The Black Dinner

There are times when writing historical fiction the mists of time blur what is truth and what is fantasy. For this event, this tragic, evil deed that took place 580 years ago, the truth of what really happened will never be known.

To get a grasp of what happened we need to look at events from any source available, and there is not much to be found that can accurately describe what has become known to legend as ‘the Black Dinner’. Many articles from historical chronicles record events are either vague or with very little detail. Even then, most of these historical texts were written many years after the event, so their accuracy is questionable.

This situation can be gold mine for a writer seeking to ‘fill the gaps’ when describing historical events. But in this case, it feels wrong to over-dramatize a terrible tragedy. As a writer of Historical Fiction, I live by a mantra of ‘be faithful to history’.

So, what we do know is this:

Leading up to the Black Dinner in 1437 King James the First was assassinated, soon afterwards his only surviving son, also named James, was crowned. But this ‘James the Fiery Face’ was aged only six, (he was nicknamed so because of a large birthmark over his face). For a young monarch in his minor he must have a Regent to rule on his behalf and teach the child the game of politics and thrones.

So, it came to be that Sir Archibald Douglas, the Fifth Earl of Douglas, was selected not only as Regent over the King in minor but also the office of Lieutenant General of the Kingdom – a position that would be comparable to that of Prime Minister today. The powerful House of Douglas had just become just that much more powerful – much to the angst of some very ambitious, and ruthless noblemen.

Mysteriously, two years later the reign of Sir Douglas came to an abrupt end when he suddenly died from a ‘fever’. No information about his death can be sourced. His death led to the forfeiture of these contentious titles from Archibald’s eldest son William, who became the Sixth Earl of Douglas, because he too was of minor being only about 15 years old. But that was not to say that when he came of age that he could stake a claim to the titles his father once held.

Two senior nobles, Sir Alexander Livingston and Sir William Crichton, who had come to a power-sharing agreement of sorts over the King and Kingdom, were convinced that the House of Douglas, led by the teenage William, the 6th Earl of Douglas, remains to be a threat to their positions within the Royal Court. So, to secure their own self interests. The conspirators, Crichton and Livingstone felt it necessary to eliminate the Douglas threat.  

It was of no problem to concoct a charge to the Earl of Douglas for high treason, but it was an entirely different matter to arrest this noble of a powerful House in the midst of his own people and in his own castle. Such a challenge does not appear to have been difficult for Sir William Crichton to lure the young Earl from his castle, and to convince him to present himself at the court of the boy king, James II, in Edinburgh Castle for a celebratory dinner of reconciliation.  Thus, the 6th Earl of Douglas, his 10-year-old brother David, and his advisor Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, all arrived at Edinburgh Castle on November 24, 1440.

According to legend, a banquet was held in the Great Hall, and the young James II was charmed with the company of the young Earl and his younger brother who was at the same age as the King himself.  At the end of the feast, the head of a black bull was brought into the hall.  According to Scottish custom, the presentation of a Bulls head meant the impending death of the principal guest at a dinner.  The young King is alleged to have pleaded for the lives of his new friends to be spared, but his pleas were ignored, and the boys are said to have been beheaded in front of the ten-year-old king.

Now, that is the legend. A legend that inspired the Red Wedding, in George R R Martin’s medieval fantasy epic ‘A Storm of Swords‘, which was later adapted to television in Game of Thrones.

But what really happened?

Mr. E.B. Livingston suggests a more likely scenario in pages 43 and 44 of his book, The Livingstons of Callendar, and their principal cadets; the history of an old Stirlingshire family, Edinburgh University Press, 1920:

  “But what we do know for certain is that on the arrival of the Earl of Douglas at the castle, he was at once arrested, together with his only brother David, and his friend and counsellor Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who had accompanied him; that the three of them were hastily tried for high treason, found guilty, and promptly beheaded on the Castle Hill.  The earl and his brother were executed on 24 November 1440, and Sir Malcolm Fleming four days later.  The later execution must have been carried out contrary to the wishes of Livingston, hence probably the four days’ delay.  For about three years later, on 16 August 1443, Sir Alexander Livingston, in the presence of Robert Fleming and four bishops, solemnly purged himself upon oath of having given any counsel, assistance, or consent to the slaughter of Sir Malcolm Fleming.

 “Some of the old chronicle writers, who like some modern journalists were not averse to inserting fictitious picturesque details, so as to enliven their narratives, declare that the Douglases were arrested while sitting at dinner, on the signal being given by a black bull’s head, supposed to be a sign of sudden death, being placed on the table; and this fable, according to an old historian of the House of Douglas, gave rise to the following doggerel rhyme:—

‘Edinburgh castle, toun, and tower,

God grant ye sink for sin;

And that even for the black-dinner,

Earl Douglas gat therin.’

“It is, however, highly improbable that either Livingston or Crichton would have been parties to the introduction of such a theatrical dénouement into this ghastly tragedy . . .  .”

Following the demise of William, 6th Earl of Douglas and his brother at the Black Dinner, William’s great uncle James, known as “James the Gross” became the 7th Earl of Douglas.  Apparently, he had connived at the execution of his nephew, and thus inherited the earldom and the Douglas Estates.

In another interesting development, Beatrice Fleming, the granddaughter of Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld and daughter of Sir Robert Fleming, 1st Lord Fleming, married circa 1472 to Sir James Livingston, 3rd Lord Livingston of Callendar whose great grandfather, Sir Alexander Livingston, was deeply involved in the Black Dinner of 1440 that had resulted in the execution of Sir Malcom Fleming of Cumbernauld.

The aforementioned is possibly the most plausible explanation. So, in keeping with my mantra, ‘be faithful to history,’ I’ve at the very least set the record straight, so to speak. But still, in the absence of first-hand accounts from witnesses or Chronicles from the time that accurately record the tragedy, all we have is conjecture.

So who stood to benefit from the murder of the Earl and his brother?

These titles of Lieutenant Governor and Regent were taken by the murderously ambitious Crichton and Livingston respectfully, even then their alliance was on shaky ground but an alliance that was, by theory, shared by one more conspirator.

Enter Sir James Douglas, also known as ‘James the Gross‘. Although unproven, he was also considered a co-conspirator in the murder of his great nephews William the sixth Earl and his little brother, (yes that’s right – his nephews). What he gained from their demise is the Earldom of Douglas, a title he coveted above all and in return for that title he relinquishes claim to the Regency and power over the Kingdom to Crichton and Livingstone.

One only needs to join the dots of the events that unfolded from the assassination of King James the First in 1437 to the Black Dinner in 1440 including all the intrigue in between and there is quite a tale to be told. So, to keep the drama of the story unraveling at a ‘turn of the page’ pace I’ve decided to describe this evil deed with fictional dramatic effect. But it remains to this day, a shocking act of betrayal and terror.

But then comes the clincher. Writing this scene is harrowing. To describe the horrible fate that befell two innocent boys takes a cast-iron stomach and a strong will.

George R.R. Martin and your fellow authors of shock and awe, I salute you.

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