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Grounds for divorce? How England and Scotland became Great Britain

Dr Gabriel Glickman and Dr Sarah Richardson, Department of History

Published June 2014
This article was produced for the University of Warwick's Features page, follow this link to access the original.

18 September 2014 will be the day Scotland decides the fate of Great Britain. Will devolution prove to be the trial separation that will see a 307 year old marriage end in divorce? Or is there a chance for mediation and the opportunity to update and renew the marriage vows that united the two kingdoms? In the first of this two part series, academics from the University of Warwick explore what brought Britain together.
Words by Gareth B Jenkins.

scottish_and_british_flag_on_national_gallery_of_scotland.jpgThe referendum has raised a lot of questions about Scotland’s (and Britain’s) future, but what about questions of the past; why did the union occur in the first place? The Act of Union, the legal document that brought England and Scotland together and formed Great Britain was signed in 1707, but it didn’t spring from nowhere.By September, a union that has existed for more than three centuries could come to an end. It won’t be a mutual break up, with only Scotland voting on whether to end the union. But how did we get here? Was Great Britain ever built to last or was it a marriage of convenience that no longer meets the needs of both parties?

When James VI of Scotland claimed the English crown following the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, England and Scotland were to share a monarch for the first time, but retain two separate parliaments. Did this change bring the two nations together?

“It is a contentious point,” says Dr Gabriel Glickman, Department of History at the University of Warwick. “At the top level of politics, rulers in England and Scotland recognised that they were affected by things that went on in the other country. The two kingdoms had repeatedly interfered in affairs across the border - trying to cultivate alliances among the elites in the other country.”

The 'natural' union

Interference took many forms. English kings had laid claim to the Scottish crown long into the fourteenth century and, during the 1560s, 70s and 80s, many in England felt that Mary, Queen of Scots, had a better right to the throne than Queen Elizabeth. The political elites of both countries were pretty similar – Scottish royal dynasties like the Bruces and the Stewarts were, like the English monarchs, Norman in origin, and the two monarchies intermarried.

James I“James I began a propaganda campaign in 1603, arguing that England and Scotland shared so many interests, so many ideas, that it was the most natural and obvious thing to come together not just under one monarch, but under one parliament, one church, one currency, one system of law – in effect to be one nation.”

In 1604, James asked the English and Scottish parliaments to operate under the name ‘Great Britain’, referring to the project as a “perfect union, a blessed union... Reuniting of these two mightie, famous and ancient Kingdomes of England and Scotland, under one Imperiall Crowne.” The Union Jack was developed and flew from government buildings, royal residencies and royal vessels.

“James encapsulated this campaign in emotional terms,” says Gabriel. “Claiming that ‘I am the husband and all the whole Isle is my lawfull wife.’ James said that for a king to rule over two nations would be like a man having two wives – and bigamy was deemed to be as illegal and immoral then as it is now!”

James I was not alone in espousing the benefits of union – many writers and politicians sort to engender a British identity during the seventeenth century.

“The philosopher and scientist Francis Bacon, wanted to expunge the names England and Scotland and replace them with North and South Britain,” says Gabriel. “In the next generation, the poet Andrew Marvell commemorated the deaths of Scots who had fought in the armed forces under James I and his successors.”

Will you the Tweed that sullen bounder call.
Of soil, of wit, of manners, and of all?
Why draw you not, as well, the thrifty line
From Thames, Trent, Humber, or at least the Tyne?

The Loyall Scot, Andrew Marvell (1669)

“What he’s talking about here is the arbitrary nature of the border between England and Scotland, along the River Tweed,” says Gabriel. “And the absurdity of saying that it represented the demarcation of different manners, customs, morals and beliefs. Why should an inhabitant of Northumberland be seen as so distinct from someone living in Berwickshire? Was there not just as big a difference between the north and south of England?”

The arguments put forward by James I, Bacon, Marvell and others were that a union should be organic, the result of the peoples of one island embracing their shared experiences. “There would, in their eyes, always be pressures towards union, because union was so essentially and intrinsically natural,” explains Gabriel.

Unfamiliar territory

But even with these shared experiences there remained strong differences. Scotland and England retained different legal systems, different forms of university education and different religions (despite both being protestant, the Scottish Presbyterian Church and the Church of England differed on issues of ritual, hierarchy and theology).

