Cunningham, William, fourth Earl of Glencairn d. 1547, was the only son of Robert, third earl, by Lady Marjory Douglas, eldest daughter of the fifth earl of Angus. While Lord Kilmaurs he was one of the strongest supporters of the English faction against the Duke of Albany, his adherence to the English court, as was then customary in the case of the Scottish nobility, being purchased by a pension. Lord Dacre, the English ambassador, writing to Wolsey on 23 Aug. 1516, states that for the purpose of making diversion against the duke he had the master of Kilmaurs kept in his house secretly (Ellis, Original Letters, 1st ser. i. 131). On 22 Nov. 1524 he joined the force which under the Earls of Angus and Lennox made an attempt to withdraw the young king from the custody of the queen-mother to that of a council of regency. On 25 June 1526 he was appointed lord high treasurer of Scotland, but only held that office till 29 Oct. following. After James V assumed the government in 1528 Kilmaurs ceased to carry on his intrigues with England. In 1538 he and Lord Maxwell were sent over to France by James V as additional ambassadors to conclude the treaty for that monarch's marriage with Mary of Guise, regarding which the Earl of Moray and David Beaton, bishop of Mirepoix (afterwards cardinal-archbishop of St. Andrews), had been for some time negotiating. He had succeeded his father in the earldom some time before he was, on 27 Nov. 1542, taken prisoner at the battle of Solway Moss (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 25; Knox, Works, i. 88). He was committed to the custody of the Duke of Norfolk (Calderwood, History, i. 153), but after the death of James V received his release in the beginning of 1543 on paying a ransom of 1,000l. and subscribing a secret bond, along with the other noblemen taken prisoners, to adhere, in the event of any commotion in Scotland, solely to the English interest. After Henry, in deference to the remonstrances of Glencairn and Cassilis, had agreed to modify his ambitious views in reference to Scotland, Glencairn, with Sir George Douglas and others, on 1 July, met the English commissioners at Greenwich to arrange for a marriage between Prince Edward of England and the Scottish queen. As an early adherent of the reforming party Glencairn was one of the chief supporters of Wishart, who about this time returned to Scotland. When the bishop of Glasgow made an attempt to prevent Wishart from preaching at Ayr, the Earl of Glencairn repaired with his friends to the town with diligence, and while the bishop preached in the kirk to his jackmen and to some old bosses of the town, Wishart at the market cross made so notable a sermon that the very enemies themselves were confounded (Knox, Works, i. 127). In October he assisted the Earl of Lennox to intercept the military stores and money from France intended for the partisans of Cardinal Beaton, but which De la Brosse, the French commander, unsuspectingly committed to Lennox and Glencairn, who stored them in the castle of Dumbarton. To escape the sentence of forfeiture now suspended over them, Glencairn, Angus, Lennox, and Cassilis did not scruple, in January 1543-4, to transmit to Arran, the regent, who had recently returned to the church of Rome, a bond by which they engaged to remain true, faithful, and obedient servants to their sovereign lady and her authority, and to assist the lord governor for defence of the realm against the old enemies of England; but two months afterwards they despatched a messenger to the English court with a request that Henry would hasten his invasion of the country, transmitting at the same time minute instructions for the carrying out of the scheme. Already Glencairn had utilised his reconciliation with Arran to reap revenge on his rival Argyll by inducing Arran to let loose the highland chiefs imprisoned in Edinburgh and Dunbar on condition that they ravaged the territory of Argyll, and he now determined to turn the invasion of the English to the same advantage by advising Henry to send a fleet to the Clyde to produce a diversion in the same nobleman's country. Such was the influence of Glencairn in the west of Scotland that he undertook to convey the army of Henry from Carlisle to Glasgow without stroke or challenge (ib. i. 156). The burning of Leith by the English forces alienated from Henry the support of all the Scottish nobles with the exception of Lennox and Glencairn. On 17 May Glencairn, in consideration of an ample pension, and Lennox, on the promise of receiving the government of Scotland, concluded at Carlisle an agreement with Henry to acknowledge him as protector of the realm of Scotland, to use their utmost endeavours to deliver into his hands the young queen, and to obtain possession in his behalf of the principal fortresses. They moreover undertook that the Bible, which they described as the only foundation of all truth and honour, should be freely taught in their territories. Immediately after concluding the negotiation Glencairn hurried to Scotland to assemble his vassals, and by 24 May he had with him in Glasgow five hundred spearmen. With these he on the morning of that day marched out of the city to the adjoining borough muir to oppose the Earl of Arran, who was advancing against him with a force double his numbers. After a conflict cruellie fochtin, Glencairn was at last compelled to retire, leaving his second son Andrew with a very large number of his party dead on the field, while many also were taken prisoners (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 32; Calderwood, i. 179). Arran immediately occupied Glasgow, and Glencairn, attended by only a few followers, took refuge in Dumbarton Castle. Lennox left the castle in his hands and went to England, but when in the following August Lennox, relying on the co-operation of Glencairn, made a descent on the west of Scotland, he found that Glencairn and his son declined meanwhile to give to the cause of Henry any active support. Their defection at such a critical moment necessarily rendered the expedition of Lennox abortive, and the supineness of the old fox and his cub was bitterly inveighed against by Wriothesley the chancellor. Glencairn pleaded with considerable show of reason the difficulties of his position as his excuse, and although his apology was not accepted, he shortly afterwards gave a proof of his unabated attachment to the English cause by his treacherous flight with the Earl of Angus and others who led the Scottish vanguard, when a sally of a by no means overwhelming character was made against them by the English at Coldingham (Diurnal of Occurrents, p. 38). Uncertain, however, of Henry's sentiments towards them, and possibly in any case deeming it advisable to temporise with the queen-regent, Glencairn, with Angus and others, now intimated their determination to support her against Henry, and at a parliament held at Edinburgh in the following December they were formally absolved from the charge of treason. Glencairn died in 1547. He was twice married: first, to Catherine, second daughter of William, third lord Borthwick, by whom he had no issue; and secondly, to Margaret (or Elizabeth), daughter and heiress of John Campbell of West Loudoun, by whom he had five sons and a daughter. He was succeeded in the earldom by his eldest son Alexander [qv.].
Register of the Great Seal, vol. i.
State Papers, Scottish Ser. vol. i.
Sadler's State Papers
Knox's Works, ed. Laing, vol. i.
Calderwood's History of the Church of Scotland
James Melville's Diary
Diurnal of Remarkable Occurrents (Bannatyne Club)
Douglas's Scotch Peerage (Wood), i. 634-5.
Contributor: T. F. H. [Thomas Finlayson Henderson]