J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

Visiting the Roots of William Alexander?

Today I visited Argyll’s Lodging in Stirling, Scotland, a stone’s roll down the crag from Stirling Castle. Before it was bought and expanded to its present dimensions (and more) by the Earl of Argyll, this building was the main residence of William Alexander, the first Earl of Stirling, in the early 1600s. And that provides the tenuous Revolutionary War connection that made me put Stirling on my itinerary.

A top American general also named William Alexander (1726-1783) claimed to be the eldest grandson of the first Earl of Stirling and thus the rightful Earl of Stirling himself. As such, he could have been heir to vast grants of land along the northern North American coast; the first earl had pushed the colonization of Nova Scotia.

It’s not clear to me how solid Alexander’s genealogical claim was. He was born in New York, but the first earl and his eldest son did have links to the New World. What’s definite is that Alexander built up his mother’s mercantile business, married into the Livingston family, and became an aide to Gov. William Shirley of Massachusetts during the French wars of mid-century.

While in London in 1760, Alexander laid claim to the vacated title of the Earl of Stirling. The direct line of heirs had petered out because the title didn’t come with enough money to make it worthwhile to pursue. Alexander argued that he was the most direct living male descendant of the first earl, and some Stirling relatives supported his claim. In 1762 the House of Lords declared that Alexander hadn’t proved his case and had no right to the title of earl.

Nevertheless, Alexander went back to North America calling himself “Lord Stirling.” He built a big mansion in New Jersey, and was active in the militia. During the Revolution, he naturally sided with the Americans rather than with Parliament. Gen. George Washington admired Alexander for his personal bravery and dedication, though his battlefield record was about as mixed as Washington’s own. Everyone referred to the man as “Lord Stirling.”

And that’s actually what intrigues me most about the man. The American Revolutionaries were building a republic, but they still showed a lot of deference to aristocratic titles. Bostonians remembered Earl Percy with respect, even though he commanded the British troops during their bloody march through Menotomy. Everyone always called Gen. von Steuben “the Baron.” The people of Massachusetts knew Agnes Surriage was a tavern serving-maid before Sir Harry Frankland fell in love with and eventually married her, but when she traveled through provincial lines to Boston in 1775 provincial officers referred to her as “Lady Frankland.”

Old habits are hard to break.


Lord Stirling said...

Maj.Gen. Lord Stirling did not claim succession as a grandson of the first Earl of Stirling. He claimed as a descendant of a common ancestor of the first Earl. This is possible under Scots Peerage Law but not under English Peerage Law. The Earldom of Stirling is a Scots Peerage title and Scots Peerage Law applies. I claimed the dormant Earldom of Stirling by a similar succession. My blog site is "Europe" (http://europebusines.blotspot.com/)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the correction about Gen. William Alexander’s claim. As I said, I’m unclear on the genealogy, and the sources I found weren’t any clearer. I found it interesting that some of the last House of Lords-recognized earl’s nephews accepted/supported the American claimant’s cause, and wish I understood more about why they were willing to set aside their own (greater?) claims.

I found a typo in your website U.R.L. above, so here’s a clickable link for folks who want to visit “Europe”.

Lord Stirling said...

Thanks for the corrected link to my blog.

There were no nephews in line of succession considering the rules of male primogeniture. The direct male heirs of the first Earl had all died out. The rules of Scots Peerage titles reflect Scottish values pertaining to Scottish history and clan history (the Earl of Stirling is Chief of Clan Alexander). In Scotland the titles are important as they are a link to the history of the nation as a whole and a link to the Clan as a whole. A clan without a Chief is a broken clan. I would suspect that any relatives of the 5th Earl would want the title to live on for these reasons. Stirling