Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alexander, William (1567?-1640)

ALEXANDER, Sir WILLIAM, Earl of Stirling (1567?–1640), was a poet and statesman. If, in connection with this name, the reader be covetous of an example of those ‘endless genealogies’ against which even an apostle warned, let him secure ‘Memorials of the Earl of Stirling and of the House of Alexander, by the Rev. Charles Rogers, LL.D.’ 2 vols. 8vo 1877). Solid (documentary) fact seems first to be reached in the three sons of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, to wit, Donald, Ronald, and Angus. We have to do only with the last. His grandson John (also called Lord of the Isles) married, as a second wife, Margaret, daughter of King Robert II (of Scotland), and his third son by this marriage, Alexander, lord of Lochaber, had two sons, Angus and Alister (or Alexander). The latter founded the house of MacAlexander (sometimes written M'Alexander and MacAlister), and on removing from the West assumed the more euphonious name of Alexander. In a legal instrument (among the ‘Argyle Family Papers’), dated 6 March 1505, Thomas Alexander de Menstray is associated with certain others in an arbitration connected with the division of lands in Clackmannanshire, about which a dispute had arisen between the abbot of Cambuskenneth and Sir David Bruce of Clackmannan (Chartulary of Cambuskenneth Abbey, p, 86). The lands of Menstray or Menstry had been assigned to the before-named Alexander by relatives of the Argyle family. Well-nigh innumerable manuscripts verify and confirm the original grant.

Passing over all others, it is now to be stated that William was son of Alexander Alexander—son of William Alexander—of Menstrie, and of Marion, daughter of an Allan Couttie. The marriage of his parents was ‘about 1566 or 1567,’ and as he was the first child (and only son: two daughters later, Janet and Christian), the probabilities are that he was born in 1567, or not later than 1568. The birth-year has been (traditionally) accepted as 1580 because of the inscription around Marshall's engraved portrait of him, ‘ætatis suæ 57,’ which occurs occasionally in copies of his ‘Recreations with the Muses’ of 1637. But the portrait was not prepared for the ‘Recreations,’ and is undated. Besides, Alexander must have been some few years at least older than the Earl of Argyle, to whom we shall see he was tutor, and who was born before 1571. (See Dr. Rogers's Memorials, as before.) Unfortunately the parish registers of Logie have long since disappeared, i.e. of the period. The manor house of Menstrie still survives. It is pleasantly nestled on the confines of the two parishes of Logie and Alloa; later it was the birthplace also of Sir Ralph Abercromby (1734).

His father died on 10 Feb. 1580–1, and he was left in charge of a paternal grand-uncle, James Alexander, ‘burgess of Stirling,’ who was by the father nominated in his will as ‘tutor to his bairnes.’ As this tutor was resident at Stirling, it may safely be assumed that William received his early education at the grammar school of that town. The rector of this school was then Thomas Buchanan, nephew of the more celebrated George Buchanan. From the Hawthornden MSS. it appears that he attended the universities of Glasgow and of Leyden. But the earliest authentically definite information concerning him is that, having gained repute as a scholar, he was selected as travelling companion to Archibald, seventh earl of Argyle, with whom he proceeded to France, Spain, and Italy (Fraser's Argyle Papers, 1834), i.e. the usual tour as set forth later by James Howell in his ‘Instructions for Foreine Travell’ (1642). This pleasant relationship of the humbler scion with the nobler head of the house in all likelihood led to those increased grants by the Argyles which considerably widened ‘the lands of Menstry’ ultimately. The Argyles had a family residence in neighbouring Castle Campbell.

On returning from abroad, the tutor was introduced by the Earl of Argyle to court, and he was appointed tutor to young Prince Henry, son of James VI, at Holyrood. ‘The most learned fool in Europe’ had shrewd if narrow insight into character and capacity and scholarship. He must have been specially pleased by Alexander, who to the latest had no common influence with him.

