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Origins: There was a Crooked Man

Alexander Leslie; artist unknown

There was a crooked man
Who walked a crooked mile,
He found a crooked sixpence
Upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat,
That caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together
In their little crooked house.

This cheerful little rhyme supposedly describes the career of one General Sir Alexander Leslie (c.1580-1661), a Scottish soldier who also served in the Dutch and Swedish military.

The word ‘crooked’ here is used not to suggest an ageing and gnarled old codger, but dishonesty and a lack of loyalty.

The story goes that, before the Thirty Years War ( 1618-1648), Lesile fought in the Dutch army, then the Swedish army where he rose through the ranks, becoming a colonel and eventually being knighted in 1627 by the Swedish King for his bravery.

Post knighthood, Leslie returned to Scotland where he took it upon himself to raise an army an seize Edinburgh Castle from the Loyalists, a feat he  purportedly managed with out the loss of a single life.

He then turned his attentions to England, crossing the border (the crooked mile) and led the Scots to victory against the King in the Battle of Newburn in 164o, took control of Newcastle and forced Charles I into an agreeing that the monarch had no Divine Right to be spiritual leader of the Presbyterian Church. The next year, following Leslie’s switching of allegiances, King Charles bestowed upon him the titles of Earl of Levin and Lord Balgonie. Leslie amassed a small fortune in the process (a crooked sixpence).

But! In 1644 Leslie switched allegiances again, raised another army and fought for the Solemn League and Covenant, a treaty that bound together the Parliaments of Scotland and England against Royalist forces and again marched southwards to join Lord Fairfax in the defeat of Prince Rupert at the Battle of Marston Moor.

Phew. That’s two switches of allegiance so far. General Sir Leslie was clearly one confused chappie. But it’s not over yet.

In 1646 King Charles surrendered to the Scots believing for some reason that he would be safe with them. He wasn’t. Leslie once again switched his allegiance and turned poor Charlie over to the English who executed him. Nice.

The alliance between English and Scots held firm for some time following the execution (they all lived together in a crooked little house).

As interesting a story as this is, the rhyme is not recorded until 1840 when it was collected by James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipp, so it’s difficult to prove its veracity.

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