LochThe economies of the two countries were also different. At the time, it was the English – the not British – Empire and English merchants were fiercely protective of the trade they had attained with the emerging American colonies. Scottish merchants found themselves locked out of the Atlantic economy as a result of a series of Navigation Acts passed in the Westminster Parliament. Many were able to establish a flourishing commerce with the ports of Northern Europe, but the exclusion from American markets created an abiding source of animosity. To many Scots, the union of the crowns seemed to enshrine a deeply unequal partnership, in which one kingdom was kept subordinate to its larger, richer neighbour.

“But Scotland was itself divided. The Highland line was not merely a geographical fault-line but a cultural and legal one,” explains Gabriel. “The Highlands represented a Gaelic-speaking, militarised clan society that idealised its independence. Supreme power and legal jurisdiction was held by local clan chiefs, who styled themselves as patriarchs and who mythologised the idea of clan unity through blood.”

The independent-minded Highland Scots had more in common with the Gaelic clans of Ireland (such as the O’Neills and the O’Briens) than those in the lowlands. But it was the behaviour of the English that united Scotland.

“It was the sheer force of xenophobia on both sides,” says Gabriel. “The Scots feared domination by an English elite that spoke as though the whole island was theirs. Just think of one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines in Richard II – ‘this scept’red isle... this precious stone set in the silver sea.’ It is spoken as if the whole island is England.”

There was equal trepidation on the side of the English, with immigration and infiltration from Scotland being the hot topics of the day. Francis Osborne wrote, in Upon the Scottes:

“They beg our lands, our goods, our lives
They switch our nobles
and lye with their wives.”

Upon the Scottes, Francis Osborne (date unknown)

What this all suggested was a deep sense of cultural difference, and unfamiliarity. And Robert Harley, the English minister whose government paved the way for the 1707 Act of Union, confessed that he knew “no more of Scotch business than of Japan”.

Shared experience or specific events?

So, was the union in 1707 the culmination of a century long propaganda campaign to overcome the differences? Or were specific events the cause? Dr Sarah Richardson, Department of History at the University of Warwick, argues that it was much more about specific events than a shared experience.

“One of main aspects that led to the 1707 union was the financial crisis that Scotland was in at the time,” explains Sarah. “It was akin to the modern banking crisis.”

The Kingdom of Scotland had aimed to set up a colony in the Gulf of Darien, on the Isthmus of Panama, in the late 1690s in an attempt to circumvent the English Navigation Acts and break finally into the wealth of the Americas. Around a quarter of Scotland's liquid assets were invested in the scheme. It failed and it did so to a great extent due to English hostility: specifically the antagonism from colonial merchants and monopoly trading companies who saw a new Scottish plantation as a serious commercial rival. Darien was abandoned by 1700, compounding a decade of poor harvests and severe famine, which had left the nation in a sorry state. The population of Scotland, around one million people, was reduced by around 160,000 – either through famine- related deaths or emigration, chiefly to Ulster. England and Scotland had never seemed more unequal.

The last attempt to unite the kingdoms was made just five years before the Act of the Union was passed, but in 1702, a consensus could not be reached between England and Scotland’s ruling classes. This was despite a call for union from the new Monarch, Queen Anne, who had succeeded William in 1702 and picked up William’s narrative of union between the two kingdoms.

“Several of the Queen’s leading ministers, including John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, were pro-union but they didn’t bring the rest of the English establishment along with them,” says Sarah. “There was top-down support for a union on the English side but not from the rest of the English elite. The English also wanted to impose a settlement on Scotland that was quite unattractive to Scots, with few concessions.”

North of the border, wealthy Scottish land-owners like the Marquis of Queensbury and the Duke of Argyll needed to be brought on board and there was little in the 1702 offer that was attractive to them. Five years later things had changed. The English elite united behind the concept of union and offered a more attractive settlement to the Scots, as well as penalties if an act wasn’t passed. English ministers threatened to pass an ‘Aliens Act’, proclaiming that Scots in England would be treated as foreigners, unless a treaty of union was established. Lord Queensberry and Lord Seafield, the Scottish Lord Chancellor, decided to accept these terms, and aim instead to win concessions.

Explains Gabriel; “They persuaded the English ministers to provide a sum of almost £400,000 sterling to rescue Scotland from its debts and compensate the investors ruined by Darien. They got a pledge that Scots would be allowed complete freedom of trade with England and the overseas Empire.”

Post-Darien, Scottish resistance to the idea of union was reduced but not quelled entirely. The result was a ferocious debate in the Edinburgh Parliament in 1706. The run-up to the parliamentary debates saw petitions against union and violent demonstrations in the streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Queensberry and the English ministers posted a standing army of 1,500 around Edinburgh in the event of armed rebellion.

