Scottish poet and statesman
Born c.1567 Died 1640
William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, most generally known as Sir William Alexander, son of Alexander Alexander of Menstrie (Clackmannanshire), was born at Menstrie House, near Stirling, about 1567. The family was old and claimed to be descended from Somerled, Lord of the Isles, through John, lord of the Isles, who married Margaret, daughter of Robert II. William Alexander was probably educated at Stirling grammar school. There is a tradition that he was at Glasgow University; and, according to Drummond of Hawthornden, he was a student at the university of Leiden. He accompanied Archibald, 7th earl of Argyll, his neighbour at Castle Campbell, on his travels in France, Spain and Italy. He married, before 1604, Janet, daughter of Sir William Erskine, one of the Balgonie family.
Introduced by Argyll at court, Alexander speedily gained the favour of James VI, whom he followed to England, where he became one of the gentlemen-extraordinary of prince Henry's chamber. For the prince he wrote his Paraenesis to the Prince (1604), a poem in eight-lined stanzas on the familiar theme of princely duty. He was knighted in 1609. On the death of Henry in 1612, when he wrote an elegy on his young patron, he was appointed to the household of prince Charles. In 1613 he (in conjunction with Thomas Foulis and Paulo Pinto, a Portuguese) received from the king a grant of a silver-mine at Hilderston near Linlithgow, from which, however, neither the Crown nor the undertakers made any profit. In 1613 he began a correspondence with the poet Drummond of Hawthornden, which ripened into a lifelong intimacy after their meeting (March 1614) at Menstrie House, where Alexander was on one of his short annual visits. In 1614 Alexander was appointed to the English office of master of requests, and in July of the following year to a seat on the Scottish privy council.
In 1621 he received from James I enormous grants of land in America embracing the districts of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Gaspe Peninsula, accompanied by a charter appointing him hereditary lieutenant of the new colony. This territory was afterwards increased on paper, so as to include a great part of Canada. Alexander proceeded to recruit emigrants for his 'New Scotland', but the terms he offered were so meagre that he failed to attract any except the lowest class. These were despatched in two vessels chartered for the purpose, and in 1625 he published an Encouragement to Colonies in which he vainly painted in glowing colours the natural advantages of the new territory. The enterprise was further discredited by the institution of an order of baronets of Nova Scotia, who were to receive grants of land, each 6 square miles in extent, in the colony for a consideration of £150. An attempt made by the French to make good their footing in the colony was frustrated (1627) by Captain Kertch, and Alexander's son and namesake made two expeditions to Nova Scotia. But Alexander found the colony a constant drain on his resources, and was unable to obtain from the treasury, in spite of royal support, £6,000 which he demanded as compensation for his losses. He received, however, a grant of 1,000 acres in Armagh.
He was the king's secretary for Scotland from 1626 till his death, and in 1630 was created Viscount Stirling and Lord Alexander of Tullibody. In the same year he was appointed master of requests for Scotland, and in 1631 an extraordinary judge of the Court of Session. Meanwhile French influence had gained ground in America. In 1631 Charles sent instructions to Alexander to abandon Port Royale, and in the following year, by a treaty signed at St Germain-en-Laye, the whole of the territory of Nova Scotia was ceded to the French.
Alexander continued to receive substantial marks of the royal favour. In 1631 he obtained a patent granting him the privilege of printing a translation of the Psalms, of which James I was declared to be the author. There is reason to believe that in this unfortunate collection, which the Scottish and English churches refused to encourage, Alexander included some of his own work. He had been commanded by James to submit translations, when James was carrying out his long entertained wish to supplant the popular version of Sternhold and Hopkins; but these the royal critic had not preferred to his own. It has been assumed from the scanty evidence that when Alexander was entrusted with the editing and publishing of the Psalms by Charles I he had introduced some of his own work. In 1633 he was advanced to the rank of earl, with the additional title of Viscount Canada, and in 1639 he became Earl of Dovan. His affairs were still embarrassed and he had begun to build Argyll House at Stirling. In 1623 he received the right of a royalty on the copper coinage of Scotland, but this proved unproductive. He therefore secured for his fourth son the office of general of the Mint, and proceeded to issue small copper coins, known as 'turners', which were put into circulation as equivalent to two farthings, although they were of the same weight as the old farthings. These coins were unpopular, and were reduced to their real value by the privy council in 1639. Alexander died in debt on the 12th of February 1640, at his London house in Covent Garden.
