The Marquess of Queensberry: The Man Who Broke the Rules

WHAT’S in a name?

In the wake of Mike Tyson’s doomed venture into fine dining, a menu that famously featured Evander Holyfield’s right ear, he might well have defended his actions as being in the spirit of the Queensberry Rules, whereby random cannibalism is permissible, as exemplified by the third Marquis of that name. A long shot, maybe, but worth a try.

The Queensberry Rules are the foundation stone – the Twelve Commandments – of modern boxing, the code that separates it from the brutal and semi-legal world of the London Prize Ring, where bare fists were the weapons, the length of a round was dictated by a knockdown and a fight would only end when one or other of the combatants was physically unable to continue.

The rules that bear the name of the Marques might infer their creator was a man of temperance, legislative nous, a bringer of light into darkness, and this is correct to the extent that the noble Lord did not actually create them – he merely endorsed the work of the great Welsh sports guru John Graham Chambers, whose name has had to take a back seat in history whilst the Marquess still basks in the glory of Chambers’ work – one of the side benefits of being a member of the British aristocracy in years gone by.

So who was Queensberry? Lord John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry was an eccentric, a fanatical horseman, a steeple chaser who competed in a number of Grand Nationals and innumerable fox hunts, (breaking most of his­­­­ bones in the process) an amateur boxer, a belligerent atheist and part of the Victorian sporting scene where fast women and slow horses were the medium, and a man’s worth was judged on how much of his substance he was prepared to squander on a long shot. Queensberry’s own father, the 8th Marquess lost the bulk of the family fortune on a horse called Rambler – the name should have been a warning – and shot himself shortly thereafter, just one of many suicides in the Douglas family over the decades.

James, the Third Marques, as previously mentioned, trod over the borders of culinary etiquette when – so the legend goes – he escaped from his locked quarters to kill and spit roast an unnamed kitchen boy in 1703. That he was only ten at the time of this escapade throws some doubt on the narrative, but he was also alleged to possess unnatural strength and no sanity at all. He was returned to confinement by his family and was conveniently dead by the age of eighteen, establishing a sad pattern of mental instability in the Douglas line that persists to this day.

Queensberry, who succeeded to the title whilst still a 14-year-old Naval cadet, was a member of that section of the British aristocracy that was never seen at Court, but who possessed wealth, land, and the power that those two assets bring – the three cherries on the fruit machine of life. Where he differed from his peers was that whereas they generally hid their scandals and eccentricities from the inquisitive gaze of the public, he positively sought it. His life constituted a succession of battles, feuds, scandals and tragedies all pursued with brutal anger, rough words and blows – he was an aristocrat all right, but seldom a gentleman. Above all he was an attention seeker in the age of a growing press. It seems ironic but suiting that his memory is tied forever to that other great exhibitionist, Oscar Wilde, who declared, “If I cannot be famous, then I shall be notorious,” – and who succeeded in being both.

Having resigned his commission in the Royal Navy at the age of twenty, Queensberry spent two years at Cambridge University where he achieved little academic glory but enjoyed a full sporting life of cricket, athletics and, of course, boxing, becoming the university lightweight champion. It was here that he struck up a friendship with Chambers, the great legislator and organiser of sport in Victorian Britain, and in 1866 became a founding member of the Amateur Athletics Club (later to evolve into the Amateur Athletic Association). In the following year he lent his titled moniker to the revolutionary code that Chambers had drawn up, the principle points of which were the introduction of gloves, a set number of three minute rounds and the ten second knockdown rule. They also included the injunction that “you must not fight simply to win; no holds barred is not the way; you must win by the rules,” words that Queensberry might well have profited from had he applied them to his own life.

His marriage – he had sired four sons and a daughter in the space of seven years – fell apart in the face of his blatant womanising and his children grew up hating him. His loudly avowed atheism lost him his place in the House of Lords when he refused to take the oath of allegiance on the Bible, branding it as “Christian tomfoolery”. His vicious temper led him into brawls and appearances in the magistrate’s courts where nominal fines failed to curb his behaviour.

