Cunningham, Alexander, fifth Earl of Glencairn d. 1574, one of the principal promoters of the reformation in Scotland, was the third son of William, fourth earl, by his second wife Margaret (or Elizabeth), daughter and heiress of John Campbell of West Loudoun. Along with his father he was, as Lord Kilmaurs, a supporter of the reformed faith as early as 1540, and about this time composed a satirical poem against the order of Grey Friars, who had lately made themselves odious by their persecution of George Buchanan. It is entitled Ane Epistle direct fra the Holye Armite of Allarit (Thomas Douchtie, the founder of the chapel of our Lady of Loretto; formerly called Allarit or Alarett) to his Brethern the Gray Freires, and was printed by Knox in his History of the Reformation (Works, ed. Laing, i. 72-5). It was also published in Sibbald's Chronicle of Scottish Poetry. The fact that Knox printed the verses in his History may be accepted as at least sufficient proof of their pungency and terseness. The fifth earl of Glencairn was perhaps the most consistent supporter of Knox among all the nobles of Scotland, and one of the few actuated by a strictly religious or ecclesiastical zeal. His valuable characteristics were at an early period discerned by Sir Ralph Sadler. Writing to Henry VIII in 1543, when Kilmaurs was in England as a pledge of his father's sincerity, he says: Furthermore, he (the fourth earl of Glencairn) hath written to your majesty to have his son home, entering other pledges for him. He is called the Lord Kilmaurs and master of Glencairn; and in my poor opinion they be few such Scots in Scotland for his wisdom and learning, and well dedicate to the truth of Christ's word and doctrine (Sadler, State Papers, i. 83). After receiving him safe from England his father, in January 1543-4, surrendered him as a pledge for the performance of a treaty with the governor against England, but on the invasion of Scotland by the English he appears to have been liberated by the governor along with Sir George Douglas on 15 May, and in the agreement concluded on the 17th by Lennox and Glencairn with Henry VIII an ample pension was conferred on the son as well as on the father. In September of the same year he along with his father declined to assist Lennox in his expedition to the west of Scotland. Succeeding to the earldom on the death of his father in 1547, he gradually came to the front as one of the most persistent opponents of the papal party. On the condemnation of Adam Wallace for heresy in 1550, Glencairn alone of those present protested that he consented not to his death (Knox, Works, ed. Laing, i. 240). In September of the same year he formed one of the cortège of the nobility who accompanied the queen-dowager on a visit to her daughter in France (ib. i. 241). After the return of Knox to Scotland in 1555, Glencairn invited him to his house at Finlayston near Glasgow, where Knox, besides preaching, dispensed the Lord's Supper (ib. i. 250). In May of the following year he allured the earl marischal and Henry Drummond to listen to Knox in Edinburgh, where he continued in doctrine ten days. They were so well contented with his preaching that they advised Knox to write the queen-dowager a letter that might move her to hear the word of God (Knox, Works, i. 252). The letter (printed by Knox in the same year, and in 1558 at Geneva with additions) was delivered into the hands of the queen-dowager by Glencairn, but after reading it she turned to James Beaton, bishop of Glasgow, and in a mocking tone said: Please you, my lord, to read a pasquil. The name of Glencairn is the first of the four signatures attached to the letter of 14 March 1556-7 inviting Knox to return from Geneva (ib. 267-8), and appears second (after Argyll) on the first bond of the Scottish reformers subscribed on 3 Dec. following (ib. i. 274). When in the beginning of 1559 the queen-regent issued a summons against the reformed preachers, Glencairn and his relative Sir James Loudoun, sheriff of Ayr, were sent to remonstrate with her, and finding their protests met with angry reproaches they boldly discharged their duty, plainly forewarning her of the inconveniences that were to follow (ib. i. 316). Somewhat taken aback by their resolute attitude, she