By Wesley Hutchins (alias Earl Chatham)
Word Count: 2154
Summary: An essay describing how the United Kingdom was formed.
Great Britain was born on the first of May, 310 years ago.
Of course, the ancient kingdoms of England and Scotland had been in existence on the island of Great Britain for nearly a thousand years, and for a substantial part of that time, the kings, queens, and peoples of each country fought – sometimes with each other, but often against each other in several conflicts.
Then on March 24, 1603, Elizabeth I of England and Ireland died without an heir, and her closest blood relation was her cousin – James VI of Scotland, who journeyed from Edinburgh to London to peacefully (and amid much celebration) take his place as James I of England and Ireland. With Wales having been annexed into the Kingdom of England during the reign of Henry VIII, King James was now the first person to rule over all Britain in an arrangement that has become known as the Union of the Crowns.
However, the kingdoms over which he reigned remained separate and distinct from each other, and they had their own parliaments, along with their own national interests. James VI & I sought to change that by attempting to persuade the parliaments of England and Scotland to agree to a full political and economic union, which would create a new kingdom under the name of Great Britain.
Indeed, King James was a passionate supporter of the concept. In his Accession speech to his first English Parliament, James made references to his great-great grandfather, Henry VII of England, who united the warring royal houses of York and Lancaster under the Tudor dynasty, which had brought peace to England following the Wars of the Roses. He went on the say that “union of these two princely houses is nothing comparable to the union of two ancient and famous kingdoms, which is the other inward peace annexed to my person.”
With this message, he saw himself and his Stuart dynasty as bringing peace to the whole of Britain by ending the ancient Anglo-Scottish feuding. He also emphasized the similarities between the English and Scots “in language, religion, and similitude of manners”, and believed that God had meant for the kingdoms to be united in such a way as to make the border between the two indistinguishable. (“What God has conjoined then, let no man separate.”) Persons opposed to bringing the countries together were “blinded with ignorance, or else transported with malice.”
James continued on his theme of a destiny towards union by reminding his audience that England was once divided into seven kingdoms (known as the Heptarchy) and Wales, and that Scotland was also an amalgamation of Picts, Scots, Gaels, and others. With unification to become Great Britain, the peoples of this new country would become part of a stronger entity, where they could work with a common purpose and toward a common cause. In other words, they were better together.
This was all very well, but on both sides of the border, there was lukewarm reaction as well as outright hostility to the concept of union – some of it driven by xenophobia. There was already some consternation amongst the English political elite at the fact that they were now being ruled over by a Scot, whilst some in Scotland were fearful of their country being annexed into England as a mere province or county. In addition, there were other nagging questions on trade, commerce, religion, and political representation.
During the remainder of James’ reign, the differences and fears between the two kingdoms proved insurmountable and the union did not come to pass. However, he did enact the merger symbolically by using his powers under the Royal Prerogative to proclaim himself as “King of Great Britain”, combine the royal arms of England and Scotland (with the English lion balancing the Scottish unicorn), and to mesh the flags of St. George (England) and St. Andrew (Scotland) into a new Union Flag.
Over the next hundred years, there were other attempts to create an official union, but one country or the other had reasons to resist. Then in 1702, Queen Anne ascended to the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland, succeeding her childless brother-in-law, William III & I.
Like her predecessors going back to James VI & I, Anne was a believer in the political integration of Britain, but what finally made the circumstances favorable to union on both sides during her reign was a mixture of religion, monarchical succession, politics, and economics.
For starters, it had been nearly fourteen years since Anne’s father – James VII & II, a Catholic – had been deposed in the Protestant-led Glorious Revolution, in which the Dutch prince, William of Orange, invaded Britain. William, along with his wife (and Anne’s older sister) Mary were eventually declared joint monarchs of England, Scotland, and Ireland, but they failed to produce a healthy heir to the throne by the time Mary died in 1694.
Then in 1700, Anne’s only child to survive infancy – Prince William, Duke of Gloucester – died at age eleven. This meant that loyalty to the House of Stuart could only lead to one thing – the return of the Stuart male line, embodied by the ex-King James, and following his death in 1701, his son (and Anne’s half-brother) James Francis Edward Stuart, who were living in exile in France.
In England, parliamentarians were determined not to have a Catholic back on the throne, so they passed – and King William granted Royal Assent to – the Act of Settlement in 1701, which barred Catholics from the succession, and handed it to Sophia of Hanover in Germany. She was a granddaughter of James VI & I, and though there were about 50 other claimants ahead of her, she was the first Protestant on the list.
Meanwhile in Scotland, there were similar feelings against having a Catholic king, but there was also a sense of loyalty to the Stuart family, who had originated from Scotland and reigned in that country since 1371. Perhaps more fundamentally, some Scottish parliamentarians felt incensed at not being consulted on the shared succession; they wished to exert Scotland’s right as an independent kingdom and not simply go along with whatever England wanted.
