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The Great Historic Families of Scotland
The Leslies of Leven


ALEXANDER LESLIE, Earl of Leven, the distinguished general who commanded the army of the Scottish Covenanters in the Great Civil War, was the son of Captain George Leslie of Balgonie in Fife, by his wife, a daughter of Stewart of Ballechin. Having made choice of the military profession, he obtained at an early age a captain’s commission in the regiment of Lord Vere, who was then assisting the Dutch in their memorable contest against Spain, and soon rendered himself conspicuous by his valour and military skill. He afterwards served with great distinction under Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, by whom he was promoted to the rank of field-marshal. His successful defence of Stralsund in 1628, against a powerful army of Imperialists, under the celebrated Count Wallenstein, gained him great reputation; and the citizens showed their gratitude to their deliverer by making him a handsome present, and having medals struck in his honour. In 1639, when the Scottish Covenanters were preparing to resist, by force if necessary, the attempts of Charles I. to compel them to submit to the new English Liturgy, General Leslie returned to his native country, along with a number of his brother officers, and was appointed to the chief command of the army which had been raised by the Committee of the Scottish Estates. His plans were sagaciously formed and promptly executed, and before the Covenanting forces marched towards the Borders to meet the hostile army which Charles was bringing against them from England, nearly all the strongholds of the country were in their possession. When their ill-advised sovereign reached the Tweed, he learned to his surprise and dismay that an army of at least twenty thousand men was encamped on Dunse Law in readiness to repel force by force, with the most influential nobles in Scotland as their chief officers, with experienced soldiers for their subalterns, and the whole under the command of a general who had gained in the Continental wars a high reputation for military skill. ‘We were feared,’ says Baillie, ‘that emulation among our nobles might have done harm when they should be met in the field; but such was the wisdom and authority of that old little crooked soldier, that all with ane incredible submission, from the beginning to the end, gave o’er themselves to be guided by him as if he had been great Solyman.’

Charles, finding that his soldiers had no heart to fight in his quarrel, and that he was quite unable to resist the formidable army which General Leslie had brought .against him, was fain to come to an amicable agreement, 28th June, 1639, which, however, was not of long duration. In the following year the Covenanters found it necessary to reassemble their forces, and Leslie again assumed the chief command, and marched into England at the head of a well-equipped army, consisting of twenty-three thousand infantry, three thousand cavalry, and a train of artillery. He defeated the royal forces that opposed his passage of the Tyne, and took possession of Newcastle and other important towns in the north of England. These successes led to the Treaty of Ripon, and a compliance on the part of the King with all the demands of the Scottish Covenanters.

In the following year (1641) Charles visited Scotland for the purpose of conciliating the Presbyterian party, and created General Leslie Lord Balgonie and Earl of Leven. When the Civil War at length broke out, and the Scottish Estates resolved to send assistance to the Parliament, the Earl once more took the command of their forces. He was present at the battle of Marston Moor, and commanded the left division of the centre of the Parliamentary forces, which was broken by the impetuous charge of Prince Rupert, and driven from the field. But David Leslie assisted in retrieving the day, which terminated in the total defeat of the royal army. While the Scots were engaged in the siege of Newark, the unfortunate monarch repaired.to Leslie’s camp, May 5th, 1646; but his obstinate refusal to comply with the proposals of the Covenanting leaders made it impossible for them to espouse his cause.

On the termination of the war General Leslie resigned his command on account of his great age, but was present as a volunteer at the battle of Dunbar in 1650. In the following year he was surprised and taken prisoner by one of Cromwell’s officers, along with a number of noblemen and gentlemen, who had met at Alyth, in Forfarshire, to concert measures for the restoration of Charles II. He was conveyed to London and confined in the Tower, but was ultimately set at liberty through the intercession of Christina, Queen of Sweden, and returned to Scotland in 1654. He died in 1661 at a very advanced age.

General Leslie had two sons, both of whom predeceased him. The elder, Alexander, Lord Balgonie, left by his wife—a sister of the Duke of Rothes—a son, also named ALEXANDER, and a daughter. The former succeeded his grandfather as second Earl of Leven; the latter married the, first Earl of Melville, and their son became the third Earl of Leven. The second Earl of Leven, who died in 1664, left two daughters, who were successively Countesses of Leven in their own right. The elder—Margaret, who married the second son of the seventh Earl of Eglinton—died without issue. Catherine, the younger, died unmarried. Her aunt, the Countess of Melville, was served heir to her in 1706, and the title devolved upon her son—

DAVID, third Earl of Leven and second Earl of Melville. He entered the service of the Duke of Brandenburg in 1685, and became colonel of a regiment of foot, with which he accompanied the Prince of Orange to England at the Revolution of 1688. He fought at Killiecrankie, and distinguished himself in the campaigns in Ireland and in Flanders. He attained the rank of lieutenant-general in 1706, and was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Scotland.

The two sons of the fifth Earl of Leven were officers in the army, and the younger, Alexander, served in the American War, and was second in command under Lord Cornwallis, who, in his dispatches, commends him in the highest terms. The elder, DAVID, sixth Earl, had four sons, three of whom entered the military service of their country. One was killed in the American War. The other two earned the reputation of brave and energetic officers, and both reached the position of lieutenant-general. ALEXANDER, the seventh Earl, married a daughter of John Thornton, of London, the eminent banker, whose munificent charities are mentioned with glowing eulogies in the ‘Life and Letters of Cowper,’ the poet. His eldest son, DAVID LESLIE-MELVILLE, eighth Earl of Leven, entered the navy, and attained the rank of vice-admiral. His two sons predeceased him. The elder, ALEXANDER, Viscount Balgonie, was an officer in the Grenadier Guards, and died in 1857, worn out by the hardships and privations of the Crimean War. On the death of the eighth Earl, in 1860, his estates, yielding £3,089 18s. a year, were inherited by his eldest daughter, Elizabeth Jane, who married Mr. T. B. Cartwright, son of the late Sir T. Cartwright, G.C.H., but the family titles passed to the Earl’s brother, JOHN THORNTON, whose eldest son—

ALEXANDER LESLIE-MELVILLE, tenth Earl of Leven, and ninth Earl of Melville, is now the head of the house. He has a small estate in Fife of 1,019 acres, with a rental of £1,761 11s.; and one in Nairn of 7,805 acres, yielding £1,317 4s. a year. The Balgonie estate, which belonged to General Leslie, the founder of the family, and has a rental of £5,102 6s., was sold by the eighth Earl a good many years before his death.


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