Military Wiki
Born 1582
Died 4 (aged -1579–-1578) April 1661 (aged 78–79)
Place of death Balgonie Castle, Fife, Scotland
  •  Kingdom of Scotland
  •  Dutch Republic
  •  Kingdom of Sweden
  • Captain (Netherlands)
  • Field Marshal (Sweden)

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, and a mother sometimes described as "A wench in Rannoch".[1] He was a member of the family of Leslie of Balquhain.

At an early age, Alexander was fostered out to the Campbells of Glenorchy.[2] 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 perhaps 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

Men of Mackay's Regiment in the service of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years War

In Dutch Service

Alexander Leslie entered Dutch service in 1605, and eventually attained the rank of captain in the Dutch States Army.[3]

In Swedish Service

In 1608, he transferred to the Swedish army where he served with distinction. 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, replacing Colonel Alexander Seaton and the Scottish regiment of Donald Mackay who had been holding the town on behalf of the Danes. Leslie continued the successful defense of the town against Albrecht von Wallenstein's imperial army in what effectively constituted Sweden's entrance into the Thirty Years' War, Gustav II Adolf also sending eight warships to help raise the siege.[4]

In 1631, Leslie organized English and Scottish troops raised for the Swedish army by James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, then the 3rd Marquis of Hamilton and was promoted Major-General. Leslie was badly wounded in February 1632 near Hamburg. Despite his injury, Leslie was appointed Field Marshal 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, a fact related by Banér himself in his report of the battle to Axel Oxenstierna.

Leslie was furious with Banér and in his own account of the battle infers there had been a dispute about the tactics for the day. As it was, Leslie was forced to sacrifice many of his veteran troops in the process of saving Banér's men from being routed. Leslie intimated to Oxenstierna that he would stand down from Swedish service but was persuaded to remain and restructure the Army of the Weser. However, by 1637, Leslie was in Scotland preparing the way for his final retirement from Swedish service.

Return to Scotland

Traditional "Blue Banner" insignia used by Reformed Presbyterian Churches

In 1638, events in his native country again compelled him to return to Scotland, where he was appointed "lord general in command" of the Covenanters army by the Scottish administration,[5] 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. However, support among the Presbyterians of Scotland was widespread and the Covenanters' army swelled to over 20,000 men. From 1639 they rallied under a flag bearing the motto 'For Christ's Crown and Covenant'. Most of the officers of the Army of the Covenant were veterans of Swedish service brought out of the continental wars to form Scotland's first professional army. This took place after careful negotiations in the Swedish Riksråd (state council) in which Leslie worked behind the scenes to ensure Chancellor Oxenstierna allowed up to 300 officers to be decommissioned along with an unknown number of ordinary soldiers.[6] He was also able to bring from Sweden his arrears of pay in the form of cannon and muskets as 'parting gifts' and these were transported for him on Swedish naval vessels. Nonetheless, the payment arrangement meant that the Swedes could claim that they were not supporting rebellion in Scotland, only paying off a debt.

Leslie's reputation, guile and discretion were frequently noted by contemporary observers including the English officer John Aston and intellectual, Sir Cheney Culpeper who both commented on his qualities in their writings. His reputation was well earned and he took Edinburgh Castle without the loss of a single man. In the First Bishops' War, Leslie marched his army to Duns Law where he encamped and awaited the arrival of the Royalist forces. Rather than fight them when they arrived, Leslie invited the Royalist officers to dinner before allowing them to inspect his army. Having seen they were out-classed by the Army of the Covenant, the Royalists chose to retire rather than to engage Leslie's superior forces. In the Second Bishops' War, Leslie conducted a brilliant campaign in the North of England, overwhelming the Royalists at the Battle of Newburn.[7] 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 and bestowed upon him, at Holyrood, the titles of Lord Balgonie and Earl of Leven, 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. After Martston Moor Leven commanded the allied army to York which surrendered within a fortnight. He also took Newcastle later in the year. 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 was 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.

One known descendant is writer and musician, Adam S. Leslie.

Nursery rhyme and Song

The nursery rhyme "There was a crooked man" is allegedly 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.[8]

The song "General Lesley’s March" is said to have been sung by Scottish soldiers during the wars of the Covenant in the 1640s, though it is more likely to be a mockery of the Covenanters:

When to the kirk we come,

We'll purge it ilka room, Frae popish relics, and a' sic innovation, That a' the world may see, There's nane in the right but we,

Of the auld Scottish nation.[9]

NB this is either a later version or a forgery. In Scots 'When' is rendered 'Whan' and in seventeenth century Scots usually spelled 'quhan'.

See also


  1. Sir James Balfour Paul, The Complete Scots Peerage, V, p.373; Grosjean and Murdoch, SSNE no.1; Ailes, Military Migration p.32 and Stevenson, ODNB
  2. Murdoch, Network North, p.42
  3. Stevenson, ODNB, Ailes, Military Migration, p.32
  4. Grosjean, An Unofficial Alliance, pp.68-68
  5. Furgol, A Regimental History of the Covenanting Armies; Ailes, Military Migration, p.32; Stevenson, ODNB
  6. Grosjean, An Unofficial Alliance, pp.168-182; Grosjean and Murdoch, ‘The Riksråd Debates'
  7. Furgol, Beating the Odds, pp.33-59
  8. "There was a crooked man" at
  9. W Scott, Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Borders


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