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

The Last Earl of Stirling

On this day in 1739, Henry Alexander, the fifth Earl of Stirling, died. The earls of Stirling belonged to the Alexander family of Menstrie Castle in Stirlingshire. They are thought to descend from Gilbert ‘de Insula’, a son of Alasdair Mòr, who settled in the Lowlands in the mid-1300s. Although the exact descent is unclear, it has always been accepted that the Menstrie family – unlike many other Scottish Alexanders – do in fact belong to the Clann Alasdair. Certainly earlier generations of this family had a good deal of interaction with the Macalisters of Kintyre.

The fifth earl was a private individual who refrained from civic participation, and little is known of his life. His family, however, once wielded considerable influence. They first appear on record in 1505, when Thomas MacAlexander ‘de Menstray’ is named as arbiter in a local land dispute. The fact that he is ‘of’ Menstrie suggests he was the owner of this property; his role as arbiter suggests some degree of local authority. Thomas’s descendant Sir William Alexander (d. 1640) was part of James VI’s court in Scotland and in 1603 he followed the king to London, where he served as tutor to both of James’s crown princes.[1]He was acclaimed as a poet and was an active coloniser, establishing a settlement in Ireland and a colony at Nova Scotia. He already held several titles by the time he was named Earl of Stirling in 1633. Sir William’s eldest son was knighted, briefly governed the Nova Scotia colony, and served on the Privy Council; the second son, a noted architect who served as King’s Master of Work in Scotland, was also knighted. Henry’s grandfather, the third earl, succeeded his brother as Master of Work[2]and established a trading company, and his father was elected Member of Parliament for Berkshire.

The Alexanders’ close association with the Stuarts cost them their position in Scotland after the Civil Wars, and by Henry’s time Menstrie Castle had long since passed out of their possession. With Henry, the family’s titles too would be lost. The fifth earl left no heirs, nor did his brothers, and when Henry Alexander died on this day in 1739, his titles fell dormant. Although the earldom has been claimed by other branches of the family[3], none of these claims have ever been recognised.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2012


[1]Sir William’s first charge was James’s eldest son, Crown Prince Henry. After Prince Henry died in 1612, William became tutor to the second son, the future Charles I.
[2]R. S. Mylne, ‘The Masters of Work to the Crown of Scotland’, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. xxx (January 10, 1896).  
[3] Unlike titles in the English and, later, British peerage, some Scottish titles can pass to female heirs should the male lines fail. Although none of the 4th earl’s sons had children, some of his daughters did.

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’s 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