IT was this week 363 years ago that General Sir Alexander Leslie, the 1st Earl of Leven, died after a long and adventurous life. He was also Lord Balgonie, and it was at Balgonie Castle in Fife that he died in his bed on April 4, 1661, at the age of 80 or 81.

We do not know his exact age because as is so often the case of people in that era, there is no record of his birth date, but it is believed to have happened in the year 1580. There is another reason that his birth was not recorded – he was born illegitimate in an age where that was still very much a mark of shame.

He may have been born out of wedlock, but that did not stop Leslie from gaining the highest military honours and becoming involved at the top level in the battles, intrigues and politicking that engulfed Scotland, England and Ireland in the mid-17th century.

At birth he was acknowledged as the son of George Leslie of Balgonie who was then the captain of Blair Castle. His mother was said to be “a wench in Rannoch” but there’s no definite recording of her or her name. Leslie was fostered by the Campbells of Glenorchy which gave him close family connections that he maintained all his life.

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As was often the case with children who had no chance of an inheritance – and because his illegitimacy barred him from entering the church – as soon as he finished his education, Leslie became a professional soldier. He was first signed up for duty in the Netherlands and probably served under the English commander Sir Horace Vere in the Dutch States Army, but he definitely was in the Swedish army by 1608 in the service of King Charles IX who was constantly at war with Poland and occasionally with Denmark and Russia.

Leslie distinguished himself in various battles and when Charles died and his teenage son Gustavus Adolphus came to the throne, Leslie was already a leading figure in the Swedish army.

The great Gustavus Adolphus is often recognised as one of the finest and most innovative military commanders of all time, and he seems to have had a special regard for Leslie, making him a general and knighting the Scot. It was a time of religious upheaval – and the king’s espousal of the Protestant cause suited Leslie. Later, he would recruit many Presbyterian Scottish officers and men to the Swedish military in the Thirty Years’ War. They included David Leslie – no relation – who would become his second in command.

Alexander Leslie was wounded at the Battle of Lützen in 1632, the same battle in which Gustavus Adolphus was killed. The king was succeeded by his seven-year-old daughter Christina, and Sweden entered a period of regency. Leslie’s return to duty saw him take effective control of the Swedish Army of the Weser and in 1636 he was appointed a field marshal. Later that year he was in joint command of the Swedish army as they won the Battle of Wittstock against the allied forces of the Holy Roman Empire.

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One of his officers in this engagement was General John Ruthven who was married to Leslie’s daughter Barbara.

Both Leslie and Ruthven had returned to Scotland by 1638, Leslie having been invited to command the army raised by the Scottish Covenanters (above) as they took control of the reins of government in Scotland.

King Charles I’s repeated attempts at imposing Anglican worship and bishops on Presbyterian Scotland saw Leslie command the Covenanters’ forces in the Bishops’ Wars where again he was successful, capturing Edinburgh Castle and winning the Battle of Newburn before occupying Newcastle and forcing the King to negotiate a peace treaty.

A curious development in 1641 saw Charles I create Leslie as Earl of Leven and Lord Balgonie in an attempt to get the country’s most famous soldier on his side. Leslie accepted the titles, and as part of his duty to Charles, he led a Scottish army against Catholic rebels in Ireland. By 1644, however, he had switched allegiance to the Covenanters again, and led their army into England to fight alongside the Parliament’s forces against the Royalists.

Now well into his 60s, Leslie was in command of the successful Parliamentary forces at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644. He later accepted the surrender of Charles I who he imprisoned in Newcastle.

Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army was now almost in control of England, and the action which besmirched Leslie’s name in the eyes of many then took place in January 1647 – he handed Charles I to the Parliament forces, in return for payments to compensate the Scots. Had Charles accepted the covenant, Leslie made it clear the King would not have been handed over.

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Leslie had amassed considerable wealth in his career, and now wished to retire to Balgonie Castle which he had acquired and refurbished. But the execution of Charles I sparked another conflict between Scotland and England, and Cromwell’s troops marched north to rout the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 – David Leslie, and not Alexander, commanded the Scots.

The following year Leslie was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Queen Christina intervened to seek the release of a man who was revered as a national hero in Sweden, and Leslie was able to spend the rest of his life at Balgonie.

There’s a curious postscript to Leslie’s life. Because of his cunning and his switching of sides, he is said to be the inspiration for this traditional nursery rhyme: There was a crooked man and he went a crooked mile, He found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile, He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse, And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Supposedly the “crooked stile” is the Border between England and Scotland, and the “crooked house” is the agreement between Leslie and the English Parliament. One wonders if the creators of the many plays, television programmes and films that feature a “crooked mile” in their title know they are referring back to Alexander Leslie.