“There are competing narratives to the background of the Act of Union,” says Sarah. “William III – who became King of both England and Scotland in 1688 – was convinced that, by the end of his reign, a union would be necessary and that an independent – or even semi-independent Scotland – would be a threat to the English Crown, the English church and stability.”

William & MaryWilliam’s rise to power in the Glorious Revolution, which forced the Stuart dynasty to abscond to France, created a precarious situation for the British monarchy.

“Although William and Mary are accepted by the Scottish Parliament in 1688/89, they don’t get such an advantageous settlement as they do in England. There remains a lot of support for the exiled Stuart, James II,” says Sarah. “There’s always the potential that Scotland could ally with the Stuarts, and the French, and set up a rival regime. The English were wary of a power so close by that offered an alternative monarch, an alternative to the church and a distraction from England’s economy. The Act of Union was a way of ensuring stability and, from an English point of view, it was a way of rescuing the Scots from their financial misadventures.

“From a Scottish point of view, that English version of events is contested. Scotland was not a backward country in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It had five universities; it was an independent centre of commerce and wealth. It had quite substantial land-owning assets and it had a long history of independence. So, yes, the Scots were down on their luck but, from their point of view, it was a transitory point and many Scots felt they were sold out in 1707.”

In January 1707, the Scottish Parliament voted itself out of existence by a majority of 110-67, with 50 abstentions. On these grounds, the Treaty of Union was ratified, resulting in the creation of a new British Parliament with 16 Scottish peers and 45 MPs: a paltry total compared to the 513 English MPs.

An unwelcome union

The early years of the Union were not ones of nuptial bliss. Not one petition in favour of the union had been received before the vote in Scotland. Addresses and petitions against union had poured in from 116 boroughs before the Act was passed, bearing a combined total 20,000 signatures. The reaction, in January and February 1707, saw more riots in major Lowland centres like Glasgow and Dumfries, where the Articles of Union were publicly burnt.

“It’s almost immediate dissatisfaction from the Scots,” says Sarah. “There’s a lot of resentment to the idea that they’ve somehow been bought off.”

The constitutional change saw Scotland give up its Parliament. It would not sit again until 1 July 1999 when the Scottish Executive was established.

“The union was built on concessions and divisions,” says Gabriel. “Scotland kept its church, its legal system and its centres of administration. This is because it was a union meant not to establish a new country, let alone a new identity, but to secure the British royal succession, to keep out the exiled Stuarts, and to provide better co-ordination in a time of war. A British state had been created – a British consciousness had not been.”

1713 was a testing year for the union. The looming threat of a Jacobite rebellion (the eventual rebellion was in 1715) saw some Scots looking to bring back the exiled Stuarts, the offspring of the deposed James II, who had put the return of the Scottish parliament at the centrepiece of their manifesto. In the House of Lords a motion was put forward to dissolve the union.

Thistle“That motion is supported by most of the Scottish peers,” says Sarah. “But there’s also support from the English establishment mainly as a result of division between the political parties in England. The vote becomes a way of putting pressure on the prime minister. It comes within five votes of getting through Parliament. It demonstrates just how unsteady the union was during this period.

“Over the eighteenth century there were a number of rebellions, particularly Jacobite rebellions, as the threat of an alternative monarch – and vision for Great Britain – doesn’t go away. Every succession – George I, George II and George III – offers the potential for an alternative claimant to the crown to come forward. It’s at those points that the apathy of the Scots, and the fact that they’re not fully committed to the union, is brought into sharp focus.”

Turning point

As the eighteenth century progressed, the possibility of retrieving independence for Scotland began to fade and an economic upturn made separation less appealing. This was especially evident in the trade in linen, tobacco and cattle: by the 1760s, Scottish linen producers sold 70 per cent of their official output to England and the American colonies. By 1765, Scotland was responsible for 40 per cent of British tobacco importation (having taken only 10 per cent in 1738). Glasgow started to become a commercial powerhouse. By 1800, Scotland was the fourth most urbanised country in Europe, having been the tenth in 1700.

“Just as the Act of Union was caused by an economic crisis, the acceptance of union with England is cemented by Scotland’s commercial prosperity,” says Sarah. “This period also sees the growth of vibrant, middle-class elites. In Scotland, you see the flowering of the Scottish enlightenment.”

