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Significant Scots
Alexander Cunningham


CUNNINGHAM, ALEXANDER, fifth earl of Glencairn, was the son and successor of William the fourth. earl, and the seventeenth in descent from the founder of his family, Warnebald de Cunningham, a Norman settler under Hugh de Moreville, constable of Scotland, who died in 1162.

There is hardly any patriotic name in Scottish history entitled to more of the credit of a firm and zealous pursuit of liberty, than Alexander earl of Glencairn. His father, having been one of the Scottish nobles taken prisoner at Solway Moss, was gained over in England to the interest of the Reformation, which he undertook to advance in his own country. The subject of this memoir was therefore introduced, at an early period, into the political convulsions which took place, on account of religion and the English alliance, during the minority of queen Mary. He succeeded his father in 1547, and, on the return of John Knox in 1554, was one of those who openly resorted to hear him preach. The reformer was afterwards received by the earl at his house of Finlayston, where the sacrament of the Lord’s supper was dispensed, according to the forms of the church of Geneva, to his lordship, his tenantry, and friends. When Knox was summoned to appear before a Romish tribunal, on a charge of preaching heretical doctrine, he was recommended, by the earl and others, to write a letter of remonstrance to the queen regent, which Glencairn was so bold as to deliver into her own hands. It was of this letter that the queen said, in handing it afterwards to archbishop Beaton, "Please you, my lord, to read a pasquil." The earl of Glencairn was one of those eminent persons who, in 1557, associated themselves in a covenant, for the purpose of promoting the establishment of the reformed religion in Scotland. This body has received in history the well-known title of "Lords of the Congregation." In all the subsequent struggles with existing authority, Glencairn took an active and prominent part. Being deputed, in 1558, along with his relative, Sir Hugh Campbell of Loudoun, to remonstrate with the queen against her intended prosecution of the preachers, she answered, that "in spite of all they could do, these men should be banished, although they preached as soundly as ever did St Paul." The earl and Sir Hugh then reminded her of a former promise to a different effect; to which she answered, that "the promises of princes were no further to be urged upon them for performance than it stood to their conveniency." The two deputies then informed her, that "if these were her sentiments, they would no longer be her subjects;" which staggered her so much, that she said she would advise. In May, 1559, when the reformers drawn together at Perth found it necessary to protect themselves by force of arms from the designs of this princess, letters were sent into Ayrshire, as into other parts of Scotland, desiring all the faithful to march to that town, in order to defend the good cause. The reformers of Ayrshire met at the kirk of Craigie, where, on some objections being started, the earl of Glencairn, "in zeal burst forth in these words, ‘Let every man serve his conscience. I will, by God’s grace, see my brethren in St Johnston: yea, albeit never a man shall accompany me; I will go, if it were but with a pick (mattock) over my shoulder; for I had rather die with that company than live after them.’" Accordingly, although the queen regent planted guards on all the rivers in Stirlingshire to prevent his approach, he came to Perth in an incredibly short space of time, with twelve hundred horse and thirteen hundred foot, having marched night and day in order to arrive in time. The appearance of so determined a leader, with so large a force, subdued the regent to terms, and might be said to have saved the cause from utter destruction. Besides serving the reformers with his sword and feudal influence, he wielded the pen in the same cause. Knox has preserved, in his History of the Reformation, a clever pasquinade by the earl upon a shameless adherent of the old religion – the hermit of Loretto, near Musselburgh. After he had seen the triumph of the protestant faith in 1559-60, he was nominated a member of queen Mary’s privy council. Zeal for the same religion afterwards induced him to join in the insurrection raised against the queen’s authority by the earl of Murray. After her marriage to Bothwell, he was one of the most active of the associated lords by whom she was dethroned. At Carberry, where he had an important command, when the French ambassador came from the queen, promising them forgiveness if they would disperse, he answered, with his characteristic spirit, that "they came not to ask pardon for any offence they had done, but to grant pardon to those who had offended." After the queen had been consigned to Lochleven, he entered her chapel at Holyrood House with his domestics, and destroyed the whole of the images and other furniture. This he did from the impulse of his own mind, and without consulting any of his friends. In the whole of the subsequent proceedings for establishing the protestant cause under a regency, he took a zealous part. His lordship died in 1574, and was succeeded by his son William, the sixth earl.


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