The Black Dinner

The historical event that inspired Game of Thrones' Red Wedding

While rewatching HBO's Game of Thrones, I relived one of the show's more shocking scenes. During the ninth episode of season three, Rob Stark was invited to the wedding feast of his uncle and the granddaughter of Lord Walder Frey. During the feast, Rob, his wife, mother, and his men are killed in revenge for Rob breaking a marriage alliance. This violation of hospitality sets many later events in motion.

Having read the book several years before the show, I already knew what was coming, but it was still a shocking scene. Some fans of the show or the book series by George R.R. Martin are likely aware that Martin drew from history when creating his characters and events of his story.

The Red Wedding is no different. While it was not a wedding feast, the Black Dinner is an infamous event from Scottish history. By the end of the meal, two members of one of Scotland's most powerful clans were dead.

The Rise of King James II

The events that led to the Black Dinner were put in motion at the crowning of King James II (1430–1460). Following the assassination of his father, King James I, in 1437, the six-year-old James Stewart was crowned king of Scotland. As having a six-year-old ruling a country was not a great plan, a regency was put in place.

Archibald Douglas, the 5th earl of Douglas, was regent until he died in 1439. Afterward, three powerful lords (William Chrichton, Sir Alexander Livingston of Callendar, and James Douglas) agreed to share power until James came of age.

The Rivalry Between Douglas and Chrichton

James Douglas was Earl of Avondale, while his relative Willaim was the 6th Earl of Douglas. The Douglas clan was the most powerful family in the Scottish lowlands, and as a result, they often dealt with external and internal rivalries. The fear of clans gaining too much power led to the crown working to break up some of the most powerful clans.

James Douglas, Chrichton, and Livingston made a plan to break the power of the Douglas clan in 1440. King James II was only ten-years-old, so he did not have much say in how the government was run. His regents also kept him in the dark in their plot against the Douglas Clan.

A Fateful Dinner Invite

On November 24, 1440, the sixteen-year-old William Douglas and his younger brother, David, were invited to a feast at Edinburgh Castle. The boy-king welcomed his guests, oblivious to the ulterior motives that his advisors possessed.

While they ate, a black boar's head was placed in front of William Douglas. An ancient symbol of death in Scotland, the boar's head was a signal to the conspirators. The two boys were seized and drug from the hall while James shouted in protest of the violation of hospitality.

Medival codes of hospitality included the understanding that guests were protected from harm by their hosts. Serving a meal and offering a roof over someone's head inferred protection, and violating that unwritten code could have dire consequences.

The Douglas boys were taken to Castle Hill for a mock trial. They were presented with false charges of illegal protests and condemned as traitors. Some accounts say that the king pled for mercy, but the two boys were beheaded in the castle yard that day.

Shortly after, the Douglas clan laid siege to Edinburgh Castle. Chrichton surrendered the castle and was a castle to the king and ended the hostility. Chrichton was given the title Lord Chrichton. James Douglas was made 7th Earl of Douglas.

Continued Conflict with the Douglas Clan

While the murders of William Douglas and his brother were intended to break the power of clan Douglas, the family would only grow more powerful. When James II came to rule in his own right, the Douglas clan helped many powerful government positions.

In 1452, history proved to repeat itself. James invited William Douglas, the 8th Earl of Douglas, to Stirling Castle under safe conduct. The king accused the Earl of conspiring with John MacDonald and Alexander Lindsay to ally against the crown. The king then drew his dagger and stabbed the Earl to death.

A civil war broke out between the clan and the crown. The Parliament of Scotland declared Douglas's land forfeit. The crown annexed their holdings, and the clan's power was broken.

This historic event was part of the breaking of the clans in Scotland. The Stewart family work hard to establish the dominance of the crown in Scotland. The Stewarts would make a later ascent to the throne of England following the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Black Dinner was not the first or only time that a ruler would break the rules of hospitality. However, the dreadful event was enough to inspire one of the most shocking moments in television and literature.

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Nick Howard

Nick Howard

I am an educator and a writer. My topics of interest include sports, movies, comics, history, professional wrestling, food, music, and hobbies.