On this Day: 21 November 1606: The proposed union between England and Scotland
Our third specially commissioned article for Parliament Week. To find out more, visit www.parliamentweek.org
On this day in 1606 the final stage of a drama that had begun more than two years earlier commenced at Westminster, with the formal reading in the Commons of the document known as the ‘Instrument of the Union’. This drama reached its climax in the spring of 1607, and its outcome – defeat for the king - helped set the tone of parliamentary politics for years to come.
The accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in March 1603 had well and truly set the Scottish cat among the English pigeons. In constitutional terms, if not corporeal reality, James was now two kings rather than one. Political schizophrenia of this kind was not unknown in early modern Europe, but unlike Charles I of Spain, who never sought to extinguish the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon after becoming their ruler in 1516, it was a condition that James found remarkably uncomfortable. James saw in his accession the guiding hand of providence, and likened the bringing together of the two kingdoms in his one person to a marriage: ‘what God hath conjoined ... let no man separate’. For him, it was axiomatic that the union of the two crowns was but a stepping stone to a legal union of the two kingdoms that would henceforth be known by the single name of ‘Great Britain’. Unlike J.H. Elliott, James seems not to have understood that ‘Spain was a plural, not a unitary state’. In 1604 he tried to bring about a statutory union, for which, excluding unions achieved by conquest, there was no precedent elsewhere in Europe.
James’s view that a statutory union was the natural corollary of dynastic union was not widely shared among the king’s new subjects: when the Guildford Member Sir George More told the Commons on 26 Nov. 1606 that it was well known that Union was the work of God, just as continued disunion was the work of the Devil, his motion was ‘disliked’. Centuries of enmity had coloured English perceptions of the Scots, who were widely seen as barbarous and poor. (‘Beggarly’ is how John Hare described them in December 1606). One of the most rabidly anti-Scottish Members was the Puritan lawyer Nicholas Fuller, who several times raised the spectre of an England inundated with Scots eager to snap up jobs and wealth. He likened the Scots to cattle and described their merchants as ‘pedlars’. The Commons, most of whom seem to have shared this outlook, did nothing to restrain the use of such offensive language. Indeed, when Christopher Pigott, sitting for Buckinghamshire, delivered an ‘invective speech’ against the Scots in February 1607, his words were passed over ‘without Tax or Censure’. It was only after the king protested that Pigott was punished.
Hatred of the Scots was not, of course, the sole cause of English opposition to the Union. Sir Edwin Sandys, a key figure at Westminster, pointed out that the English Parliament had no authority to legislate for Scotland: ‘we cannot make laws to bind Britannia’. He also observed that a statutory union would have the effect of invalidating the king’s coronation oath. Perhaps the main objection to a statutory union came from England’s lawyers (around a fifth of the House of Commons was drawn from the legal profession), who concluded that the creation of a unitary state would result in the extinction of the laws of both countries. As Fuller observed in April 1604, a statutory union would mean ‘no Magna Carta’. This finding, which was supported by the judges, came as a terrible shock to James, who, never having received legal training, had expected the Union to be enacted with as little difficulty as the Act recognizing his title to the throne. ‘The error was my mistaking’, he later confessed. ‘I knew mine own ends, but not others’ fears’. One way around the problem would have been to create a union along federal lines, allowing each state to preserve their own legal traditions while simultaneously abandoning their independent status. This was the solution that was to be adopted in 1707. However, early seventeenth-century Englishmen, unlike their continental counterparts, regarded a union of kingdoms without a union of laws as a contradiction in terms.
Opposition to a statutory union, which also existed in Scotland (where many Scots were just as reluctant as the English to lose their separate identity), forced James to scale back his plans. In November 1606 he laid before Parliament more modest proposals devised by commissioners north and south of the border – the Instrument of the Union. Among other things, this recommended that the Scots be considered citizens of both kingdoms. However, to many at Westminster it looked as though James was trying to achieve through the back door what he had failed to obtain through the front. Sandys spoke for many of his Westminster colleagues when he declared that the Scots were ‘better than aliens but not equal with natural subjects’. However, it took until April 1607 before the Union was finally torpedoed. With a deviousness bordering on dishonesty, Sandys proposed that instead of adopting half measures, Parliament should do as James had originally suggested and embrace a full, statutory union by passing a law creating a single Parliament for both kingdoms. That way, Scottish law could be abolished and a single executive created. This was a masterstroke, for everyone knew that the Scots would never countenance such a suggestion. Once the Commons had grasped Sandys’ true meaning they enthusiastically embraced his scheme, to the horror of the king, who was forced to abandon his plans.
Though he never forgave Sandys for wrecking the Union, James had only himself to blame for being thus humiliated. He had under-estimated English hostility to the Scots and the profound implications of statutory union. However, the rebuff soured his relationship with Parliament, which he proved increasingly unwilling to summon. This reluctance ultimately gave rise to justifiable fears for Parliament’s continued existence.