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Edinburgh Castle
Edinburgh Castle

Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, lived from 1580 to 4 April 1661. He was a professional soldier who became a field marshal in the Swedish army before returning to command the Scottish Covenanter army during the Wars of the Thee Kingdoms. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

Alexander Leslie was the illegitimate son of Captain George Leslie of Balgonie, at the time the Captain of Blair Castle. As a child, Alexander was fostered out to the Campbells of Glenorchy. In around 1605 he left Scotland to join the Dutch army. He was an effective officer under Sir Horace Vere in the Netherlands, and in 1608 transferred to the Swedish army, where he served under King Charles IX and King Gustavus Adolphus. When Sweden became involved in the Thirty Years' War in 1618, Leslie took an active part. In 1626, he was promoted to lieutenant-general and knighted by Gustavus and by 1625 had risen to the rank of colonel.

In 1627 King Gustavus Adolphus knighted Alexander Leslie and promoted him to the rank of lieutenant-general. He subsequently played an active part in recruiting many Scottish volunteers to the Swedish cause, one of whom was David Leslie, who would act as Alexander Leslie's second-in-command in the Scottish Covenanter army of the 1640s. Alexander Leslie was promoted to major-general in 1631, and was badly wounded early the following year. In 1636 Leslie was appointed a field marshal in the Swedish army and was largely responsible for their spectacular victory over the Holy Roman Empire and Saxony at the Battle of Wittstock on 4 October 1636.

In 1638, Alexander Leslie was asked to return to Scotland to take charge of the Scottish Covenanter army during the Bishops' Wars. He took with him many of the battle-hardened Scottish officers he had recruited into the Swedish army, including David Leslie, who became his second in command. He also brought from Sweden his arrears of pay in the form of a large quantity of arms and ammunition. Leslie made a rapid impact, capturing Edinburgh Castle from the Royalists before defeating the English at the Battle of Newburn and capturing Newcastle, forcing Charles I to negotiate.

In 1641 Leslie was made Lord Balgonie and Earl of Leven by Charles I, who also made him captain of Edinburgh Castle and a privy councilor. In 1642 he briefly led a Scottish Covenanter army against Irish rebels. Then, in 1644, in an act that many saw as a betrayal of the King, Leslie took command of the Scottish Covenanter army that marched into England in support of the English Parliamentarians, taking a leading role in the Parliamentary victory at the Battle of Marston Moor. After Charles I's surrender to David Leslie at Newark in May 1646, it was Alexander Leslie who held him prisoner at Newcastle and who, after efforts involving Alexander Henderson to persuade the King to accept the Covenant had failed, handed Charles over to English Parliamentary forces in January 1647.

Leslie was placed in command of a new Scottish Covenanter army, this time with the intention of helping restore Charles II to the throne of England and defeat the Parliamentarians. In July 1650 Oliver Cromwell pre-empted the planned Scottish invasion with an invasion of his own. Cromwell's forces were initially resisted very effectively by Alexander Leslie, by now 70 years old. But after he handed over command to David Leslie, the Scots lost the decisive Battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650 and Cromwell occupied much of southern Scotland.

Alexander Leslie did not take part in Charles II's ill-fated 1651 invasion of England. He was, however, captured by English Parliamentary cavalry in August 1651 and imprisoned in the Tower of London. The intervention of the Queen of Sweden, and payment of a large bond, secured his release in 1654, and he returned to Balgonie Castle in Fife. It was there that he died in 1661.

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