William Douglas, 8th Earl of the line, was murdered by his King, James II, in Stirling Castle, on the 22nd February, 1452.
In an amazing echo of the terrible events that took place on the 24th of November, 1440, King James II, King of Scots, was present at the murder of a Douglas Earl. The events of 1440 became known as the 'Black Dinner', but the events of twelve years later didn't get such a label. Funny that, because there was a dinner involved in 1452, but there hadn't been in 1440. It's likely that, writing decades, often centuries, later, the chroniclers simply mixed up the two incidents and
gave the wrong infamous murder the right imaginative appellation. The tellers of tales, long before Usborne Books or the 'Horrible Histories' series from Scholastic in the UK, were fond of a good story and don't seem to have let facts get in the way of a stirring legend.
Both dinner dates were bad news for the Black Douglases and long before anyone had ever drank a toast with Black Label, they were labelled as amongst the blackest days in the history of Scotland. Apart from the minor detail about whether or not there had been a banquet, a true fact concerning both dates was that James II was present on both occasions. In one, he was an innocent bystander, being a mere lad at the time. In the later event, himself, the King, was the 'Perp'. The very same King James who had ostensibly watched in anguish as the 6th Earl was treacherously murdered, took the life of the 8th Earl, by his own Royal hand. Whatever is the opposite of regicide is that of which James II stands accused.
William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas, was the eldest son of James ‘The Gross’, the 7th Earl. He grew up to become the most powerful magnate in Scotland and was Lieutenant General for the young King James II from 1444. With his brothers, Douglas dominated the Scottish military scene. But there were many rival factions, including those of William Crichton and Alexander Livingston, who were the ones who, previously, had turned to slaughter. Back in 1440, Crichton and Livingston had somehow managed to lure the unsuspecting 6th Earl of Douglas, also called William, to Edinburgh. And, according to 'The Livingstons of Callendar' by E. B. Livingston, “on the arrival of the Earl ...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.”
During the King’s minority, James II was understandably influenced by those rivals of Douglas, cruel as they were. They maintained their control by keeping Jame confined to Stirling Castle; ostensibly for his safety. Yet, after James attained the rule in person, in 1449, things didn’t change all that much, to outward appearances. Crichton, as Chancellor, retained his influence and continued to dominate political power, whilst Douglas as ever, was the dominant military power. The King's ability to rule without either Douglas or Crichton was arguably quite limited.
During the Douglas' absence abroad, in 1451, James II had taken the opportunity to plunder the Black Douglas' lands, no doubt encouraged by Crichton and his allies. A reconciliation had followed in 1451, but the situation quickly deteriorated again. Crichton, ever the schemer, had gained the King’s ear and convinced him that Douglas was involved in intrigue and plotting rebellion against him. Coincidentally, during Douglas’ aforementioned absence, indeed there had been an uprising; by John MacDonald, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles. It had been claimed that he was in league with Douglas and others, including the Earl of Crawford.
If true, that league would have created a dangerous axis of power, forming a major rival to James' Royal authority. It seems that was sufficient to provide the excuse for the Earl's murder. It is difficult to imagine that the fatal act of the King was premeditated, but it is easy to imagine it being engineered by Crichton. Incidentally, Douglas did have a bond with Crawford, his relation by marriage, but it was entirely legitimate and based on family ties. The arrangement with Crawford was totally irrelevant and posed no threat to the King.
This time, the King, instead of in-admirable Crichton or Livingston, extended an invite to the Douglas. And, instead of Ediinburgh Castle being the venue, the King requested the pleasure of the Earl's company at Stirling Castle. Douglas was even given a safe-conduct and he duly arrived for the feast, on the 22nd of February, 1452. On this occasion, there was a formal dinner, although black tie affairs hadn't yet been invented. After dining, the King directed William and others, including Crichton, Sir Patrick Gray, the Captain of the Guard, his brother, Lord Gray and Lord Darnley, into an ante room. If Douglas thought he was in for being treated to some Port, he was sorely mistaken. The seeming hospitality was merely the prelude to accusations of treachery and a demand by the King for William to break his bond with Crawford.
The King’s disposition to hot-headedness was well known and wine at the feast would not have helped quell his mood. It seems Jamess was easily influenced in those days and Crichton was an old hand at the game. No doubt, Crichton had been feeding James a line during the dinner. In any case, when the Douglas refused to bow to his demands, James’ lost his temper and stabbed the unarmed Earl in the throat with a dagger. Striking again, the King staggered back, only for the others to rush forward and join in the bloodbath. The young Earl was finished off in brutal fashion, his brains allegedly dashed out with a pole-axe. The final act of treachery came as the 8th Earl of Douglas was cast out of a casement window into the dark February night. Astonished men-at-arms, finding Douglas in the courtyard below, counted twenty-six wounds in his broken body.
The murder of William, Earl of Douglas, did not immediately end the power of the Douglases as his brothers sought to avenge his death. A state of intermittent civil war continued between 1452 and 1455, until James' forces struck a decisive blow and the Douglas dynasty was finally defeated at the Battle of Arkinholm.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.