In the late summer of 1831 an unusual ceremony took place at the gatehouse of Edinburgh Castle in Scotland. It involved an exchange of rock and soil and was a key part of a scheme to sell thousands of acres of Canadian land. Eight years later details of the ceremony would feature in one of the most sensational forgery trials held in the Scottish city during the 19th century.
The man at the centre of the ceremony was an English schoolmaster calling himself Alexander Alexander and claiming to be the heir of the 1st Earl of Stirling, William Alexander, who more than 200 years earlier had headed a Scottish attempt to colonise part of North America to be known as New Scotland.
Part of the 1st Earl’s ultimately abortive attempts to rival New England further south on the Atlantic coast involved selling off parcels of land to rich Scots adventurers who were to be known as Baronets of Nova Scotia. A 1617 law created a Scottish national registry of symbolic exchange of rock and soil which marked land transfers in the country. As few of the Scots were prepared to cross the Atlantic for this ceremony and exception to the law of sasine was made which allowed it to take place within the precincts of Edinburgh Castle. (Sasine a legacy of feudalism which governed the exchange of land in Scotland) This has led some, including Scottish cannabis users, to believe that part of Edinburgh Castle is officially Nova Scotian territory. The official records do not explain the exact legal fiction which allowed the ceremonies at Edinburgh Castle and there are those who argue that in fact Nova Scotia is part of Edinburgh.
In any case, Castle authorities are quick to quash any notion that because cannabis is now legal in Canada it is also permitted at the historic fortress.
Alexander Alexander had been born the son of a merchant in the English Midlands called William Humphrys, or Humphreys, in 1783. But his mother Hannah was an Alexander and it was through her that he claimed to be a descendant of the 1st Earl of Stirling.
The 5th Earl had died in 1739 without an obvious male heir. An American called William Alexander’s claim to the title was accepted by a Scottish court in 1759 but it was rejected by the House of Lords three years later. This did not stop him calling himself Lord Stirling when he served as one of George Washington’s generals in the American War of Independence.
It is not clear when the young Englishman decided he was the true Earl of Stirling. In 1802 he had travelled to France with his father to help put the family business interests there to rights. But father and son were interned in France after the short-lived Treaty of Amiens between the French and British again broke down into open war.
It was while in France that the son married an Italian exile who introduced him to high society fortune-teller Mademoiselle Marie Le Normand. She foretold high rank and status in the Englishman’s future.
He returned to England in 1814 and became a school master in Worcester. Ten years later he had his surname legally changed from Humphrys to Alexander. This was supposedly to honour his maternal grandfather.
A year later he successfully voted as the Earl of Stirling in the election of one of the 16 Scottish peers sent to sit in the House of Lords. His vote seems to have caught the election officials and many of the peers present at the Edinburgh vote off-guard. The self-declared Earl and his wife Fortuna then visited the fortress town of Stirling where they were treated as honoured guests.
In 1826, in the absence of any rival claimants, Edinburgh magistrates and the city’s Sheriff both recognised Alexander’s claim to the earldom.
But he had a problem, and he had been aware of it for a while. The North American land grant he claimed, which also included parts of Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin, could only be inherited by a direct male descendant from the 1st Earl of Stirling.
In 1823 he had contacted an English lawyer and genealogist who specialised in dormant peerages called Thomas Banks to help authenticate his claim. Banks went to Ireland, where the son of the 1st Earl from whom Alexander claimed descent had lived. There he claimed to have found a document which revealed that in 1639 Charles I had altered the Nova Scotia charter, the Carta Domini Willelmi Alexandri Equitis Dominii Et Baroniæ Novæ Scotiæ in America of 1621, to allow inheritance through a female. This document had been witnessed by the Archbishop of St. Andrews. It was claimed that the official copy of the amendment was part of a register which was known to have pages missing.
Alexander had another problem. Though the 1st Earl’s fourth son, known as John of Gartmore, existed there was no official record of a son called John of Antrim, Alexander’s supposed great grandfather. He would eventually claim that John of Antrim was the product of Gartmore’s second marriage -- a wedding that had for some reason gone unrecorded by officialdom.
In 1830 and again in 1831, and despite objections from three genuine Scottish Lords, Alexander succeeded in having his vote recorded in Edinburgh for a representative to sit in the Lords. Nevertheless, King William IV refused Alexander an audience as a peer of the realm.