He was succeeded in the title by his grandson William, who died a few months later, and then by his son Henry (d. 1644), who became the 3rd earl. When Henry's grandson Henry, the 5th earl (1664-1739), died, the earldom became dormant, and in 1759 it was claimed by William Alexander (see below). In 1825 the earldom was claimed by Alexander Humphreys Alexander, who asserted that his mother was a daughter of the first earl. The charter of 1639, however, on which his title rested, was declared in 1839 to be a forgery. See W. Turnbull, Stirling Peerage Claim (1839).
All Alexander's literary work was produced after 1603 and before his serious absorption in politics about 1614. The verse may be classed in three groups, (a) poetical miscellanies and minor verse, (b) dramas, (c) the heroic fragment on Jonathan and the long poem on Doomesday.
(a). His earliest effort was Aurora, containing the first fancies of the author's youth (London, 1604), a miscellany of sonnets, songs and elegies, showing considerable formal felicity, if little originality, in the favourite themes of the Elizabethan sonneteers. To this may be added the Paraenesis to Prince Henry (u.s.), An Elegie on the Death of Prince Henrie (u.s.), and shorter pieces, including a sonnet to Michael Drayton, who had called Alexander "a man of men", and lines on the Report of the Death of Drummond of Hawthornden.
(b). He wrote four tragedies, Darius (1603), Croesus (1604), The Alexandraean (1605), and Julius Caesar (1607). The first and second were published together in 1604 as the Monarchicke Tragedies, a title which was afterwards given by Alexander to a print of the four works in the editions of 1607 and 1616. They are didactic poems rather than plays, a sequence of reflections of the type of the Falls of Princes, the Mirror for Magistrates, or Lyndsay's Dialog between Experience and a Courteour (known also as the "Monarche"). It is very probable that the last suggested both motif and title. The pieces are dialogues rather than dramas: the choruses are of the 'Moralitas' type of Renaissance verse rather than classical, and the varied versification is unsuitable for representation. Yet they contain not a few fine passages in the soliloquies, notably one in Darius (IV., iii.) on the vanishing of "Those golden palaces, those gorgeous halls" as "vapours in the air", which recall Shakespeare's later fines in the Tempest.
(c). Of Jonathan, an Heroicke Poeme intended, only the first book (105 eight-lined stanzas) was written. Doomesday, or The Great Day of the Lord's Judgement (1614) is a dreary production in twelve books or 'hours', extending to nearly 12,000 lines. It is written in eight-lined stanzas.
In addition to the pamphlet on Colonization, he wrote (1614) a continuation or "completion" to the third part of Sidney's Arcadia, which appears in the fourth and later editions of the Romance; and a short critical tract entitled Anacrisis, a "censure" of poets, ancient or modern. A collected edition of his works appeared in his lifetime (1637) with the title Recreations with the Muses (folio). Aurora and the Elegie were not included. A complete modern reprint The Poetical Works now first collected and edited (but without the editor's name on the title-page) was published in 3 vols. 8vo. in 1870 (Glasgow: Maurice Ogle & Co.). His Encouragement to Colonies was edited for the Bannatyne Club by David Laing (1867), and by Edmund F. Slafter, in Sir W. Alexander and American Colonization (Prince Society, Boston, Massachusetts, 1865).
See also E. F. Slafter, The Copper Coinage of the Earl of Stirling, 1632 (1874); The Earl of Stirling's Register of Royal Letters relative to the Affairs of Scotland and Nova Scotia from 1615-1635 (ed. C. Rogers, with biographical introduction (1884-1885); C. Rogers, Memorials of the Earl of Stirling (1877); the introduction to the Works (1870) referred to above; the Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, passim; and the bibliography for William Drummond of Hawthornden. (A.B.G.; G.G.S.)
Being the entry for STIRLING, WILLIAM ALEXANDER, EARL OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.