Gateway to the Classics: Scotland's Story by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall
Scotland's Story by  Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall

James II. of the Fiery Face—The Story of the Black Dinner

James i. was killed in 1437 a.d. , and his son, who was also called James, was then only six years old. He was, however, crowned at once, for although some of the nobles had hated James i. , he had been loved by most of the people, and they willingly accepted his little son as their King.

Sir Robert Graham had thought and hoped that the people would bless him, and love him for having rid them of a cruel tyrant. He soon found out his mistake. The people cursed him for his deed. Filled with terrible rage and hatred, they hunted him and those who had helped him, till in little more than a month, every man of them was taken prisoner. They were all put to death in most horrible and cruel ways. However bad their crime had been, we cannot help shuddering at the terrible punishments which fell upon the murderers. And Graham, instead of being remembered with love, was remembered with hate.

"Robert Graham,

That slew our King,

God give him shame,"

sang the common people.

As James ii. was such a little boy, of course he could not himself rule. So several of the great nobles were chosen to rule instead.

These powerful men were jealous of each other, and quarrelled, each trying to be greater than the other, and each trying to get possession of the King.

The greatest of all the lords was Earl Douglas. Ever since the days of the good Lord James, the Douglas family had been growing more and more powerful. Now they were the greatest and proudest nobles in the land, and they kept state like princes. Indeed, their houses were far more splendid, and their servants far more numerous than the King's. Within their own lands, which were large and wide, they did as they liked. When the Earl Douglas rode abroad, he was attended by a thousand knights and soldiers. He held a Parliament, made knights, and waged war, as if he were a king. What he desired he took. No man was strong enough to stand against him, and all the wild young men of the land, seeking for adventure, flocked to join the Douglas soldiery.

This powerful earl was now made Governor of the kingdom. He died, however, in about a year, and was succeeded in his earldom by his son William. William was only seventeen, but he was even more proud and grand than his father had been.

At first the Queen mother, as Queen Jane was now called, lived with her little son the King in Edinburgh castle. But soon she began to be afraid of Sir William Crichton, who was Chancellor of the kingdom and Governor of the castle, and she feared that he meant to do some evil to the King. So she pretended that she wanted to go on a pilgrimage, and, hiding James in one of her boxes, she ran away with him to Stirling castle.

The Governor of Stirling, who was Sir William Crichton's rival, was greatly pleased to see the Queen and her little son, for now, having possession of the King, he was the more powerful.

For about two years the Queen-mother and her son lived in Stirling, and after the death of Archibald, Earl of Douglas, Sir Alexander Livingstone, the Governor of Stirling, was made Governor of the kingdom. And he, having the King in his power, ruled as he liked, taking counsel of neither lord nor baron. This made Sir William Crichton very angry, and he longed to get possession of the King once more. So one dark night, with about a hundred armed men he took his way to Stirling, and there near the castle-walls he lay in hiding, hoping to capture the King when he came out to ride in the morning.

As Sir William had expected, the King came out very early in the morning, accompanied only by a few horsemen. James rode gaily along, and before he knew what was happening, he found himself surrounded by armed men. Very humbly and reverently they all bowed before the King, who was greatly astonished at their sudden appearance.

Then Sir William came forward and spoke to James in a gentle, loving manner. "I pray your Majesty," he said, pointing to the gates of Stirling, "let me deliver you out of that prison. The Governor wickedly keeps you there to the hurt of your kingdom. Come with me to Edinburgh, or to any part of Scotland that you please, and I will keep you safe from all dangers, and from the power of those who would do you hurt. For it becomes a Prince to live freely, governing others, and not subject to any vassal's rule or correction. I speak for those who wish you well."

As Sir William spoke, the King began to smile. He knew that in Stirling castle he could not do as he liked. Both his mother and the Governor often said to him, "You must do this," or "You must do that," and he thought how nice it would be to do just as he liked. So he smiled. And seeing him smile, Sir William knew that he had got what he wanted. He knew that the King was willing to go with him. Laying hold of his bridle, he turned his horse's head towards Edinburgh. Then some of the King's servants and followers, who had come out to ride with him, came forward and tried to persuade him not to go with Sir William.

