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Black Bull Dinner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cartoon - Earl of Douglas and brother
The Earl of Douglas and his brother did not survive the meal (BBC Cartoon)
Sir Alexander Livingston and Sir William Crichton, Keeper of Edinburgh Castle, who had recently come to a power sharing agreement of sorts, were convinced that the Douglases, led by the 16 yeasr old, headstrong William, 6th Earl of Douglas, were enemies of the throne. They felt it necessary to crush the Douglases to secure their own authority. Although it was fairly easy to secure sufficient evidence to support a charge of high treason against the 6th Earl of Douglas and his associates; it was an entirely different matter to arrest this powerful baron in the midst of his own people in his own castle.

It does not appear to have been difficult for Sir William Crichton to lure the young earl from his castle, and to convince him to present himself at the court of the boy king, James II in Edinburgh Castle for a celebratory dinner of reconciliation. Thus, the 6th Earl of Douglas, his younger brother David, and his advisor Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld arrived at Edinburgh Castle on November 24, 1440.

According to legend, a banquet was held in the Great Hall of Edinburgh Castle, and the young James II was charmed with the company of the Douglases. At the end of the feast, the head of a black bull was brought into the hall. Under Scottish custom, this formality presaged the death of the principal guest(s) at a dinner. James II is alleged to have pleaded for the lives of his new friends to be spared, but they were said to have been beheaded in front of the ten year old king.

However, Mr. E.B. Livingston suggests a more likely scenario on pages 43 and 44 of The Livingstons of Callendar, Edinburgh University Press, 1920:

"But what we do know for certain is that on the arrival of the Earl of Douglas at the castle, he was at once arrrested, together with his only brother David, and his friend and consellor Sir Malcolm Fleming of Cumbernauld, who had accompanied him; that the three of them were hastily tried for high treason, found guilty, and proptly beheaded on the Castle Hill. The earl and his brother were executed on 24 November, 1440, and Sir Malcolm Fleming four days later.

The Douglas clan then laid siege to Edinburgh Castle and Crichton perceiving the danger surrendered the castle to the king and an uneasy truce was declared.

The later execution must have been carried out contrary to the wishes of Livingston, hence probably the four days' delay. For about three years later, on 16 August 1443, Sir Alexander Livingston, in the presence of Robert Fleming and four bishops, solemnly purged himself upon oath of having given any counsel, assistance, or consent to the slaughter of Sir Malcolm Fleming.

"Some of the old chronicle writers, who like some modern journalists were not averse to inserting fictitious picturesque details, so as to enliven their narratives, declare that the Douglases were arrested while sitting at dinner, on the signal being given by a black bull's head, supposed to be a sign of sudden death, being placed on the table; and this fable, according to an old historian of the House of Douglas, gave rise to the following doggerel rhyme:—


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

"It is, however, highly improbable that either Livingston or Crichton would have been parties to the introduction of such a theatrical dénouement into this ghastly tragedy . . . ."


Following the demise of William, 6th Earl of Douglas and his brother at the Black Dinner, William's great uncle James, known as "James the Gross" became the 7th Earl of Douglas. Apparently, he had connived at the execution of his nephew, and thus inherited the earldom and the Douglas Estates. The lordships of Annandale and Bothwell fell to the crown; Galloway to Margaret Douglas (William Douglas's sister).

 

 

 

 

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