Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon

Alexander Gordon, 4th Duke of Gordon, KT (18 June 1743 – 17 June 1827), styled Marquess of Huntly until 1752, was a Scottish nobleman, described by Kaimes as the "greatest subject in Britain", and was also known as the Cock o' the North, the traditional epithet attached to the chief of the Gordon clan.

The Duke of Gordon

The 4th Duke of Gordon
Duke of Gordon
Preceded byCosmo Gordon
Succeeded byGeorge Gordon
Personal details
Born(1743-06-18)18 June 1743
Gordon Castle, Fochabers, Kingdom of Great Britain
Died17 June 1827(1827-06-17) (aged 83)
Berkeley Square, London, England
Spouse(s)Jane Maxwell

Early life

Alexander Gordon was born at Gordon Castle, Fochabers, on 18 June 1743, the eldest son of Cosmo Gordon, 3rd Duke of Gordon, and his wife, Lady Catherine Gordon, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Aberdeen. He was educated at Eton and also possibly at Harrow. He succeeded as 4th Duke of Gordon in 1752. His younger brother was Lord George Gordon who incited the Gordon riots.

He was elected as a Scottish representative peer in 1767. He was appointed a Knight of the Thistle in 1775 and was created a Peer of Great Britain as Baron Gordon of Huntley, of Huntley in the County of Gloucester, and Earl of Norwich, in the County of Norfolk, in 1784. His new titles were not universally popular. He was thought to have taken designations to which he had no right. The Scots Peerage described the Gordon of Huntley peerage as "an absurd specimen of Peerage topography. The village of Huntley, four miles from Newent in Gloucestershire, had apparently no connection with the Gordon family or with the town of Huntly in North Britain."[1] George Edward Cokayne in The Complete Peerage says the following with regard to the Duke's choice of Norwich for his Earldom: "His great-grandmother was the daughter of the 5th Duke of Norfolk and 1st Earl of Norwich, but though that title had become extinct in 1777, the representation thereof did not vest in the issue of that lady."[2]

He was Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland from 1794 to 1806 and from 1807 to 1827. Between 1793 and 1827, he was Chancellor of King's College, Aberdeen. In addition, he was Lord Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire until 1808. He received the Order of the Thistle from King George III on 11 January 1775. The Dictionary of National Biography described him thus: "At the time of his marriage the Duke was reputed one of the handsomest men of his day."

He raised the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders) Regiment of Foot in 1794 for the French Revolutionary Wars. He was responsible for establishing the new village of Fochabers as well as those of Tomintoul and Portgordon in Banffshire. He is also credited as the founder of the Gordon Setter breed of dog, having popularised a 200-year-old breed during the 18th century and then formalised its breed standard in 1820.

He was an enthusiastic supporter and patron of the music of William Marshall (1748–1833), a Scottish fiddler and composer, and famous for his many strathspeys, who acted as steward of the Gordon household.[3]

Marriage and family

Gordon married firstly on 23 October 1767 at Ayton, Scottish Borders and again at Mr. Fordyce's house in Argyll Street, Edinburgh, Jane, the daughter of Sir William Maxwell, 3rd Baronet of Monreith, by his wife, Magdalen, daughter of William Blair, of Blair, Ayrshire. Jane was described by the diarist Sir Nathaniel Wraxall as a celebrated beauty. From 1787 she was part of the social centre of the Tory party and was described in the Female Jockey Club of 1794 as possessing "an open ruddy countenance, quick in repartée, and no one excelling her in performing the honours of the table, her society is generally courted". It went on to say that

"The Duchess triumphs in a manly mien;

Loud is her accent, and her phrase obscene."

She resided for some years in Edinburgh, but eventually refused to renew her residence at George Square, Edinburgh, because it was "a vile dull place". The Hon. Henry Erskine is said to have written the following lines to her:[4]

"That is, quoth he, as if the Sun should say,

A vile dark morning this – I will not rise to-day."

