Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding is based on Scotland’s Black Dinner in 1440 and Glencoe Massacre of 1692

Martin Chalakoski
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Photo Courtesy: Helen Sloan/HBO

Most of us are by now familiar with the fact that George R .R. Martin wrote his famous book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, inspired largely by history and specifically medieval Europe. So what has shocked or horrified us in front of our small screens over the last several years has, in a way, already happened.

“No matter how much I make up, there’s stuff in history that’s just as bad, or worse,” the author once declared in an interview for Entertainment Weekly.

And he couldn’t be more on point when we take, for instance, the unexpected shocking twist at the end of the ninth episode in the third season of HBO’s Game of Thrones series, “The Rains of Castamere,” and the callous way in which the Starks were murdered by the Frays (supported by the Lanisters) during what came to be known as the Red Wedding.

While the vicious murder of Caitlyn, Rob, his wife, and his unborn child surprised us all when the episode premiered that Sunday on June 2, 2013–well, aside from those who already read the book–the macabre scene was not solely the product of a brilliant writer and his perhaps twisted mind. Similar incidents happened in the north of Britain during the Middle Ages. And they were much, much worse, according to historians. Dr. Katie Barclay of the Adelaide University School of History and Politics in South Australia, for instance, believes that their distressing nature is the reason why they are remembered in the first place and re-imagined in fiction by authors, including Martin.

“The Scottish ‘Red Weddings’ linger in the historical imagination because of what it says about betrayal and loyalty and human relationships, and because they wiped out whole families, not just because they are bloody,” she says.

The Starks were offered bread and salt, which, according to sacred laws of hospitality, put them under the protection of their host and meant that during the stay neither the guest nor the host can harm the other. The same goes for medieval Europe and Scotland, where a similar “bread and salt” tradition existed and strict rules of conduct forbade men to harm their guests or vice versa.

However, the Starks were betrayed and killed under a false pretense that they were safe, and in Scotland, there were times when folks and their whole families were murdered by dishonorable men who broke these rules and used people’s trust in their favor.

The dagger with which Roose Bolton kills Robb Stark, and the knife with which Catelyn Stark kills Walder Frey’s wife. Benjamin Skinstad – Imgur gallery CC BY 3.0

Two ruthless and belligerent events, in particular, were the inspiration for Roose Bolton and Lord Walder Frey’s betrayal, or, according to the same interview, “The Red Wedding is based on a couple of real events from Scottish history. One was a case called The Black Dinner… The other was the Glencoe Massacre.” And both were instances where that trust was severely broken, hospitality betrayed, and men and women who believed themselves protected by the strict rules of conduct were literally slaughtered.

The first event he is referring to is one that occurred in 1440, only three years after James II was named King of Scots at the age of 10. Young James succeeded his father, King James I, who was assassinated in 1437 by influential members of the Douglas clan.

The Black Douglases were the most powerful clan in Scotland at the time and enjoyed the loyalty of the majority of people–to the extent that they served as regents (meaning that they had the power to rule the kingdom) when kings were murdered or until they were old enough to rule by themselves. And King James was not, so Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Douglas, governed Scotland in the meantime.

By the end of 1439, Archibald passed away and his eldest son, 16-year-old William Douglas, was to be the head of the wealthy family and probably succeed his father as regent. However, two of the king’s most trusted advisers, Sir Alexander Livingston, James’ legal guardian, and the self-proclaimed Lord Chancellor of Scotland, Sir William Crichton, believed the clan was growing too powerful and could pose a threat to the king and the kingdom.

Bothwell Castle, a seat of the Black Douglases from 1362 to 1455

As the story goes, they arranged for William and his younger brother David to come in Edinburgh and “get better acquainted” with their future king. Under the rules of hospitality, their stay was guaranteed to be safe. Upon the arrival of the Douglas brothers, a great feast began. The three young gentlemen were merry and joyous when suddenly, on the beat of a drum, the doors were shut; a man walked into the dining chamber and served them the fresh head of a black boar, still dripping blood. It was the symbol of death according to customs.

