Sue Young Histories

Alfred Bruce Douglas 1870 – 1945

January 26, 2009

Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas 1870 –  1945 was an English author, poet and translator, better known as the intimate friend and lover of the writer Oscar Wilde.

Alfred Bruce Douglas was a patient of homeopath John Moorhead Byres Moir. In a libel action against Associated Newspapers, John Moorhead Byres Moir testified that he had never seen any evidence of ‘degeneracy or immorality’ in Lord Douglas.

Alfred Bruce Douglas was a friend of George Bernard Shaw and Marie Stopes.

The third son of the 9th Marquess of Queensberry and his first wife, the former Sibyl Montgomery, Douglas was born at Ham Hill House in Worcestershire. He was his mother’s favourite child; she called him Bosie (a derivative of Boysie), a nickname which stuck for the rest of his life.

Douglas was educated at Winchester College (1884–88) and at Magdalen College, Oxford (1889–93), which he left without obtaining a degree.

At Oxford, Douglas edited an undergraduate journal The Spirit Lamp (1892-3), an activity that intensified the ongoing conflict between him and his father. Their relationship had always been a strained one and during the Queensberry Wilde feud, Douglas sided with Oscar Wilde, even encouraging him to prosecute his own father for libel.

In 1893, Douglas had a brief affair with George Ives.

In 1860, Douglas’s grandfather, the 8th Marquess of Queensberry, had died in what was reported as a shooting accident, but his death was widely believed to have been suicide.

In 1862, his widowed grandmother, Lady Queensberry, converted to Roman Catholicism and took her children to live in Paris.

Apart from the violent death of his grandfather, there were other tragedies in Douglas’s family. One of his uncles, Lord James Douglas, was deeply attached to his twin sister ’Florrie’ and was heartbroken when she married.

In 1885, he tried to abduct a young girl, and after that became ever more manic. In 1888, Lord James married, but this proved disastrous. Separated from Florrie, James drank himself into a deep depression, and in 1891 committed suicide by cutting his throat.

Another of his uncles, Lord Francis Douglas had died in a climbing accident on the Matterhorn, while his uncle Lord Archibald Edward Douglas (1850–1938) became a clergyman. (Douglas’s only child was in turn to go mad, and died in a mental hospital.)

Alfred Douglas’s aunt, Lord James’s twin Lady Florence Douglas, was an author, war correspondent for the Morning Post during the First Boer War, and a feminist. In 1890, she published a novel, Gloriana, or the Revolution of 1900, in which women’s suffrage is achieved after a woman posing as a man named Hector l’Estrange is elected to the House of Commons. The character l’Estrange is clearly based on Oscar Wilde.

In 1891, Douglas met Oscar Wilde and, although the playwright was married with two sons, they soon began an affair. After Oscar Wilde’s death Douglas declared that they never committed sodomy, but the evidence shows otherwise.

Douglas consented to be the lover of the older man, and shared his interest in younger partners. Of the two, Douglas was known for preferring schoolboys, while Oscar Wilde liked older teenagers and young men.

In 1894, the Robert Hichens novel The Green Carnation was published. Said to be a roman a clef based on the relationship of Oscar Wilde and Douglas, it would be one of the texts used against Oscar Wilde during his trials in 1895.

It was a tempestuous relationship. Douglas, known to his friends as ‘Bosie’, has been described as spoiled, reckless, insolent and extravagant. He would spend money on boys and gambling and expected Oscar Wilde to contribute to his tastes. They often argued and broke up, but would also always reconcile.

Once, while staying together in Brighton, Douglas fell ill with influenza and was nursed back to health by Oscar Wilde, but failed to return the favour when Oscar Wilde fell ill as well. Instead Douglas moved to the Grand Hotel and, on Oscar Wilde’s 40th birthday, sent him a letter saying that he had charged him the bill.

Douglas also gave his old clothes to male prostitutes, but failed to remove incriminating letters exchanged between him and Oscar Wilde which were then used for blackmail.

Alfred’s fearsome father, the Marquess of Queensberry, quickly suspected the liaison to be more than a friendship. He sent his son a letter, attacking him for leaving Oxford without a degree and failing to take up a proper career, such as a civil servant or lawyer. He threatened to “disown [Alfred] and stop all money supplies”. Alfred responded with a telegram stating: “What a funny little man you are”.

