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Edinburgh Castle's 'Black Dinner' and the Power of the Black Douglases

Given the total craze that was the Game of Thrones fandom from 2011-2019, it is highly likely that the words 'red wedding' will mean something to you. If not, don't worry. The events of the infamous 'red wedding' have factual origins. Whilst writing Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin was inspired by a particularly dark and bloody fragment of Scottish History, The Black Dinner. There were a few key differences. Whilst the Red Wedding was fictional, The Black Dinner was entirely factual and involved the politically justified murder of children.


The now called 'Black Dinner' occurred in 1440. It was an era of political upheaval. The King was James II, son of King James I and Queen Joan Beaufort (who I have a previous article out about). James succeeded his father at the age of 6, when, in 1437, James I was murdered in the sewer of a Dominican Friary by the Earl of Atholl, Sir Robert Stewart, and Sir Robert Graham. When the men were seen entering the Friary, servants ran to warn the King, who ripped the floorboards up in an attempt to escape into the sewer, only to find it blocked. He was murdered and his body taken, yet to be found to this day. Queen Joan, though injured, escaped to Edinburgh to her son, the new King James II. Joan promptly organised the capture, torture, and execution of the men who killed her husband. The co-regent became Archibald Douglas, the 5th earl of Douglas who held his position until his death in 1439. This particular branch of the Douglas Clan was known as the 'Black Douglases. They were one of the most powerful families in Scotland, however, Archibald Douglas' death signalled the beginning of further political upheaval, conflict, and a rapid decline in the influence previously enjoyed by the Black Douglases.

Joan later married Sir John Stewart before the pair were put on house arrest by Alexander Livingstone, who forced Joan into signing a document, releasing custody of the young King James into his care. Though it appeared that Livingstone was now on top, having managed to forcibly take control of the King, the Black Douglases still posed a threat.

Edinburgh Castle (own photo), David's Tower (own photo) and an illustration of Joan Beaufort (Wikipedia).

Archibald Douglas' left two young sons and heirs, Sir William Douglas aged 15, who inherited the title of Earl, and his younger brother David. The young Earl was seen as a weak chain; a way in which to break the power of the Black Douglases once and for all.

The Black Dinner was organised by the Sir Chancellor William Crichton, Sir Alexander Livingston and James Douglas (known as James the fat, was also a Black Douglas and great uncle to Sir William and David Douglas) who had eyes to the regency, who benefitted greatly from the fall of the Black Douglases and who regarded the powerful family with unease. An invite was extended for the young Douglas Earl and his brother to dine with the King at Edinburgh Castle, in David's tower. The Earls and the then 10-year-old King, of similar ages, allegedly got on well, laughing and enjoying the meal. Once everyone had eaten, a final platter was brought to the table and placed before the Earl; the head of a Black Bull, a powerful symbol of death and condemnation for the Black Douglases.

"Young heirs to great titles quickly learned the brutal realities of power." - Alistair Moffat 'Scotland; A History from Earliest Times'

The Black Dinner, (Photo:The Scotsman

The conspirators dragged the boys outside the Castle walls, down to Castle Hill, forced them to endure a sham trial during which they were accused of false charges. They were found to be traitors to the crown, for which the punishment was death. The young earl and his brother were beheaded. Some accounts claim that James II intervened and attempted to save the boys, but was effectively ignored.

One of the conspirators, James Douglas became the new 7th Earl of Douglas and Livingstone's power felt secure. This perhaps was likely where James' lifelong dislike of the Black Douglases began.

However, this was not the end of the conflict. It is perhaps unsurprising, that the Black Dinner signalled the beginning of further conflict between James II and the Douglas Earls. Upon his full ascension to the throne in 1449, he found the Douglas Clan to have a chokehold on power that they were not willing to give up. James set about creating a reputation for ruthlessness. In 1452, Alexander Livingstone was executed for treason and beheaded on Castle Hill, the same place where he had held the sham trial, and beheading of the young Douglases 12 years prior.

"Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre, God grant thou sink for sin! And that e'en for the black dinner Earl Douglas gat therein." - Sir Walter Scott.

However, Livingstone's death had far-reaching consequences, particularly for the Black Douglases, who found themselves once again in a position of particular power. They were now the only main threat to James II's rule. James Douglas had died in 1443 leaving 5 sons, the eldest of which inherited their father's title and treacherous nature. The new Sir William Douglas united his five brothers in a plot against James. He also made contact with the Lord of the Isles and the Earl of Crawford, uniting them against James.

King James sent a message to the Earl of Douglas, asking for a meeting in which they could negotiate. He further issued an assurance of safety to the Earl as a way to further convince him to attend. They met at Stirling Castle in the February of 1452. Upon arriving the Earl refused to renounce his treacherous agreements. The King then stabbed the Earl in the neck, before stepping back and allowing his courtiers to continue the attack. The mutilated Earl was then thrown from the window.

Stirling Castle - Photo:Wikipedia

The murder of the Earl of Douglas resulted in outright civil war. The Earl's brothers, the newly inherited Earl of Douglas, the Earl of Moray, the Earl of Ormonde and the Earl of Balvenie came together in opposition to the King's rule. Yet James had powerful motivators at his disposal and began creating allies through the distribution of land and titles. Meanwhile, the Black Douglases lost the support of the Earl of Crawford, who defected.

The rebellion culminated in the Battle of Arkinholm. The King's forces were led by George Douglas, the Earl of Angus. Angus was a member of the Red Douglases, who were distantly related to the Black Douglases. It was at Arkinholm in 1455 that the Black Douglases were defeated. During the battle, the Earl of Moray was killed and the Earl of Ormonde was captured and executed for treason. The supporters they had gathered prior to the battle fled, with many going into hiding. The King, who was determined to break the power of the Black Douglases once and for all, reverted their lands back under the power of the crown.

What began as an attempt to secure power by Livingstone and James Douglas resulted in death, civil war and the total destruction of the Black Douglases as a serious powerholder in Scotland. However, James II's brutal, decisive action secured his throne, and that of his near ancestors, for the Stewart crown did not face any challenges of this magnitude for the next 200 years.


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