A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen/Alexander, William

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ALEXANDER, William, an eminent nobleman, statesman, and poet of the reign of James VI. and Charles I. The original rank of this personage was that of a small landed proprietor or laird; but he was elevated, by dint of his various accomplishments, and through the favour of the two sovereigns above-mentioned, to the rank of an earl. His family, which possessed the small estate of Menstrie, near Stirling, is said to have derived the name Alexander from the prenomen of their ancestor, Alexander Macdonald, a highlander, who had been settled in this property by the Earl of Argyle, whose residence of Castle Campbell is in the neighbourhood. "William Alexander is supposed to have first seen the light in 1580. Nature having obviously marked him for a higher destiny than that to which he was born, he received from his friends the best education which the time and place could afford, and, at a very early age, he accompanied the young Earl of Argyle upon his foreign travels, in the capacity of tutor. Previous to this period, when only fifteen years of age, he had been smit with the charms of some country beauty, "the cynosure of neighbouring eyes;" on his return from the continent, his passion was found to have suffered no abatement. He spent some time in rural retirement, and wrote no fewer than a hundred sonnets, as a ventilation to the fervours of his breast; but all his poetry was in vain, so far as the lady was concerned, She thought of matrimony, while he thought of love; and accordingly, on being solicited by a more aged suitor, in other respects eligible, did not scruple to accept his hand. The poet took a more sensible way of consoling himself for this disappointment than might have been expected; he married another lady, the daughter and heiress of Sir William Erskine. His century of sonnets was published in London in 1604, under the title of "Aurora, containing the First Fancies of the Author's Youth, by W. Alexander, of Menstrie." From the situation of Alexander's estate, near the residence of the king at Stirling, and in a vale which his majesty frequented for the pleasure of hawking, he had early been introduced to royal notice; and, accordingly, it appears that, when James removed to London, in 1603, the poet did not remain long behind, but soon became a dependent upon the English court. It is honourable to Alexander that in this situation he did not, like most court poets of that age, employ his pen in the adulation of majesty; his works breathe a very different strain. Having studied deeply the ancient philosophers and poets, he descanted on the vanity of grandeur, the value of truth, the abuse of power, and the burthen of riches. His moralizings assumed the strange shape of tragedies -- compositions not at all designed for the stage, but intended simply to embody the sentiments which arose in his mind upon such subjects as those we have mentioned. His first tragedy was grounded upon the story of Darius, and appeared at Edinburgh in 1603. He afterwards republished it at London, in 1607, along with similar compositions upon the stories of Alexander, Croesus, and Cassar, under the title of "Monarchick Tragedies, by William Alexander, gentleman of the Princes' Privy Chamber." It would thus appear that he had now obtained a place in the household of Prince Henry; to whom he had previously addressed a poem or parænesis, designed to show how the happiness of a sovereign depends upon his choosing such councillors as can throw off private grudges, regard public concerns, and will not, to betray their seats, become pensioners. This poem, of which no copy of the original edition is known to exist, except one in the University library at Edinburgh, was, after the death of Henry, addressed to Prince Charles, who then became heir-apparent; an economy in poetical, not to speak of court business, which cannot be sufficiently admired. He was, in 1613, appointed one of the gentlemen ushers of the presence to this unfortunate prince.

King James is said to have been a warm admirer of the poems of Alexander, to have honoured him with his conversation, and called him "my philosophical poet" He was now aspiring to the still more honourable character of a divine poet, for in 1614, appeared at Edinburgh, his largest and perhaps his most meritorious production, entitled, "Doomsday, or the Great Day of Judgment," which has been several times reprinted.