Queensberry was infuriated by this attitude and in his next letter threatened his son with a “thrashing” and accused him of being “crazy”. He also threatened to “make a public scandal in a way you little dream of” if he continued his relationship with Oscar Wilde.

There was little love lost between father and son. Queensberry was well known for his temper and threatening to beat people with a horsewhip. Alfred sent his father a postcard stating “I detest you” and making it clear that he would take Oscar Wilde’s side in a fight between him and the Marquess, “with a loaded revolver”.

In answer Queensberry wrote to Alfred (whom he addressed as “You miserable creature”) that he had divorced Alfred’s mother in order not to “run the risk of bringing more creatures into the world like yourself” and that, when Alfred was a baby, “I cried over you the bitterest tears a men ever shed, that I had brought such a creature into the world, and unwittingly committed such a crime… You must be demented”.

When Douglas’ eldest brother, Lord Drumlanrig, heir to the Marquessate of Queensberry, died in a suspicious hunting accident in October 1894, rumours circulated that Drumlanrig had been having a homosexual relationship with the Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery.

The elder Queensberry thus embarked on a campaign to save (as he saw it) his other son, and began a public persecution of Oscar Wilde. He and a minder confronted the playwright in his own home; later, Queensberry planned to throw rotten vegetables at Oscar Wilde during the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, but, forewarned of this, the playwright was able to deny him access to the theatre.

Queensberry then publicly insulted Oscar Wilde by leaving, at the latter’s club, a calling card on which he had written: “For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite” (a misspelling of sodomite).

In response to this card, and with Douglas’s avid support, but against the advice of friends such as Robert Ross, Frank Harris, and George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel. The case went badly, since Queensberry had hired private detectives to document Oscar Wilde’s and Douglas’s homosexual contacts. Several male prostitutes were enlisted by the defence to give evidence against Oscar Wilde and, on advice from his lawyer, he dropped the suit.

However, based on evidence raised during the case, Oscar Wilde was charged with committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons, a charge which covered all homosexual acts, public or private. Douglas’s 1892 poem “Two Loves”, which was used against Oscar Wilde at the latter’s trial, ends with the famous line that refers to homosexuality as the love that dare not speak its name.

In 1895, when during his trials Oscar Wilde was released on bail, Douglas’s cousin Sholto Johnstone Douglas stood surety for £500 of the bail money.

After a retrial (the jury in his first trial having been unable to reach a verdict), Oscar Wilde was convicted on 25 May 1895 and sentenced to two years’ hard labour, famously in Reading Gaol. Douglas was forced into exile in Europe.

While in prison Oscar Wilde sent Douglas a very long and critical letter entitled De Profundis, describing exactly what he felt about him.

Following Oscar Wilde’s release (19 May 1897), the two reunited in August at Rouen, but stayed together only a few months owing to personal differences and the various pressures on them.

This meeting was disapproved of by the friends and families of both men. During the later part of 1897, Oscar Wilde and Douglas lived together near Naples, but for financial and other reasons, they separated. Oscar Wilde lived the remainder of his life primarily in Paris, and Douglas returned to England in late 1898.

The period when the two men lived in Naples would later become quite controversial. Oscar Wilde claimed that Douglas had offered a home, but had no funds or ideas. When Douglas eventually did gain funds from his late father’s estate, he refused to grant Oscar Wilde a permanent allowance, although he did give him occasional handouts.

When Oscar Wilde died in 1900, he was relatively impoverished. Douglas served as chief mourner, although there reportedly was an altercation at the gravesite between him and Robert Ross. This struggle would preview the later litigations between the two former lovers of Oscar Wilde.

After Oscar Wilde’s death, Douglas established a close friendship with Olive Eleanor Custance, an heiress and poet. They married on 4 March 1902 and had one son, Raymond Wilfred Sholto Douglas 1902 - 1964.

In 1911 Douglas embraced Catholicism.

More than a decade after Oscar Wilde’s death, with the release of suppressed portions of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis letter in 1912, Douglas turned against his former friend, whose homosexuality he grew to condemn.

He was a defence witness in the libel case brought by Maud Allan against Noel Pemberton Billing in 1918. Billing had accused Maud Allan, who was performing Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, of being part of a homosexual conspiracy to undermine the war effort.