Intellectuals like the economist Adam Smith come out of the Scottish education system. Edinburgh and Glasgow’s universities begin to produce more lawyers, medics and scientists.

“Scotland’s always been a relatively wealthy country,” says Sarah. “It’s got prosperous industries like textiles and long established trading links with the continent and the colonies. All of these pick up at this point.”


Robert BurnsBy the nineteenth century, you begin to see the invention of the Scottish tradition through the romanticised works of authors and poets like Walter Scott and Robert Burns.

“What that does is buy off the need for there to be an independent nation because it creates a separate identity within the British state,” explains Sarah.

In addition to the economic and civil integration, the militaries of the two nations also begin to merge and the expanding (now British) Empire provided opportunities for the Scots. 46 per cent of Scots peers were promoted in the British Army from 1707-1745 (up from 17 per cent between 1660 and 1706). By the 1750s, one in four regimental officers was Scottish.

The first Highland regiment appeared in 1725, with the creation of the 42nd Regiment of Foot, better known as the Black Watch, and was raised from the Whig, loyalist clans Campbell, Grant, Ross and Munro. By the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), the shared imperial experience began to forge an outlet for the energies of the once-Jacobite clans.

Says Gabriel: “England’s desire to be a global power comes from being British. The Highlanders were brought in from the cold and so the children and grandchildren of Scottish rebels served in the Napoleonic War, in the American War of Independence and at Waterloo.” William Pitt the Elder proclaimed to George III that he had “found in the mountains of the North”, a “race of men” who “served with fidelity as they fought with valour, and conquered for you in every part of the world”.

Explains Gabriel: “This allows us to see why Scotland does not generate the radical and militant national movements seen in Ireland in response to the revolutions in America and France, and why it becomes one of the most loyal provinces of the British Empire through the wars of the 1790s and early 1800s.”

The Highland culture, once seen as Jacobite, alien and subversive, was promoted as one of the fundamental components of the British nation, offering the virtuous military spirit that, its champions, claimed, was indispensable to empowering the Empire.

Robert Burns, known for attacking the union (in the poem Such A Parcel Of Rogues In A Nation, 1791) exemplifies the conflicting ideas that that began to emerge. Just four years later he wrote Dumfries Volunteer:

Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang ourselves united;
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted!
No! never but by British hands
Shall British wrangs be righted!

Dumfries Volunteer, Robert Burns (1795)

Union in a post-Empire world

“Does a union built around an empire have a place in a post-Empire world?” asks Gabriel. “Our society today has less of a military or religious focus so the question of union rests on whether the social connection, the emotional sense of commonality, between the Scots and the English still endures.”

During the twentieth century, as the British Empire declined, several Scottish independence parties and movements began to develop.

Says Sarah: “You also get increased commercial prosperity – particularly with the development of the oil and gas industries. The Scottish now have this view, whether it’s right or wrong, that they’re almost bankrolling England and that their contribution to the economy far outweighs their population.”

The twentieth and twenty-first centuries began to offer alternative models, such as the EU, of ways in which nation states could operate together in a number of ways and yet retain their own identities.

“That didn’t exist in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” says Sarah. “The establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 has given the Scots experience of constitutional independence again – that’s what they had from the early modern period up to 1707. Once you establish a Scottish parliament that’s setting its own laws and has MPs that establish an alternate power-base, I think it makes renegotiations or other forms of federal government much less likely.”

In the second article in this two part series, academics from the University of Warwick Departments of Sociology and Psychology will explore the internal and external factors influencing the voters.


Sarah RichardsonGabriel GlickmanDr Sarah Richardson is a political historian at the University of Warwick. Her research focuses on politics, legislation and elections in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She is currently working on participation in politics outside of the parliamentary process at a time when the modern democratic system was being established.

Dr Gabriel Glickman is an early modern historian at the University of Warwick. His research is around British politics and religion c.1660-1750, focussing on the significance of the international context.


Both Sarah and Gabriel are available for media interviews. Contact the University of Warwick press team for details.


Images: National Gallery of Scotland by Dmitry Shakin (via Flickr).
Full Length Portrait of King James VI and I (1566 - 1625) 1618-1620c. by Lisby (via Flickr).
Loch Leven, Scotland by mendhak (via Flickr).
William and Mary by Fred Dawson LRPS (via Flickr).
Flower of Scotland #2 by John Haslam (via Flickr).
Robert Burns (1759 - 1796) by Dumfries Museum (via Flickr).