Lady Anne (or Anna) Cunningham was a Scottish noblewoman, businesswoman, and warrior, born at the end of the sixteenth century into the tumultuous of world of the European Reformation.
Daughter of a wealthy Protestant noble family, in 1603 she was married to the fourteen-year-old James Hamilton, and over time they had eight children. Her husband inherited his father’s lands and title in 1604, and consequently spent much of his time at court, leaving Anne to manage their estates, which she did competently: she was evidently educated and had a good head for business, undertaking projects such as the improvement of the family palace and the development of industrial projects like coal mines.
Her husband died in 1625, aged just 36, and their eldest son James became third Marquess of Hamilton. Like his father, James was content to leave the management of his land to Anne while he lived at court. The partnership ran smoothly until the first outbreakings of the British Civil Wars.
In 1603, James VI of Scotland had become the first monarch to inherit both English and Scottish thrones after the death of Elizabeth Tudor, becoming James I of England. Known as the Union of Crowns, it meant the Scottish court moved down to London to rule from the new heart of their unified kingdom. Under James VI, this arrangement went relatively smoothly; he was an experienced and pragmatic ruler, who trusted his Scottish Privy council and allowed the Scots some independence in their politics and, crucially, their religion.
The turning point came when James died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son Charles; the relationship between Scotland and its king began to disintegrate. Charles had been raised largely in England and did not understand Scotland’s fundamental political differences, particularly their perceived right to their own religion. The Scots had followed a strict Presbyterian church since 1560, and deeply distrusted Charles’ attempts to impose an Anglican-style milder Protestantism, which they saw as dangerous popery. In 1639, Charles’ imposed religious reforms pushed Scots to rise against their king, in what became known as the Bishops Wars.
Anne’s son James was a great friend of Charles I, and loyal to him. In 1639 he raised a fleet to sail from England and land on the Scottish coast, where he planned to summon his people to follow him to regain control. He had not reckoned, however, with his mother’s strength. Anne, raised a Scottish Calvinist, was a full and vocal supporter of the Scottish church and the Covenanting movement against Charles. When she heard her son was on his way, she rode along the coast to meet him, carrying pistols with her. Some legends say she told him that if he should land, she would “shoot him in the head until he was dead”; other reports say she had her pistols specially loaded with silver bullets. Whatever her exact words, the impact was clear – James’s fleet sailed back to England without having set foot on Scottish soil. Anne’s work was not over: she raised a troop of cavalry, with a banner bearing the motto For God, the King, Religion, and the Covenant, and she and her ladies led the troop to face the English at Berwick, where the English were again pushed back.
Little is known of Anne’s further activities: James left her again to manage the Scottish estates while he stayed with the King during the Civil Wars, until her death in 1647, but her purpose was successful. The Scottish Church survived the Civil Wars and is still independent of England today.
Unlike the stereotype of a Renaissance woman as modest and housebound, Anne was a woman of her time, strong in her independence and in her beliefs, and unafraid to act upon them.
Written for Sheroes of History by Alison Edwards
Feature image courtesy of the Illustrated Women of History blog. See more great illustrations here.
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