In the summer of 1503 the cold, calculating and increasingly paranoid Henry VII sent his daughter Margaret to begin her long and lonely journey to Scotland where she would first meet her husband James Stewart, the king of the Scots. What started as a political move by Henry to strengthen his fragile grip on the throne ultimately became the action of planting a seed of union between the two nations.
Let us skip forward one hundred years when his granddaughter Elizabeth was in her final moments of life. Frail, lonely and ill the England she left behind was infinitely more secure, wealthy and powerful than the faction-ridden rabble Henry Tudor had somewhat fortuitously received in 1485. Without any children she passed the throne of England to the great grandson of her great aunt Margaret, James VI of Scotland. When she breathed her last after 45 years of rule, the two thrones of England and Scotland became one. Her last act showed success where so many Roman legions, Norman archers and medieval knights had failed. The seed of union between the two nations was planted. It was not until 1707 however that this became a permanent entity.
Let us not permit ourselves to be swept along in sentiment fervour at the Act of Union 207 years ago. The driving theory behind the convenient marriage was not the creation of an island nation but to prevent France from using Scotland as a back door to England. War between the two old enemies had raged since 1701 and there was a genuine fear that the Scots could be lured into a relationship with the wily Louis XIV against the desires of their noisy neighbour.
Pressure was applied to the Scots in all too familiar fashion. Economic threats, political wrangling and good old-fashioned bribery left them virtually as spectators of their own fate. Scottish merchants were to be banned from the lucrative markets of the American colonies until union took place. Bankers in London declared that union would enable Scotland to recover from recent financial disasters, most notably when they tried and failed to create a colony called ‘Caledonia’ in Central America. Politicians in the Scottish parliament received generous payments for their support, indeed Robert Burns wrote of the scandal:
We’re bought and sold for English Gold,
Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.
On the streets of Scottish towns pro-union supporters were harassed and their houses sacked by rioters. So unpopular was the idea that the crafty English spy Daniel Defoe reported to London that ‘for every Scot in favour there is ninety-nine against’. But bribery and cajolery eventually delivered the required parliamentary support to centralise British power in London.
The 1707 Act of Union gave Scotland 45 MPs and the ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’ was created. Queen Anne rode to St Pauls cathedral wearing the Scottish Order of the Thistle and declared her wish was that both nations, “would appear to the world that they have hearts disposed to become one people”. The inclusion of the word ‘appear’ certainly raises eyebrows about the amount of Scottish support for the new union. A vote in the House of Lords to dissolve the union was defeated by only one vote six years later.
The union between the two nations did not have the best of starts but gradually strengthened over time. The spoils of empire unquestionably benefitted the Scots however there have been bumps along the way such as Jacobite risings, potato blight and the battle of the Braes to mention only a few. Great minds such as Smith, Burns and McDiarmid helped maintain a unique national identity over time. The referendum of this week has been another challenge to the Anglo-Scottish relationship but the marriage of 1707 remains alive. For now.