The king was persuaded that it was done at the command of the Douglas boys and that they were conspiring against him. They were then dragged outside like pigs, tried on the charges of high treason, and beheaded almost instantly.

Interestingly enough, though, the advisers had already established control over the king and shared identical ambitions for higher power. So what really happened, perhaps, was their eliminating a strong rival who stood in their way.

Twelve years later, in 1452, the king invited William, 8th Earl of Douglas, as a guest so they could reconcile. Instead of a peaceful resolution, however, William refused to pledge allegiance to a king his clan was not supporting any more and was at war with. James stabbed him in the throat with a dagger and, as he was choking and unable to breathe, William was then finished off with a battleaxe swung through his skull and thrown out the window of Sterling Castle.

Edinburgh, UK – September 18, 2012: Flowers surrounding the ornate Ross Fountain in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh, with Edinburgh Castle in the background.

Two centuries passed and we come to the story of the Massacre of Glencoe. William of Orange was crowned King of England, Ireland, and Scotland in 1689, but he was not popular among the Scottish Highlanders. The Jacobite uprising, an attempt to dethrone him and bring back their Stuart King James II, was unsuccessful. It ended in 1690, and the next year William offered the highland clansmen a pardon–if they pledge allegiance to him.

The deadline was set for January 1, 1692, and all signed the oath except for the McDonald Clan. Their chief, Alastair Maclain, and his family were sworn to King James II. And Highlanders were not oathbreakers. He waited to be released from his oath by the former-king personally before he could swear his allegiance to William. But it was a freezing winter and the weather delayed everything, so, unfortunately, he received James’ confirmation just three days before the deadline.

Maclain went to Fort William to formally swear his oath, but the Governor there did not have the powers of state to accept it. He would have to travel the almost impassable roads to Inveraray where he could swear his oath before the Sheriff of Argyll. And he did, albeit a couple of days late, on January 6. Thinking everything was settled, he went back to Glencoe. Little did Maclain know that powerful men who conspired against him would make sure the certificate of proof disappeared. As a leading Jacobite Highland chief during the rebellion, he was to be made an example of–as a warning to any still-loyal supporters of King James II that they should all bow down to their new king.

By the end of the month, Captain Campbell, a chief from a rival clan, and about 128 soldiers arrived at Glencoe and asked for shelter. They claimed to come in friendship and had been sent from the overcrowded Fort William garrison to take up quarters at Glencoe. The McDonalds, out of respect to the Highland hospitality code, invited the men inside. They housed them for two weeks until, on the night of February 13, a harsh storm swept in. Under Campbell’s command and allegedly the king’s order “to put all to the sword under seventy,” his men committed the most heinous crime of “slaughter under trust.” They murdered their hosts in cold blood when everyone was deep in sleep.

Ruins of Finlaggan Castle, historic seat of the Lords of the Isles who were chiefs of Clan Donald

Thirty-eight people, including Alastair Maclain, were killed, and more than 40 women and children who managed to escape froze to death outside in the winter snow.

“Hospitality laws were real in Dark Ages society. A host and guest were not allowed to harm each other even if they were enemies,” explains Martin. Centuries later, it was still a disgrace in Scotland to refuse men who sought shelter and food at your house, let alone slaughter them inside.

Related story from us: The history of the Knights Templar and other medieval orders that influenced “Game of Thrones”

“By violating that law, the phrase is they ‘condemn themselves for all time,’ ” the writer adds. And while the Douglases and the McDonalds never avenged the men who broke the old ways of hospitality and killed their families, the Starks had their last say and served their vengeance to those who broke it in his story.

“When people ask you what happened here, tell them the North remembers. Tell them winter came for House Frey.” – Arya Stark,  Season 7, episode 1, Dragonstone.