Red Weddings and Black Dinners

robb-stark-rains-of-Castamere

Robb Stark fell in tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones, the Rains of Castamere. Linked from Wikia.

Season 2, Episode 6 “Old Gods and the New”
Season 3, Episode 9 “The Rains of Castamere”

Dark portents aligned to make Catelyn, Robb, and Edmure’s trip to the Frey’s castle ominous, including the endless rain and Robb’s direwolf’s jumping in his cage. Catelyn Stark mistrusts Lord Frey and frets he is leading them to a trap. But, did historical events inspire George RR Martin when he envisioned the Red Wedding?

To pen the Red Wedding Martin takes a page from a real-life event in medieval Scottish history known as the Black Dinner and may also have been inspired by the Skirmish at Heworth Moor, which I’ll cover in the next blog post.

The Black Dinner

James II of Scotland

This anonymous posthumous portrait shows James II as an adult. You can see a very faint reddish mark on his far cheek. This image is now in the public domain and the portrait resides at the National Galleries Scotland.

Like England, the 1400s were a turbulent period in Scottish history. James I had trouble containing the nobles. After he died suspiciously in February 1437, his six-year old son, James II, inherited the throne. Red haired with a port-wine birthmark on his cheek, contemporaries assumed he was hot tempered and dubbed him “James the Fiery Face.”

Naturally, regents ruled for the boy king. Originally, the Earl of Douglas, Archibald Douglas, governed for the boy. But, after Douglas died from the plague, few high-status nobles existed to take his place – James I had decimated most of the nobility. Instead, two rough opportunistic men uneasily shared control between them: Sir William Crichton and Sir Alexander Livingston. But these men feared that Archibald Douglas’ sons would destroy their dominance.

Archibald Douglas’ heir was his fifteen-year old son, William. A handsome ambitious and haughty youth, the young earl was about to become Scotland’s greatest magnate with a force of 5000 knights and spearmen. Worse, the boy-king James idolized William, who returned the adoration. Crichton and Livingston knew this potentially overmighty earl could easily topple their rule, so they joined forces to extinguish this threat.

While historians differ on whether or not what happens next is legend or fact, one account similar to the Game of Thrones is the one in Victorian history The Black Douglas by Samuel Rutherford Crocket.

Crichton and Livingston invited Earl William and his younger brother, David, to feast with the king at Edinburgh Castle on November 24, 1440.

When Earl William and his brother arrived, they were treated with the utmost courtesy, almost too much in fact. Laid out in the banqueting hall, an oblong chamber with oak ceilings with enormous gilt-silver moldings, the boys dined in the French style.

According to The Black Douglas, Crichton drank frequently to the earl and his brother’s health. Suddenly, bagpipes, then an instrument of war, began to play. Dark armored soldiers carrying Lochaber axes blocked both doors of the hall. Two servants carried in a massive silver platter with a black bull’s head upon it. In medieval Scotland, the black bull’s head was a symbol of death. Robert Sewell writes a black bull’s head “presaged the death of the principal guest(s) at a dinner.”

The soldiers seized the earl and his brother. Despite the boy-king James’ protests, a hasty kangaroo court condemned the boys of treason. Soldiers forced the boys into the courtyard where an execution block was already in placed. The Earl William begged for his life and that of his brother David. Then, when this was refused, William requested his younger brother be executed first so that he did not have the wrenching experience of witnessing his elder brother die before him. James I wept as his friends were beheaded, but he was helpless to stop it.

The macabre dinner is immortalized in a little rhyme:

‘Edinburgh castle, toun, and tower,
God grant ye sink for sin;
And that even for the black-dinner,
Earl Douglas gat therein.’

Learn More, Explore More

The Black Douglases by Michael Brown
Scotland: the Story of a Nation by Magnus Magnuson
I Never Knew That About the Scottish by Christopher Wren
“Livingston of Callend”

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

8 Comments

  • Reply June 3, 2013

    Brandon

    “Suddenly, bagpipes, then an instrument of war, began to play.”

    In the episode, the musicians began playing the “Rains of Castamere” a threatening song in Westeros right before Lord Walder began his executions.

    • Reply June 3, 2013

      jamie-adair

      Hi Brandon,

      Yes, exactly. I thought it was really neat that George RR Martin used the idea of music being a prelude to doom before the attack began. (Even if he wanted to, George RR Martin definitely couldn’t use bagpipes because those are strongly associated with Scotland, a place that doesn’t exist in Game of Thrones.) The “Rains of Castamere” is a Lannister song celebrating the Lannister’s destruction of the House of Reyne, who rebelled against them. Consequently, the song signals the Lannisters are about to destroy another house (or nearly destroy it). Maybe I should have been clearer in the blog post. Sorry about that.
      Best regards and thanks for reading and commenting!

      Jamie

      • Reply April 4, 2014

        Gordon Clarkson

        Hello Jamie. As a Scot , I just wanted to point-out that while Scotland does not exist as such in Game of Thrones ( nor of course do any real-world countries ) , George R.R. Martin has compared the North to Scotland. In the TV adaptation this is broadened to Northern Britain in general. If I may say so ,you have a great site here .I am so glad to have subscribed.

        • Reply April 4, 2014

          Jaime Adair

          Hi Gordon,
          Thank you very much for your kind words and welcome! I didn’t realize that in the TV adaptation the showrunners had broadened the Game of Thrones North to Northern Britain in general. That’s really interesting. I’m fascinated by the (real-world) history of the North in general, and especially the wars over the northern marches.
          Thank you for subscribing – it is wonderful having enthusiastic readers like you!
          Jamie

  • [...] While we’re all still reeling from the Red Wedding last weekend, I thought I’d follow up with the second half of the blog post I promised when I first wrote about the Red Wedding. [...]

  • Reply May 20, 2014

    NEW ZEALAND

    Please do more about Romans, Greek, Knights,Jacobites, Celts, Vikings, Anglo Saxons and have a look on other websites if you need to see real life examples. Not Hunger Games, this sites is Game of Thrones.

    http://io9.com/10-sources-that-george-r-r-martin-borrowed-from-for-ic-511679817

    http://www.salon.com/2014/04/29/the_7_kingdoms_in_game_of_thrones_are_actually_these_5_real_world_places_partner/

    • Reply May 20, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Hey NEW ZEALAND,

      Thanks for the feedback. I suspect based on this, you would be interested in articles that parallel real-life examples (like filming locations)?

      Jamie
      P.S. I pulled the Daily Mail link out of your comment since there are, in my opinion, copyright issues with that article. Long story…

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    Yoel Arnon

    Actually, George RR Martin mentioned the Balck Dinner, alongside with the Massacre of Glencoe, as the main sources of the red wedding (see http://www.nerdist.com/2013/06/george-r-r-martin-explains-the-red-weddings-historical-roots/ ). I always thought that the most obvious historical parallel is St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre in which the guests of the royal wedding were slaughtered by their hosts in Paris.

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