at last stated that she would take the matter into consideration, but after the destruction of the monasteries by the rascal multitude at Perth on 11 May she advanced against the city. On learning by letter of her determination, the reformers in Cunningham and Kyle assembled in the church of Craigie, where the doubts of many about the propriety of taking action were dissipated by the resolution of Glencairn, who expressed his determination, although no one should accompany him, to go to the assistance of the city if it were but with a pick upon his shoulder; for, he said, I had rather die with that company than live after them (Calderwood, i. 452). These bold words produced such an effect that Glencairn soon found himself in command of 2,500 men, with whom he arrived in the camp of the congregation in time to prevent the queen-regent from carrying out her purpose. Through the interposition of Argyll and Lord James Stuart, who had joined the forces of the regent, in order, as they affirmed, to moderate her counsels, hostilities were for the time averted, both armies agreeing to disperse. Before departing Glencairn, with Argyll, Lord James Stuart, and others, on the last day of May subscribed a bond, in which they obliged themselves to spare neither labour, goods, substances, bodies, or lives in maintenance of the liberty of the whole congregation (Knox, Works, i. 345). After the reply (2 July 1559) of the queen-regent to the letter of the lords of the congregation, in which she asked to speak to some one of greater authority, Glencairn with other lords was sent to negotiate with her at Dunbar, but the end of the conference was that she desired to have a private consultation with Argyll and Lord James Stuart, which the council after deliberation deemed inexpedient. Glencairn signed the letter sent to Elizabeth on 19 July asking for assistance (State Papers, Scottish Series, i. 113). In the subsequent fruitless negotiations with the queen-regent Glencairn took a prominent part, and he signed the letter addressed to her by the protestant lords, 23 Oct. 1559, after they had suspended her from the regency (Knox, Works, i. 451). Glencairn was one of those who signed at Glasgow, 10 Feb. 1559-60, the instructions given to the Scottish commissioner sent to meet the commissioners of Elizabeth at Berwick, and on 10 May 1560 he signed at Leith along with other lords the ratification of the contract made at Berwick (ib. ii. 56). Previous to doing so he had, as one of the principal officers of the army of the congregation, joined his forces at Preston with those of the English army which entered Scotland on 2 April (ib. ii. 58). On 27 April he subscribed the bond of the lords and barons for defending the liberty of the Evangel and expelling the French from Scotland (ib. ii. 63). Shortly before the death of the queen-regent on 10 June, Glencairn with other protestant lords had an interview with her at which she expressed her desire for peace, and advised that both the French and English forces should be sent out of the kingdom (ib. ii. 70). After the parliament of August 1560 the Earls of Glencairn and Morton and Maitland of Lethington were sent ambassadors to England to claim the assistance of Elizabeth against the French invasion, and to propose a marriage between her and the Earl of Arran. Accompanied with fifty-four horsemen they set out from Edinburgh on 11 or 12 Oct., and they entered Edinburgh on their return on 3 Jan. at fyve houris at even (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 63), having obtained from Elizabeth a favourable reply so far as the promise of assistance was concerned, although the offer of marriage with the Earl of Arran was in flattering terms declined. On 27 Jan. following his return Glencairn subscribed the Book of Discipline in the Tolbooth (Calderwood, History, ii. 50; Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 63). In the ensuing June Glencairn, with the Earls of Arran and Argyll, was charged with the congenial commission of carrying out the edicts of the lords for the destruction of all places and monuments of idolatry in the west, in which designation were included the abbeys of Paisley, Fulfurd, Kilwinning, and Crossraguel, which were ruthlessly demolished.
