Gordon, John, (tenth or) eleventh Earl of Sutherland 1526?-1567, was son of Alexander, master of Sutherland. His grandfather, Adam Gordon of Aboyne, second son of George, second earl of Huntly [qv.], assumed, by right of his wife Elizabeth, countess of Sutherland (sister of the ninth earl), the title of Earl of Sutherland, the surname of the family being thus changed from Sutherland to Gordon. His mother was Lady Jane Stewart, eldest daughter of the second Earl of Atholl. He succeeded to the earldom, when about ten years of age, on the death of his grandfather in 1537. In 1547 and 1548 he was lieutenant of Moray. Along with his relative, the Earl of Huntly, he accompanied the queen-dowager to France in 1550 (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 50; Calderwood, History, i. 272). During his absence he entrusted the charge of his earldom to his brother Alexander, who not only succeeded in repelling a formidable attack of the Mackays, but retaliated by laying waste their territories and carrying off a large booty. The contest was renewed on the earl's return, but ultimately, in 1556, the leader Y-Mackay was driven from all his strongholds and compelled to surrender himself to the government. On 15 July 1555 Sutherland received from the queen regent the government of the earldom of Ross in addition to that of Sutherland. In politics he uniformly supported his relative the Earl of Huntly, who made use of him frequently as his representative in diplomatic negotiations. In January 1559-60 he was sent by Huntly to the lords to offer them in his name his assistance and support against the queen regent (Sadler State Papers, i. 685), but shortly after his arrival he was shot by a hagbut in the arm while attacking the French auxiliaries near Kinghorn, and had to return home (ib. p. 699; Leslie, History, p. 281; Knox, Works, ii. 7). He supported the proposal of Huntly in 1561 that Mary should return to Scotland by Aberdeen (Leslie, p. 294). It is, however, a curious circumstance that, while Huntly was endeavouring to bring about a marriage between Mary and his son, Sir John Gordon, Arthur Lyhart, Lord Darnley's master, sent on a secret embassy to Mary by the Countess of Lennox, was introduced to her by the Earl of Sutherland (Randolph to Cecil, 7 May 1562, Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1562, entry 26). During Mary's progress in Huntly's dominion Sutherland remained in attendance on the queen, but was suspected to be in communication with Huntly (ib. entry 718). Knox states that after Huntly was captured letters were found on him disclosing the treason of Sutherland (Works, ii. 359), and Buchanan explains that Sutherland was concerned in an intrigue of Huntly for carrying off the queen. Buchanan adds that, on the intrigue being discovered, Sutherland fled some time before the battle of Corrichie. He sailed to Flanders, and during his absence he was on 22 April 1563 convicted of treason at the meeting of parliament, which passed a decree of attainder against the dead Earl of Huntly and his descendants. After the marriage of Mary with Darnley he was recalled, but was captured at sea in a lugger 1 Sept. 1565 (Cal. State Papers, For. Ser. 1564-5, entry 1443) by a vessel on the outlook for the Earl of Bothwell, and Elizabeth ordered that he should be detained in England. Notwithstanding the remonstrances of Mary he was not permitted to leave till the beginning of 1566. He was in Edinburgh at the time of Rizzio's murder, but the third day afterwards departed out of the town, along with the Earls of Atholl and Caithness and the bishops (Knox, ii. 523). Along with Huntly he supported Bothwell in all his ambitious projects, and after Bothwell had been cleared by an assize of the murder of Darnley was restored to his estates at the same time as Huntly. He also signed the band in Ainslie's tavern for Bothwell's marriage. Sutherland had been long at feud with his neighbour George, fourth earl of Caithness, who, it is said, instigated his cousin, Isobel Sinclair, wife of Gilbert Gordon of Gartay, to poison him and his countess. While they were at supper at Helmsdale in July 1567 they were both suddenly seized with a violent illness, and died five days afterwards at Dunrobin Castle. Sutherland's only son, Alexander, who had been hunting and arrived late, was prevented by his father, who already felt the influence of the poison, from partaking of supper, and thus escaped sharing the fate of the earl and countess. Sutherland is described by the historian of the family as of comely stature and proportion, of a fair and good countenance, kind, courteous, mild, and affable. He was thrice married: first, to Lady Elizabeth Campbell, only daughter of Colin, third earl of Argyll, and relict of James, earl of Moray, natural son of James IV; secondly, to Lady Helen Stewart, daughter of John, third earl of Lennox, and relict of William, fifth earl of Errol, by whom he had two sons, John, who died in infancy, and Alexander (see below), who succeeded him as twelfth earl, and three daughters; and, thirdly, to Marian, eldest daughter of George, fourth lord Seton, relict of John, fourth earl of Monteith, who was poisoned at the same time as her husband.
Gordon, Alexander, (eleventh or) twelfth Earl of Sutherland 1552-1594, was the second son of John, (tenth or) eleventh earl, whom he succeeded in 1567. His wardship was entrusted to his sister Margaret, who committed it to John Murray, earl of Atholl. The latter sold it to George Sinclair, earl of Caithness, who married Sutherland in 1568 to his daughter Barbara, a profligate woman of twice his age. Sutherland escaped from his guardian next year, and was infeoffed of his earldom 27 July 1573. He shortly afterwards divorced his first wife, and married, 13 Dec. 1573, Jean, daughter of George Gordon, fourth earl of Huntly [qv.], who had been married to James Hepburn, earl of Bothwell [qv.], from whom she was divorced 7 May 1567; she afterwards married as her third husband Alexander Ogilvy of Boyne, and died 14 May 1629, aged 83. By her Sutherland had two daughters and four sons; of the latter, John, the eldest, succeeded him as (twelfth or) thirteenth Earl of Sutherland, and Robert (1580-1656) [qv.] was the historian of his family. Alexander Gordon was nearly all his life engaged in a struggle with the Earls of Caithness to secure possession of his earldom. He died at Dunrobin 6 Dec. 1594.
Douglas's Scottish Peerage (Wood), ii. 576-7
Sir Robert Gordon's History of the Earldom of Sutherland, pp. 131-8
Cal. State Papers, For. Ser., reign of Elizabeth
Sadler State Papers
Diurnal of Occurrents (Bannatyne Club)
Histories of Knox, Leslie, Buchanan, and Calderwood.
Contributor: T. F. H. [Thomas Finlayson Henderson]