Though a union of England and Scotland had been sought on both sides for many centuries, it was achieved in 1707 in peculiar circumstances. After a century of peace and goodwill between the two mediæval kingdoms, in which union was often discussed, it came not as the two states had drawn most closely together but at a moment when they had suddenly, unexpectedly been drawn to animosity. This circumstance of the union has flavoured analysis of the history of the union, but also ensured that the terms on which it was agreed were effected with more keen consideration than would have been the case had union come earlier in better times.
The essential unity of Great Britain is a theme of mediaeval literature, even from the time of Bede, whose history of the English people begins “The Island of Britain. . .” and after the Viking age, the kings of the many kingdoms of the island reached accommodation though not unity. The classical division of England into seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is no more than a snapshot of a moment in the Middle Saxon period, and likewise the classical picture of Britain divided into Scotland, England and Wales is a myth also: there was never a moment when this threefold division prevailed, not least because Wales was divided into a multitude of principalities and lordships, and the islands were effectively or genuinely independent.
King Edward I is known for the wars of the latter part of his reign, but he began in peace. The painting of Edward, Alexander of Scotland and Llewellyn of Gwynedd enthroned side by side in Parliament is his picture of the unity of his early reign. When Alexander died without issue, Edward arranged a marriage between his son, (later Edward II) and the new heir, Margaret, who was still in Norway – this would have united the two kingdoms and seemingly Norway too, as Margaret was heir to that realm too. Margaret never reached Scotland however; after a long sea voyage she died in Orkney, and this single death caused many, many more in following centuries. Subsequent ages brought their schemes for unity which however came to nothing, and the hasty alliance between the Scottish nobility and France, all to the latter’s benefit, ensured that the Middle Ages were cursed with bloodshed and the borders a lawless pandemonium.
King James III determined upon peace and unity. He acquired Orkney and Shetland and then turned to settling with England, betrothing his son (later James IV) to Cecily, daughter of the Yorkist King Edward IV. James though faced rebellion before that marriage could take place, then the Yorkists were overthrown in England in 1485, and James overthrown three years later. His son though achieved a better English marriage that was in time to bring peace and unity.
England reached dynastic unity under Henry VII and when Henry’s daughter Margaret married James IV, the English parliament asked if this might subject England to a Scottish king and so bring about a union. Though it was thought unlikely, in fact this marriage was to bring about the long desired knitting together of the two realms.
Henry VIII was an impatient king and took matters in hand: the only reason the two kingdoms were disunited was the circumstance of their having two separate monarchs and this was to be overcome. He believed that he was founding a new, vigorous dynasty and was determined to catch up for the ages lost in the Wars of the Roses. In 1543, Scotland signed a treaty for a marriage between the two child cousins, Mary Queen of Scots and Edward Prince of Wales, with the purpose of uniting the realms. Later in the year though the Scots parliament renounced the treaty, and Henry went to war, in a campaign later known as the Rough Wooing. There was a substantial party in Scotland in favour of the union, in particular the growing number of Protestants amongst the nobility, and the sides fought with pamphlets as well as cannon. James Henrisoun though, a supporter of union, had to ask King Henry “Whether it were better to conquer hearts without charges, or burn, and build forts at great charges, which will never conquer Scotland?” In the event, Mary was carried off to France and married its heir, not England’s, and Edward died without issue, as did both of his sisters. On her return to Scotland, Mary declared herself for a union, expecting to succeed to the English throne herself, but instead was deposed by the Lords of the Congregation. The succession to both thrones fell to James VI, Queen Mary’s son and a descendant of the marriage of Margaret of England to James IV of Scotland.
King James succeeded to the English throne in 1603 and at once began preparations for a union of his two kingdoms; declaring that otherwise (as king of two kingdoms) he would be guilty of bigamy. Commissioners were appointed to negotiate the terms, but ultimately the English parliament was not interested in pursuing the matter. Scotland was no longer a military threat and England could gain nothing from it. Scotland’s growing prosperity was dependent upon England, but parliament saw no reason to take on the responsibilities involved in uniting the kingdoms. A second attempt in 1610 had the same outcome.
The civil wars raged bloodily in the seventeenth century equally across both kingdoms, and in 1654 the victorious Cromwell brought about a union; the Commonwealth of England,
Scotland and Ireland. Just six years later though, in 1660, Charles II entered London. The Scottish members of the the House of Commons begged the king to continue the union, but all acts of the Commonwealth, the union included, were declared void – instead a commission was established for a new union, but again it was a failure as the English parliament rejected it.
In 1688, James II and VII was expelled from his kingdoms and the parliamentarians of England, followed soon by those of Scotland, accepted William and Mary as joint sovereigns. The Estates of Scotland issued a petition for a union between the kingdoms, but the English parliament ignored it.
However, two unexpected changes were coming: Darien and the death of a prince.
England in the 1690s was not the same place as it had been a hundred years before. It had rich plantations in the Americas, sugar islands flourishing in the West Indies, and ports on the coasts of Africa and Asia. This trade was the key to England’s wealth. Scotland received benefit from this in favourable terms for trading, but all was at the mercy of the English parliament, which had no representation from Scotland nor responsibility for it.
In 1690, northern Britain had suffered a series of poor harvests and the farmers and landowners of Scotland and northern England were in poverty. A bold commercial stroke was needed.
