Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, c.1580-1661

Distinguished Scottish soldier who achieved high rank in the Swedish army and led the Army of the Covenant in Scotland's alliance with the English Parliamentarians.

Portrait of Alexander Leslie, Earl of LevenAlexander Leslie was the illegitimate son of George Leslie, captain of Blair Castle in Atholl. He received no more than a rudimentary education and is said to have been illiterate. He enlisted as a soldier and fought under Sir Horace Vere in the Netherlands (1605-7), then transferred to the Swedish army as an ensign in 1608. He served under Charles IX and his successor, the Protestant champion Gustavus Adolphus, the "Lion of the North", leading a distinguished career in the Swedish service for the next thirty years.

In 1626, Leslie was promoted to lieutenant-general and knighted by Gustavus. In 1628, he successfully defended Stralsund against the Imperial commander Wallenstein and in 1630 he seized the island of Rügen for Sweden. He returned to Scotland to assist in recruiting and training the Scottish volunteers brought over to Gustavus by James, Marquis of Hamilton, in I631. Despite being severely wounded in the winter of 1631, Leslie fought at the battle of Lützen in November 1632, where Gustavus was killed. He continued in the Swedish service under Gustavus' successor Queen Christina and in 1636 was promoted to the rank of field marshal in the Swedish army. Leslie's distinguished service under Gustavus and Christina earned him an enduring reputation as Scotland's greatest soldier.

In 1638, Leslie returned to Scotland in response to the crisis brought about by the imposition of the Laudian prayer-book and the signing of the Scottish National Covenant. Leslie took command of the Army of the Covenant and organised its recruiting and training. Stern Presbyterian veterans who had served with Gustavus were invited to be his officers. In the Second Bishops' War (1640) Leslie easily brushed aside the King's men at the battle of Newburn, then captured the city of Newcastle and occupied Northumberland and Durham. In an attempt to win Leslie's allegiance, King Charles created him Earl of Leven and Lord Balgonie in October 1641.

Alexander Leslie, General of the Scottish army
Alexander Leslie, General of the Scottish Army

Leven commanded an army of 10,000 Covenanters against Irish rebels during 1642. However, he disliked the war of attrition that prevailed in Ireland and returned to Scotland, leaving Major-General Robert Monro to command in Ulster.

When the Scots signed the Solemn League and Covenant with the English Parliament, Leven led the Covenanter army that marched into England to fight against the King in January 1644. Leven's advance south was resisted by the Marquis of Newcastle. When the Marquis withdrew to York in April 1644, Leven joined forces with Lord Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester to besiege the city. Prince Rupert's march to relieve York resulted in the battle of Marston Moor (July 1644), where Leven had overall command of the Allied army. Believing the battle to be lost, however, Leven fled from the battlefield and is said to have galloped all the way to Leeds.

After Marston Moor, the Allied armies separated and Leven returned to the siege of Newcastle, which he stormed and captured in October 1644. He was reluctant to obey the English Parliament's orders to march further south because of the threat posed by the Marquis of Montrose in Scotland. He sent David Leslie with most of the Scottish cavalry against Montrose then abandoned the siege of Hereford early in September 1645 to march his whole army back to Scotland upon receiving news of Montrose's victory at Kilsyth. After Leslie's decisive victory over Montrose at Philiphaugh, however, Leven marched to besiege Newark. Exhausted by his years of campaigning, he left Leslie to conduct the siege and withdrew to Newcastle early in 1646. In May 1646, King Charles surrendered to the Scottish army at Newark and was quickly moved to Newcastle. The King remained under Leven's supervision until he was handed over to the English Parliament in 1647 — with Leven constantly urging him to take the Covenant and to make peace.

Leven refused to support the Engager invasion of England in 1648, but was appointed commander of all forces that might be raised for the defence of Scotland. By the time of the Third Civil War, Leven was aged around seventy and exhausted from his years of campaigning. He offered his resignation as commander-in-chief of the Scottish army in June 1650 on the grounds of age and infirmity but, under threat of an imminent English invasion, the Scottish Parliament refused to accept it. In practice, day-to-day control of army operations was delegated to David Leslie while Leven retained overall strategic command. Leven directed the manoeuvres against Cromwell's invading army that preceded the battle of Dunbar but resigned effective command to Leslie for the battle itself. Although he accepted responsibility for the defeat, Leven was exonerated by Parliament, which yet again refused his attempts to resign.

Leven did not accompany the Scots-Royalist army that invaded England with Charles II in 1651. He was arrested with other Scottish leaders by English troops in August 1651 and held prisoner in England until 1654, then retired to his estates in Fifeshire. He died in April 1661.

Leven married Agnes Renton (d.1651) at an unknown date in his early life. They had two sons and five daughters. Both sons predeceased him and the earldom of Leven passed to his grandson, also called Alexander Leslie.


Henry Paton, Alexander Leslie, first earl of Leven, DNB 1892

Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)

Stuart Reid, Dunbar 1650: Cromwell's most famous victory (Osprey 2004)

David Stevenson, Alexander Leslie, first earl of Leven, Oxford DNB, 2004