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Younghusband, Sir Francis Edwardlocked

  • David Matless

Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863–1942)

by Sir William Quiller Orchardson, 1906

Younghusband, Sir Francis Edward (1863–1942), explorer, geographer, and mystic, was born on 31 May 1863 at Murree, India, the fourth of the five children of Major (later Major-General) John William Younghusband and his wife, Clara Jane, daughter of Robert Grant Shaw; he had two brothers and two sisters. He was educated at Clifton College and at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and was commissioned in the 1st (King's) dragoon guards in 1882, then stationed at Meerut, India.

Younghusband made his name as an exploring soldier and imperialist. His was a classic British imperialism, not shy of exercising brute power, but more typically presenting itself as a paternalistic endeavour, helping ‘lower’ races while furthering Britain's cause against imperial rivals. The empire exemplified his principle of 'unity in difference', in which the ‘advanced’ races dictated terms for all. In 1886 he accompanied a seven-month expedition to Manchuria. In Peking (Beijing) in March 1887 he met his superior Colonel Mark Sever Bell, and the two men obtained leave to return to India by separate land routes. Younghusband, alone with hired guides, spent seven months crossing the Gobi Desert to Hami, and over the Himalaya via Kashgar and the Muztagh Pass to Kashmir. The crossing of this 19,000 foot pass was a rite of passage which heightened his sense of being a lone Englishman carrying 'England's mission' into new territory. In a letter of 1901 to his friend Henry Newbolt he would write: 'The Empire must grow: we can't help it' (French, 156). On returning to London in April 1888 Younghusband lectured to the Royal Geographical Society; he was elected their youngest fellow, and awarded the founder's medal in 1890. In 1889–91 he consolidated his role as a trekking arm of empire in the border zones of British India, Russia, China, and Afghanistan, and recorded these journeys in The Heart of a Continent (1896). In 1891 he was appointed CIE; in August 1892 he became political officer in Hunza; and in 1893–4 he was political agent in Chitral, overseeing British interests in the region. Replaced in 1894, he returned as the Times correspondent with the Chitral relief force in 1895. His long leave from 1895 to 1897 was spent as the Times correspondent in Rhodesia and Transvaal, recorded in South Africa of Today (1897). He later regretted his part in the Jameson raid on Johannesburg against the Boer government as a mercenary undertaking.

In August 1897 Younghusband married Helen Augusta, the eldest daughter of Charles Magniac MP, of Colworth, Bedfordshire; they had a son who died in infancy and a daughter, Eileen Louise Younghusband, born in 1902. Younghusband returned to India with his wife in November 1898. After a year in administration he became political agent at Deoli, and in 1900 was awarded the kaisar-i-Hind gold medal. In 1902 Curzon appointed him resident in Indore, and in 1903 leader of a mission to Tibet to establish British political and commercial interest, and to survey the region, a focus of Anglo-Russian rivalry. Younghusband entered Tibet in December 1903. With a mainly Indian fighting force, eventually exceeding 10,000, he advanced in stages towards Lhasa. A massacre of 700 Tibetans at Chumi Shengo in April 1904 caused disquiet in Britain. After further bloodshed he rode into Lhasa in August. Crowds clapped his entry; Younghusband took as a welcome what was a Tibetan gesture to ward off an evil spirit. The government considered he had exceeded his instructions by negotiating a treaty, signed on 7 September 1904 and regarded the treaty itself as damaging to Anglo-Russian relations. A renegotiated treaty, finally agreed in 1906, drastically reduced Britain's commitment to and power over the region. In Verrier's view (1991) Younghusband was politically naïve, pursuing a chivalrous quest rather than a strategic mission, and exceeded his brief even by advancing to Lhasa. French (1994) presents the Tibet mission as the embodiment of empire at its overstretched zenith. Younghusband was in effect reprimanded in 1904 by the award of the low honour of knight commander of the Indian Empire. He recounted the mission in India and Tibet (1910). He was made knight commander of the Star of India in 1917.

