The tragedy that befell the Douglas clan may have inspired Game of Thrones
LAST week I began this short series on the Great Plains Clans by describing how the Douglas family rose to prominence, largely through the efforts of William “le Hardy” and his son Sir James “le Noir “Douglas, longtime friend and ally. of King Robert the Bruce. I will return to Sir James in a future column in my upcoming series on the men and women who shaped Scotland without coming to the throne.
This week I will show how the Clan Douglas split into two lines, the “black” Douglass of Douglasdale and the “red” Douglass of Angus. There would later be many other branches of this mighty clan, and some of its leading figures would play major roles in Scottish and even British history, but the Clan Douglas today has no officially recognized leader – j I’ll explain why next week. Given the historical facts about the Douglases, there will be some gruesome details in this week’s column, but I’ll try to keep them to a minimum.
READ MORE: The most powerful of Scotland’s Lowland clans: How Douglas saw tragedy and triumph
Although they passed the village of Douglas and its castle, the family for many generations carried on a Douglas tradition by being buried in St Bride’s Kirk, which effectively became a mausoleum for the Black Douglas line. You can see their memorials in the Kirk to this day.
The split into Black and Red Douglases came about because of a tragedy when James, 2nd Earl of Douglas and Earl of Mar, was killed fighting the English at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. He was the son of the 1st Earl of Douglas and Margaret, Countess of Mar, and had married Princess Isabel, daughter of King Robert II, but had no legitimate children at the time of her death. He had two illegitimate sons, William and Archibald, the ancestors of the clan branches of Douglas of Drumlanrig and Douglas of Cavers.
It was his sister Isabel, Countess of Mar, who inherited much of the Douglas estate, but the title and most of the Douglas lands passed to the 2nd Earl’s cousin, Archibald, the illegitimate son of Sir James Douglas. Hugh, the Lord of Douglas, should perhaps have inherited everything, but his nickname “the Dull” suggests he was a simpleton and he was persuaded to pass the earldom to Archibald who was an important figure in the development of the Black Douglases.
He was a warrior who had fought for the French against the English at the Battle of Poitiers and later became Lord of Galloway in 1369 after a series of successful battles to drive the English occupiers from southern Scotland. He duly built a new power base, Threave Castle, whose iconic ruins still stand on an island in the River Dee near Castle Douglas.
Archibald (1330-1400) has come down to us largely thanks to his nickname – the Grim. He got this name from the English troops he drove from Lochmaben Castle in 1385, with a Scottish chronicler writing: [warfare]”.
He did well marry Joan or Johanna Moray, the Lady of Bothwell in 1362, a dynastic arrangement which brought several estates across Scotland to Archibald and which also appears to have been a happy marriage as they had many children . He was also not as sinister as he was painted – he endowed several ecclesiastical institutions and was known for his chivalrous behavior as long as he didn’t fight.
As 3rd Earl of Douglas and most powerful lord in southern Scotland, Archibald the Grim imposed his law and order on the border chiefs, and he also secured a royal marriage for his son and heir – also Archibald – with King Robert III’s daughter, Princess Margaret. . More importantly, he arranged for his daughter Marjorie to marry David Stewart, Duke of Rothesay and heir to the throne. This last marriage would end in tragedy as Rothesay’s uncle, Robert Stewart, Duke of Albany, was Regent of Scotland due to Robert III’s illnesses and was in no mood to relinquish his power, making imprison his nephew on false charges. The 4th Earl of Douglas, Archibald – perhaps mistakenly known as the ‘tyneman’ or loser – also turned on Rothesay, accusing the heir to the throne of gross misconduct against his sister Marjorie. Earl Douglas was implicated in the plot to imprison Rothesay, who died in the Falkland Palace grave. Curiously, despite being only 24 and fit, an inquest found he died of natural causes and cleared Albany and Douglas of blame.
The 4th Earl is renowned as one of the few Scottish characters in William Shakespeare’s plays outside of Macbeth. As Archibald “The Douglas”, he features in Henry IV Part One and is captured by Henry Hotspur – only to be freed to fight in the rebellion against Henry, in which he kills Sir Walter Blunt or Blount, and nearly obtains the king, too.
These were real events, but the scene after the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403 – where he is freed due to his courage and chivalry – is a fabrication, as Douglas was held captive for several years.
He would later join the French war against Henry V of England and, in 1424, answered a personal appeal from King Charles VII of France to come to his aid. To do this, he was made Duke of Touraine and appointed lieutenant general of the French army, the first foreigner to be made a French duke. He only enjoyed the title for a few months as he was killed in the disastrous – for the French and Scots – Battle of Verneuil, with his son James also among the dead.
