The Real History of Game of Thrones: The Red Wedding

It is the most vile betrayal and saddest scene in Game of Thrones history. But the Red Wedding is based on some real-life depravity too...

As we approach its presumably bitter end, Game of Thrones has become infamous for deadly betrayals. Yet the scene that made viewers truly cringe in pain—or curl up in the fetal position as they rocked themselves to sleep, weeping—is not a single instance of treachery, but a battalion’s worth at the Red Wedding. Robb Stark, Catelyn Stark, Talisa Stark, a thousand more bannermen, and a sweet little five-foot tall man-eating wolf were all mercilessly slaughtered at a wedding feast hosted by alleged friends. Walder Frey went to the top of TV villains with an arrow, and some HBO viewers have been in therapy ever since.

However, it is not as if George R.R. Martin made up this event just to feed off our soul-dying tears (though he undoubtedly puts those in his morning coffee). No, the Red Wedding comes from two grisly events in medieval Scottish history.

The first ghastly influence occurred during 1440 in Edinburgh Castle. Throughout the Late Middle Ages, the Douglas Clan had grown to be the most powerful and affluent family in the Scottish lowlands. They were even viewed as the powerful arm behind the royal Stewart family. That was challenged when young family leader William Douglas, 6th Earl of Douglas, his young brother David, and an advisor were invited to the Royal Palace by Sir William Crichton and Sir Alexander Livingston for a dinner of reconciliation with the young Stewart King James II.

Legend has it that the feast went well, and the 10-year-old monarch took fondly to the Douglas brothers, all the way up until Crichton and Livingston had William presented with the head of a black bull, an ancient Scottish symbol for death. The Douglas boys were dragged kicking into the Edinburgh courtyard where they were both found guilty of treason and immediately beheaded. Their advisor followed four days later. Some argue that heroic, headless William’s uncle, James the Gross, was in on the slaughter as he was made 7th Earl of Douglas, even after his clan laid a failed siege on Edinburgh Castle.

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read more: The Real History of Game of Thrones – Tyrion Lannister

The second and more infamous slaughter of inspiration for Game of Thrones came in 1692 following the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary. This glorious rise of a Protestant prince did not please Catholic Scots loyal to an ousted Catholic, hence a failed Jacobite uprising of the previous several years. Among those rebelling were the Mclains of Glencoe (aka Clan MacDonald), as well as the Glengarry family.

Take this with a healthy grain of salt, but legend has it that during the warring, they stole the livestock and property of one Capt. Robert Campbell, who swore out appeals for compensation against the Glengarry men while excusing the Mclains of Glencoe for the injustice. Or so it seemed…

Either way, at the end of 1691, King William allowed a pardon to all Scottish clans for their failed uprising if they swore allegiance to his crown by New Year. Alasdair Maclain dithered until the last day when it became clear that Catholics would not return to power. In late December, he traveled to his English governor, Lt. Col. John Hill, to swear allegiance. But the governor sent him to Sir Colin Campbell who had either already left to celebrate the New Year with his family… or possibly chose to intentionally wait until after January to meet with the MacDonald man and take his oath. AT the very least, Sir Colin Campbell did take Alsadair’s oath on Jan. 6, 1692.

read more: The Real History of Game of Thrones – Daenerys Targaryen

The failure to meet the deadline was enough of a pretense for John Campbell, senior leader of the Campbell Clan, to pursue his revenge against perceived slights. Conspiring with his brother Archibald Campbell and the crown’s anti-clan secretary of state over Scotland, the three sent the aforementioned and allegedly aggrieved Capt. Robert Campbell to Glencoe to quarter his troops. For two weeks, the Campbell leader dined with MacDonalds and Maclains until Robert could institute his revenge, sanctioned by Lt. Col. Hill.

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There is even a letter from one Maj. Duncanson to Robert Campbell stating, “And put all to the sword under seventy.”

On the morning of Feb. 13, 1692, Capt. Campbell and his men massacred the families whose hospitality had sheltered them for 12 days, as was the tradition for quartering troops. Under orchestrated slaughter, 38 men were executed in their beds or as they attempted to flee the glen, and an additional 40 women and children died of exposure in the snow after their homes were torched.

Despite being sanctioned by the government, history tends to remember the event as the Campbellian mass slaughter of MacDonalds over a petty slight. To this day, Glencoe inns and pubs (if for only the tourists) bear signs that read, “NO CAMPBELLS ALLOWED.” I am sure the North will remember the Frey and Lannister hospitality for 300 years as well.

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This article was previously published on Aug. 28, 2017.

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David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.