The Bible says, “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child”, and Scotland was no exception in the 15th century. James I had been murdered leaving the young James II as the king. His mother, Queen Joan Beaufort, and Governor of Scotland, Archibald, 5th Earl of Douglas, we’re co-regents. In 1439, Earl Douglas died and the situation descended further. The Earl’s young son, William, takes his place as the 6th Earl. However, many other nobles think the time of the Douglas’ influence should come to an end.
Two nobles decided to take the opportunity to gain more power and abducted Queen Joan and the young king. Sir William Crichton and Sir Alexander Livingstone takes then to Stirling. When Parliament insisted that the king and his mother were to be released, the two decided to nip the Douglas problem in the bud.
The two have the young king invite the new young Earl Douglas and his younger brother, David, to dinner at Edinburgh Castle on November 24, 1440. The three were of similar age, and legend says they were having a good time together. Then someone brings out the main dish, the head of a black bull, a symbol of death for the main guest, the Earl. One version of the story says despite the king’s protests, Earl Douglas’ head joined the bull’s on the table. Another version says the two young Douglases were dragged to Castle Hill and given a mock trial and found guilty of treason. The older brother begged for the younger one to be killed first so he wouldn’t be afraid seeing his older brother killed. Both young men were beheaded.
Scholars believe the story of the dinner is a legend, however, the young Earl, his brother and Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, their advisor, were tried and executed for treason very hastily. The addition of the dinner and its omen of the black bull’s head was to add color to the story. However, it does bear a striking similarity to a dinner nine years later with the King and a different Earl Douglas.
King James II was now in his majority and attempting to wrest the reins of power from the Clan Douglas. He accused the Earl of forming a treacherous alliance with John MacDonald, Earl of Ross and Lord of the Isles, and the Earl of Crawford. An argument glared up between the Earl and the King, and the King stabbed him with his own dagger. The courtiers rushed in and finished off the Earl, one smashing in the Earl’s head with an axe.
No matter the year, it seemed Sir Walter Scott was correct when he wrote:
“Edinburgh castle, toune, and towre,
God grant thou sink for sin;
And that e’en for the Black Dinner,
Earl Douglas gat therein.”
Sources available on request