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The Union of the Crowns (March 1603) was the accession of James VI, King of Scots, to the throne of England, thus uniting Scotlandmarker and England under one monarch. This followed the death of his unmarried and childless first cousin twice removed, Queen Elizabeth I of England, the last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

The term itself, though now generally accepted, is misleading; for properly speaking this was merely a personal or dynastic union, the Crowns remaining both distinct and separate, despite James's best efforts to create a new "imperial" throne of 'Great Britainmarker'. England and Scotland continued to be independent states, despite sharing a monarch, until the Acts of Union in 1707 during the reign of the last monarch of the Stuart Dynasty, Queen Anne.

The thistle and the rose

In August 1503 James IV, King of Scots, married Margaret Tudor, the eldest daughter of Henry VII of England, and the spirit of the new age was celebrated by the poet William Dunbar in The Thistle and the Rose.

The marriage was the outcome of the Treaty of Perpetual Peace, concluded the previous year, which, in theory at least, ended centuries of Anglo-Scottish rivalry. In many ways the most important political marriage in the history of the two realms, it merged the Stuart with England's Tudor line of succession, however remote the possibility of a Scottish prince ascending the English throne seemed at the time. There were, however, many on the English side concerned by the dynastic implications of the match, including some on the Privy Council. In countering these fears Henry is reputed to have said;

The peace did not last in 'perpetuity': it lasted for a mere ten years, wrecked by a young king and an old alliance. In 1513 Henry VIII, King of England & Lord of Ireland who had succeeded his father four years before, went to war with France. In response France invoked the terms of the Auld Alliance, her ancient bond with Scotland. James duly invaded northern England leading to the Battle of Floddenmarker.

In the decades that followed England's relations with Scotland were sometimes bad and other times worse. By the middle of Henry's reign the problems of the royal succession, which seemed so unimportant in 1503, acquired ever bigger dimensions, when the question of Tudor fertility — or the lack of it — entered directly into the political arena. The line of Margaret Tudor was specifically excluded from the English succession, though this was a question that simply refused to go away, especially when Elizabeth I became queen. Although the question of her marriage was raised time and again, it was first evaded and then forgotten with the march of time. In the last decade of her reign it was clear to all that James of Scots, the great-grandson of James IV and Margaret Tudor, was the only generally acceptable heir. For most of his adult life James, fretful and impecunious, had dreamed of a southern throne.

"I am the head"

James VI of Scotland.

From 1601, in the last years of Elizabeth I's life, certain English politicians, notably her chief minister Sir Robert Cecil, maintained a secret correspondence with James in order to prepare in advance for a smooth succession. Cecil advised James not to press the matter of the succession upon the queen but simply to treat her with kindness and respect. The approach proved effective: "I trust that you will not doubt," Elizabeth wrote to James, "but that your last letters are so acceptably taken as my thanks cannot be lacking for the same, but yield them you in grateful sort." In March 1603, with the queen clearly dying, Cecil sent James a draft proclamation of his accession to the English throne. Strategic fortresses were put on alert, and London placed under guard. Elizabeth died in the early hours of 24 March. Within eight hours, James was proclaimed king in London, the news received without protest or disturbance.

On 5 April 1603, James left Edinburgh for London, promising to return every three years (a promise he never kept), and progressed slowly from town to town, in order to arrive in the capital after Elizabeth's funeral. Local lords received James with lavish hospitality along the route; and James's new subjects flocked to see him, relieved above all that the succession had triggered neither unrest nor invasion. As James entered London, he was mobbed. The crowds of people, one observer reported, were so great that "they covered the beauty of the fields; and so greedy were they to behold the King that they injured and hurt one another." James's English coronation took place on 25 July, with elaborate allegories provided by dramatic poets such as Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson, though the festivities had to be restricted because of an outbreak of the plague. Nevertheless, all London turned out for the occasion: "The streets seemed paved with men," wrote Dekker. "Stalls instead of rich wares were set out with children, open casements filled up with women".

Whatever residual fears many in England may have felt at the prospect of being ruled by a Scot, James' arrival aroused a mood of high expectation. The twilight years of Elizabeth had been a disappointment; and for a nation troubled for so many years by the question of succession, the new king was a family man who already had male heirs in the wing. But James' honeymoon was of very short duration; and his initial political actions were to do much to create the rather negative tone which was to turn a successful Scottish king into a disappointing English one. The greatest and most obvious of these was the question of his exact status and title. James intended to be King of Great Britainmarker and Ireland. His first obstacle along this imperial road was the attitude of the English Parliament.

