Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, Earl of Devon, 1st Viscount Canada, scholar, poet, courtier, coloniser, and statesman, died on the 12th of September, 1640.
William Alexander rose from his position as a lowly aristocrat in the Scotland of James VI to become an influential and notable member of the Courts of King James I of England (a.k.a. James VI of Scotland) and his son, Charles I & I. Under the patronage of both Kings, he was knighted and granted lands and titles and privileges, but died in poverty. To be more accurate, he died in debt, which is not so emotive an expression; it conveys more of the circumstances. His great tragedy was that he was unable to make the most of his ‘empire’ of Nova Scotia before it was taken from him in a deal with the French involving the dowry of the wife of King Charles I. He might have been a great courtier and statesman, but he wasn’t a successful coloniser. Maybe he was too much the poet to be successful in more practical matters. He both sought after and deserved the favours he received from both Kings and in the context of his life and times, he should be remembered for his achievements, rather than his disappointments in Canada. If your sympathies lie with Scottish Presbyterians, you’ll no like Alexander. If you favour the idea of James VI & I and his successors selling Scotland short, you’ll no like Alexander. If you give him his due, he’s worth a wee mention in the panoply of great Scots.
William Alexander was born in the village of Menstrie in Clackmannanshire sometime between 1567 and 1570; the probabilities are that he was born in 1567 or not later than 1568, because he had to have been a few years older than the Earl of Argyle, who was born before 1571. Although he was born into a very junior aristocratic family, it claimed descent from a son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles, and Margaret, daughter of Robert II. Wee Willie went to Stirling Grammar School and attended the Universities of Glasgow and Leiden. Having then gained repute as a scholar, he accompanied Archibald, the 7th Earl of Argyle, as tutor to the Earl on the so-called ‘Grand Tour’. It was the Earl who introduced Alexander to the Court of King James VI and as a result, in 1607, he was appointed Gentleman of the Privy Chamber Extraordinary and Tutor to Prince Henry. James was known as ‘The most learned fool in Europe’ and his patronage of Alexander says much about the two men. In 1612, after the untimely death of Henry, Alexander fulfilled a similar role to the future Charles I & I. Sometime after 1603, when ‘Shauchlin’ Jamie Saxt’ became James VI & I, Alexander followed his Monarch and Patron to London in what was the only successful, albeit peaceful and acrimonious, invasion of England by Scots. Alexander had gained the favour of James VI & I through his intellect and scholarship, and by means of his poetical works.
Alexander was a poet before he crossed the border. His first public poem, published in 1603, was the rhyming tragedy entitled ‘The Tragedie of Darius’. His motives can be deduced from the dedication: ‘To the most excellent, high and mightie Prince James the 6, King of Scots, my dreade Soveraigne,’ and his description: ‘I present to thy favourable viewe and censure the first essay of my rude and unskilfull Muse in a tragicall poem.’ All told, he wrote four of these classical ‘Monarchicke Tragedies’: ‘Crœsus’, ‘Darius’, ‘The Alexandræan’, and Julius Caesar. They are dialogues rather than plays or dramas and, according to critics, contain some fine passages in the soliloquies, notably one in ‘Darius’, which perhaps gave something to Shakespeare's ‘Tempest’. His earliest effort, which didn’t appear in print until 1604, was written during his ‘Tour’ with Argyll. It was a miscellany of Elizabethan love sonnets, songs and elegies called ‘Avrora’. Some of its ‘fancies’ are said to be autobiographical and speak of a lost love who preferred an older man, which is perhaps why it was left out of his 1637 collected works.
In 1614, Sir William published ‘Doomes-day, or The Great day of the Lords Judgement’. It was an ambitious production, which won him the praise of contemporary writers, such as William Drummond of Hawthornden, and Michael Drayton, the poet of ‘Agincourt’ who called Alexander “a man of men”. His good friend, Drummond, said of him, “I estimed of him befor I was acquent with him, because of his workes.” In its ultimate form, that poem embraced twelve books or ‘houres’ and contained over 1,375 eight-lined stanzas. James VI & I wrote a sonnet about Doomes-day, perhaps slyly betraying his true feelings in its heading: “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.” Whatever else Alexander was, he wasn’t a sycophant, as ‘A Parænesis to the Prince’ proves. It is anything but a panegyric and contains some audacious counsel and an assertion that ‘wicked princes’ may be dethroned: “And in all ages it was ever seene, What vertue rais'd, by vice hath ruin'd been.”
The other thing Alexander is famous for is collaborating with James VI & I in the King’s translation of ‘The Psalms of King David’. James was intent on producing a metrical version of the Psalms to replace that of Sternhold and Hopkins, but his end result did not go down well as it was published after the King’s death and became associated with Archbishop Laud’s detested ‘Service Book’. Charles I granted Alexander the sole right, for thirty-one years of “printing or causing to be printed these Psalmes… whereof oure late deare father was author.” James VI & I had commanded Alexander to submit translations, but preferred his own. The printing licence didn’t earn Alexander any substantial sums, despite his attempts, after the King’s death, to improve James’ inharmonious efforts.
Apart from his literary efforts, Alexander’s main claim to fame is his unsuccessful attempt to establish a Scottish colony in Nova Scotia, a name he coined and now part of Canada. The venture proved a costly failure in which he lost much of his personal fortune. However, it cannot be regarded as a complete failure as long as its citizen’s pride in the name survives. One of his more interesting roles was ‘Master of Requests for Scotland’ in which his duty was to dissuade “rapacious and beggarly” Scots who came south in search of pickings from the London Court. In 1619, an edict was passed on his recommendation, which allowed for only “gentlemen of good qualitie” to enter England and all “vagrant persones who come to England to cause trouble or bring discredit on their country” to be apprehended and sent home ‘tae think again’. In effect, Alexander ruled Scotland for his King with an iron will and consummate ability, albeit a blinkered patriotism in what were troubled times. Alexander ‘The Secretar’ was not popular, but he was an Episcopalian and naturally went against the Covenanting majority in the land of his birth. Sir William Alexander died in London on the 12th of September, 1640. His remains were taken to Scotland and interred in ‘Bowie's yle’ in the High Kirk, in Stirling.