It aired eight years ago, but if your pulse picks up when you hear The Rains of Castamere then you, like many other Game of Thrones fans, still aren’t over the Red Wedding.
It was inspired by a real life massacre that took place at Edinburgh Castle in 1441. King James II was ostensibly ruling the country, but since he took the throne as a child it was his Regent, Archibald Douglas, who wielded the real power.
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During the Late Middle Ages, the Douglas Clan were the most influential family in Scotland – but not everyone was happy about it. When he died in 1439, several prominent nobles believed it was time to break the stranglehold the Douglases had on Scotland – by any means necessary.
The main obstacles? The 16 year old William, 6th Earl of Douglas, 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 years old was practically their contemporary.
Everyone had a delightful time and put their differences behind them over a plate of burnt food, giving rise to the name ‘the Black Dinner’.
That would be a lovely story, if significantly less interesting to read about. The reality is far bloodier.
Once the boys were seated, a black bull’s head was placed in front of William – the symbol of death. The distressed young king, realising for the first time that the occasion was in fact a trap, protested but to no avail.
The two boys were dragged out onto 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. Judicial fairness not being at the top of anyone’s priority that night, they were inevitably found guilty.
The two young boys were beheaded in the castle yard.
William’s great uncle, James Douglas, inherited his title and became the 7th Earl of Douglas – it’s likely that he was complicit in the plot, trading the supremacy of his family and the life of his great nephew for his own glory.
The Clan Douglas laid siege to the castle – a popular pastime throughout history – but it was surrendered to the king. Despite – or maybe because – of that, the Douglases would stay at the heart of power in Scotland and when James II came of age to rule, he found himself having to battle with them metaphorically, as well as literally.
The gruesome story has a dark little coda, though. In 1457, the 27 year old king invited the Eighth Earl of Douglas, James Douglas’ son, for dinner at Stirling Castle. He accused the Earl of conspiring against him and forging links with his rivals, before drawing his dagger and stabbing the Earl – who as William Douglas, shared the name of his unfortunate relative – 26 times.
Which just goes to show that if you stage a mock trial and real beheading in front of a child, he’s going to grow up into a very complicated man.