Alexander Cunningham, 5th Earl of Glencairn
Alexander Cunningham was the son of William Cunningham, 4th Earl of Glencairn by his first wife, Catherine Borthwick, the second daughter of William Borthwick, 3rd Lord Borthwick. He followed in his father's footsteps as a Protestant and was among the first of the Scots' nobility who concurred with the Scottish Reformation.
By 1540, Cunningham, who was then styled as Lord Kilmaurs, was associated with the cause of reform, writing a satirical poem about the Grey Friars, which was later reprinted by Knox in his "History of the Reformation in Scotland." Lord Kilmaurs succeeded as Earl of Glencairn upon the death of his father in 1548.
In 1555, on the return of John Knox to Scotland, he resorted openly to hear him preach. When the Reformer, at the request of the Earl Marischal, addressed to the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise a letter in which he earnestly exhorted her to protect the reformed preachers, and to consent to a Reformation in the church, Glencairn had the boldness to deliver it to Her Majesty, who, after glancing carelessly over it, handed to James Bethune, Archbishop of Glasgow, and contemptuously said: "Please you, my lord, to read as pasquil!".
In 1556, he entertained Knox at his house of Finlaystone House, when the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, after the manner of the Reformed church, was administered to his whole family and some friends. In December 1557 he was one of the leaders of the Reform Party who subscribed to the memorable Covenant which had been drawn up for the support and defence of the Protestant religion, and who thenceforce assumed the name of the Lords of the Congregation.
In 1559, in consequence of the rigorous proceedings against Protestants by the Queen Regent, he and his relative, Sir Hugh Campbell of Loudon, the Sheriff of Ayr, requested an audience of Her Majesty, at which they reminded her of her promises of religious toleration. On the Queen's replying that "promises ought not to be urged upon princes, unless they can conveniently fulfill them"; "then", they said, "since you are resolved to keep no faith with your subjects we will renounce our allegiance", an answer which induced her to stop her proceedings.
In May of that year, when the Reformers at Perth found it necessary to protect themselves by force of arms, Glencairn joined them with 1,200 horse and 1,300 foot, which he had raised in the west of the country. After the Protestant religion had been established by parliament in 1560, the earl was nominated a member of Queen Mary's Privy Council.
He and the Earl of Morton with William Maitland of Lethington were sent as ambassadors to Queen Elizabeth I of England with a proposal, for the strengthening of the bonds of amity between the two nations, that she should accept as a husband the Earl of Arran, the heir to the Scottish Crown, which she declined.
Glencairn was amongst the nobles who opposed the marriage of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Lord Darnley. Glencairn later had a principal command in the army embodied against the Queen in June 1567 at the 'battle' of Carberry Hill, and when the French ambassador came from the Queen, promising the forgiveness if they would disperse, he replied that "they came not to ask pardon for any offence they had done, but to grant pardon to those who had offended".
When Mary, Queen of Scots, was taken to Loch Leven Castle that month, Glencairn hastened with his domestics to the Chapel Royal of Holyroodhouse and destroyed all the sacred images, demolished the altar, tore down the pictures, and defaced all the ornaments.
A satirical poem against the Popish Party, entitled The Hermit of Allareit or Loretto, near Musselburgh, written by Lord Glencairn, and preserved in Knox's History of the Reformation, is also found in Sibbald's Chronicle of Scottish Poetry.
He was succeeded in the earldom by his eldest son: William Cunningham, 6th Earl of Glencairn.
Couché. A shakefork. Crest: on a helmet with coronet, a unicorn head. Supporters: two conies sejant.
- Anderson, William, The Scottish Nation, Edinburgh, 1867, vol.v, pps: 311-312.
- C. Rogers, History of the Chapel Royal of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1882), p.ccxl: Herries, Historie of the Reigne of Marie Queen of Scots (Edinburgh, 1836), p.97.
- Macdonald, William Rae, Scottish Armorial Seals, (Edinburgh: W. Green, 1904), p 67