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Alexander Leslie

Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven (1582 – 4 April 1661) was a Scottish soldier in Dutch, Swedish and Scottish service. Born illegitimate and raised as a foster child, he subsequently advanced to the rank of a Dutch captain, a Swedish Field Marshal, and in Scotland became lord general in command of the Covenanters, privy councillor, captain of Edinburgh Castle, Lord Balgonie and Earl of Leven.


Early life

Alexander Leslie was born in 1582 as an illegitimate son of a captain of Blair Castle, George Leslie.[1] "A wench in Rannoch", he was a member of the family of Leslie of Balquhain.

At an early age, Alexander was fostered out to the Campbells of Glenorchy. The fosterage bond was strong and still written about by Leslie into the 1640s. Indeed it was this link that brought Leslie into the orbit of the House of Argyll as Lord Lorne, the son of the marquis of Argyll was also a Glenorchy fosterling. This relationship also explains the presence of Campbells in the same regiments as Leslie in Sweden, most notably Captain Charles Campbell (Karl Kammel), whose portrait hangs to this day in Skokloster Castle in Sweden.

In foreign service

Alexander Leslie entered Dutch service in 1605, commanding a regiment as a captain.[1] In 1608, he transferred to the Swedish army,[1] where he advanced rapidly. In 1627 the Swedish monarch knighted Alexander Leslie, by now a full colonel. Gustavus Adolphus had a particular affection for him, trusting him with guarding the crucial strategic garrisons in North Germany while the main Swedish army established a foothold on the Baltic shoreline and advanced slowly southwards. In 1628, Leslie was appointed governor of besieged Stralsund, and successfully defended the town against Albrecht von Wallenstein's imperial army[1] in what constituted Sweden's entrance into the Thirty Years' War.

In 1631, Leslie organized English and Scottish troops raised for the Swedish army by James, 3rd Marquis of Hamilton.[1] and was promoted Major-General. Leslie was badly wounded in February 1632 near Hamburg. In early 1630s he trained troops in Muscovy.[2] Despite his injury, Leslie was appointed Field Marshal,[1] in 1636 and was one of the Swedish commanders at the Battle of Wittstock in the same year. Although the overall commander was Johan Banér, the spectacular victory was largely the work of Leslie and his subordinate, a fellow Scotsman, Lieutenant-General James King.

Return to Scotland


In 1638, events in his native country compelled him to return to Scotland, where he was appointed "lord general in command" of the Covenanters army by the Scottish administration,[1] and as such participated in the Bishops Wars. Scottish regiments were generally called into service by the lairds and clan chieftains obliging their tenants with feudal duty or coercion to send their kin into battle. Support among the Presbyterians of Scotland was widespread and the Covenanters' army swelled to over 20,000 men, from 1639 under a flag bearing the motto 'For Christ's Crown and Covenant'.

Leslie's reputation, guile and discretion brought many to his standard, the English officer John Aston and Sir Cheney Culpeper both recording this in their writings. Having amassed a considerable fortune abroad, he was able to bring from Sweden his arrears of pay in the form of cannon and muskets. He took the castle of Edinburgh by surprise, without the loss of a single man, for the Scottish Parliament against the few remaining Scottish Royalists in the field. He then conducted a brilliant campaign in the North of England, overwhelming the British Royalist forces at the Battle of Newburn. From there he took Newcastle with ease putting pressure on the King to come to a treaty with the Scottish Covenanters. Thus followed the treaty of London.

In 1641 King Charles I in reward for his extraordinary military achievements at home and abroad appointed Leslie to the Scottish Privy Council[1] and bestowed upon him, at Holyrood, the titles of Lord Balgonie and Earl of Leven,[3] and made him captain of Edinburgh Castle.

Leven eventually accepted command of the forces raised for the invasion of England, and was in consequence accused of having broken his personal oath to Charles. He rose to become a commander of the Scottish army from 1644 to 1646 and fought for the Solemn League and Covenant, which bound both the Scottish and English parliaments together against the Royalist forces in the Three Stuart Kingdoms.

In 1644, Leven commanded an army that he marched to England to take part in the unsuccessful Siege of York, before participating in the Battle of Marston Moor. The Covenanter and the Parliamentarian forces inflicted a crushing defeat on the Royalists under Prince Rupert. However, Leven himself fled the field when the Royalists counter-attacked in the middle of the battle. When Charles surrendered to the Scottish army again in 1646, he was placed under the charge of General Lord Leven, who returned him to the English in 1647.

Although over seventy years of age and still active, Leven passed actual command of the army to David Leslie, in whom he had complete confidence. However, splits within the Scottish Parliament saw the Royalist Engager faction oust the Argyll radicals. Hamilton led an ill-supported army over the border in support of the king. They were soundly defeated by English parliamentary forces of Oliver Cromwell. This led to the return of the Argyll faction in Scotland. After the execution Charles I, Argyll declared his son, Charles II, King of Great Britain and Ireland leading to an English invasion of Scotland. The Scottish Covenanters were defeated (1650) at the battle of Dunbar.

"In the new war, and in the disastrous campaign of Dunbar, Leven took but a nominal part, though attempts were afterwards made to hold him responsible".

In August 1651 Leven had the misfortune to be captured by a group of English dragoons, and was sent to London. He was confined to the Tower of London for some time, until he was released on providing a bond of £20,000, whereupon he retired to Northumberland. Sometime later in London he was arrested for a second time, but negotiations involving the queen of Sweden again obtained him his liberty.

He died in 1661 at Balgonie Castle, Fife, Scotland.


Alexander Leslie was married in 1637 to Agnes Renton (died 29 June 1651, daughter of David Renton of Billie), and in due course his eldest son, Gustav Leslie became a colonel in the Swedish Army.

Nursery rhyme

The nursery rhyme "There was a crooked man" is about Sir Alexander Leslie:

There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile, He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile. He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse. And they all lived together in a little crooked house.[4]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Ailes (2002), p.32
  2. ^ [1]
  3. ^ Ailes (2002), p.33
  4. ^ "There was a crooked man" at




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