The Black Dinner of 1440

Written by Expert Contributor, Nathen Amin

Anyone who has read George R R Martin’s medieval fantasy epic ‘A Storm of Swords’, or indeed watched the TV adaption ‘The Game of Thrones’, will be familiar with the Red Wedding, one of the most shocking events whether on page or screen. Martin crafted a classic scene that featured hope, betrayal and gruesome bloodletting within a manner of minutes, creating a timeless moment in fiction history. Yet, as with much of Game of Thrones, Martin was partly inspired by an equally barbaric event that has its origins in history – the Black Dinner of 1440.

Scottish medieval history is one littered with violent episodes; one only needs to think of King James I, who on 21 February 1437 was chased by around thirty assassins through Blackfriars monastery in Perth before he was cornered and hacked to death in front of his horrified queen, Joan Beaufort. In fact, it was James I’s slaughter that led to the dramatic bloodshed that followed three years later that has become remembered as The Black Dinner.

After the king’s murder, the Scottish crown passed to his seven-year-old heir James II, and as was often the case when a child came to the throne, the kingdom descended into factional warfare as various groups sought to gain control during the minority. The new king was clearly too young to rule, and despite the attempts by his mother Joan Beaufort to take control of the kingdom, on account of her gender and English blood was roundly rejected.

It was Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Douglas and head of the most powerful family in the kingdom, who was initially entrusted with the governance of Scotland. In addition to his principal earldom, Douglas also possessed the earldom of Wigton and the lordships of Galloway, Bothwell, Selkirk, and Eskdale. The family maintained vast property throughout the kingdom, particularly though not restricted to the Lowlands, and by the early fifteenth century were without doubt the most powerful clan in Scotland, save for the royal Stewarts who held the crown. Styled as the Lieutenant General, in effect the regent, as the leading magnate in the realm it was an appointment that made much sense.

Archibald Douglas, however, died just two years later in 1439, and it was in the aftermath of his death that a bitter quarrel erupted over who should have keeping of the king, still just ten-years-old, moving forward. Archibald was succeeded by his heir, William Douglas, but the new 6th Earl was just eighteen years old. Despite the sympathetic assertion of the Scottish Jacobean historian David Hume of Godscroft in 1644 that the earl displayed not only ‘sparks of a great spirit but also of such wisdome and providence as could scarce bee looked for from so young a man’, [Hume, D., The History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus (Edinburgh, 1644) p. 148) one imagines he was nonetheless unfit for such a demanding role at that young age. William did, however, possess the full might of the Douglas power behind him, and well placed to press his claim to follow in his father’s footsteps.

The 6th Earl’s ascendancy was opposed, however, principally by William Crichton, Lord Chancellor and Keeper of Edinburgh Castle, and Sir Alexander Livingston, who held personal possession of the monarch. Both men extended an invitation to the young earl and his junior brother David to come to Edinburgh to discuss the matter further in front of the boy king, a meeting at which their great-uncle James Douglas, 1st Earl of Avondale, would also be present.

The younger Douglas accepted the offer in good faith and travelled to Edinburgh on 24 November with his brother David. According to some of the more colourful traditions which were later written, starting with Hume in his 1644 panegyric of the family, the Douglases were sitting at dinner in the Great Hall among their ‘deadly enemies and feigned friends’, who welcomed them ‘most courteously’, when at the end of the meal they were surrounded by armed men. On the board before them was placed a dish with a black bull’s head, which in those days Hume claimed was widely accepted as a ‘token of death’. The boys were then seized before they could muster any resistance and dragged outside to the back court, where despite the tearful protests of the pre-pubescent king they were beheaded [[Hume, D., The History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus (Edinburgh, 1644) p.152-15]. The term ‘Black Dinner’, in fact, can only be traced to Hume’s 1644 account, two hundred years later, when he recorded the following doggerel poem, which he claimed was well-known in his day:

‘Edinburgh castle, towne, and tower,
God grant thou sinke for sinne;
And that even for the black dinner,
Earle Douglas got therein.’

The contemporary Auchinleck Chronicle, however, makes no such mention of these dramatic events, instead simply noting that ‘William of Douglas, Archebaldis son, beand than xviii yeris of age, and his brother David Douglas, was put to deid at Edinburgh’ [The Auchinleck Chronicle: Ane Schort Memoriale of the Scottis Corniklis for Addicioun (Edinburgh, 1819) pp.34-35]. It is uncertain, therefore, if events that November evening were as dramatic as the later ‘Black Dinner’ tradition would have us believe, but it is clear that by the end of the evening two young, teenage boys had been violently silenced.

What was the reason for this? It appears that Crichton and Alexander were concerned that the new earl’s ascendancy would limit their influence over the king, not to mention royal patronage which alone kept them in their positions of privilege, and elected to make a pre-emptive strike on the Douglas brothers. It was a bold move, borne out of cold self-interest, but as would be shown south of the border in England throughout the mid-fifteenth century, hesitancy to act decisively could result in far greater bloodshed. Judging by who prospered the most from the slaughter at Edinburgh Castle, however, the temptation is to view the Black Dinner as being orchestrated by the victims’ great-uncle, James Douglas. By eliminating his young relatives, James, an obese man known as ‘Gross James’, was the man who inherited the full Douglas patrimony, succeeding to the premier earldom in the realm as the 7th Earl with all the influence and power that position brought.

The perpetrators of the Black Dinner, however, did not enjoy the fruits of their dark labour for long. Though Crichton and Livingston did succeed in retaining their royal offices, the bond that had united them faded away, and suspicions grew between the men. In 1444, Livingston found a new ally in William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas who had recently succeeded to his father James’ position, and both men had Crichton removed from the Chancellorship.

In 1452, however, twelve years after the Black Dinner in which James Douglas appears to have played a prominent role, it was his son, also called William, the 8th Earl, who was slain in the presence of the king. This time, though, James II was no longer a child, and more than a reluctant observer. The 8th Earl was invited to Stirling Castle where he was accused of treason. During the argument which ensued, the king drew his dagger and knifed Douglas in the collar before the king’s guard stepped in to finish the earl off with a pole axe, exposing his brains with their savage blows.

It is likely we will never know the truth of what occurred that shadowy November evening in Edinburgh Castle, but because of the romanticised imaginings of later writers, further bastardised in fiction by men like George R R Martin, the Black Dinner maintains it’s brutal reputation as one of British history’s darkest events.

Nathen Amin

Expert Contributor

Nathen Amin is an author from Carmarthenshire, West Wales, who focuses on the 15th Century and the reign of Henry VII. He wrote ‘Tudor Wales’ in 2014 and ‘York Pubs’ in 2016, followed by the first full-length biography of the Beaufort family, ‘The House of Beaufort’ in 2017, an Amazon #1 Bestseller in three historical categories (Wars of the Roses, Norman England, and The Plantagenets & Medieval History). His fourth book, ‘Henry VII and the Tudor Pretenders; Simnel, Warbeck and Warwick’, is due for release in 2020.

Nathen is an experienced public speaker, presenting talks on the Beauforts, Wars of the Roses, and Henry VII, for several societies and book festivals, including the BBC History Weekend, Essex Book Festival, Oundle Festival of Literature, Lancaster Historical Writing Festival, Bosworth Medieval Festival, Barnet Medieval Festival, Richard III Society, and as guest expert for Alison Weir Talks. He has also featured on BBC radio and television, as well as in print and online media across the UK @NathenAmin


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