Union of the Crowns

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Union of the Crowns

By the time James VI arrived in London in 1603 to unite the crowns and take up his throne as James I of England, he had one main aim - to fully bring the two countries together and create a brand new United Kingdom.

After centuries of warfare between the two countries, many Scots supported him in this. Yet it was the English who blocked a quick union because they didn't think it would be good for them.

Astonishingly, many of the arguments made by the English against a union at that time are exactly the same complaints against Scotland that you regularly hear voiced in England today.

Under pressure from James, the Scottish parliament actually passed a Treaty of Union in 1607, exactly 100 years before the two countries finally did merge into one when they both agreed the Act of Union. However, England would have nothing to do with the idea.

After nearly 1000 years of fighting to try and dominate Scotland, it seems incredible that when union was offered to the English on a plate, they turned it down.

They rejected the idea because they claimed - just as English politicians maintain today - that Scotland was poorer than England and so would demand subsidies from London to keep it afloat.

Another worry they had was that if the two countries did join together, then Scots would flood south in the hope and expectation that "their" king would give them a job.

James was able to grant a common citizenship to people born on both sides of the border, but that was about as far as union went during his reign. Both countries kept their own parliament, their own economies and their own trading arrangements.

Despite the setbacks, James's desire to draw the two countries together never dulled. He started to call his new kingdom Great Britain - a name which the English parliament of the time wasn't happy about - and personally supervised plans for a new union flag, which was finally agreed in 1606.

James was a shrewd king who quickly ensured that Scottish influence played a major part in decision making in London. He tried hard to be even handed, giving four out of ten of the appointments to his court at Whitehall to Scots and installing one in five members of the English privy council from north of the border.

Hundreds of Scots joined James in England, determined that they should profit from the closer relationship between the two ancient countries. By and large, they were successful. Slowly but surely, Scotland was finally starting to relinquish its freedom and independence.

James never lost his broad Scots accent, but he felt perfectly happy in London and never really felt the desire to return north. He didn't think he needed to, since he found governing the two countries a relatively easy task.

James even went as far as to boast to the English parliament that he was managing to control the Scots in a way which England had not managed over centuries of war.

He told them famously: "This I must say for Scotland, and may truly vaunt it: here I sit and govern with my pen; I write and it is done; and by a Clerk of the Council I govern Scotland now, which others could not do with the sword." And he was absolutely right.

However, it wasn't just the English who were cautious about the new relationship between the two old enemies. The Scots, too, had every reason to be careful. They recognised that theirs was a poor country, while England was rich, powerful, and influential. Even then, there were worries that the new accommodation could end up being a takeover rather than a partnership.

The fact that Scotland no longer had its own king was something of a shock to the system north of the border. Scots had grown used to their monarchs being away for long periods - not least because of imprisonment by the English - but it was always thought that they would return eventually. It quickly became clear that James VI was not coming back.

There were financial disadvantages too. Edinburgh, for instance, felt the loss of the royal court and its spending power. There was also a worry that trade would begin to suffer.

For all his interest in England, the king did not forget Scotland. The lawless Highland clans, for instance, were still extremely powerful, and he now felt empowered to take them on. He hunted down one of the most troublesome clans, the MacGregors, and effectively banned them, forcing them to take to the mountains.

In another move aimed at bringing order, James ordered the Bishop of the Isles, Andrew Knox, to meet with several of the chiefs on Iona. The aim was to try and persuade them to abandon their Catholic faith and become Protestants, and also to adopt more civilised lowland ways. Unsurprisingly, it didn't take long before the inter-clan slaughter started again.

James was always preoccupied with religion. He rejected the Catholicism of his mother, but at the same time felt uncomfortable with the harsh Calvinist faith of the Church of Scotland. However, he loved what he felt was the ordered, Episcopal dignity of the Church of England, and wanted to see the Kirk adopt the same style of worship.

The king didn't use gentle persuasion against the Kirk as much as brutal bullying. He invited eight of the most important Scottish ministers to talks in London in 1606, only to abuse them to their faces.

One of those who went down was his old adversary Andrew Melville, a leading thinker who had studied Calvinism on the continent and helped to draft the Kirk's Second Book of Discipline. James sent him to the Tower and forbade him ever to return to Scotland.

The king felt there was still a real chance of turning his native land away from the harshness of Calvinism and towards the Anglican form of worship. The Kirk was not yet a completely dominant force in Scotland, since parts of the country were still Catholic and some areas, notably Aberdeen, had already embraced episcopacy.

On his one and only visit back north of the border in 1617, James was determined to reform the Kirk and bring it more into line with English practice. However, his actions simply caused antagonism. When he introduced a choir and organ into the Chapel Royal at Holyrood, for instance, it only served to infuriate the locals.

More trouble followed when he attempted to reform the Kirk itself. James wanted to make a series of major changes to the way the church conducted its worship which struck at the very heart of Presbyterianism.

He insisted that Easter and Christmas were both celebrated as religious festivals in Scotland - they had fallen out of favour by this time for being unnecessarily Papist - and also demanded that, as was the case in England, Scots should receive communion on their knees.

Other changes he imposed were to allow private communion and baptism and the insistence that confirmation was carried out not by ministers but by bishops of the Kirk, who still existed at this time.

In 1618 the changes, known as the Five Articles of Perth, were put to the General Assembly, which was meeting in the city, and forced through. The ministers, though, were in rebellious mood and many refused to implement the changes. The result was that an enraged king banned the General Assembly, which did not meet again for another two decades.

It was not just the clergy who were infuriated and insulted by the king's attempts to force Anglican worship on them. The people too, were angry. Quietly and slowly, the Kirk began to plan its fight back.

It was a battle which would eventually split Scotland and consume the whole of Britain in civil war.


Meanwhile...

  • 1605 Cervantes publishes Part I of Don Quixote
  • 1606 Guy Fawkes is sentenced to death for his part in the Gunpowder Plot
  • 1606 Rrembrandt van Rijn, the Dutch painter, is born
  • 1606 Galileo Galilei invents the proportional compass
  • 1609 The Blue Mosque is built in Constantinople
  • 1609 Henry Huson explores Delaware Bay and the Hudson River
  • 1617 John Calvin's collected works are published in Geneva

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