When James VI of Scotland, in 1603, succeeded Elizabeth, Alexander, though he did not accompany him at the outset, formed one of the invading host of Scots. He was speedily enrolled as one of thirty-two gentlemen-extraordinary of Prince Henry's private chamber (Birch's Life of Henry Prince of Wales, p. 347).

The after-title of his volume, ‘Recreations with the Muses,’ doubtless was meant to intimate that the poet had filled up the intervals of ‘tutoring’ on the continent and of courtly attendance and duty with his poetical studies. His love-sonnets of ‘Avrora’ have been assigned to his ‘travel’ years with Argyle (Works, Introductory Memoir, i. x). He was known as a poet before, and just before, he crossed the border, by his first published poem, ‘The Tragedie of Darius. By William Alexander, of Menstrie. Edinburgh: Printed by Robert Waldegrave, Printer to the Kings Maiestie, 1603,’ 4to. In the address to the reader he thus describes this poem-tragedy: ‘I present to thy favourable viewe and censure the first essay of my rude and unskilfull Muse in a tragicall poem.’ It is dedicated ‘To the most excellent, high and mightie Prince James the 6, King of Scots, my dreade Soveraigne.’

In 1604 there followed another slender quarto, containing a poem of eighty-four stanzas, entitled ‘A Parænesis to the Prince, by William Alexander of Menstrie. London, printed by Richard Field for Edward Blount.’ In the same year he reprinted ‘Darius,’ with another tragedy, ‘Crœsus,’ under the common title of the ‘Monarchicke Tragedies.’ Two things are noticeable in ‘Parænesis’ and these ‘Tragedies.’ First, that, spite of the dedication to the king (enlarged in 1604), ‘Parænesis’ is anything but a panegyric. There is astonishing audacity in it of counsel, and a most articulate assertion that ‘wicked princes’ may be dethroned. Recounting musically the ‘ancient monarchies,’ very early he thus drastically characterises them:—

    And in all ages it was ever seene,
    What vertue rais'd, by vice hath ruin'd been.
                    (st. viii.)

The poem is thick-packed with weighty and pungent warnings and counsels, nor is there lacking the poet's grace.

Secondly, the original editions abound in Scottish words and phrases, and a comparison of the London with the Edinburgh texts, earlier and later, is philologically of interest and value. It is to be regretted that the editor of his works (3 vols. 1870) has only perfunctorily recorded ‘Various Readings.’

In 1604—same year with the preceding—appeared ‘Avrora, containing the first fancies of the author's youth.’ Prefixed is an epistle to the Countess of Argyle. ‘Avrora’ inevitably suggests comparisons with Sidney and Spenser, Daniel, and Drayton, and Drummond. These sonnets were not mere fancies, but born of an actual and unsuccessful love; a real passion lies beneath the quaint conceits and occasionally wire-drawn similes. ‘Sonet C’ leaves no doubt that his youthful ‘Avrora’ preferred an aged man to him. The fact that ‘Avrora’ was not included by Alexander in his collected works in 1637 the more suggests autobiographical experiences to have been worked into the ‘fancies.’

At the time of the publication of ‘Aurora’ Alexander had married Janet, only daughter of Sir William Erskine, younger brother of the family of Erskine of Balgonie, and commonly styled ‘parson of Campsie,’ from his holding office as ‘commendator of the bishopric of Glasgow.’ On 8 May 1607 Sir William Erskine received a royal warrant for an exchequer pension of 200l. a year, to be shared with his son-in-law, William Alexander, an annuity of half the amount being made payable to Alexander for life after Erskine's decease (Docquet Book of Exchequer).

There must have been other pecuniary transactions between father-in-law and son-in-law—e.g. Sir William Erskine purchased from the Earl of Argyle the annual duties payable by his son-in-law for ‘the lands of Menstry.’ On 6 June 1609 a royal charter passed under the great seal, confirming a charter of alienation and vendition from Argyle to Erskine, whereby the latter obtained the lands and barony of Menstry in life-rent, and Sir William Alexander and his spouse, Lady Janet Erskine, the lands in conjunct fee (Reg. Mag. Sig. xlviii. 131). But the conditions of the charter remained unfulfilled; and nineteen years later Sir William Alexander is found consenting to a royal charter whereby he received the lands and barony of Menstry from the Earl of Argyle on an annual payment of 80l. (Rogers's Memorials, i. 38–39).

