner’ involved the murder of two young nobles by rivals after being lured to Edinburgh Castle to dine with the king.

In 1440, Scotland had been ruled for three years by King James II, who had ascended to the throne at the age of just six after his father was killed in an attempted coup. The fourth monarch from the reigning house Stuart, the early years of James II’s rule were marked by bloody struggles as various factions attempted to secure control of Scotland through their influence over the young king.

James II of Scotland as an adult. Image: National Gallery

By the mid-15th Century, one of the most powerful factions in Scotland was Clan Douglas. Head of the house Sir James Douglas had been a key commander during the War for Scottish Independence and later a close confidant to King Robert the Bruce. His exploits earned him the epithet ‘the Black’ from the English, including the capture of Roxburgh Castle in 1313 and leading the cavalry to ride down survivors after the Battle of Bannockburn. The family continued to gather more influence and prestige through the performances of several members in bloody border skirmishes with the English, including leading the Scots to a decisive victory over Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. Subsequent heads of the house retained the moniker ‘the Black’ to denote their military prowess.

Archibald Douglas, the 5th Earl of Douglas, became the de facto ruler of Scotland following the murder of James I, presiding as Lieutenant General of Scotland and co-regent for the young James II. However, his death two years later from fever saw his 15-year old son, William Douglas, become Earl. Rivals headed by Lord Chancellor Sir William Crichton saw this as an opportunity to break the power and influence of Clan Douglas. The new Earl, along with his younger brother David, was invited to Edinburgh Castle to dine with the young king. 

Lord Chancellor William Crichton. Image: Iconographia Scotia

While the guests ate a black bull’s head, a well-known symbol of death, was brought out and placed in front of William. The Earl and his brother were then seized by supporters of Crichton and dragged out to nearby Castle Hill, despite the protests of King James. There, they were given a mock trial and summarily beheaded, again despite the fierce opposition of the king. William was just 16 years old, while David was likely no older than 12. William’s great-uncle James Douglas succeeded him as the 7th Earl of Douglas, with many historians believing that he had been amongst Crichton’s co-conspirators. 

While James II protested vehemently against the murder of Douglas and his brother, 12 years later he proved himself just as capable of treachery. Clan Douglas had continued to oppose Stuart rule, forming alliances with Yorkist rivals in England and the Lord of the Isles. Under a promise of safety, the 8th Earl of Douglas met with James II at Stirling Castle to discuss their differences. 

When Douglas refused to renounce the pacts or reaffirm his loyalty to the King, James drew a dagger and stabbed his rival in the throat. The captain of the King’s guards then finished the dying Earl with a blow from his pole axe, before the body was tossed out of a window.

A subsequent rebellion by the 9th Earl of Douglas ended in failure after they were defeated by supporters of James II at the Battle of Arkinholm, effectively ending the line of Black Douglas. 

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