William Alexander and the Union of Crowns

On this day in 1603, King James VI of Scotland was crowned James I of England. He succeeded Elizabeth I, his second cousin, who had died without heirs. Among the many Scots who followed James to London was William Alexander, head of the Menstrie family, whose claim to be a branch of the Clan Alister is generally accepted (most importantly, by the clan itself) despite patchy documentation. 

William Alexander had been introduced to the Scottish court by the Earl of Argyll, to whom he was once tutor. When the court moved south Alexander went along as tutor to Crown Prince Henry, and on Henry’s death in 1612 he became tutor to Henry’s younger brother, the future Charles I. Alexander remained in service to Charles for the rest of his life. His association with the royal family led to a knighthood (1609), a viscountcy (1630), and ultimately an earldom (1633). He also held important positions under the crown, including Scottish Privy Councillor and Secretary for Scotland. (Before these, he was appointed Master of Requests for Scotland, “whose chief duty was to ward off needy Scots from the English court”![1]

In 1621, William was granted a considerable extent of land in what is now Canada and set about establishing a Scottish colony in North America. The colony he founded there eventually became Nova Scotia. To help finance his plans, he suggested a money-making scheme whereby interested parties could be named Baronets of Nova Scotia — if they were willing to pay for the honour. (This was not Alexander’s idea, originally. King James had done exactly the same thing in Ulster a decade earlier.) Still, the settlement of Nova Scotia entailed repeated set-backs and required considerable investment from Alexander himself. When the lands granted to him in 1621 were returned to France by treaty nine years later, Alexander colonial enterprise was simply shut down, leaving him deeply in debt.

William Alexander’s association with James VI took him to London and brought him national prominence. His elder sons, two of whom predeceased him, also held prominent positions under the crown (see Anthony Alexander, Master of Works), but an Episcopalian family known for its service to the Stuart kings was unlikely to prosper in Scotland after the mid-40s. Alexander’s home at Menstrie was mortgaged to a relative, who foreclosed after his death in 1640[2], and by the time Charles I was executed in 1649, “the family’s estates had been lost and the country was in the hands of its political enemies”.[3] The third Earl of Stirling, William’s oldest surviving son Henry, died in obscurity, probably in England; his mother and most of his siblings settled in Ulster.

 Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]  ‘William Alexander, Earl of Stirling’ in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online
[2] Robert Menzies FergusonLogie: A Parish History (Paisley: 1905), p. 171

[3] Stevenson, Origins of Freemasonry, p. 72

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