Alexander published in 1605 ‘The Alexandræan, a Tragedy,’ which afterwards elicited Dr. Andrew Johnston's well-known epigram:—

  Confer Alexandros: Macedo victricibus armis
    Magnus erat, Scotus carmina major uter?

Having in the interval written still another tragedy, ‘Iulius Cæsar,’ he once more collected the whole extant into a quarto volume. This was in 1607, and again the volume bore the title of the ‘Monarchicke Tragedies,’ being ‘Crœsus,’ ‘Darius,’ ‘The Alexandrian,’ and ‘Iulius Cæsar,’ ‘newly enlarged by William Alexander, Gentleman of the Prince's Privie Chamber.’ To this new edition his friend, Sir Robert Aytoun, preflxed a well-turned sonnet.

In 1608 a somewhat noticeable authority was given to our William Alexander and a relative (presumably), Walter Alexander, ‘to receive and uplift all arrears of taxes due to the crown, from the first year of the reign of Edward VI to the 30th of Elizabeth,’ these arrears amounting to 12,000l., equal to four or five times the amount to-day, and of which they were to receive a ‘commission’ of one-half. The patent has been printed in extenso by Dr. Charles Rogers; but what came out of it has not been transmitted.

Alexander must have been ‘knighted’ in 1609; for whilst in 1608 he is simply ‘gent.,’ on 25 May 1609 he is described as ‘Sir William Alexander’ (Reg. Mag. Sig. lib. i. 185, fol. 134).

The death of Prince Henry, at the age of eighteen, on 6 Nov. 1612, must have been a crushing blow to him as to all the scholars and literary men of the period. He published an ‘Elegie’ on the occasion, and promised more; but, like Spenser's of Sidney, it lacks emotion. It has nothing of the desolation and pathos of the Laments of George Chapman and John Davies of Hereford.

The ‘Elegie,’ however, appears to have pleased the bereaved father, for Sir William was at once appointed to the same position in the household of Prince Charles.

In 1613 he was ‘conjoined’ with a Thomas Foulis and a Paulo Pinto (a Portuguese) in royal grants or rescripts to work alleged gold and silver mines in Scotland, at Crawford Muir (Lanarkshire) and Hilderston (Linlithgowshire) (Acta Sec. Con. 17 March 1613). Neither undertaking proved remunerative (Proceedings of Scot. Soc. of Antiq. x. 236).

In the same year (1613) he published a meagre ‘completion’ of the ‘third part’ of Sidney's ‘Arcadia,’ to be found in the fourth and after editions.

At this time also he formed a fast friendship with his fellow-countryman and fellow-poet, William Drummond, of Hawthornden. In 1614 a sunny letter from Drummond gives account of a visit to Menstry. It thus closes:

‘Tables removed, after Homer's fassion well satiat, he honord me so much as to schow me his bookes and papers. . . . I estimed of him befor I was acquent with him, because of his workes; but I protest hencefoorth I will estime of his workes because of his awne good, courte[ou]s, meeke disposition. He entreatit me to have made me longer stay, and beleave me I was as sorrie to depart as a new enamoured lover would be for his mistress’ (Memorials, i. 47, and all editions of Drummond's works). Afterwards—1616–20—there was gracious interchange of correspondence, and in Drummond's letters to Michael Drayton there are very genial references to his bosom friend Alexander (Masson's Story of Life and Writings of Drummond, p. 84)—the poet of ‘Nymphidia’ and ‘Agincourt’ calling him ‘a man of men.’

Among the papers shown on this visit was our poet's most ambitious production, viz. his ‘Doomesday.’ In 1614 he published a first part, entitled ‘Doomes-day; or the Great Day of the Lord's Ivdgment, by Sr William Alexander, Knight’ (4to).

