As the prolific Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, stood in the dock, his eyes filled with tears. He felt the blood drain from his face as he heard the word “guilty” come out of the judge’s mouth. Sentenced to two year’s jail time with hard labour, he was prosecuted for the crime of sodomy (or in modern terms, male homosexuality). When the case began, Wilde felt sure he would emerge victorious. And yet, here he was, his reputation ruined and private life exposed for all to see.


Victorian society was shocked, but always keen for more salacious details on Wilde’s affairs with young men. At the time, homosexuality was widely known about, but almost universally condemned in Britain. Given the name of sodomy after the Biblical city, it repulsed most Victorians, so most gay men were forced to keep their identities secret. Wilde had often written about homosexual themes in his works, such as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, but had been careful to keep his personal inclinations towards same-sex relationships behind closed doors.

When he met Lord Alfred Douglas (a good-looking young man 16 years his junior) in 1891, Wilde was infatuated. He would wine and dine a willing Douglas, spending a lot of time with him and exchanging erotic letters. But Douglas would prove to be a bad influence on Wilde; he introduced him to the dark Victorian underworld of male prostitution. Taking advantage of Wilde’s infatuation, he frittered away much of the author’s earnings, and was largely indiscreet about his lavish, so-called ‘decadent’ lifestyle.

Wilde and Douglas in 1893 © Wikimedia Commons
Wilde and Douglas in 1893 © Wikimedia Commons

Unfortunately for Wilde, Douglas’ father was a powerful man – the Marquess of Queensberry. An unpopular Scottish peer known for his violent temper and brutish behaviour, he was a rampant homophobe. His family had already been embroiled in a scandal involving his eldest son’s rumoured homosexuality, who then allegedly killed himself for fear of being exposed. Unsurprisingly, Douglas did not share a loving relationship with his father, who one day claimed he regretted his son had ever been born.

Suspecting a sexual relationship between Wilde and his son, Queensberry threatened Douglas by saying he would “make a public scandal in a way you little dream of”, to which the defiant young man replied “what a funny little man you are”. Incensed, Queensberry flew into a rage, which would soon drag Douglas and Wilde into a storm of negative publicity and judgement.

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To invoke Wilde, Queensberry went to his favourite club, the Ablemarle in London. Finding Wilde absent, Queensberry left his calling card, furiously scrawling the words “for Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite” – a misspelled, but clearly intended, insult. Though the Irish celebrity had originally intended to stay out of his lover’s father-and-son feud, this was a step too far.

The Marquess of Queensbury's handwritten note © Wikimedia Commons
The Marquess of Queensbury's handwritten note © Wikimedia Commons

Against the advice of his friends, but encouraged by Douglas (who was eager to see his arrogant father behind bars), Wilde pursued a libel lawsuit. After all, leaving the aggressive card amounted to a serious public allegation, which Wilde assured his lawyer was untrue. Initially confident and brazen, the flamboyant author didn’t really take the case seriously, making witty remarks in the hope of getting the jury on side.

Queensberry’s legal team pursued a different strategy. The only way to defend against the charge of libel was to prove that the accusations were indeed true, and it was in the public interest to expose Wilde. By presenting him as a predatory older man obsessed with vulnerable young men, locking him away from society could be the only logical solution. They asked him about his relationships with men, but Wilde rebutted every allegation, saying that his appreciation of male beauty was not nearly equivalent to such a hated crime.

So it went on until Queensberry pulled out his trump card – a group of lower-class young men who were ready to testify against Wilde, claiming that he had previously paid them for sex. Seeing that this would collapse the case, Wilde’s friends advised him to drop the suit and head straight for more tolerant France. For some unknown reason, he refused, and a warrant was issued for his arrest.

Wilde in the Dock, from 'The Illustrated Police News', 4 May 1895 © Wikimedia Commons
Wilde in the Dock, from 'The Illustrated Police News', 4 May 1895 © Wikimedia Commons

Though his first trial for sodomy had been fairly inconclusive, he was later retried by a less lenient judge – who after delivering his verdict, claimed it was “the worst crime I have ever tried”. Wilde was totally despondent, his face greying, struggling to believe what he was hearing. Onlookers cried “shame, shame!” as he was led away.

Spending two years in prison took a massive toll on Wilde’s health. As well as suffering from depression, he sustained an injury to his eardrum, which would later contribute to his death. But the harsh realities of daily life in prison inspired one of his most sobering works – the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In it, he describes the harrowing experience of a fellow prisoner on death row, awaiting the date of his execution.

As soon as he was released in 1897, Wilde left for the Continent, never to return to the British Isles. He grew gradually weaker, until he died in 1900 at the age of 46 – leaving a legacy of brilliant work despite homophobic persecution in his wake.

This article first appeared in issue 41 of History Revealed. Buy your copy here or subscribe and save 33% on the newsstand price.