English trade in the East and in Africa was in the hands of two monopoly companies: The East India Company and the Royal African Company. These two companies brought immense wealth to their investors the one bringing spices and fine fabrics from India and the East Indies, and the other trafficked in gold and slaves on the coasts of West Africa. They each enjoyed a legal monopoly. In response, a group of English and Scottish merchants established in 1695 The Company of Scotland Trading to Africa and the Indies, which was granted a similar monopoly by the Scottish parliament.
This direct challenge to the East India Company and the Royal African would not be tolerated. The two companies had a great deal of influence in parliament, their investors found in both House and controlling a number of pocket boroughs, and they ensured that the Scottish Indian and African Company was obstructed. Its directors could no longer meet in London, so the board decamped to Edinburgh; English, Dutch and Hamburg investors were harassed out; and eventually a company ship, the Annandale, was seized in the Thames, but that was after the disaster which the company brought upon itself.
The disaster to come though was of the company’s own making: William Patterson, founding genius of the Bank of England and a leading voice for the Indian and African Company, determined upon establishing a trading colony in Darien, in what is now Panama. He had never seen the land but had heard great tales from sailors, of a land of deep green forests and wholly uninhabited. Not stopping the wonder why it was uninhabited, or what made it so green, he directed the company’s whole effort into founding a colony, in a land which was a torrid, malarial swamp within jealously watched Spanish territory. In 1698 the first expedition sailed. The colony was wiped out by plague, malaria and starvation, and only 300 of the 1,200 colonists survived to escape. In the meantime a second expedition had sailed, also into disaster, and this time into the teeth of Spanish guns. Within two years the venture was over, taking with it a fifth of the wealth of Scotland, which had been invested in the venture. In vain the Scottish nobility pleaded for English support, but that would have meant war with Spain.
In 1700, Prince William Duke of Gloucester died, the only son of Princess Anne to have survived infancy. Therefore when Anne succeeded to the throne in 1702, she held a barren sceptre: in her the line of the House of Stuart ended, excepting her exiled Papist half-brother James, and a major succession crisis began.
In England the succession was a major political debate. Charles II had left no legitimate children and James II only his two daughters, both now without children, and James Edward, who was Roman Catholic and so excluded. James I had many descendants, but having married into foreign houses, most had become Papist themselves. The Tories hoped to find accommodation with the exiled James Edward, but the Whigs would not countenance it, and the choice fell upon Sophia of Hanover, granddaughter of King James. Better still, she was the daughter of William and Elizabeth of the Palatinate, who had ruled as King and Queen of Bohemia for a single winter at the invitation of the Protestants of that land, until expelled by the Habsburg emperor.
This was Scotland’s opportunity. They wanted free trade, and equality and used the position well – in 1704 the Act of Security declared that the succession after Queen Anne would fall to whichever heir be chosen by the Estates of Scotland and that they may not choose the King of England “unless a free Communication of Trade, the Freedom of Navigation, and the Liberty of the Plantations be fully agreed to, and established by the Parliament and Kingdom of England, to the Kingdom and Subjects of Scotland, or the said meeting of the Estates“. Now having ignored Scotland’s pleas for union, England’s parliament needed it.
The first reaction though was retaliation: in 1715 England enacted the Aliens Act, threatening to treat Scots as foreigners, bar Scottish ships for trading with the colonies and to ban imports of staples from Scotland unless Scotland treated for a union and accepted the Hanoverian succession. The stand-off was cruel, and even war was spoken of.
Its colony gone, its ships lost to the Spaniards, pirates and desertion, the Indian and African Company had little left. In 1702, two of its ships, the Speedy Return and the Continent, were lost to pirates. In 1704 the Company fitted out a new ship, the Annandale, in the Thames, only to see it seized by the East India Company – this act caused fury throughout Scotland, no more so than amongst Edinburgh’s febrile mob. Such was the fury that a revenge was needed, and when in December of that year the Worcester, an English merchantman, sailed into Leith, it was seized in reprisal. Then its captain and crew were accused of being the very pirates who had preyed on the Speedy Return, and hanged at the demand of the mob.
In these few short years, the relations of perfect amity between the two sides of the border had turned to hatred.
The position could not continue. Scotland was beggared by its overweighty state, by failed harvests, by choked trade and by the loss of its capital in the swamps of Darien. In this position of desperation, commissioners made their way to London to negotiate the terms for the long-delayed union.
Objections to the union were found amongst various parties; from Presbyterians mistrusting the English Tories to preserve the Kirk, and from Episcopalians realising that the union would cement the Presbyterian settlement, and from those who had come to hate, mistrust or pure emotion.
There had been two main demands of the Estates: free trade and navigation, and the freedom of the Church of Scotland. Although they were not in a strong position to negotiate, the English commissioners agreed these key points at once. These demands of the Scottish Commissioners were met, and more, and even the losses of Darien were to be paid
out of the English treasury.
Queen Anne summed the progress of union up best in her speech to Parliament:
“I consider this union as a matter of the greatest importance to the wealth, strength and safety of the whole island and at the same time a work of so much difficulty and nicety in its own nature that till now all attempts towards it in the course of above a hundred years have proved ineffectual.“
To many the last few years, in which England had been blamed for every calamity, even the failure of Darien, a union with the English was greeted with fury, and many petitions were
made against it, but the terms of the union achieved the remedying of every complaint. It is not to be wondered that on the day of the union the carilloner in High Kirk of St Giles in
Edinburgh, rang the bells in the tune ‘Why should I be so sad on my wedding day?’