The Historical Inspiration for the Red Wedding of ‘Game of Thrones’.
by Ross Crawford
WARNING: Spoilers for Episode 9 of Season 3 of Game of Thrones.
Do not go any further unless you have watched ‘The Rains of Castamere’.
Very last warning!
No doubt many of you are sobbing inconsolably after the latest Game of Thrones episode, ‘The Rains of Castamere’. Even book fans, who have known what to expect all season and have whispered of the Red Wedding with hushed and dreaded tones, will be struggling to process the on-screen carnage. I still remember my initial reaction to reading that fateful chapter: I threw the book across the room in shock and anger. I didn’t dare pick it up again for days. (One supposes that was the emotional response Martin was going for!). An adequate summation of our collective reaction may be: ‘Leave me so I can cry over the deaths of fictional characters’.
This article will not make you feel any better about what you have seen; it is not intended to be a comforting balm. Instead, it will tell you of the real-life historical event that inspired George R. R. Martin to break the heart of every one of his readers.
Every writer needs some inspiration and Martin is spoiled for choice in the blood-soaked annals of West European history. Many have observed how closely the War of the Five Kings in Game of Thrones resembles the War of the Roses in fifteenth-century England. Likewise, the cloak-and-dagger politics of King’s Landing could easily be mistaken for almost any medieval European court. To find the inspiration for the Red Wedding, undoubtedly one of the most shocking events of the series to date, Martin looked to medieval Scotland and the infamous ‘Black Dinner’ of 1440.
In the early fifteenth century, during the early reign of King James II, Clan Douglas were one of the most powerful regional landlords in Lowland Scotland. Some of their local rivals, like Clan Crichton, felt they were simply too strong and capable of upsetting the delicate power-balance within Scotland. The sixteenth-century Scottish historians, George Buchanan and Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, argued the chief of Clan Douglas, William, was haughty, over-ambitious and the cause of all strife in the kingdom at this point. Yet this seems highly unlikely, as in 1440 William was a young man of only sixteen-years of age, and he had barely been involved in any serious politics.
Nevertheless, for some, the Clan Douglas still constituted a serious threat. After all, King James II was still a minor of only ten-years of age, more figurehead than leader. A young, influential lord such as William Douglas could easily have obtained control of King and council in time. Therefore, Clan Crichton sought to break the power-base of the Douglases. With the help of Alexander Livingston of Callendar and others hidden behind-the-scenes, they concocted a plan.
In 1440, Sir William Crichton, custodian of Edinburgh Castle, invited the Douglases to dine with the young king in the old fortress. The Clan Douglas chief, William, was accompanied by his younger brother, David. It seems the siblings suspected little as the evening began to unfold. Perhaps the presence of the king made them feel safe, especially when combined with the (unwritten) laws of hospitality. As guests, they must have assumed they were under the protection of their hosts. Their trusting nature would be their downfall.
Near the end of the feast, a black bull’s head was brought into the hall by a servant. A grim sight in any circumstance, yet for the Douglases it symbolised and signalised their imminent death. With little warning, the two brothers were quickly seized and dragged out to Castle Hill at the top of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. They were given a mock trial and accused of various trumped-up crimes, including high treason. With no hope of mercy or any negotiation, the brothers were led to the headman’s block. We do not know who was first to face the swing of the executioner’s axe. Arguably, they would have been the lucky one. Whoever was second would have watched in horror, helpless as their brother was ruthlessly put to death.
After such shocking cold-blooded murder and breach of the sacred custom of hospitality, it is unsurprising the rest of Clan Douglas were quick to retaliate. Leaderless and out for vengeance, they laid siege to Edinburgh Castle, causing considerable damage to the fortress. Perceiving that he was in serious trouble, Sir William Crichton surrendered the castle to King James. This was a politically astute move: Clan Douglas were still powerful indeed but to challenge this decision would mean challenging the king himself. With so many jealous rivals all keen to see them fail, to make such a move would have legitimised all attacks on the Douglases and left them fighting an unwinnable war against much of the kingdom.
The death of both William and his younger brother, David, extinguished the main male line of the Douglas chiefs. This resulted in the lands and titles of Clan Douglas falling into the hands of William’s great-uncle, James the Gross, lord of Avondale. Interestingly, James sought no revenge for the murder of his great-nephews but instead consolidated his new position of power and even worked with their murderers. Considering this, some have convincingly suggested that James the Gross was a co-conspirator along with Crichton and Livingston. Certainly, it would seem he benefited most from the death of his kinsmen. Just as in the Red Wedding, it seems that lurking in the shadows there was a bigger player who orchestrated the murder and pulled all the strings.
While this is quite the story, it must be noted that some of the details may have been exaggerated by literature over time. The contemporary Auchinleck chronicle states only the bare facts of the murder:
‘Erll William of Douglas, Archebaldis son…and his brother David Douglas was put to deid at Edinburgh…’.
A popular rhyme of the time went further:
‘Edinburgh castle, toun and tour,
God grant ye sink for sin;
And that even for the Black Dinner,
Earl Douglas got therein.’
Admittedly, the inclusion of the ominous black bull’s head may well be a touch of theatre added subsequently to embellish the tale. Nevertheless, the fact that this event was remembered at all, suggests it was shocking to contemporaries. A horrible, lurid instance of violence it may have been, yet it clearly caught the imagination of medieval Scots, just as it inspired George R. R. Martin many hundreds of years later.
Michael Brown, The Black Douglases, War and Lordship in Late Medieval Scotland (Tuckwell Press, East Linton, 1998).
Christine McGladdery, James II (John Donald, Edinburgh, 1990).
FatherStone’s Deviantart: http://fatherstone.deviantart.com/art/Red-Wedding-63988060