The ‘Black Dinner’ at Edinburgh Castle That Inspired Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding


It aired eight years ago, but if your pulse quickens when you hear The Rains of Castamere, you, like many other Game of Thrones fans, still haven’t finished the Red Wedding.

It was inspired by an actual massacre that took place at Edinburgh Castle in 1441. King James II ostensibly ruled the country, but ever since he took the throne as a child has been his regent, Archibald Douglas, who wielded real power.

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By the end of the Middle Ages, the Douglas clan was Scotland’s most influential family – but not everyone was happy with it. When he died in 1439, several prominent nobles thought it was time to break the Douglas’ hold on Scotland – by any means necessary.

The main obstacles? William, 6th Earl of Douglas, 16, and his younger brother David. The Lord Chancellor, Sir William Chrichton, arranged for the two boys to be invited to a dinner at the castle with King James, who at ten was practically their contemporary.

The Clan Douglas crest with its motto, “Never Behind”. Unless it’s a plot to kill your grandnephew for your own gain, of course.

Everyone had fun and put their differences behind them around a plate of scorched food, which gave birth to the name ‘the black dinner’.

It would be a great story, if much less interesting to read. The reality is much more bloody.

Edinburgh castle
The castle is visited by millions every year

After the boys were seated, a black bull’s head was placed in front of William – the symbol of death. The grieving young king, realizing for the first time that the occasion was in fact a trap, protested but to no avail.

The two boys were dragged to Castle Hill and under cover of night were forced to participate in a mock trial where they were accused of being traitors to the crown. With judicial fairness not being anyone’s priority that night, they were inevitably found guilty.

The two young boys were beheaded in the courtyard of the castle.

William’s great-uncle, James Douglas, inherited his title and became the 7th Earl of Douglas – it is likely he was an accomplice in the plot, trading the supremacy of his family and the life of his great-nephew for its own glory.

The Douglas clan besieged the castle – a popular pastime throughout history – but it was returned to the king. Despite – or perhaps because of – this, the Douglases would remain at the heart of power in Scotland and when James II came of age he found himself having to fight with them metaphorically, as well as literally.

The gruesome story does have a dark little coda, however. In 1457, the 27-year-old King invited the Eighth Earl of Douglas, son of James Douglas, to dinner at Stirling Castle. He accused the Earl of plotting against him and bonding with his rivals, before pulling out his dagger and stabbing the Earl – who, as William Douglas, shared his hapless relative’s name – 26 times.

Which just shows that if you put on a mock trial and a real beheading in front of a child, he is going to become a very complicated man.

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