The Duke and Duchess's marriage was tempestuous from the start and neither made any particular effort to be faithful to the other. For some years before her death she was bitterly estranged from the Duke. While the Duchess circulated at the centre of society, the Duke lived in retirement at Gordon Castle. Elizabeth Grant mentions "The great width of the Spey, the bridge at Fochabers, and the peep of the towers of Gordon Castle from amongst the cluster of trees that concealed the rest of the building....the Duke lived very disreputably in this solitude, for he was very little noticed, and, I believe, preferred seclusion."[5]

The Duchess is best remembered for placing the King's shilling between her teeth to help recruitment to the Gordon Highlanders which were founded by her husband. However, she also possessed a capacity for match-making which was unrivalled. Of her five daughters, three were married to Dukes, (Richmond, Manchester and Bedford) and one to a Marquess (Cornwallis).

The Duchess of Gordon died at Pulteney's Hotel, Piccadilly, Middlesex, on 14 April 1812 and was buried at her beloved Kinrara near Aviemore. After her death Alexander married at the Kirk of Fochabers (probably Bellie) in July 1820, Jane [or Jean] Christie, who was a native of Fochabers and was then aged about 40. Alexander had previously had four children by her. After their marriage she lived in great style, not at the castle, but at a town house in Fochabers. She claimed that by residing at the Castle, which the Duke had rebuilt and enlarged considerably, none of his friends would visit him.

One of the Duke's illegitimate sons, Colonel Charles Gordon, was given the property of Glasterim near Port Gordon. Curiously, Colonel Gordon had been a great favourite with the late Duchess. Elizabeth Grant described Colonel Gordon as "much beloved by Lord Huntly, whom he exceedingly resembled, and so might have done better for himself and all belonging to him, had not the Gordon brains been of the lightest with him."[6]

Jane died on 17 June 1824. The Duke himself died suddenly at Mount Street, Berkeley Square, on 17 June 1827, and was buried in Elgin Cathedral. He was succeeded by his son George Gordon, 5th Duke of Gordon.

Legitimate issue

The Duke had a total of seven children by his first wife:

Gordon has twice been depicted incorrectly as fighting at the Battle of Waterloo: in the 1970 film Waterloo, where he was played by Rupert Davies, and the Dad's Army episode A Soldier's Farewell, where he was played by John Laurie.


  1. Quoted in The Complete Peerage Volume VI, p.5, footnote b.
  2. The Complete Peerage Volume VI, p.5, footnote c.
  3. The Fiddler's Companion
  4. The Poetical Epitome; Or, Elegant Extracts [in Poetry] Abridged from the Larger Volume [of V. Knox], Etc. 1807. pp. 312–.
  5. Grant, Elizabeth. Memoirs of a Highland Lady. Edinburgh: Canongate, 1992. Volume I, p 125.
  6. Grant, Elizabeth. Memoirs of a Highland Lady. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 1992. Volume I, p 112.
  7. Elizabeth Longford (Hastings, Max. The Oxford Book of Military Anecdotes, Oxford University Press US, 1986, ISBN 0-19-520528-6, ISBN 978-0-19-520528-2 page 194).
  8. The Complete Peerage Volume VI, p.6 footnote a.
Political offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Marchmont
Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland
Succeeded by
The Earl of Lauderdale
Preceded by
The Earl of Lauderdale
Keeper of the Great Seal of Scotland
Succeeded by
The Duke of Argyll
Honorary titles
New office Lord-Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire
Succeeded by
Marquess of Huntly
Peerage of Scotland
Preceded by
Cosmo Gordon
Duke of Gordon
Succeeded by
George Gordon
Peerage of Great Britain
New creation Earl of Norwich
Succeeded by
George Gordon
Baron Gordon of Huntley
Peerage of England
Preceded by
Mary Mordaunt
Baron Mordaunt
Succeeded by
George Gordon

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