The murder of William, the 6th Earl of Douglas, took place on the 24th of November, 1440
In Scotland, we've had the Black Parliament, several outbreaks of the Black Death, our own Black Knight (who hasn't), and two Black Douglas days. The events of the first of those Douglas days became known as the Black Dinner, except it surely wasn't a Black-tie Dinner, although there must've been a Douglas contingent sporting the medieval equivalent of black ties at the subsequent funeral. Eh, what's that; a funeral? What kind of a dinner was the Black Dinner? Was food poisoning involved, maybe some Black Pudding that'd gone a bit rancid perhaps? You might well ask.
It seems that the troubles of the Douglases stemmed from their having become too powerful. Certainly, by the early 15th Century, they were seen by some as a threat to the stability of the nation. However, that view was very subjective, with the composition of the 'some' including rival Lords and Earls, and scurrilous relatives as well. On the Noble's side, the main problem arose due to the youthfulness of King James II, the sole surviving son of James I and his Queen, Joan Beaufort. James was ten in 1440, having succeeded to the Throne at the age of seven, after his father had been brutally murdered at St. John’s Toune of Perth. Brutal murders seem to have been the order of the day – and a side order at dinnertime. During James’ minority, his guardians began well, by rounding up and executing his dad's murderers. However, after the Governor of Scotland, Archibald, 5th Earl of Douglas, who was co-Regent, with Queen Joan, for the child King, died, in 1439, the situation degenerated and a savage and bloody struggle for power ensued.
That ignoble feud involved three key protagonists, a Guardian, Sir William Crichton, Sir Alexander Livingstone, also a Guardian, and William, the 6th Earl of Douglas. To some extent, things became a bit like ‘pass the parcel’ as Crichton initially had custody of the young James, but he was then kidnapped and carried off to Stirling by Livingstone who also abducted Queen Joan. When Parliament demanded that Livingstone release James and his mother, Livingstone and Crichton formed an alliance against the young and perhaps naive Douglas Earl. The story of these events is told extremely well by Nigel Tranter in his novels 'The Lion's Whelp' and 'The Black Douglas' (read chronologically, in that order). Also compelling is Michael Brown's history, 'The Black Douglases'.
On the relative side, the troubles of the 6th Earl of Douglas came from his great-uncle, James 'the Gross', the younger son of Archibald 'the Grim'. That rather large James Douglas was also the nephew of the newly deceased 5th Earl and had a certain influence as the near relation of a Regent. In addition, he had well-established links with Livingstone and Crichton. However, James' power was likely to wane with the succession of wee Wullie who was most likely going to succeed to his father's Lieutenancy as well as the Earl-ship. Neither the gross James, the ageing Livingston, nor the in-admirable Crichton were too keen on the idea of the new 6th Earl of Douglas rising, inevitably as the Black Douglas must, to political dominance. Furthermore, all things being equal, the 7th Earl was going to be William's son, when he got round to having one.
So James, with one eye on the Earl's belt, seems to have become involved in what ensued, although there's no proof he took a personal hand. James' problems were resolved by the actions of his allies, undoubtedly with his knowledge and cooperation, whether or not he was in any way directly involved. After the brutal slaying that was to take place, James 'the Gross', being the heir by male entail, became the 7th Earl of Douglas.
The notorious story of the Black Dinner begins with the 6th Earl of Douglas, his younger brother David, and Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld being invited to dine with the boy King in Edinburgh Castle. Earl William was as secure as could be on his own lands, safe from arrest on any trumped up charges of treason or suchlike, which might've been used to curb his activities. Maybe he felt too secure, young and headstrong as he reputedly was. In any case, the Douglas seems to have feared nothing in allowing himself to be lured to the Castle, where he appeared on the 24th of November, 1440. As Crichton, Chancellor of Scotland at the time, was also Keeper of the Castle, he is said to have organised the dinner and issued the invites. Also reputedly present were Livingston, who had custody of the King, and the wee Royal himself, down from Stirling for the day.
The legendary banquet was held in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle, with King James and Earl Douglas getting on famously. Then, at the end of the feast, somebody brought in the head of a black bull and thumped it on the table, silencing the hubbub and causing several jaws to drop open. That symbolic act was supposed to be a portent for the death of the principal guest – the Black Douglas. The story concludes with the King's pleas being ignored and Douglas heads joining that of the bull on the table. A perfidious murder and worthy of its epitaph and, according to the Douglas Archive, Sir Walter Scott's lines:
“Edinburgh castle, toune, and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin;
And that e'en for the Black Dinner,
Earl Douglas gat therein.”
Other versions suggest that after the dinner, the Douglases were dragged out to Castle Hill, given a mock trial and then beheaded. You may prefer something more credible, such as appears in 'The Livingstons of Callendar' by E. B. Livingston (Edinburgh University Press, 1920), where the following is categorically stated: “...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 ...Sir Malcolm Fleming ...the three of them were hastily tried for high treason, found guilty, and promptly beheaded on the Castle Hill.” The extra detail that the Earl and his brother were executed there and then on the 24th , with Fleming being 'turned off' four days later, is added. There's no mention of any dinner or bull's head, all of which seems to have been a bit of fable.
The second of those Black Douglas days didn't get its own Black Label, but in an amazing echo of the terrible events of 1440, twelve years later, on the 22nd of February, 1452, the same King James who had ostensibly watched in anguish as the 6th Earl was treacherously murdered took the life of the 8th Earl, the son of James 'the Gross', by his own Royal hand. The second murderous incident is more deserving of the title 'Black Dinner' and it's probably the case that the chroniclers, writing decades, often centuries, later, simply mixed up the two incidents.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.