In his first speech to his southern assembly in March 1603 James gave a clear statement of the royal manifesto;

Parliament may very well have rejected polygamy; but the marriage, if marriage it was, between the realms of England and Scotland was to be at best morganatic. James' ambitions were greeted with very little enthusiasm, as one by one MPs rushed to defend the ancient name and realm of England. All sorts of legal objections were raised: all laws would have to be renewed and all treaties renegotiated. For James, whose experience of parliaments was limited to the stage-managed and semi-feudal Scottish variety, the self-assurance — and obduracy — of the English version, which had long experience of upsetting monarchs, was an obvious shock. He decided to side-step the whole issue by unilaterally assuming the title of King of Great Britainmarker by a Proclamation concerning the Kings Majesties Stile on 20 October 1604 announcing that he did "assume to Our selfe by the cleerenesse of our Right, The Name and Stile of KING OF GREAT BRITTAINE, FRANCE, AND IRELAND, DEFENDER OF THE FAITH, &c." . This only deepened the offence. Even in Scotland there was little real enthusiasm for the project, though the two parliaments were eventually prodded into taking the whole matter 'under consideration'. Consider it they did for several years, never drawing the desired conclusion.

The first and oldest empire

In Scotland the incorporating union desired by James met with the same lack of zeal that it did in England, but for different reasons. Whatever pleasure there was in seeing a Scottish king succeeding to the crown of England, rather than the danger for centuries past of an English king seizing the crown of Scotland, there were early signs that many saw the risk of the 'lesser being drawn by the greater', as Henry VII once predicted. The obvious example before Scottish eyes was the case of Ireland, a kingdom in name, but — since 1601 — a subject nation in practice. John Russell, lawyer and writer, an initial enthusiast for 'the happie and blissed Unioun betuixt the tua ancienne realmes of Scotland and Ingland' was later to warn James:

These fears were echoed by the Scottish Parliament, learning from its English cousin that the King's word was not law after all. MPs, in much the same way as those in England, were telling the king that they were 'confident' that his plans for an incorporating union would not prejudice the ancient laws and liberties of Scotland; for any such hurt would mean that 'it culd no more be a frie monarchie.'

Scottish fears can scarcely have been allayed when the king, now aware of the depths of English hostility, attempted to reassure his new subjects that the new union would be much like that between England and Walesmarker, and that if Scotland should refuse 'he would compell their assents, having a stronger party there than the opposite party of the mutineers'. In June 1604 the two national parliaments, with obvious lack of enthusiasm, passed acts appointing commissioners to explore the possibility of 'a more perfect union'. One cannot but sympathise with these men whose remit was to achieve the impossible — a new state that would still preserve the laws, honours, dignities, offices and liberties of each of the component kingdoms. James, in a more sober and wiser mood, closed the final session of his first parliament with a rebuke to his opponents in the House of Commons — 'Here all things suspected...He merits to be buried in the bottom of the sea that shall but think of separation, where God had made such a Union.'

Beggarly Scots and English monkeys

James, of course, was moving too quickly for both nations, attempting to conjure away centuries of mutual hostility virtually overnight. He scarcely improved his position as large numbers of impoverished Scottish aristocrats and other place seekers made their way to London, ready to compete for the very highest positions at the heart of government. Several years later Sir Anthony Weldon was to write that 'Scotland was too guid for those that inhabit it, and too bad for others to be at the charge of conquering it. The ayre might be wholesome, but for the stinking people that inhabit it...Thair beastis be generallie small (women excepted) of which sort there are no greater in the world.' But the most immediately wounding observation came in the comedy Eastward Ho, a collaboration between Ben Jonson, George Chapman and John Marston. In enthusing over the good life to be had in the colony of Virginiamarker it is observed;

But the Scots were too happy to pay out these libels, with interest. The age-old French slander that the English had tails like monkeys was once again in circulation, joining many more original anti-English satires, so much so that in 1609 the king had an act passed, promising the direst penalties against the writers of "pasquillis, libellis, rymis, cockalanis, comedies and sicklyk occasiones whereby they slander and maligne and revile the estait and countrey of England..."

Against this cultural and political background the gentlemen of the parliamentary commission had little real prospect of making any progress along the road to a close and intimate union. As early as October 1605, well before the commissioners reported, the Venetianmarker ambassador noted 'the question of the Union will, I am assured, be dropped; for His Majesty is now well aware that nothing can be effected, both sides displaying such obstinacy that an accommodation is impossible; and so his Majesty is resolved to abandon the question for the present, in hope that time may consume the ill-humours.' It did, but over a far longer period than James can ever have imagined.

Citizens and subjects

By 1606 James' dream of an Imperial British Crown was looking sickly. The Union Commission made some limited progress, but only by setting the big picture to one side, concentrating instead on the seemingly more manageable issues like hostile border laws, trade and citizenship. The borders were to become the 'middle shires', as if history could be side-stepped by semantics. But the issues of free trade proved highly contentious, threatening powerful economic interest groups, as did the issue of equal rights before the law. It was to be, in essence, the immigration debate of the day. Fears were openly expressed in Parliament that English jobs would be threatened by all the poor people of the realm of Scotland, who will 'draw near to the Sonn, and flocking hither in such Multitudes, that death and dearth is very probable to ensue.' The exact status of the post nati, those born after the Union of March 1603, was never to be decided by Parliament. In the end the deadlock had to be broken by the courts in 1608 in Calvin's Case, involving the baby Robert Calvin, which extended property rights to the King's subjects (i.e. the Scots) in English common law.