In response to the English, the Parliament of Scotland passed – and Queen Anne granted Royal Assent to – the Act of Security in 1703, which declared that the next monarch of Scotland should be Protestant and of the royal line, but should not be the same person who succeeded Anne to the Crown of England. This gave Parliament the power to choose the next monarch along those lines (probably in the hope that James Stuart would convert), unless the English granted freedom of trade to Scottish merchants within England, Ireland, and the overseas colonies.
With the ball back in England’s court, it then passed – with Anne’s assent – the Alien’s Act of 1705, which declared that all Scots were to treated as aliens in England (save for those already living there) unless Scotland either repealed the Act of Security or agreed to a union with England. The Scots chose the latter option, and a set of commissioners from both countries were appointed by the Queen, who met in London to hash out an agreement.
From April to July 1706 at the Cockpit-in-Court (a remnant of the old Palace of Whitehall), the commissioners worked out a Treaty of Union, which contained the following key provisions:
- That from May 1, 1707, the kingdoms of Scotland and England were to be “united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain”, with the flags of St. George and St. Andrew to be combined,
- That the succession to the monarchy of Great Britain would be vested in the House of Hanover, and to the exclusion of Catholics, as well as people marrying Catholics, and
- That the people of the United Kingdom of Great Britain were to be represented by one and the same parliament, known as the Parliament of Great Britain.
These were main objectives of the English commissioners. On the other side, the Scots replied that they would agree to them in exchange for free trade throughout the United Kingdom and access to the combined colonies of a British Empire. The English promptly accepted this on the principle that such free trade – including a customs and monetary union – was necessary for a full and complete union, and indeed, the creation of a new nation-state.
There were other provisions as well, including ones for common taxation, currency, laws, regulations, and free movement and trade for citizens who were to be on equal terms, as well as for Scottish representation in the House of Commons and the House of Lords within the new British Parliament, where MP’s and peers from both sides of the border were afforded equal rights and privileges.
Language was eventually added in the parliamentary debates on both sides of the border which guaranteed the independence of the Scottish legal system and the establishment of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland (the Kirk), whilst the Scottish Crown Jewels were to remain in Edinburgh. Similar language would also protect the independence and status of the Anglican Church of England.
On July 23, 1706, the articles of the Treaty were presented to Queen Anne at St. James’s Palace, and from there, they had to be ratified by the Parliament of England in London and the Parliament of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The Scottish Parliament took up the Treaty first in October, and clause-by-clause debates were held through the rest of year and into January, when the last article was approved and a formal bill was presented to the assembly. That bill, known as the Union with England Act, was passed by a healthy majority of 110 to 69 on January 16th.
To this day, there has been debate on the extent to which members of the parliament were bribed to ensure passage of the Act. It is known that the Treaty and the Act basically provided for the compensation of losses in the Darien scheme, which was Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Central America.
But there were also some backroom deals regarding pensions, honors, titles, and appointments which has given rise to the idea that Scotland was “sold out” by its own politicians at a time when there was considerable opposition amongst Scots toward the Union (famously reflected upon years later by poet Robert Burns, who wrote: “We’re bought and sold for English Gold / Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation”), and it is a debate which may never fully be settled.
With the Scots Parliament having done its work, the English Parliament took up the issue of the Union in February 1707, where the Commons required only two sessions to pass the articles.
But in the House of Lords, some members of the Tory Party held up the proceedings by voicing concerns over some provisions, especially with regard to the status of the Church of England, and they also had issues with the confirmation of the Scottish Kirk. Objections were raised on every article, but the opposition did not gain much traction, and the articles were approved at the end of February.
The Commons then drafted and passed the Union with Scotland Act, which was passed by the Lords and received Royal Assent from Queen Anne in the Lords’ chamber on March 6, 1707.
Almost two months later, the date of April 30, 1707 marked the last day of England and Scotland being separate and independent sovereign states. On the following day of May 1st, Anne came to St. Paul’s Cathedral to attend a service of thanksgiving in honor of the Acts of Union that had taken effect.
It was a grand celebration involving 400 horse-drawn coaches, and the Queen herself wore the combined honors of the English Order of the Garter and the Scottish Order of the Thistle. A Scottish nobleman who attended the service wrote: “nobody on this occasion appeared more sincerely devout and thankful than the Queen herself.”
Indeed, she told her cheering subjects that this day marked the true happiness of her reign – the day that England and Scotland became the UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN.
To this day, England and Scotland have remained together as part of a country – now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – that has profoundly shaped the development of the modern world over the last 310 years. Its combined and diverse heritage, culture, history, institutions, and people has made it my favorite country in the world after my own, and the monarchy is a living symbol of the unity that has made the UK what it is today. Indeed, it has been better to be together. Long may this Union continue.