But the Governor's eldest son, who was also with them, bade them be silent. "It is vain," he said, "for us to strive with so many armed men. The more so as they mean no harm to the King. It is better to suffer this defeat than to attempt what is beyond our power." So the King was led away towards Edinburgh, and his servants turned back to Stirling with the news.

The Governor was not at Stirling at this time, but as soon as he heard of what had happened, he mounted upon his horse and came galloping back as fast as he could. He was angry with himself for not having kept the King more safely. He was angry with his friends, because he felt sure that some of them must have been in league with Sir William, and helped him to capture the King. But this he was determined upon, that having been powerful he meant to continue being powerful. Yet he felt now that he was not strong enough to stand alone, and he was undecided what to do. "Shall I join with the Douglas against Sir William," he asked himself, "or shall I make friends with Sir William and help him to put down the Douglas?"

In the end he made up his mind to make friends with Sir William. So they had a meeting at Edinburgh and pretended to forgive all the evil they had done to one another.

Soon after this a Parliament was called at Edinburgh. There, many complaints were sent from all sides of how the whole land was filled with murder and war, and how there was no peace nor rest for any man.

That the pride and lawlessness of the Douglas were to blame for much of this, was certain. Crichton and Livingstone therefore made up their minds to rid the country of him.

He was so great and powerful that they dared not take him by force. So they wrote a kind letter to him. In this letter they told him in many fair words that his help was needed to rule the country, and they begged him to come to Edinburgh to see the King.

The Earl was pleased with this letter, and suspecting no treachery, rode to Edinburgh with his young brother David and a great company of followers. As they neared the city some of his knights began to suspect that all was not fair and honest. So they begged the Earl to turn back. But although the Earl was proud and haughty he was chivalrous and noble. "Do not speak to me of treachery," he said. "The Chancellor has treated me kindly. I will hear no evil of him."

So they rode on, but the knights grew ever more and more uneasy, and at last even David begged his brother to turn back.

Then the young Earl was angry. He spoke sharply to his brother, telling him that no great noble should pay heed to tale-bearing, and he commanded that no man in his company should again speak such words.

Then setting spurs to his horse the Earl galloped faster than before towards Edinburgh, followed sadly by his knights, who dared speak no more words of warning.

The Earl and his brother were received with great joy. For a few days there was feasting and merrymaking. The King was delighted with his new companions. He was about ten years old now, and he was very tired of having only grave, stern men about him. The Earl was young, and handsome, and gay, and he had such splendid stories of adventure to tell that the King grew to love him.

But while the Douglas feasted and played with the King, his enemies were making ready.

One day the Governor managed to send most of the Earl's soldiers out of Edinburgh. That night there was a great feast. All the most delightful dishes that could be thought of were prepared for the two young nobles. But when the dinner was over, when the last dish had been carried away, a great black bull's head was brought in upon a silver dish and placed before the Earl. The black bull's head was the sign of death.

Too late the Earl remembered the warning of his friends. Too late he saw that the Governor and the Chancellor meant him evil. He and his brother started up from the table and drew their swords. But armed men rushed in from every side. There was no escape. They were soon fast bound hand and foot.

Meanwhile the King wept and clung to them. He fell upon his knees before the Chancellor, and with tears and sobs begged him to save his new friends. But the Chancellor answered sternly, "Earl Douglas is your enemy. He is a traitor to his country. So long as he has life, the land can have neither rest nor peace. He must die."

So the two boys were hurried away to the courtyard of the castle, and there their heads were cut off.

This was afterwards called the Black Dinner. It was indeed a black dinner for the Douglases.

"Edinburgh castle, town and tower,

God grant you sink for sin;

And that even for the black dinner

Earl Douglas got therein."

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