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Significant Scots
Alexander Cunningham


CUNNINGHAM, ALEXANDER, the historian, was born in the year 1654, in the county of Selkirk, and parish of Ettrick, of which his father was minister. Having acquired the elementary branches of learning at home, he, according to the prevailing custom among Scottish gentlemen of that period, proceeded to Holland to finish his education, and it is believed that it was there that he made those friends, among the English refugees at the Hague, who afterwards contributed so powerfully to the advancement of his fortunes. He came over to England with the prince of Orange in 1688, and was honoured with the intimacy of the leading men by whom the revolution was accomplished, more especially with that of the earls of Sunderland and Argyle. After his return to Britain he was employed as tutor and travelling companion to the earl of Hyndford, and also to that nobleman’s brother, the honourable Mr William Carmichael, who was solicitor-general of Scotland in the reign of queen Anne. Mr Cunningham was afterwards travelling companion to lord Lorne, better known under the title of John the great duke of Argyle.

While Mr Cunningham was travelling on the continent with lord Lorne, he was employed by the administration in transmitting secret intelligence on the most important subjects, and he was also intrusted by the confederate generals of the allied army to make representations to the British court. When in Holland in 1703, along with lord Lorne, he met the celebrated Addison, and was received in the most gracious manner by the elector and the princess Sophia. It is supposed that it is to the knowledge of military affairs, acquired through his intimacy with lord Lorne, that the description of battles, and the other operations of war contained in Mr Cunningham’s history, owe that lucid distinctness for which they are so remarkable. During the year 1710, he travelled on the continent with lord Lonsdale.

Through the interest and friendship of Argyle and Sunderland, and of Sir Robert Walpole, Mr Cunningham, on the accession of George I, was sent as British envoy to the republic of Venice, where he remained from the year 1715 to 1720. His dispatches from Venice have been collected and arranged by Mr Astle. For many years after Mr Cunningham’s return from Italy, he passed his life in studious retirement in London. In 1735, he was visited by lord Hyndford, to whose father he had been tutor, who found him a very infirm old man, sitting in a great arm chair, habited in a night-gown. He is believed to have lived until the year 1737, and to have been buried in the vicars’ chancel of St Martin’s church, where an Alexander Cunningham lies interred, who died on the 15th May, 1737, in the 83d year of his age, which corresponds with the date of Mr Cunningham’s birth. He seems to have died rich, as, by his will, he directs his landlord not to expend more than eighty pounds on his funeral. He left the bulk of his fortune to his nephew, Archibald Cunningham of Greenock, reserving eight thousand pounds in trust for his nieces, and four thousand pounds to Cunningham of Craigends.

Mr Cunningham’s history of Britain, which was originally written in Latin, but afterwards translated into English by Dr William Thomson, is the performance on which his claim to be remembered by posterity chiefly rests. It was first published in 1787, many years after his death, in two vols. 4to. This work embraces the history of Britain from the Revolution of 1688 to the accession of George I.; and being written by a man who was not only well versed but deeply concerned in many of the political events of the period, and who was intimately acquainted with most of the leading men of the age, it is a production of great historical importance. His characters are drawn with much judgment and discrimination and generally with impartiality, although is prejudices against bishop Burnet and general Stanhope led him to do injustice to these two great men. He also indulged himself in severe sarcasms against the clergy and the female sex, a weakness for which it is difficult to find any excuse. His work abounds in just observations on the political events of the times, and his facts are related with much perspicuity, and occasionally with great animation, more especially where he treats of the operations of war.

"A coincidence of name has led to the confounding of this historian with Alexander Cunningham, the celebrated editor and emendator of Horace, and the antagonist of Bentley; but the evidence produced by Dr. Thomson in a very elaborate preface to Cunningham’s history, leads to a strong presumption that they were different persons: and a late writer, under the signature of Crito, in the Scots Magazine for October, 1804, seems to have put this fact beyond question; the editor of Horace having died at the Hague in 1730, and the historian at London in 1737." Tytler’s Life of Kaimes, vol. 1, Appen. No. 1.


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