In its original form this stupendous poem embraced four books or ‘houres.’ These were in 1637 extended to twelve, containing some eleven thousand lines! In the vast morass of this dead-level sacred epic a few flowers gleam, showing touches of colour or whiteness, and Milton disdained not to read the whole that he might gather them; but substantively it is ‘stale, flat, and unprofitable.’ The king perpetrated one of his worst sonnets about ‘Doomes-day,’ albeit its heading bewrayed slyly his majesty's perception of its pervading defect: ‘The Complainte of the Muses to Alexander vpon himselfe, for his ingratitude towardes them, by hurting them with his hard hammered wordes, fitter to be vsed vpon his Mineralles’ (Sir James Balfour MSS. in Advocates' Library, Edinburgh).

In 1614 he was nominated master of requests. This appointment was a fortunate one for the king and state, in that it brought an iron will and hand down upon the rapacious beggarly Scots who day and night besieged the sovereign. At his recommendation an edict was issued in 1619, in which the king ‘discharges all manner of persons from resorting out of Scotland to this our kingdome, unlesse it be gentlemen of good qualitie, marchands for traffiques, or such as shall have a generall license from our counselle of that kingdome, with expresse prohibitioun to all masters of shippes that they transport no such persones.’ It is added that ‘Sir William Alexander, master of requests, has received a commission to apprehend and send home, or to punish all vagrant persones who come to England to cause trouble or bring discredit on their country’ (Register of Letters).

King James had long meditated a metrical version of the Psalms, which might supersede that of Sternhold and Hopkins used in England. In his ‘Poetical Exercises at Vacant Houres,’ published in 1591, he informs the reader that should his verses be well accepted, he would proceed to publish ‘such number of the Psalmes’ as he ‘had perfited,’ and would be encouraged ‘to the ending of the rest.’ In a general assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, held at Burntisland in 1601, his majesty set forth the importance of improving the version then in use (Spottiswoode's History, p. 446).

In this well-intentioned but unfortunate project the king early invited Alexander's assistance, though throughout he was disposed to hold his ground against all supersession of his own inharmonious attempts by alternative versions. The thing went on sluggishly, and the new ‘Psalmes’ did not appear until after the king's death in 1631, when they were published as ‘The Psalmes of King David. Translated by King James.’ The following license faced the title-page:—

‘Charles R. haveing caused this translation of the Psalmes (whereof oure late deare father was author) to be perused, and it being found to be exactly and truely done, we doe hereby authorize the same to be imprinted according to the patent granted thereupon, and doe allow them to be song in all the churches of oure dominiones, recommending them to all oure goode subjects for that effect.’ By a royal letter dated 14 June (1631), the English bishops were further commanded to introduce the new version into all the schools (Reg. of Letters).

Sir William had received a patent granting him the sole right for thirty-one years of ‘printing or causing to be printed these Psalmes.’ Had the new version been acceptable to the churches and people, the profits must have been considerable; but it did not succeed, and speedily fell into deserved oblivion. A later element added to its unpopularity over and above the patentee's pressing of his books: it was even bound up with Archbishop Laud's detested ‘Service Book’ (Memorials, pp. 167–170 seqq.). How far Sir William Alexander availed himself of the permission granted him by Charles I ‘to consider and reveu the meeter and poesie thereof,’ cannot positively be determined now. There are great variations between the first edition of 1631 and that of 1636 (cf. Laing's Baillie's Letters and Journals, iii. 529}. It seems clear that Charles must have winked hard in permitting the licence, as he must have known that the proportion of Jamas to Alexander was as Falstaff's bread to his sack.

