1910: Johan Alfred Ander, the last executed in Sweden 1944: Victor Gough, of Operation Jedburgh

1440: The Black Dinner

November 24th, 2016 Headsman

Edinburgh Castle, toune and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin!
And that e’en for the black dinner
Earl Douglas gat therein.

-Sir Walter Scott

On this date in 1440, 10-year-old King James II of Scotland celebrated the Black Dinner and saw two Clan Douglas rivals sent straight to the block.

Scotland in the early 15th century was a fractious kingdom that was often governed by rivalrous regency councils ruling in the stead of absent or enfeebled kings. That was the case after the 1437 assassination of King James I passed the crown to his young son.

On these councils, the clan Douglas always swung a very large claymore. Elevated to the first rank of lowland families by their early support of Robert the Bruce a century before, the Earls of Douglas had become perhaps the realm’s preeminent noblemen — the sort of overweening powers-behind-the-throne that everyone starts thinking about how to topple. No surprise, James II’s regent was this very Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas — until the latter died in 1439 and passed the title to a young heir of his own.

Only about 16 years old, the new Earl, William Douglas, wasn’t exactly a child by the standards of the time. (He already had a wife.) But he was no match for the grizzled schemers he was pitted against among James II’s other guardians, Crichton and Livingston. These two perversely connived with William’s own uncle James to be rid of the whelp before he could grow into another overmighty Earl of Douglas.

This day’s infamous meal accomplished the plot.

Caledonia’s answer to the Red Wedding — and an actual inspiration for that literary slaughter in the Game of Thrones universe* — the Black Dinner of folklore is supposed to have featured both William and his little brother David naively accepting an invitation to Edinburgh Castle for noshes with the king.** Having left their own strongholds, they were vulnerable here.

After their feast on this date, it is said — though this excessive detail was undoubtedly concocted by generations of folklore — that a severed black bull’s head was plopped onto the table, to symbolize the imminent decapitation of the Douglas alpha males.† Then the Douglas lads were subjected to a mock trial as traitors and instantly dragged outside for beheading. That devious uncle James happily inherited as the seventh Earl of Douglas.‡

* The Massacre of Glencoe, another great Scottish bloodbath, also figures in the Red Wedding’s source material. “No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” said Thrones author George R.R. Martin. Amen to that.

** Along with Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who was seized along with the Douglas boys but seemingly only killed a few days later.

† Still, not as terrifying as a Thanksgiving Cthurkey.

‡ While the child king was more prop than participant in the events of the Black Dinner, he would have the privilege little more than a decade later of personally stabbing to death the eighth Earl of Douglas, James’s son William.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Scotland,Summary Executions

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