The Union of the Crowns Between Scotland & England

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Scotland and England are politically unified today, but there was a long history that went into this including, the story of James VI's, King of Scots ascension to the throne to become the King of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1603. In this lesson, we'll look at one of the most pivotal moments in the unification of Great Britain and see how it impacted both Scottish and English history.

The United Kingdom

To many Americans, the differences between England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom can be a bit confusing. Basically, the physical island of Great Britain is home to the nations of England, Scotland, and Wales, all of whom exist together in a political union called the United Kingdom (along with Northern Ireland). Got it? While the UK is a big deal today, Britain didn't always have a United Kingdom. It used to just have…kingdoms. It wasn't until 1603 that England, Scotland, and Ireland joined together in what we call the Union of the Crowns. It was a major step towards a single, united kingdom.

Background

The vision for a unified Britain was something that has deep roots in the history of the island. There had been attempts to create political unions between Scotland and England before, such as the 16th century marriage of the English noble Margaret Tudor to James IV, King of Scots. It didn't work, but the attempts to create a greater union between the two kingdoms set a very important precedent.

James VI

At the dawn of the 17th century, the English monarchy was anticipating a crisis. Queen Elizabeth was getting older, and was both unmarried and without an heir. However, she was of the Tudor family, the same of Margaret, and had her advisors reach out to Margaret's great-grandson, King James VI of Scotland. To many people, the choice of James VI as successor to Elizabeth made sense. He was the closest relative to the Tudor dynasty, after all, but Elizabeth's advisors still went through great pains to prepare as smooth a transition as possible.

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In 1603, Queen Elizabeth died. Within hours, James had been declared King of England. The people of England, relieved that their succession crisis was resolved so peacefully, flocked to see him and cheered as he entered London. However, it was a little unclear exactly what this meant.

Opposition and Questions

The Union of the Crowns was the actual ascension when James VI, King of Scots became James I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland. It was the first time that a single person had ruled all of Great Britain and Ireland, but Scotland still had its own government. Many in the English Parliament were also worried about being ruled by a Scotsman. James declared his intention to rule all equally, but was met with a less than enthusiastic response. It became clear that while James wore the crown of Scotland, Ireland, and England, each would essentially continue to operate as independent, sovereign nations.

An allegory of the Union of the Crowns, by Peter Paul Rubens
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So, why the opposition? James began making attempts to impose uniform systems across his new kingdom. Most of these systems were English in character, which began to make the Scottish Parliament very nervous. Ireland under Elizabeth had technically been its own kingdom, but was essentially subject to English whims. The Scottish wanted to avoid that same fate, and protested many of James' policies.

On the other hand, having a Scottish king on the English throne opened up new opportunities for Scottish lords to participate in English affairs. As Scottish nobles poured in London, the English lords complained that their country was being invaded.

James I did try to ease these concerns, and did so in a very symbolic way. He designed a new flag for Britain. Scotland's flag was the white, diagonal cross of Saint Andrew on a blue field. England's was the red flag of Saint George on a white field. James had the two combined, creating what is known as the Union Jack (Union for the combination of the kingdoms and Jack for the Latin word for James, Jacobus).

The Union flag, often called the Union Jack
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