In 1905 Younghusband received honorary degrees from Cambridge (DSc) and Edinburgh (LLD). In 1906 he returned to central Asia as resident in Kashmir, retiring to England in 1910, where he joined the Conservative general election campaign. He reflected on his imperial career in The Light of Experience (1927), and the autobiographical romance But in our Lives (1926). In 1912 he received an honorary LLD from Bristol University. In the First World War, after an unsuccessful attempt to set up a travellers' battalion, he prepared daily news telegrams for the India Office, and in 1916 founded the Fight for Right society, for whom Sir Hubert Parry set Blake's 'Jerusalem' as a rallying hymn in their campaign for the continuation of the war. Younghusband's interest in central Asia and India remained. He was a founder and later vice-president (1934–42) of the Royal Central Asian Society, and chairman of the India Society for eighteen years. He modified his bullish imperialism, however, and, after the publication in 1930 of Dawn in India, became known as a progressive advocate of a managed shift towards Indian self-government.

From 1910 religion and philosophy played an increasing role in Younghusband's public life. His first predominantly spiritual text, Within (1912), was a vitalist mix of science and spirit written in convalescence after being hit by a car in Belgium. Mutual Influence followed in 1915. He drew inspiration from Eastern religions as well as Christianity, especially in his linkage of mysticism and sex. Younghusband's imperialism sought a mutual exchange of Western ‘civilization’ and Eastern spirituality. His was a philosophically speculative religion, and he was a member of the Aristotelian Society from 1910, and president in 1924–7 of the Patrick Geddes-inspired Sociological Society. His presidential address on 'The sense of society' appeared in the Sociological Review (17.1–13) for 1925. He was vice-chairman of the religion and ethics branch of the League of Nations Union, League of Nations' representative at the Parliament of Religions in Calcutta in 1937, and chairman of the Society for the Study of Religions. In 1930, inspired by seeing the Oberammergau passion play, he became chairman of the interdenominational Religious Drama Society, founded by Olive Stevenson. The society sponsored conferences, drama schools, and touring productions. Younghusband remained chairman until death; in 1930 he published a play, The Reign of God. The Religious Drama Society was anticipated by the Sacred Drama Society of his bizarre utopian religious fantasy, The Coming Country (1928), which is peopled by characters such as Percy Veerance and Golden Promyss. In 1936 Younghusband founded the World Congress of Faiths to bring together the chief world religions in a communion for peace. He presided at meetings and wrote circulars to members until his death. For Younghusband the divide was less between Christian and heathen, than between religious and faithless; the villains in The Coming Country are rationalism, secularism, and materialism.

A sense of religion as universal lay at the heart of Younghusband's mysticism. A member of the Church of England, he had worshipped with other Christian denominations, and engaged with other faiths on his travels. He sought a direct mystical encounter with a divine and feminized nature, and often recounted a formative moment outside Lhasa in 1904 when he felt himself 'boiling over with love for the whole world' (French, 252). He outlined his nature-mysticism in his 1920 presidential address to the Royal Geographical Society on ‘Natural beauty and geographical science’, GJ, 1920, 56.1–13, and in The Heart of Nature (1921), Mother World (1924), The Living Universe (1933), Modern Mystics (1935), and Vital Religion (1940). His outdoor mysticism demanded action as much as introspection, and sought the mystical through the visible world in a way both metaphorically and literally visionary. The Coming Country proposed a 'new faculty' of 'endsight': 'a kind of spiritual television' (p. 9). His mysticism, linking science and spirit, was presented not as misty unreason but as the clearest insight into the material world, serving evolution by anticipating future higher states. Evolution advanced through disciplined joy, a progressive ecstasy achieved by mystics alone, and by others in sexual union within marriage. Wedding (1942), written with his mistress, Madeline Lees, with whom he harboured thoughts of siring a new God-child, offered a guide to such married love.

Younghusband's spiritual journeys were conducted in the language of Himalayan exploring; he could describe an intensive reading course in philosophy as 'bracing' (Seaver, 277). This practical mysticism was reflected in his presidency from 1934 of Richard St Barbe Baker's practical and spiritual forestry group, the Men of the Trees. The mystic could offer socio-spiritual unity and leadership. The Heart of Nature foresees a 'naturalist-artist' who might lead human evolution from Homo sapiens to Homo mysticus. Modern Mystics presents exemplary Hindu, Muslim, Roman Catholic, and protestant mystics, male and female, recalls his enthusiasm in 1905 for the 'mass mysticism' of the Welsh revival, and looks for a future 'master mystic'. The espousal of joy, struggle, and the evolutionary leaving-behind of 'sluggards' (p. 279) prompts an admiring reference to Mussolini.