Hitherto the career of Alexander had been chiefly that of a poet: it was henceforth entirely that of a courtier. Advanced to the age of thirty-five, the pure and amiable temperament of the poet gave way before the calculating and mercenary views of the politician; and the future years of his life are therefore less agreeable in recital than those which are past. In 1614, he was knighted by king James, and appointed to the situation of master of requests. In 1621, the king gave him a grant by his royal deed of the province of Nova Scotia, which as yet had not been colonized. Alexander designed at first to establish settlers upon this new country, and, as an inducement to the purchase of land, it was proposed that the king should confer, upon all who paid a hundred and fifty pounds for six thousand acres, the honour of a knight baronetcy. Owing to the perplexed politics of the last years of king James, he did not get this scheme carried into effect, but Charles had no sooner acceded than he resolved upon giving it his support. Alexander, in 1625, published a pamphlet, entitled, "An Encouragement to Colonies," the object of which was to state the progress already made, to recommend the scheme to the nation, and to invite adventurers. It is also supposed that he had a hand in "A Brief Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England, and of sundry accidents therein occurring from the year 1607 to this present 1622: together with the state thereof as it now standeth, the general form of government intended, and the division of the whole territory into counties, baronies, &c." King Charles, who probably considered the scheme in a two-fold light, as a means of establishing a new colony, and of remunerating an old servant at the expense of others, conferred upon Sir William Alexander the rank of Lieutenant of New Scotland, and founded the necessary order of knights baronets of the same territory. The number of these baronets was not to exceed a hundred and fifty, and it was ordained that the title should be hereditary—that they should take precedence of all ordinary knights and lairds, and of all other gentlemen, except Sir William Alexander, and that they should have place in all his majesty's and his successors' armies, near and about the royal standard for the defence thereof, with other honourable distinctions of precedency, to them, their wires, and heirs. The ceremony of inſeſtment or seasine was decreed to take place on the Castle-hill of Edinburgh, the earth and stone of which were held, by a fiction, to represent the component particles of certain baronies and lordships on the other side of the Atlantic. For the amusement of the reader, we shall give an account of the equivocal mode of procedure adopted in this scheme, and of its shameful conclusion, from the fantastic pen of Sir Thomas Urquhart "It did not satisfy him," says Sir Thomas, in reference to Alexander, (Discovery of a most Exquisite Jewel, &c., 8vo, 1652,) "to have a laurel from the Muses, and be esteemed a lung among poets, but he must also be king of some new-found land; and, like another Alexander, indeed, searching after new worlds, have the sovereignty of Nova Scotia! He was born a poet, and aimed to be a king; therefore he would have his royal title from king James, who was born a king, and aimed to be a poet Had he stopped there, it had been well; but the flame of his honour must have some oil wherewith to nourish it; like another Arthur he must have his knights, though nothing limited to so small a number; for how many soever, who could have looked but for one day like gentlemen, and given him but one hundred and fifty pounds sterling (without any need of a key for opening the gate to enter through the temple of virtue, which, in former times, was the only way to honour,) they had a scale from him whereby to ascend unto the platforms of virtue; which they treading under their feet, did slight the ordinary passages, and to take the more sudden possession of the temple of honour, went upon obscure bypaths of their own, towards some secret angiports and dark postern doors, which were so narrow that few of them could get in, until they had left all their gallantry behind them: Yet such being their resolution, that in they would and be worshipful upon any terms; they misregarded all formerly used steps of promotion, accounting them but unnecessary; and most rudely pushing into the very sanctuary, they immediately hung out the orange colours," the colour of the ribbon by which the order was suspended, "to testify their conquest of the honour of knight baronet. Their king nevertheless, not to stain his royal dignity, or to seem to merit the imputation of selling honour to his subjects, did, for their money, give them land, and that in so ample a measure, that every one of his knight baronets had, for his hundred and fifty pounds sterling, heritably disposed to him six thousand good and sufficient acres of Nova Scotia ground; which being at the rate of but sixpence an acre, and not to be thought very dear; considering how prettily, in the respective parchments of disposition, they were bounded and designed; fruitful cornfields, watered with pleasant rivers, running along most excellent and spacious meadows; nor did there want abundance of oaken groves, in the midst of very fertile plains, or if it wanted anything it was the scrivener's or writer's fault, for he" [Alexander] "gave orders, as soon as he received the three thousand Scots marks, that there should be no defect of quantity, or quality, in measure or goodness of land, and here and there most delicious gardens and orchards; with whatever else could, in matter of delightful ground, best content their fancies; as if they had made purchase among them of the Elysian fields or Mahomet's paradise; and although there should have happened a thousand acres more to be put into the charter, or writing of disposition, than was agreed upon at first, he cared not; half a piece to the clerk was able to make him dispense with that. But at last when he had enrolled three hundred knights, who for their hundred and fifty pieces each had purchased among them several millions of New Caledonian acres, confirmed to them and theirs for ever, under the great seal, the affixing whereof was to cost each of them but thirty pieces more; finding that the society was not likely to become any more numerous, and that the ancient gentry of Scotland esteemed such a whimsical dignity to be a disparagement, rather than any addition to their former honour; he bethought himself of a course more profitable to himself and the future establishment of his own state; in prosecuting whereof without the advice of his knights, who represented both houses of parliament, clergy and all, like an absolute king indeed, he disposed heritably to the French for a matter of five or six thousand pounds English money, both the dominion and property of the whole country of that kingdom of Nova Scotia; leaving the new baronets to search for land amongst the Seleites in the moon, or turn knights of the suri; so dearly have they bought their orange ribband, which, all things considered, is, and will be, more honourable to them, or their posterity, than it is or hath been profitable to either." It thus appears that Alexander's Nova Scotian scheme, whatever might have been originally contemplated, degenerated at last into a mere means of raising money by the sale of titles; a System too much practised in the English reign of James VI., and which gained, as it deserved, the contempt of all honourable minds. The territory of Nova Scotia afterwards fell into the hands of the French, who affected to believe that they had acquired a right to it by a treaty entered into with the king of Groat Britain, in 1632, in which the country of Acadia was ceded to them. In the treaty of peace transacted between the two countries, in 1763, it was successfully asserted by the British government that Nova Scotia was totally distinct from Acadia, and accordingly the territory reverted to Britain, along with Canada. The country, however, having become the property of other individuals during the usurpation of the French, it appears that the Nova Scotia baronets have very slight prospects of ever regaining the lands to which their titles were originally attached.

