John Sholto

John Sholto

John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry GCVO (20 July 184431 January 1900) was a Scottish nobleman, remembered for lending his name to the "Marquess of Queensberry rules" that formed the basis of modern boxing, and for his role in the downfall of author and playwright Oscar Wilde.


He was born in Florence in Italy, the eldest son of Archibald, Viscount Drumlanrig, eldest son of the 7th Marquess of Queensberry. He was briefly styled Viscount Drumlanrig following his father's succession in 1856, and on his father's death in 1858 he inherited the Marquessate of Queensberry. He is occasionally referred to as 8th rather than 9th Marquess, as the 3rd Marquess, a cannibalistic homicidal maniac, is sometimes erroneously omitted from the numbering. He was educated at the Royal Naval College, becoming a midshipman at the age of twelve and a lieutenant in the navy at age fifteen. In 1864 he entered Magdalene College, Cambridge, which he left two years later without taking a degree. He married Sibyl Montgomery in 1866. The couple had four sons and one daughter, and divorced in 1887. Queensberry married Ethel Weeden in 1893, but the marriage was annulled the following year.

Contributions to sports

Queensberry was a patron of sport and a noted boxing enthusiast. In 1866 he was one of the founders of the Amateur Athletic Club, now the Amateur Athletic Association of England, one of the first groups that did not require amateur athletes to belong to the upper-classes in order to compete. The following year the Club published a set of twelve rules for conducting boxing matches. The rules had been drawn up by John Graham Chambers but appeared under Queensberry's sponsorship and are universally known at the "Marquess of Queensberry rules". Queensberry, a keen rider, was also active in fox hunting and owned several successful race horses.

Political career

In 1872, Queensberry was chosen by the Peers of Scotland to sit in the House of Lords as a representative peer. He served as such until 1880, when he was again nominated but refused to take the religious oath of allegiance to the Sovereign. An outspoken atheist, he declared that he would not participate in any "Christian tomfoolery" and that his word should suffice. As a consequence neither he nor Charles Bradlaugh, who had also refused to take the oath after being elected to the House of Commons, were allowed to take their seats in Parliament. This prompted an apology from the new Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Bradlaugh was re-elected four times by the constituents of Northampton until he was finally allowed to take his seat in 1886, but Queensberry was never again sent to Parliament by the Scottish nobles.

In 1881, Queensberry accepted the presidency of the British Secular Union, a group that had broken away in 1877 from Bradlaugh's National Secular Society. That year he published a long philosophical poem, The Spirit of the Matterhorn, which he had written in Zermatt in 1873 in an attempt to articulate his humanistic views. In 1882, he was ejected from the theatre after loudly interrupting a performance of the play The Promise of May by Lord Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, because it included a villainous atheist in its cast of characters. Under the auspices of the British Secular Union, Queensberry wrote a pamphlet entitled The Religion of Secularism and the Perfectibility of Man. The Union, always small, ceased to function in 1884.

His divorces, atheism, and association with the boxing world made Queensberry an unpopular figure in London high society. In 1893 his eldest son, Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig, was created Baron Kelhead in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, thus giving the son an automatic seat in the House of Lords, from which the father was excluded. This caused a bitter dispute between Queensberry and his son, and also between Queensberry and Lord Rosebery, the patron who had promoted Lord Drumlanrig's ennoblement and who shortly thereafter became Prime Minister. Drumlanrig was reported to have been killed in a hunting accident in 1894, but his death may have been a suicide.

Queensberry sold the family seat of Kinmount in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, an action which further alienated him from his family.

Dispute with Oscar Wilde

In March 1895, Queensberry was sued for defamatory libel by Oscar Wilde, whom he had accused of "posing as a somdomite" (sic): Queensberry made the allegation because he was angered by Wilde's relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Soon after the trial opened, the libel case was withdrawn. Wilde was later convicted of gross indecency under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885.


Lord Queensberry died in London, aged 55, nearly a year before Oscar Wilde's death. Although he wrote a poem starting with the words "When I am dead cremate me," he was buried in Scotland.

An anecdote tells us that, eccentric to the last, Queensberry stipulated in his will that he was to be buried upright. The grave-diggers are rumoured to have buried him with his head down.



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