Meanwhile, the Red Douglas line was beginning. George Douglas (1380-1403) was the illegitimate son of William, 1st Earl of Douglas and Margaret Stewart, Countess of Angus, Dowager Countess of Mar and Lady Abernethy, titles she held in her own right. She was one of the most powerful women in the country and seems to have dominated the weak King Robert III, persuading him to allow his son George to marry the king’s daughter, Princess Mary, after which George became Earl of Angus and gained more lands and titles from her half-sister Isabel, Countess of Mar. George Douglas, Earl of Angus, was captured by the English at the Battle of Homildon Hill in 1402 and died of plague in captivity a year later at the age of 22 or 23.
George’s son, 2nd Earl of Angus, inherited the title aged four, and when King James I was captured and imprisoned by the English in 1406, it looked like he might be sent to the South hostage by the Duke of Albany. He escaped this fate and was one of the nobles who welcomed King James on his return to Scotland in 1424.
James purged his court of the Albany Stewarts and the Earl of Angus – and his cousin the 5th Earl of Douglas – sat on the jury that sentenced the 2nd Duke and his two sons and their ally the Earl of Lennox to death by beheading for treason.
James himself met a grisly end, assassinated in Perth on February 20, 1437, and he was succeeded by his son James II, then only six years old. At this point the Black Douglases reached a new zenith of power, as the Earl of Douglas was made Lieutenant General and Regent of Scotland until his death in 1439. His son and heir William was 15; his youngest son David of about nine years.
The following year, three powerful men decide to try to seize power. They were William Crichton, 1st Lord Crichton and Lord Chancellor of Scotland, Sir Alexander Livingston of Callendar. James Douglas, Earl of Avondale – a favorite of James I and second son of Archibald the Grim – was also believed to have been involved in the plot which became known as Black Dinner, but evidence of this is scarce.
What certainly happened was that having become the 6th Earl of Douglas, William and his brother David were invited to dinner at Edinburgh Castle in the presence of 10-year-old James II. Legend has it that a black bull’s head, a symbol of death, was laid on the table before Crichton and Livingston’s men seized the two youngsters. They underwent a show trial and despite the young king’s protests, they were summarily executed for treason by being beheaded in the castle courtyard. This event is said to have partly inspired George RR Martin to write the infamous Red Wedding scene for Game of Thrones.
Sir Walter Scott (above) described the event thus: ‘Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre, God grant you sink for sin! And it was for the black dinner, Earl Douglas was there.
The Earl of Avondale quickly became the 7th Earl of Douglas and Clan Chief and controlled large areas of Scotland – although he only lived three years after the Black Supper, which may have been due to his corpulence: he was known as James the Gross. One can only imagine what effect the event had on James II, and he certainly showed symptoms of mental turmoil later in life, not least because of what he did to William Douglas, 8th Earl and Lord of Galloway and Lauderdale.
Well aware that he was considered Scotland’s chief magnate and a possible threat to James II, this Lord Douglas wanted to leave Scotland, perhaps for security reasons, and went on a pilgrimage to Rome. While abroad, King James raided several Douglas properties because there had apparently been insults and damage done to neighbours.
He returned in August 1451, and early the following year received a summons to assist the king at Stirling Castle. The summons was conveyed by Sir William Lauder of Haltoun, a friend and relative of the Douglases. Lauder also brought a letter of safe conduct for the earl signed by the king and this seems to have reassured him of his safety.
It was nothing. On February 22, 1452, William Douglas was informed by the King that he must dissolve a mutual protection pact he had made with the Earl of Crawford and the Earl of Ross, Lord John of Islay, chief of Clan Donald. Douglas refused and James II lost his temper and quickly drew his dagger – more likely a dagger – before stabbing the Earl 26 times. Other nobles joined them, and Sir Patrick Gray completed the assassination by smashing “his brains out with a pole-axe”, as one chronicle puts it. The Count’s body was thrown out the window into the garden below.
As the Earl had no legitimate children, William’s brother James became the 9th Earl of Douglas. He rallied Douglas’ forces and marched on Stirling with the king’s letter of safe conduct tied to his horse’s tail. Joining the King’s side, however, were the Red Douglases in the person of George Douglas, 4th Earl of Angus.
James Douglas’ allies abandoned him and he fled to England. As recently as 1448, the two branches of the Douglases had fought side by side to win the Battle of Sark. But now relations were severed, and with the 9th Earl still in England, the Earl of Angus and his allies in the Borders families fought the Battle of Arkinholm and broke the Black Douglases once and for all.
The 9th Earl and his family were attained and the title of Earl of Douglas – and thus the chieftaincy of the clan – was given to the Red Earl of Angus. Next week we’ll see how it all ended.