Lord Francis Douglas

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Lord Francis Douglas

Lord Francis William Bouverie Douglas (8 February 1847 – 14 July 1865) was a novice British mountaineer. After sharing in the first ascent of the Matterhorn, he died in a fall on the way down from the summit.

Early life[edit]

Memorial to Lord Francis Douglas (top row) outside the Douglas Family Mausoleum, Cummertrees.

Born in Scotland at Cummertrees, Dumfries, Douglas was the son of Archibald William Douglas, 8th Marquess of Queensberry and his wife Caroline, daughter of General Sir William Robert Clayton, Bt. (1786–1866), member of parliament for Great Marlow. He had an older sister, Lady Gertrude Georgiana Douglas (1842–1893); an older brother, John Sholto Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig (1844–1900), later the ninth Marquess of Queensberry; a younger brother, Lord Archibald Edward Douglas (1850–1938), who became a clergyman; and a younger brother and sister, the twins Lord James Douglas (d. 1891) and Lady Florence Douglas (1855–1905), who married Sir Alexander Beaumont Churchill Dixie, 11th Baronet.[1][2] He was an uncle of Oscar Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas, and a younger brother of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry.

In 1858, Douglas's father, Lord Queensberry, died in what was reported as a shooting accident, but his death was widely believed to have been suicide.[2] In 1862, his mother, Lady Queensberry, converted to Roman Catholicism and took her children to live in Paris.[2]

Douglas was educated at the Edinburgh Academy.[3]

Triumph and death on the Matterhorn[edit]

The Matterhorn, 4,478 metres (14,692 ft)

At the beginning of 1865, the Matterhorn was still unconquered, and more than one assault on it was planned. One such group consisted of Douglas, Edward Whymper, and their guide Peter Taugwalder. Whymper had already made several unsuccessful attempts on the mountain. On 5 July, this group made the second ascent (and the first by the north-north-west ridge) of the Ober Gabelhorn, a peak of 4,053 metres on the north-west side of the Matterhorn;[3] also in July, Douglas made the first ascent of the nearby Unter Gabelhorn (3,391 m) with guides Peter Taugwalder and P. Inäbnit.[4]

Hearing of a planned assault on the main peak by an Italian party, Douglas and Whymper joined forces with two other British climbers, Charles Hudson and Douglas Robert Hadow, and their guide Michel Croz.[5]

At 4:30 a.m. on 13 July, a combined party of seven men, led by Whymper, set off for the Matterhorn under a clear sky: Whymper, Douglas, Hudson and Hadow, plus Taugwalder and son, and Croz. They climbed past the Schwarzsee to a plateau where they camped. Meanwhile, the Italians, led by Carrel, had camped at a height of about 4000 meters on the Lion Ridge.

On 14 July, Whymper's party proceeded to a successful first ascent by the Hörnli route. However, on the way down, Hadow fell, knocking down Croz, and also dragging Hudson and Douglas, connected by a rope. The four fell to their deaths on the Matterhorn Glacier 1,400 metres below. Three of the bodies lost were later found, but not Douglas's.[5]

The Matterhorn Disaster, depicted by Gustave Doré

Whymper later described the deaths as follows:[6]

The rival party of Italian alpinists reached the Matterhorn's summit three days later.


The deaths of Douglas, Croz, Hadow and Hudson led to years of recriminations and debate, many blaming Whymper, others suggesting sabotage and even murder. The coroner in Zermatt (a hotelier) asked few searching questions, and the climbing fraternity was deeply divided over the matter until long after the deaths of all concerned. The incident is seen as marking the end of the Golden age of alpinism.[7]

The Rev. Arthur G. Butler was inspired to defend the climbing of the Matterhorn in verse:[8]

Two years after Lord Francis Douglas's death, his brother the Marquess of Queensberry achieved fame as the man who gave his name to the Marquess of Queensberry rules of boxing. Thirty years on, as the father of Lord Alfred Douglas, he became the man who brought down Oscar Wilde. Their sister Lady Florence Dixie also came to public attention, as a traveller, war correspondent, writer and feminist. Their brother Lord James Douglas suffered for many years from depression and alcoholism, and in 1891 he killed himself by cutting his throat.[2]


Related images[edit]


  1. ^ G. E. Cokayne et al., eds., The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Extant, Extinct or Dormant, new edition, 13 volumes in 14 (1910–1959; new edition, 2000), volume X, page 694
  2. ^ a b c d Lady Florence Dixie at spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk (accessed 8 March 2008)
  3. ^ a b Lord Francis Douglas: First ascent of the Matterhorn online at edinburghacademy.org.uk (accessed 23 March 2008)
  4. ^ Robin G. Collomb, Pennine Alps Central, London: Alpine Club, 1975, p. 95.
  5. ^ a b The Matterhorn: Hörnligrat, the north-east ridge at powell-pressburger.org (accessed 23 March 2008)
  6. ^ The Lord Francis Douglas Tragedy by Edward Whymper online at oldandsold.com (accessed 24 March 2008)
  7. ^ Goodwin, Stephen, Matterhorn conqueror cleared over fatal falls in The Independent dated 31 August 1997, online at findarticles.com (accessed 24 March 2008)
  8. ^ Quoted in John Buchan's Lord Minto, a Memoir (1924) online at gutenberg.net.au (accessed 23 March 2008


  • Gos, Charles (1948). "The Matterhorn Catastrophe". Alpine Tragedy. Trans. Malcolm Barnes. New York City: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 24–34. 
  • Lyall, Alan (1997). The First Descent of the Matterhorn. Llandysul: Gomer Press. 
  • Whymper, Edward (1871). Scrambles Amongst the Alps. Illustrated by the author's engravings. London: John Murray.  Condensed as Ascent of the Matterhorn (1879).