Running Wilde: Are the Queensberry aristocrats really cursed?
The untimely death of Lady Beth Douglas is the latest in the 'dark history' of the dynasty
Lady Beth Douglas was just 18 when she died. The youngest daughter of the Marquess of Queensberry, she was a talented violinist and was said to have excelled academically. However, following a two-day drug and alcohol binge in March, the young woman was found unconscious at a house party in London’s Notting Hill with needle marks in her arm.
An inquest last week recorded the cause of her untimely death as cardiac respiratory failure and cocaine and heroin poisoning. If it sounds like a tragic and bewildering end to a life that had once seemed so full of promise, it is unfortunately a well-trodden path in her family.
So many are the various terrible events to have robbed this aristocratic dynasty of its members, their tragedies have been ascribed to a “Queensberry curse”. It was Oscar Wilde who called them “the mad, bad line”, his own fortunes and reputation winding up in their hands when his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (nicknamed Bosie) and the quarrel that it caused with Lord Alfred’s father, led to his infamous jailing.
The man who accused Wilde of sodomy was the ninth Marquess of Queensberry. Lady’s Beth’s father, David Douglas, is the 12th. He has had to face the devastating loss of two of his eight children, his son Lord Milo Douglas having taken his life in 2009 at the age of 34. Lord Milo had suffered from bipolar disorder. His half-sister, Lady Beth, had a history of drug abuse and self-harm and was being treated for a range of mental health problems. At the age of 17 she’d been committed for six months.
If the family is “cursed”, certain of its members seem to be as aware of this as anyone. Lord Gawain Douglas, great-nephew of Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote in 2000 of “the dark history of the Douglas line”. “Barbarity,” as he put it, “runs thick in the Douglas blood.”
But barbarity alone does not come close to explaining the catalogue of harrowing incidents that have befallen so many of his clansmen. Their misadventures go back a long way, to the 13th-century Scotland of one Sir William Douglas, who died a prisoner in the Tower of London after joining William Wallace in his revolt against English rule.
According to the Douglas Archives, a collection of historical and genealogical records, he was executed. In his book Robert the Bruce: King of Scots, Ronald McNair Scott wrote of him: “Crusader, warrior, egoist, he had gone his own way throughout life with very little regard for anyone else.”
Sir William’s son, Sir James Douglas, fared little better: he was killed while taking the heart of Robert the Bruce on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1330.
In 1358, the family were created earls. The second earl was killed at the Battle of Otterburn in 1388. The fourth earl, also a warrior, was killed in 1424. Descending from such battle-hardened fighters, perhaps the family couldn’t be expected to settle into something like quiet normality. At least, not all of them.
James, Earl of Drumlanrig (later the third marquess) was nicknamed “the cannibalistic idiot”. He was “recognised as unhinged from an early age” and was kept locked away, writes Christopher Winn in I Never Knew That About the Scottish. In 1707, at the age of 10, he escaped from his cell into the kitchens of Holyrood Palace, where he is said to have grabbed a young kitchen boy, killed him and roasted him on a spit. James died at the age of 17.
“There could be a predisposition for human flesh in our family,” Lord Gawain was to muse, centuries later. Lady Gawain, his wife, says today: “There’s been talk about a curse but I don’t think it particularly dwells on his mind. He’s enormously proud of his family.”
As well he might be, for their stories are colourful and their mark on British history more vivid than many.
Nevertheless, the 19th century brought its own share of untimely deaths in the family. In 1858, the eighth marquess fatally shot himself while out hunting rabbits. It is not known for certain whether his demise was accidental. Two of his sons suffered equally troubling deaths. His second son, Lord Francis, died in 1865 while climbing the Matterhorn in the Alps. He, like Lady Beth, was just 18 years old. His body, however, was never found.
In 1891, his third son, Lord James Edward Sholto Douglas, cut his own throat in a London hotel. His death came a month after he had been summoned to appear in court charged with defacing his census return. He had described his wife as a “lunatic” on it.
But Douglas women deserve some credit, suggests Linda Stratmann, author of The Marquess of Queensberry, a biography of Bosie’s father. “When you look at Queensberry, it was obvious his mother [Caroline Douglas] was an absolutely dynamic woman,” she says. “She was a force of nature: powerful, strong and very assertive.”
She describes them as a “very intelligent people”, adding that “it’s been a family of most appalling misfortunes”.
So is this centuries-long run of affliction merely a series of unfortunate coincidences?
“They were very adventurous,” says Stratmann. “Among the modern Queensberrys a lot of sporting stuff goes on. But there’s also, I think, a volatile temperament among some, but not all, of them.”
There were also more accidents than one might reasonably expect. In 1894, Queensberry lost his eldest son Francis in a shooting incident. An inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death, but a homosexual affair with the Liberal prime minister, the fifth Earl of Rosebery, was rumoured and suicide speculated.
Another of Queensberry’s sons, Sholto, was temporarily detained in California for alleged insanity. Bosie married in 1902. His only son, Raymond, has been characterised as “deranged” and “insane”.
As for the more recent members of the clan, their fortunes have been mixed. Lady Alice Douglas, an older half-sister of Lady Beth, caused shock in society circles by marrying an armed robber she met while volunteering in a prison. Simon Melia, a drug addict, ran off with the family au pair, and the couple split up in 2003.
Hugo Vickers, a biographer and historian, knew Lord Cecil Douglas, second son of the 10th Marquess of Queensberry, before he took his life at the age of 82 in the mistaken belief he had cancer. He describes Lord Cecil as convivial and worldly. “I was rather fascinated to meet him,” he recalls. “I’m not terribly into curses but somehow people get programmed.”
Programmed or not, there do appear to be traits that run through this family. “They’re famously adventurous,” says Lady Gawain. “Always ready to push themselves to the limit. And they’re generally a very capable lot. Unusually talented.”
And, it seems, singularly tragic too.
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