Douglas also contributed to Billing’s journal Vigilante as part of his campaign against Robert Ross. He had written a poem referring to Margot Asquith “bound with Lesbian fillets” while her husband Herbert, the Prime Minister, gave money to Robert Ross.

During the trial he described Oscar Wilde as “the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years”. Douglas added that he intensely regretted having met Oscar Wilde, and having helped him with the translation of Salomé, which he described as “a most pernicious and abominable piece of work”.

Douglas started his “litigious and libellous career” by obtaining an apology and fifty guineas each from the Oxford and Cambridge magazines The Isis and Cambridge for defamatory references to him in an article on Oscar Wilde.

He was a plaintiff and defendant in several trials for civil or criminal libel. In 1913 he accused Arthur Ransome of libeling him in his book Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study. He saw this trial as a weapon against his enemy Robert Ross, not understanding that Robert Ross would not be called to give evidence in the trial.

Similarly he did not appreciate that when he urged Oscar Wilde to sue his father that his father’s character was not relevant to the case. The court found in Arthur Ransome’s favour.

In the most noted case, brought by Winston Churchill in 1923, Douglas was found guilty of libeling Winston Churchill and was sentenced to six months in prison. Douglas had claimed that Winston Churchill had been part of a Jewish conspiracy to kill Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War.

Kitchener had died on June 5, 1916, while on a diplomatic mission to Russia: the ship in which he was traveling, the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire, struck a German naval mine and sank west of the Orkney Islands. Despite this conflict, in 1941 he wrote a sonnet in praise of Winston Churchill.

In 1924, while in prison, Douglas, in an ironic echo of Oscar Wilde’s composition of De Profundis (Latin for “From the Depths”) during his incarceration, wrote his last major poetic work, In Excelsis (literally, “in the highest”), which contains 17 cantos. Since the prison authorities would not allow Douglas to take the manuscript with him when he was released, he had to rewrite the entire work from memory.

Douglas maintained that his health never recovered from his harsh prison ordeal, which included sleeping on a plank bed without a mattress.

Following his own incarceration in prison in 1924, Douglas’ feelings toward Oscar Wilde began to soften considerably. He said in Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up that “Sometimes a sin is also a crime (for example, a murder or theft) but this is not the case with homosexuality, any more than with adultery”.

Throughout the 1930s and until his death, Douglas maintained correspondences with many people, including Marie Stopes and George Bernard Shaw. Anthony Wynn wrote the play Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship based on the letters between Shaw and Douglas.

One of Douglas’s final public appearances was his well received lecture to the Royal Society of Literature on 2 September 1943, entitled The Principles of Poetry, which was published in an edition of 1,000 copies. He attacked the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and the talk was praised by Arthur Quiller Couch and Augustus John.

Douglas’s only child, Raymond, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 1927 and entered St. Andrews Hospital, a mental institution. He was decertified and released after five years, but suffered a subsequent breakdown and returned to the hospital. In February 1944, when Olive Douglas died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 67, Raymond was able to attend his mother’s funeral, and in June he was again decertified and released.

However, his conduct rapidly deteriorated and he returned to St. Andrews in November where he stayed until his death on 10 October 1964.

Douglas died of congestive heart failure at Lancing in West Sussex on 20 March 1945 at the age of 74. He was buried at the Franciscan Monastery, Crawley, West Sussex on 23 March where he is interred alongside his mother, Sibyl, Marchioness of Queensberry, who died October 31, 1935 at the age of 91.

A single gravestone covers them both.

Douglas published several volumes of poetry; two books about his relationship with Oscar WildeOscar Wilde and Myself (1914; largely ghostwritten by T.W.H. Crosland, the assistant editor of The Academy and later repudiated by Douglas), Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up (1940); and a memoir, The Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas (1931).

Douglas translated *The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in 1919, one of the first English language translations of the infamous anti Semitic tract.

He also was the editor of a literary journal, The Academy, from 1907 to 1910, and during this time he had an affair with artist Romaine Brooks, who was also bisexual. (The main love of her life, Natalie Clifford Barney, also had an affair with Oscar Wilde’s niece Dorothy.)

Of interest:

Robert Graves stepbrother Philip Perceval Graves 1876 – 1953 was a British journalist and writer. While working as a foreign correspondent of The Times in Constantinople, he exposed *The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as an antisemitic plagiarism, fraud, and Hoax.


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