In 1621 occurred the central fact in Alexander's political and public career—the grant of Nova Scotia, then known as ‘New Scotland,’ and (practically) of Canada. In 1611 James had established the order of baronets of Ulster, towards furthering the ‘plantation’ of the north of Ireland. This ‘plantation’ and related ‘order’ so prospered, that Sir William suggested similar procedure for North America; and on 21 Sept. 1621 he obtained from the king a charter, granting him, ‘his heirs and assigns, whomsoever, hereditarily, all and singular, the continent, lands, and islands, situate and lying in America, within the cape or promontory commonly called the Cape de Sable, lying near the latitude of 43 degrees or thereabout from the equinoctial line northward, from which promontory, toward the sea coast, verging to the west, to the harbour of Sancta Maria, commonly called Sanct Mareis Bay, and thence northward, traversing by a right line the entrance or mouth of that great naval station which runs out into the eastern tract of the land between the countries of the Suriqui and Stechemini, commonly called the Suriquois and Stechemines, to the river commonly called by the name of Santa Cruz, and to the remotest source or fountain on the western side of the same . . . and thence by an imaginary line, which might be conceived to proceed through the land, or run northward to the nearest naval station, river, or source discharging itself into the great river of Canada; and proceeding from it by the sea-shores of the same river of Canada eastward to the river, naval station, port, or shore, commonly known and called by the name of Gathepe or Gaspie, and thence south-eastwards to the island called Baccaloer or Cape Breton, leaving the same islands on the right, and the gulf of the said great river of Canada, or great naval station, and the lands of Newfoundland, with the islands pertaining to the same lands, on the left; and thence to the cape or promontory of Cape Breton aforesaid, lying near the latitude of 45 degrees or thereabout; and from the said promontory of Cape Breton, toward the south and west, to the aforesaid Cape Sable, where the circuit began, including and comprehending within the said sea coasts and their circumferences from sea to sea, all continent lands, with rivers, bays, torrents.’

Prodigious as was this grant, it was later so much increased that the best portions of the entire northern section of the now United States and Canada were placed under Alexander's jurisdiction. The charter of Charles, confirming James's, gave full powers to use the ‘mines and forests, erect cities, appoint fairs, hold courts, grant lands, and coin money’—in short, almost absolute authority in a country larger than all the king's dominions elsewhere.

The unique gift seems to have lain dormant for some time; but on the accession of Charles in 1625 the charter with all its rights and privileges was renewed and the first batch of baronets created—this honour being conferred on payment of 150l. sterling, a sum which entitled the payer to a grant of land three miles long by two broad (Memorials, ii. 179–205).

To promote the colonisation, Sir William, in 1625, published a weighty and vigorous and statesmanlike ‘Encouragement to Colonies.’ The new order of baronet, however, involved Alexander in troublesome disputes. Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty, in his ‘Jewel’ (ed. Edin. 1774, p. 129), is bitterly sarcastic on his fellow-countryman's ambition in relation to these charters. ‘He was born a poet and aimed to be a king,’ is only one of many passionate phrases. Spite of all, Sir William showed high-hearted courage, prescient statesmanship, and marvellous resource and insistence in his efforts to colonise. The difficulties were enormous, and the opponents (including France) formidable; but the good knight never knew when he was beaten. He and his son made effort after effort. The facts in their lights and shadows, adventures and misadventures, oppositions and aids, are well worthy of study as part of the mighty story of our colonial empire.

In 1626 he was appointed secretary of state for Scotland—an office which he held till his death. With what consummate ability, and single-eyed patriotism, and long patience he ruled Scotland for the king, let the three great folio volumes entitled ‘Register of Royal Letters’ (preserved in Scotland) attest. The demands upon his thought, sagacity, swift decision, resistance to rebellion and rapacity, are scarcely to be estimated. They were troublous times, and required and found in Sir William Alexander a cool head, a sound judgment, a generous heart, and a firm hand. Contemporary allusions show that ‘the secretar’ was not popular. But the secret of his unpopularity is to be found in his width of view and fine impartiality. His episcopalianism—he had early left presbyterianism—explains the harsh gossip of Principal Baillie and others like him (Letters and Journals, i. 77). He necessarily went against the ‘Covenanters.’