In 1626, Sir William Alexander, was, by the favour of Charles I., made secretary of state for Scotland; an office to which the salary of 100 a-year, being that of a good mercantile clerk in the present day, was then attached. In 1630, by the further favour of his sovereign, he was raised to the peerage under the title of viscount Stirling; and in 1633, at the coronation of king Charles in Holyrood chapel, he was promoted to the rank of an earl under the same title. He held the office of secretary during fifteen years, and gained the credit of being a moderate statesman in the midst of many violent political scenes. It does not appear, however, that he was a popular character. Such esteem as he might have gained by his poetry, seems to have been lost in consequence of the arts by which his sovereign endeavoured to give him riches. A permission which he acquired, probably in his character of lieutenant of Nova Scotia, to coin base money, became a grievance to the community, and procured him much obloquy. He had erected a splendid mansion at Stirling out of his ill-acquired gains, and affixed upon its front his armorial bearings, with the motto "Per Mare, per Terras." This was parodied, as we are informed by the sarcastic Scott of Scotstarvet. into "Per metre, per turners," in allusion to the sources of his wealth, the people believing that the royal favour had a reference to his lordship's poetry, while turners, or black farthings, as they were otherwise called, had been one of the shapes in which this favour was expressed. The house still remains, a monument of the taste of the poet.

The earl of Stirling, in 1637, published a complete edition of his poetical works, under the general title of "Recreations with the Muses." The work contained his four "Monarchick Tragedies," his "Doomsday," the "Parænesis to Prince Henry," and "Jonathan, an Heroick Poem Intended, the first book," the whole revised and very much improved by the author. He died in 1640, leaving three sons and two daughters, whose posterity was supposed to have been completely extinct, till a claimant appeared in 1830, as descended from one of the younger branches of the family, and who has assumed the titles of Stirling and Devon. Considered as a poet, Alexander is intitled to considerable praise. "His style is certainly neither pure nor correct, which may perhaps be attributed to his long familiarity with the Scottish language; but his versification is in general much superior to that of his contemporaries, and approaches nearer to the elegance of modern times than could have been expected from one who wrote so much. There are innumerable beauties scattered over the whole of his works, but particularly in his songs and sonnets; the former are a species of irregular odes, in which the sentiment, occasionally partaking of the quaintness of his age, is more frequently new and forcibly expressed. The powers of mind displayed in his Doomsday and Parænesis are very considerable, although we are frequently able to trace the allusions and imagery to the language of holy writ; and he appears to have been less inspired by the sublimity than by the awful importance of his subject to rational beings. A habit of moralizing pervades all his writings; but in the 'Doomsday' he appears deeply impressed with his subject, and more anxious to persuade the heart than to delight the imagination."—Johnson and Chalmers' English Poets, edit. 1810, vol. v.

The Earl of Stirling was employed in his latter years in the task of revising the version of the Psalms prepared by king James, which duty was imposed upon him by the royal paraphrast himself. In a letter to his friend, Drummond of Hawthornden, 28th of April, 1620, Alexander says, "Brother, I received your last letter, with the psalm you sent, which I think very well done: I had done the same long before it came; but he [king James] prefers his own to all else; though, perchance when you see it, you will think it the worst of the three. No man must meddle with that subject, and therefore I advise you to take no more pains therein." In consideration of the pains which the Earl had bestowed upon this subject, Charles I., on the 28th of December, 1627, granted a license to his lordship, to print the late king's version of the Psalms exclusively for thirty-one years. The first edition appeared at Oxford, in 1631. The king endeavoured to enforce the use of his father's version alone throughout his dominions; and, if he had been successful, the privilege would have been a source of immense profit to the Earl of Stirling. But the royal wishes were resisted by the Scottish church, and were not very respectfully obeyed any where else; and the breaking out of the civil war soon after rendered the privilege entirely useless.[1]

  1. The corpse of the Earl of Stirling was deposited in a leaden coffin in the family-aisle in the church of Stirling, above ground, and remained entire for upwards of a hundred years.—Paragraph from an old newspaper.