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Towards a united kingdom: 1536-1800

The accession to the English throne of the Tudor dynasty, with its Welsh origins, transforms Wales from a conquered territory to an integral part of the English kingdom. The change is acknowledged in an act of parliament passed in 1536, with modifications added in 1543.

The practical purpose of these acts is to give Wales an adminstrative system, based on counties, which is compatible with that of England. It replaces the earlier feudal territories, granted to marcher lords for the purpose of subduing the hostile Welsh. Wales becomes, as a result of these changes, a principality within the English kingdom. From the Reformation onwards, its political story merges with that of England.


The incorporation of Wales within England in 1536 is part of a broader tendency in Europe in the 16th century towards centralized nation states under strong rulers.

Scotland is following this pattern of strong rule until the death of James IV at Flodden in 1513. Thereafter the kingdom is harmed by three successive monarchs inheriting the crown at the age of two or less. Even so, when the Scottish royal family succeeds to the English throne, in 1603, the union is limited to the crowns of two independent nations which retain their own parliaments. Scotland is not as yet merged within the much larger England, as has previously happened with Wales.


A century later, by the Act of Union of 1707, Scotland is joined to England and Wales within a single kingdom. Ireland, by contrast, remains in the original position of Wales - as a region which England controls virtually as an occupying power. This ends when the island becomes part of a United Kingdom with the Act of Union of 1800 (though some would argue that the act continues English suppression by other means).

The stabilizing in the 16th century of these three major political units within the British Isles means that the individual stories of England, Scotland and Ireland are now best followed separately until the evolution of Great Britain (in 1707) and the United Kingdom (in 1801).


Act of Union: 1707

Given the centuries of hostility between Scotland and England, with warfare even in the 17th century under a shared Stuart king, the union of the two kingdoms seems to come with surprising suddeness. It has been under discussion for a considerable time, for James VI and I tries to achieve it after inheriting the English throne in 1603. But the idea meets with little favour (although imposed during the Commonwealth) until the early 18th century.

The motivation in 1707 is largely economic for the Scots and political for the English.


Scotland has recently suffered a disastrous failure in setting up a colony in 1698 in Darien, on the isthmus of Panama. By the time the experiment is abandoned, in 1700, it is estimated to have cost 200,000 and some 2000 lives. Tariff-free access to all English markets, both in Britain and in the developing colonies, seems commercially a rather more attractive option.

For England, engaged in lengthy wars with the French (who are sympathetic to the exiled Stuart dynasty), it is attractive to remove the danger of any threat from the country's only land border. The union of the kingdoms creates an island realm.


The Act of Union abolishes the Scottish parliament, giving the Scots instead a proportion of the seats at Westminster (forty-five in the commons, sixteen in the lords). Scotland's legal system, radically different from English common law, is specifically safeguarded.

There is unrest and warfare in Scotland during much of the 18th century because a strong faction, particularly in the Highlands, supports the Jacobite cause (the claim to the throne of the exiled Stuarts). This discontent erupts twice, in the rebellions of 1715 and 1745. But the majority of Scots are content with a new role in a kingdom united under the title Great Britain. A renewal of Scottish nationalism must await the 20th century.


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