In 1630 the knighthood was changed into a higher title, to wit, ‘Lord Alexander of Tullibody and Viscount Stirling.’ In 1631 he was appointed an extraordinary judge of the Court of Session, the supreme law court of Scotland. Nor were titles and honours all the tokens of continued royal favour. Subordinate to the Nova Scotia undertaking and grant, yet meant to bring him supplementary or complementary emoluments, and contemporaneous with the ‘Psalmes’ patent, he obtained the ‘privilege’ of issuing a small copper coin for the convenience of the ‘common people.’ This proved a disappointment. It was held to be debased, got the nicknames of ‘black money’ and ‘turners,’ and brought no end of anoyance alike to Alexander and the king (Memorials, i. 144–6).

In 1632 Alexander erected his elegant mansion in Stirling, now known as Argyle Lodge. It is still one of the sights of this famous little northern town. Woodcuts of Menstry and of Argyle House, and of the ‘Turners,’ are given in Rogers's ‘Memorials.’

Charles I was crowned at Holyrood Palace on 14 June 1633, and on this auspicious occasion Lord Stirling was advanced to the dignity of an earl—Earl of Stirling—with the additional title of Viscount Canada; and in 1639 he was created ‘Earl of Dovan’ (Devon). On the former occasion he received the verse congratulations of William Habington (Castara, 1633, p. 233).

In 1637 he collected his ‘Workes’ in a handsome folio, under the already cited title of ‘Recreations with the Muses.’ The whole were carefully, perhaps over-finically, revised. ‘Jonathan’—a considerable fragment of another sacred epic—was the only important addition to his prior publications in the ‘Workes.’

This was a sorrowful year for him; Sir Anthony Alexander, his second son, died in London on 17 Sept. 1637; and Lord Alexander, his eldest son, died, also at London, on 18 May 1638 (Reg. of Letters). Lord Alexander gave extraordinary promise of capacity and worth.

In 1636, and onward, the Earl of Stirling was in chronic pecuniary embarrassments, and his creditors merciless and urgent. In the evening-time of his life he must have been cruelly robbed and wronged, for on 12 Sept. 1640 he died at London ‘insolvent.’ His remains were borne to Scotland and interred in ‘Bowie's yle,’ in the High Church, Stirling. He was succeeded by his grandson, ‘ane infant,’ son of Lord Alexander and the Lady Mary Douglas; but he only survived to inherit the proud family honours for a few months, whereupon his uncle Henry became earl. The title lapsed in 1739 on the death of the fifth earl, who died without issue.

Alexander filled a large and conspicuous space in his generation, as scholar, courtier, statesman, coloniser, and poet; he touched national events at many points, and won the not easily won friendship and lofty praise of such men as Drayton and Aytoun, Habington and Drummond, and Edward Alleyn; and his entire ‘Workes’ were long afterwards read by Milton (if indeed Shakespeare himself did not read his ‘Monarchicke Tragedies’); and he won the golden and unstinted praise of Addison. Broadly, his poems are weighty with thought after the type of Fulk Greville, Lord Brooke, though scarcely so obscure as his. His tragedies have ‘brave translunary things,’ if laboured and dull as a whole. His ‘Avrora’ and minor pieces are elegant and musical. There is less of conceit in the merely conceitful sense than was common with contemporaries, and if you only persevere, opalescent hues edge long passages otherwise comparable with mist and fog. As a man he grows in our regard the nearer one gets at the facts. Manlier speech never was addressed to kings than by him in his ‘Parænesis’ and ‘Tragedies’ and elsewhere. His ‘noble poverty’ is the best vindication of his integrity. He stands above any contemporary Scot, alike in many-sidedness and strenuousness of character.

[Memorials of the Earl of Stirling and the House of Alexander, by Charles Rogers (1877); extracts from Hawthornden MSS. in Archæologia Scotica, vol iv.; Hazlitt's Handbook, 1867; A Mapp and Description of New England, together with a Discourse of Plantations and Colonies (1630); Anderson's Scottish Nation; Dr. Irving's Lives and History (edited by Dr. Carlyle); Park's Walpole's Royal and Noble Authors; Alexander's Poems in their successive editions—the earliest of which bring high prices still; his disappointing Anacrisis, or so-called Censure of Poets ancient and modern, printed in Rogers's Memorials, ii. 205–10.]

A. B. G.