Sic Transit Gloria

On this day in 1640, Sir William Alexander, 1st Earl of Stirling, died in London, bankrupt.[1]

Sir William belonged to the Menstrie family, whose exact origins are unclear but who have always been recognised as a branch of the Clann Alasdair (the Macalisters). He was to be the most prominent of that family. He was well educated, a noted poet and a close friend of the Earl of Argyll, who introduced him to King James VI. The king also became a friend, and Sir William followed him to London in 1603. He was tutor to both of James’s crown princes, collaborated with the king on a version of the Psalms of David[2], and held numerous important posts under both James and his son, Charles I, including Secretary of Scotland. In 1621, James gave him an extensive land grant in North America, and Sir William set about establishing a colony there, which he called New Scotland. Today it is the province of Nova Scotia.

Sir William’s close association with the royal family continued throughout his life, but in the reign of Charles I his fortunes began to change. Articles of peace signed in 1629 to end a war with France ultimately involved the return to France of the lands on which New Scotland had been established. Sir William’s personal fortune had been significantly reduced in the effort to establish the colony and promised compensation never materialised. Although he spent the rest of his life trying to restore the family’s wealth, he was never able to do so. (Even if he’d managed, political changes were brewing in Scotland and England that would sweep his royal patron from the throne and would probably have left his family ruined.) Added to financial disaster was personal loss: his two eldest sons died within a year of each other.[3]

Sir William’s final years are described by Rev. Slafter in his memoir of the earl:

The disappointments which he had met in his colonial undertakings, the melancholy aspect of the civil affairs of the nation, especially the dark and menacing cloud that hung over his native Scotland, . . . the sudden death of his eldest son, in whom were wrapt up his chief hopes for maintaining the distinction of the family for which he had assiduously labored so many years, the financial embarrassments that had been gradually accumulating, and were now overwhelming his private fortune, all these burdens . . . were more than he could well sustain.[4] 

Sir William Alexander’s body was taken home to Scotland, where he was buried in the Grey Friars’ Church in Stirling.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014


[1]The date is debated, but most reputable sources agree it was in February and this seems to be the generally accepted date.
[2]This version of the Psalms later formed a part of the prayer book that Charles attempted to impose on Scotland, sparking the Bishop’s wars (Edmund F Slafter, Sir William Alexander and American Colonization. . . . [Boston: the Prince Society, 1873], pp. 14-5).
[3]The third son, Robert, had already died.
[4]Slafter, pp. 100-101
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