Younghusband's mysticism did not shy from speculation. Life in the Stars (1927) is subtitled: 'An exposition of the view that on some planets of some stars exist beings higher than ourselves, and on one a world-leader, the supreme embodiment of the eternal spirit which animates the whole'. The Living Universe posits a planet, Altair, on which live higher beings, who embody his ideal characteristics of family, team spirit, leadership, ecstasy, struggle. His astro-theology fits a general pattern of ascendancy in his thought. Star-gazing prompts many a spiritual reflection and advance is typically ascent. The mountains of central Asia, recalled in Wonders of the Himalaya (1924), were the key landscape of his life. Immanent and transcendent, the 'holy Himalaya' envelop and rise above, a mystical immensity landscaped in his image of God.

Younghusband promoted British expeditions to Everest, chairing the Mount Everest committee formed by the RGS, of which he was president in 1919–22, and the Alpine Club. Mountaineering exercised mind, body, and spirit, and through it a rising British masculinity might scale for empire and humankind the heights of nature. A founder member of the Himalayan Club in 1928, he recalled Everest attempts in The Epic of Mount Everest (1926), and Everest: the Challenge (1936). Had Everest been conquered in his lifetime, there would have been a hole in his philosophy: ascendancy depended on there being something left to scale.

Younghusband retained a late-Victorian masculine sense of himself and others. Shorter than the 5 feet 5 inches he claimed, he sported a prominent moustache throughout adult life. His biographers present a determined individual committed to the camaraderie of the couple, family, troop, nation, empire, and world—yet who found it hard to get close to others. His ideal leaders and heroes resolve the tensions between individualism and collective organization in the regiment, exploring party, and climbing team. In his Everest writings physical heroism is projected onto others; elsewhere he himself is the hero in his own landscape, with action and environment feeding off one another. Younghusband remained loyal to his ideal of England/Britain (the two were symbolically equivalent for him) throughout his life. In the Second World War he fire-watched in London, and melted his medals down for the war effort. French suggests that Younghusband's intense care for humanity as a whole coincided with an ironic neglect of individuals close to him, notably his wife and his sister Emmie. His marriage lacked emotional depth: Helen Younghusband led a quiet and melancholy home life (from 1921 to 1937 at Westerham, Kent), while her husband ranged around the country and the globe. In 1939 he met Madeline Lees, thirty-two years his junior and mother of seven children, with whom he conducted a passionately mystical affair until his death.

Younghusband was erroneously reported dead by The Times in 1891. On 20 July 1942, after addressing the World Congress of Faiths in Birmingham, he was taken ill and suffered a stroke a few days later. He died of cardiac failure at Madeline Lees's home at Post Green, Lytchett Minster, near Poole, Dorset, on 31 July 1942, and was buried in the village churchyard. Since his death Younghusband has attracted sporadic attention. Early works, notably Seaver's 1952 biography, are informative but hagiographic. Later work is more critical: military historians such as Verrier (1991) have presented the Tibet mission in less flattering light. French's 1994 account shows Younghusband less as a hero than as a fascinating embodiment of the contradictions and eccentricities of the imperial age. Matless (1991) and Bishop (1989), drawing on Younghusband's mystical environmental writings, similarly stress complex contradiction rather than straightforward heroism, seeing mysticism, exploration, and imperialism as connected spheres.


  • P. French, Younghusband: the last great imperial adventurer (1994)
  • G. Seaver, Francis Younghusband: explorer and mystic (1952)
  • D. Matless, ‘Nature, the modern and the mystic: tales from early twentieth century geography’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, new ser., 16 (1991), 272–86
  • P. Bishop, The myth of Shangri-La: Tibet, travel writing, and the Western creation of sacred landscape (1989)
  • A. Verrier, Francis Younghusband and the great game (1991)
  • d. cert.


  • BL
  • BL OIOC, corresp. and papers, MS Eur. F 197
  • NRA, corresp. and literary papers
  • RGS, journals and letters
  • BL OIOC, corresp. with F. M. Bailey, MS Eur. F 157
  • BL OIOC, letters to Sir James Dunlop Smith
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Gilbert Murray
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Horace Rumbold
  • CUL, letters to Sir Martin Conway
  • CUL, corresp. with Lord Hardinge
  • JRL, letters to the Manchester Guardian
  • RGS, Asia travel journal
  • RGS, letters to RGS


  • W. Q. Orchardson, oils, 1906, NPG [see illus.]
  • J. E. Hyett, bronze bust, 1917, RGS
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1929, NPG
  • H. Speed, oils, 1937, World Congress of Faiths, London
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)