In the latest of our series on English-Scottish parliamentary relations throughout the centuries, guest blogger Dr Alan MacDonald (University of Dundee) discusses the Scottish parliament’s response to James VI and I’s attempt at union between England and Scotland in 1604-7…
On 11 August 1604, a parliament at Perth passed the ‘Act anent the unioun of Scotland and England’, completing a process that began three years previously. In merely abolishing hostile laws, establishing cross-border legal arrangements and opening up commercial interaction between the two realms, it was a pale shadow of what the king had sought.
The nature of the Scottish parliamentary record makes it harder to discuss what the Scots thought of the union proposals than is possible for England. The official record is restricted to procedure and legislation, while narrative accounts are laconic and few. Yet it is clear that, while many Scottish politicians were keen supporters of union, they were not enthusiasts for James’s vision of a ‘perfect’ (i.e. complete) union. As with the debates 100 years later and even today, ‘union’ covered a spectrum of meanings from something akin to Henry VIII’s incorporation of Wales at one end, to little more than an acknowledgement of the need to agree to be good neighbours at the other. Some pamphleteers insisted that a union of laws was essential, while others insisted that it was indifferent or even problematic to the whole scheme, and the same could be said for ecclesiastical union.
Starting the process in the English parliament unsettled James’s Scottish subjects and, although he sent a reassuring letter to the Scottish parliament, they remained suspicious. Scottish parliamentarians and the wider political nation were principally concerned with the potential consequences for the institutions, laws and religion of Scotland and the first two acts of the parliament at Perth in July 1604 reflect those concerns.
The first piece of business was to pass the ‘Commissioun for the unioun’, appointing the Scots representatives. It insisted on the inviolability of the ‘fundamentall lawes, ancient privileges, offices, richtis, digniteis and liberteis of this kingdome’. That this phrase was inserted into the body of the act, as well as the preamble, is instructive. It ran counter to the king’s desire that the act should follow the English one ‘word by word’. It indicates considerable unease at the potential for the loss of dearly-held aspects of Scottish distinctiveness, as does the fact that parliament did not endorse all of the king’s nominees for the union commission. The Scots commissioners, led by the most significant member of the legal establishment, Alexander Seton, Lord Fyvie, were not going to countenance a union of laws when they travelled south.
The very next piece of legislation was the ‘Act in favouris of the kirk’, dealing with what was one of the most pressing issues for those in and around parliament, fears of ecclesiastical union on the English model. This act removed religion from the negotiating table before the process had even begun. Part of the background to this was the considerable anxiety in the church at large because, although a general assembly had been scheduled for the summer of 1604, it had been prorogued. Yet one of the conditions under which the recently-reintroduced episcopate operated was that they were to act in parliament on the instructions of the general assembly. The acceptance of this act by the crown was designed to neutralise that issue, although it is hard say what the king thought of it. It may be surprising to some that this key act was proposed, drafted, passed and ratified without his knowledge. This was possible because of the crown’s failure to amend parliamentary procedure to take into account the absence of the king. Acts were ratified by being touched with the sceptre by the chancellor at the end of parliament. This had previously been in the king’s presence but continued in his absence. Given that religion was the one area in which James continued to pursue Anglo-Scottish convergence long after his plans for legal, economic and parliamentary union had foundered, it is hard to believe that he would have been pleased.
Commercial interests, at least those with a voice in parliament, had their own concerns. As early as July 1603, the national assembly of representatives of the parliamentary towns, the convention of burghs, was troubled by the prospect of ‘the halding of ane parliament of baith the realmis’. When it became clear that the king was keen to press for closer union in 1604, the burghs took a close interest. In parliament, they were prominent in pushing for the guarantee that there would be no ecclesiastical union, and they appointed representatives from selected burghs to draw up specific instructions for their own members of the union commission. The maintenance of Scots law headed their list, followed by the privileges of the burghs and Scotland’s trading rights in France. They insisted on the retention of separate parliaments and, fearing the effects of the king’s absence, urged that the king should spend three months of every year in Scotland. All but the last of those were largely unaffected by union.
Perhaps because legal, ecclesiastical and institutional union were shelved from such an early stage in the process, there appears to have been little controversy over the union in the Scottish parliaments of 1605-6 and 1607. English self-confidence in these areas meant that they were more concerned with the economic effects of union with a poverty-ridden nation, fears which some expressed with such offensive strength that it risked the whole project. While the Scots may have feared being swamped economically, they welcomed the prospect of enhanced commercial access to their nearest neighbour.
The treaty that was agreed in 1607 was remarkably innocuous. It left the two countries’ laws, institutions and churches almost entirely unchanged. For James VI and I, it was a failure. For the Scottish parliament, however, it was a success. They had maintained Scotland’s fundamental laws, ancient privileges, offices, rights, dignities and liberties. There was a union but it did not run deep. In 1617, when James made his only return visit to Scotland, the draft minute of the parliament that met at Edinburgh styled him ‘dei gratia magne britannie, francie et hibernie regis’ (by the grace of God, king of Great Britain, France and Ireland). After he had returned to England, ‘magne britannie’ was scored out and replaced with ‘scotie, anglie’, and it was that form of words that ended up in the official register.
Alan MacDonald is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee, and is currently researching parliamentary elections, which a focus on the shires.
You can read (and listen to) our own Dr Andrew Thrush discussing English opposition to James’s attempt at union on our website.