He warred publicly with his three eldest sons, any notion of discretion simply being missing from his DNA. When Francis, his eldest, was elected to the Lords under the patronage of the Earl of Rosebery his fury knew no bounds – the thought of his son taking a seat in the House from which he had excluded himself being more than he could bear. He smelt homosexual favouritism in his son’s advancement and that “snob queers like Rosebery” had corrupted his son. Two fragments of his correspondence in the course of this dispute give a flavour of the man: “Cher fat Boy,” he writes to Rosebery “I presume the savoury odour of your Jew money bags has too delicious a fragrance to allow me to expect any justice in high quarters,” and another to the Prime Minister was headed “copy of letter sent to the Christian whoremonger and hypocrite Gladstone.” It is scarcely any wonder that he found himself excluded from the society of his day. Francis died in a ‘shooting accident’ a year later – it was most likely suicide.

Alfred, Lord Douglas, his third son was at the centre of the most famous scandal of the day due to his homosexual affair with Oscar Wilde, then at the peak of his literary career with The Importance of Being Earnest running to packed houses in the West End. Queensberry, convinced (correctly in this case) of the nature of the relationship, pursued Wilde relentlessly, ultimately posting him the infamous note, “To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite (sic)” that provoked Wilde to sue him for slander. During the course of his ‘campaign’ Queensberry was approached in the street by his second son, Percy, who had taken Alfred’s side and attempted to intervene on his behalf. A fistfight ensued which drew an enthusiastic crowd before being broken up by the police. The brawl between the two aristocrats, father and son, was front page news, with illustrations to liven up the event, the age of paparazzi lying some fifty years in the future.

The trial, when it took place in April 1895, and its successor, brought by Queensbury, resulted in Wilde’s ruin, imprisonment and impoverished death in exile just five years later. Alfred, in the meantime lay low on the continent, his superior station in life protecting him from the legal consequences of what in those days was still a criminal offence.

The affair was a sensation and the victorious Queensberry the hero of the hour as the British public wallowed in the delights of a bit of queer bashing. In many quarters he was seen as the protective father saving his son from the corrupting influence of the older man. In fact his relationship with Alfred was one of mutual loathing, he just hated the effete, clever, witty, sophisticated Wilde even more – Oscar representing everything he was not.

Queensberry’s brief moment in the sunshine of public affection did not last long, however, as his negative characteristics once again came to the fore. There was a farcical marriage to a vicar’s daughter from Eastbourne that lasted no more than a year and was terminated by his inability to consummate the union. Proof of his impotence in the legal proceedings provided juicy reading for the same public that had once hailed him.

His physical and mental health began to decline rapidly, syphilis being an unconfirmed suspect. A stroke left him helpless and he died on the January 31, 1900. A visit from his son Percy ended when the stricken marquis spat in his face.

The Sporting Times gave Queensberry a wry valedictory notice, “It is not for us here to inquire into the workings of his peculiar mind. It had a craving for something; it knew not what.”

And there we might leave the tale of this abrasive, driven, unhappy man, but for the fact that his ghost is still with us, playing a supporting role in the cartoon series Mike Tyson Mysteries, a playful and fantastical spoof of Scooby Doo. Queensberry’s ghost is an effete toff, fluttering around as Tyson’s lifestyle coach, attempting to put a little polish on his charge’s behaviour. What the Marquess himself would make of this watery depiction we can only imagine!

* As a rider his first winner was in the Dumfriesshire Hunt Club chase in 1865, and his last was at Sandown Park in 1883.

Sir John Sholto Douglas Queensberry, 8th Marquis of Queensbury, 1844 – 1900 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


  1. To be a fair stand-up boxing match in a 24.4 metre ringor as near that size as practicable.
  2. No wrestling allowed.
  3. The rounds to be of three minutes’ duration, and one minute’s time between rounds.
  4. If either man falls through weakness or otherwise, he must get up unassisted, the boxer has 10 seconds to allow him to do so, the other man meanwhile to return to his corner, and when the fallen man is on his legs the round is to be resumed and continued until the three minutes have expired. If one man fails to come to the scratch in the 10 count allowed, it shall be in the power of the referee to give his award in favour of the other man.
  5. A man hanging on the ropes in a helpless state, with his toes off the ground, shall be considered down.
  6. No seconds or any other person to be allowed in the ring during the rounds.
  7. Should the contest be stopped by any unavoidable interference, the referee to name the time and place as soon as possible for finishing the contest; so that the match must be won and lost, unless the backers of both men agree to draw the stakes.
  8. The gloves to be fair-sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new.
  9. Should a glove burst, or come off, it must be replaced to the referee’s satisfaction.
  10. A man on one knee is considered down and if struck is entitled to the stakes.
  11. That no shoes or boots with spikes or sprigs (wire nails) be allowed.
  12. The contest in all other respects to be governed by revised London Prize Ring Rules.

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