Symbols and substance

In the end James never got his 'imperial crown', and of political necessity was obliged to accept the reality of polygamy. Denied the substance he played with the symbols, devising new coats of arms, a uniform coinage and the like. But the creation of a national flag proved just as contentious as a national crown. Various designs were tried, that which proved acceptable to one side almost inevitably offended the other. James finally proclaimed the new Union Flag on 12 April 1606, but it was greeted without a great deal of enthusiasm, especially by the Scots, who seeing a St. George's Cross superimposed upon a St. Andrew's Saltire sought to create their own 'Scotch' design which saw the reverse superimposition take place. (This design was used in Scotland until 1707.) For years afterwards vessels of both nations continued to fly their respective 'flags', the royal proclamation notwithstanding. Ironically, the Union Flag only entered into common use under Cromwell's Protectorate.

File:Royal coat of arms of Scotland.svg|Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland, 1565-1603.File:England Arms 1405.svg|Arms of the Kingdom of England, 1558-1603.File:Coat of arms of Ireland.svg|Arms of the Kingdom of Ireland, 1541-1603.Image:James I & VI Scottish Arms 1603.PNG|Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland, 1603-1707.Image:England Arms 1603.svg|Arms of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Ireland, 1603-1707.File:Flag of Scotland.svg|The flag of the Kingdom of Scotland.File:Flag of England.svg|The flag of the Kingdom of England.File:Union Jack 1606 Scotland.svg|Union Flag used in the Kingdom of Scotland from early C17th-1707.Image:Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors).svg|Union Flag used in the Kingdom of England from 1606-1707.


James did not create a British Crown but he did, in one sense at least, create the British as a distinct group of people. In 1607 large tracts of land in Ulster fell to the crown. A new Plantation was started, made up of Protestant settlers from Scotland and England, mostly from the Border countrymarker (the "middle shires" between the Firth of Clydemarker and the Mersey Estuarymarker), with a minority from Bristolmarker and Londonmarker. Over the years the settlers, surrounded by the hostile Catholic Irish, gradually cast off their separate English and Scottish roots, becoming Britishmarker in the process, as a means of emphasising their 'otherness' from their Gaelic neighbours (Marshall, T., p. 31). It was the one corner of the United Kingdom where Britishness became truly meaningful as a political and cultural identity in its own right, as opposed to a gloss on older and deeper national associations.

Though, over time, Britishness also took some root in England and Scotland – especially in the days of Empire – by and large people were English or Scottish first, and British second. In Northern Ireland the Protestant communities were to be British first, second and last. It was James' most enduring – and troublesome – legacy.

A perfect union?

In many ways the problems of the dynastic union between England and Scotland were little different from those engendered by similar experiments elsewhere in Europe: the case of Aragonmarker and Castile might be compared, as does the temporary union of Swedenmarker and Poland (see Polish-Swedish union). Unions of this kind can be made to work, but they take time to bed down. In the end the union of Scotland and England was to be successful but it was never a marriage of equals. James promised that he would return to his ancient kingdom every three years. In the end he came back only once — in 1617 — and even then his English councillors pleaded with him to remain in London. Scotland, up to the full parliamentary Union of 1707, may have retained its institutional independence, but it lost control of vital areas of policy, most notably foreign relations, which remained the prerogative of the crown. This meant, in practice, that policy matters were inevitably tied to English rather than Scottish interests. A case in point was the Dutch Wars of Charles II, which took Scotland to war with its strongest trading partner, though no Scottish interest was served and none threatened. The failure of Scotland's attempts to establish overseas trading colonies, firstly in Nova Scotiamarker then later in the Isthmus of Panama, (under the ill-fated Darien schememarker), were also in part due to the priority given to English interests over those of Scotland by the sovereign. James' imperial crown over time diminished in size and scope, so much so that in 1616 he was to admit openly in the Star Chamber that his intention 'was always to effect union by uniting Scotland to England, and not England to Scotland.' Years later Queen Anne, the first true British monarch, was to describe the Scots as 'a strange people' and told her first parliament that she knew her heart 'to be entirely English.' It was to be George III — a scion of the German House of Hanover — who recaptured something of the old spirit of King James of 1603 when he declared his pride 'in the name of Briton.'


References and further reading

  • Croft, Pauline (2003). King James. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-61395-3.
  • Willson, David Harris ([1956] 1963 ed). King James VI & 1. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd. ISBN 0-224-60572-0.
  • Wormald, Jenny (1994). "The Union of 1603", in Scots and Britons, op cit.

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