     After the arrival of Queen Mary in Scotland in 1561, Glencairn was among those elected members of her privy council, but he never went so far as Argyll and Lord James Stuart in his toleration of her papal practices. Influenced by the representations of Knox to some of the nobility in the west of Scotland, as to the dangers which he feared were shortly to follow, Glencairn, with the barons and gentlemen of the district, assembled in September 1562 at Ayr, where they signed a bond for the defence of the protestant religion (Knox, Works, ii. 348). Though Glencairn, with the other reformers, was strongly opposed to the marriage of the queen with Darnley in 1565 (Melville, Memoirs, p. 135), he did not, like Moray and Argyll, immediately take up arms, but was present at the ceremony, and at the banquet which followed attended on the king. Nevertheless, on 15 Aug. he joined the insurgent lords at Ayr (Knox, Works, ii. 496), and accompanied Moray when, on the last day of August, he entered Edinburgh at the head of six hundred horse (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 82). The movement proved abortive, and they left the city about midnight on 1 Sept. (ib. 82). On 6 Sept. Glencairn was summoned to appear before the queen at St. Andrews within six days (Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, i. 365), and as he failed to appear he was on 1 Dec. declared guilty of the crime of lese majesty (ib. i. 409). Glencairn went to Berwick, but early in the following year returned to his own country (Knox, Works, ii. 520), and was in Edinburgh at the time of the murder of Rizzio. After the murder he was among the first of the lords to join the queen at Dunbar (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 94). Glencairn's name was not attached to the document signed by the lords in Ainslie's tavern 20 April 1567 in favour of a marriage between Bothwell and Mary after the murder of Darnley (see document in Calderwood's History, ii. 352-4), for he was not in Edinburgh at the time. The original document was destroyed, and the list given in the copies is not authentic. On the contrary, he was from this time one of the persistent and unrelenting opponents of the queen. He declined after the marriage to sign a bond to defend the queen and Bothwell and all their deeds (ib. 358), and at Stirling signed the bond to defend the young prince from the murderers of his father (Knox, Works, ii. 556). He held high command in the army of the insurgents under the Earl of Morton, and when, before the battle of Carberry Hill, the French ambassador came from the queen promising pardon to those in arms if they would disperse, Glencairn answered that ‘they came not in arms to crave pardon for any offence, but rather to give pardon to such as had offended’ (Calderwood, History, ii. 363). A few days after Mary was committed to Lochleven, Glencairn with his domestics made an attack on the royal chapel at Holyrood (where Mary had been accustomed to have the Romish service performed), demolishing the altar and destroying the ornaments and images. This excess of zeal, though it gave much satisfaction to the ecclesiastics, was condemned even by those of the nobility who were not adherents of the queen (Spotiswood, History of the Church of Scotland, ii. 63). At the coronation of the king in the following July at Stirling, Glencairn carried the sword (Historie of James the Sext, p. 17). On the escape of Mary from Lochleven in May 1568 Glencairn marshalled his followers with great rapidity, and at the battle of Langside he commanded one of the divisions (Calderwood, History, ii. 415). After Mary's flight to England he was on 19 May appointed with Lord Semple lieutenant of the west (Register of the Privy Council, i. 625). Glencairn was taken prisoner at Stirling in September 1571, when the regent Lennox was shot, but was among those rescued by the sally of Captain Crawford (Bannatyne, Memorials, p. 184). He was one of the most frequent visitors of Knox on his deathbed (ib. 286). On 24 Nov., the day of Knox's death, he was nominated along with Morton for the regency, but Morton had a considerable majority of votes (Calderwood, History, iii. 243). Glencairn died on 23 Nov. 1574 (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 342). By his first wife, Lady Johanna Hamilton, youngest daughter of James, first earl of Arran, he had two sons (William, who succeeded him in the peerage, and James, who became prior of Lesmahagow) and a daughter. He divorced his first wife, and was married a second time to Janet, daughter of Sir John Cunningham of Caprington, by whom he had a son, Alexander, commendator of Kilwinning, and a daughter, Janet, married first to Archibald, fifth earl of Argyll, and secondly to Humphry Colquhoun of Luss.


     Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vols. i. and ii.;
     Register of the Great Seal, vol. ii.;
     State Papers (Scottish Series);
     Sadler's State Papers;
     Knox's Works, ed. Laing, vols. i. ii. iii. and iv.;
     Calderwood's History of the Church of Scotland, vols. i-vi.;
     Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents (Bannatyne Club);
     Richard Bannatyne's Memorials (Bannatyne Club);
     Historie of James Sext (Bannatyne Club);
     the Histories of Spotiswood, Keith, and Lesley;
     Report of the Historical MSS. Commission, vol. iv.;
     Egerton MS. 1818; Addit. MS. 23109;
     the Histories of Tytler, Hill Burton, and Froude;
     Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen. i. 412;
     Douglas's Scotch Peerage (Wood), i. 635-6

Contributor: T. F. H. [Thomas Finlayson Henderson]

Published:     1888