In 1832, Alexander’s bid to cash in on his supposed inheritance moved forward with a proposal to set up a land company for Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Canadas. The company would sell land granted by the Crown to the 1st Earl that still remained unsettled. An advertisement was placed in The Times offering 63,000 acres in New Brunswick for sale. The owners of the newspaper inserted a notice a few days afterwards warning readers that the Colonial Office did not recognise Alexander's claims.
Alexander was by now constantly pestering the British authorities with claims that his rights as the heir to the 1st Earl were being ignored. He often signed himself “Proprietor and Hereditary Lieutenant of all Nova Scotia and Lord of the Dominion of Canada.” He protested against a 5,000-acre grant to the Irish Colonial Association, against the appointment of Lord Durham as Governor General without consultation, about the acquisition of land by the Nova Scotia Mining Company, and the incorporation of the New Brunswick and Nova Scotia Land Company.
His claims to the earldom were grinding their way through the Scottish courts with frequent delays. But they suffered what appeared to be a fatal blow in late 1836 when Lord Cockburn at the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled that while there was no doubt Alexander was Hannah’s son, there was no evidence that she was descended from John of Gartmore.
Alexander claimed he was in Paris when the decision came down in a bid to escape vindictive legal claims from creditors. His enemies would say he was concocting evidence of his descent from Gartmore.
Just over a year after the Cockburn judgement Alexander’s son Eugene in London claimed to have received a package through the post from an anonymous well-wisher. It contained a sealed packet marked “My Wife’s Papers” that had supposedly been stolen from Alexander's father, William Humphrys. Inside was what purported to be a portrait of John of Antrim, a family tree and letters discussing Antrim's funeral in Newtonards, in County Down.
A few months later Mlle. Le Normand, the fortune-teller, claimed she had also received a package from another anonymous well-wisher. This package included a map of Canada dated 1703 with notes on it and documents pasted on the back, all supporting Alexander’s claims. Among the papers were letters from two Frenchmen saying they had seen copies of Charles I's charter allowing inheritance through a female; a letter from John of Antrim saying he was a son of Gartmore's second marriage; and a copy of the inscription on Antrim's now vanished gravestone.
The timely arrival of so much evidence supporting Alexander's claims aroused official suspicion. Why would anyone in 18th century France care about matters which would only be of significance to one man, Alexander, more than a century later?
In February 1839 Scottish law officers raided Alexander's Edinburgh home. Alexander armed himself with a sword and locked himself in a room. Eventually, his Scottish lawyer, Ephraim Lockhart, persuaded him to give himself up.
The forgery trial which followed destroyed Alexander’s credibility. The jury heard that the Bishop of St. Andrews who supposedly witnessed the Charles I charter extract had died eight days before it was signed. Nor had he been fulfilling his role as Chancellor of Scotland at the time. Furthermore, some of the notations on the charter extract Banks claimed to have received had only come into use in 1806 and a number of the legal terms used in were wrong. One of the French notations with the 1703 map said the document ran to more than 50 pages. But only 12 pages were missing from the official registry book. And according to the date on it, the extract should have been in a previous, complete, volume of the registry.
The trial also heard that the 1703 map bore the imprint of a French Cartographer Royal who had not been appointed until 1718. Papers found in Alexander’s Edinburgh house revealed that he had promised the now 75-year-old Mlle. Le Normand £16,000 from the sale of his North American properties.
The Edinburgh jury found that though key documents had been forged, there was insufficient evidence according to Scots law to convict Alexander of either forgery or of knowingly uttering forged documents.
It was never clear whether anyone bought land from Alexander but a number of people, many dismissed by his defence lawyer as “Jews in London,” had loaned him money to help meet the research and legal fees associated with proving his claims. The fraud trial heard that the amount involved was around £13,000. Banks had parted company with Alexander in 1832 with only a meaningless 16,000-acre land grant from the supposed earl and an equally worthless Nova Scotia Baronetcy.
Alexander never gave up on his claims to nobility and the associated North American land. Shortly after the trial he left Scotland for Belgium, then moved to France and ultimately to the United States. He died in Washington D.C. in 1859.
The journey from Edinburgh Castle’s notional little piece of Canada to a court room in the city could just as easily resulted in Alexander spending years in a jail cell. As it was, in Scotland an accused could only be held on remand for a maximum of 110 days without trial and he was a free man again on May 3rd. He greeted the verdict by fainting.