• Fraser du Toit

The Black Dinner: The Massacre that Inspired The Red Wedding

Fans of Game of Thrones will never forget the episode titled The Red Wedding. Edmure Tully's wedding ended in a massacre perpetrated by the man who was set to be his father-in-law. Robb Stark and most of the Stark family are brutally murdered in a scene that shocked audiences. As we've seen, George R.R. Martin draws a lot of inspiration from real world history, and the Red Wedding is no exception.



The Black Dinner is the name given to the murder of two young nobles following a dinner with Scotland's boy king.

Themes of betrayal of the law of hospitality can be found throughout history. Some cultures see the law of hospitality as a suggestion, where others, like the Scots, had it written in as law. Basically, the idea holds that once you welcome someone into your home as a guest, they come under your protection. You will not harm them.


Many Dead Fathers


How exactly did three boys, the eldest no older than 16, end up the most powerful men in Late-Medieval Scotland? Succession and assassination. The king of Scotland, King James II, came into power at the age of 6 following the death of James I.

The first James lived a hard life before taking the throne of Scotland. At the age of 12 his father, Robert III, sent him to France because of treacherous factions at home. Along the way, James I, was kidnapped by the English and held as a prisoner for the next 18 years.

Robert III died soon after, and was thus unable to pay his son's ransom. The Various regents who ruled after Robert didn't see the benefit in paying the king's ransom. They let him rot in English custody.

Eventually, his ransom was paid by a group who wanted a protestant king back in Scotland. James I took big steps when he returned. The first order of business was to execute the traitors who had conspired to keep him in captivity. His government ran on the funds he bled from his enemies' coffers.

Two things characterized King James I's reign. He stood against the tithes being paid to the Roman Catholic Church, and he restructured laws to be more fair to the common folk.

Unfortunately for the first James, taking such big steps so early in your reign tends to make you a good deal of enemies. He was assassinated by a coalition under the Earl of Atholl. The queen, Joan Beaufort, put an end to the conspirators' thoughts of stealing the throne when she had them rounded up and executed.

James II was only 6 when he was crowned the King of Scotland. Because people back then weren't entirely insane, an adult was placed in charge of the kingdom until the king's 18th birthday. That adult was the boy's uncle, Archibald Douglas, of the Black Douglases.

Archibald only served the kingdom for two years before his death in 1439 CE. His death left his two young sons, William Douglas and David Douglas, in charge of the Black Douglas Clan.


Two Types of Douglas – Black vs. Red


Way back in Scottish history there was a king named Robert the Bruce. He fought against the English in the Wars of Scottish Independence, and eventually won their freedom.

Among his generals was a fierce warrior known as James Douglas, or the Black Douglas. This Black Douglas was rewarded greatly for his role in securing Scottish independence. He founded a clan that would become, by King James II's time, the most powerful clan in Scotland. The Black Douglases.

Another clan of lesser Douglases existed at the same time. The Red Douglas clan was powerful, but held proportionally less power than their cousins. They traced their origin back to the bastard son of an earlier Douglas man. It's all very Game of Thrones.

One of these Red Douglases was Sir James “The Gross” Douglas. He took over as part of the shared regency after the death of the head of the Black Douglas family, Archibald Douglas.

James Douglas earned his nickname of “The Gross” through his unbelievable corpulence. The man was fat. History would remember him for more than just his body, though. James Douglas was ambitious and treacherous.

William and David Douglas, Archibald's sons, were the great-nephews of Sir James. They were of the Black Douglas family, and thus stood to inherit the vast power of their father. Sir James was a Red Douglas, and felt entitled to the power that his side of the family had been denied for so long.


A Dinner Comes Together



After Archibald Douglas died of fever in 1439, the regency fell to three men. Sir James “The Gross”, William Crichton The First Lord of Crichton, and Sir Alexander Livingstone of Callender.

These men didn't like the power that was now in the hands of two young boys. Power which could be in their hands. They came up with a plot to take everything from the Black Douglas family. Dastardly deeds are best done at dinner, they decided.

William Douglas, 16, and David Douglas, 10, were invited to have dinner with the young King James II at Edinburgh Castle in November 1440. King James was only 10 when the Black Dinner played out.

The three boys had a lovely dinner together, by all accounts. Chatting away and building the kind of friendships that might have formed a strong alliance in the future, had this dinner not been a trap.

Like the song, The Rains of Castamere, was used as a signal in the Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, there was also a signal dripping with metaphorical implications as the Black Dinner.

During the dinner, a black bull's head was brought out on a platter and set before the two Douglas boys. This bull was the symbol of death for the Black Douglas boys. Like the bull, their heads would soon roll.

William Crichton took the arrival of the bull's head as a signal and set his men upon the two Douglas lads. They were dragged out of the castle and up the hill outside. Legend holds that young King James II protested the treatment of his guests. His appeal to honor the Code of Hospitality was ignored, and he was detained by his own guards.

Crichton held a mock trial on the hill. He found the two boys guilty of treason for allegedly attending a protest against the king. The sentence of death soon followed.

William Douglas begged his captors to execute his little brother first, to save him from the horror of witnessing his elder brother's death. Crichton granted him his final wish, and soon both boys' heads were removed from their bodies.


Grab for Power


Crichton took control of the Black Douglas castle following his murder of the two boys. Soon enough, the Red Douglas army arrived to claim the lands for Sir James “The Gross”. Crichton ceded control to the Red Douglases and all was apparently forgiven.

Sir James took control of all the Black Douglas land and wealth, becoming the 7th Earl of Douglas. He never pursued justice for his great-nephews. Instead, he allied himself closely with Crichton and filled the government with his relatives.

King James II would spend much of his adult life feuding with the Red Douglas clan for control of his own kingdom. Unlike his father, James II would be successful in weeding out his enemies and asserting dominance over his lands. He would never forget the events of the Black Dinner.


History Repeats Itself


King James II understood the threat that his three former advisors presented to his power. One of his first acts upon reaching adulthood was to confiscate the lands of the Livingstone family.

He soon came to feel the constricting grasp of the Red Douglas family on his government. James “The Gross” was dead at this point, and had been succeeded by his son, the ironically named, William Douglas 8th Earl of Douglas.

James invited William to dinner one night in 1452. He was of a mind to have himself a bit of a Black Dinner.

At the dinner, James II, accused William Douglas of treason. Once again there were cries of the Code of Hospitality being breached, and once again those cries went unheeded in favor of a swift execution.

James II leapt upon William Douglas and stabbed him 26 times with his dagger. This murder would lead to a war between the Scottish crown and the Red Douglas clan which would result in the forfeiture of all Douglas lands to the King and the end of the Douglas clan's power.