The Union of the Crowns in 1603

Clemmie Beresford

In 1603, something extremely ironic occurred; the death of the Virgin Queen without issue led to the accession of King James VI of Scotland to the English throne.

As the largest realm in the Atlantic archipelago, England had asserted feudal superiority over Scotland and had flexed her armoured muscles north of the border periodically since at least the thirteenth century. In 1603, she was faced with (the hard to digest) reality that she would now be joined in a partnership of equals with a kingdom she had so long sought to conquer and incorporate as an accessory realm. Moreover, this partnership was to be initiated by a Scottish king with a proud Stewart ancestry. Anglo-Scottish union was not only to be a union of equals; it was also to be a union in which each realm would relinquish their individual identities and allow themselves to be subsumed into a new realm of Great Britain. Or that was the idea. As the self-styled King of Great Britain, James VI and I claimed to rule not two separate kingdoms, but one realm, encompassing ‘the whole island of Britain’. Enthusiastically, James put forward his vision of ruling over an island empire, united internally by peace between peoples and defined externally by the one body of water which surrounded it and made it, as poets wrote, a ‘world divided from the world’. In Parliament in 1607, he called for ‘a perfect Union of Lawes and persons, and such a naturalizing as may make one body of both Kingdomes under mee your King’, and employing the royal prerogative, he created a new title for himself, devised a new British coinage as well as a British flag, the Union Jack. What was not to like? A lot in the eyes of the English Parliament. A union of laws, parliaments and religious practices was not that attractive and could, they declared vociferously, never be achieved.
The Union of the Crowns in 1603
King of Great Britain, James VI and I

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Although James’s scheme of Anglo-Scottish union failed to successfully turn heads in the English parliament, English playwrights and poets lauded the idea of Great Britain.

In pageants, plays and masques writers evoked the notion of Anglo-Scottish union in their motifs, allegories and artistry, emanating seemingly favourable opinions. Arriving triumphantly at the Tower of London before his English coronation ceremony in 1604, James was greeted by a dramatic figure who proclaimed, ‘no more two Kingdomes, nor two Kings; nor two pastors, nor two flockes; nor two kindes, nor two mindes; nor two regions, nor two religions. One King, one people, one law, and, as it was in the beginning, one land of Albion’. Anglo-Scottish union was not a novel concept, so they said; rather, it would restore the kingdom to its original form. Moreover, it was brought about by ‘the finger of God’. British imagery suffused other performances, including the King’s magnificent royal entry into London in 1604. One of the seven elaborate arches constructed for the occasion presented James as the emperor of Great Britain and London as its capital, the new Troy. Yet, for all this seemingly laudatory sentiment, were these writers presenting the same version of Anglo-Scottish union envisaged by the King? The presentation of London as the new Troy suggests all is not as it seems. If London was to be the capital of this new great realm, what was to happen to Edinburgh? Moreover, particular motifs drawn upon to articulate the British idea were problematic for Scots. The presentation of James as the second Brutus, come again to rule over the restored kingdom of Great Britain, did not sit terribly well with Scots, for whom Brutus symbolised English aggression. Legend (and largely the quill of Geoffrey of Monmouth) held that many centuries ago Brutus, the descendant of Aeneas, had fled Troy after the Trojan Wars and landed on the island of Britain. After defeating the giants, Brutus united the peoples of the island and ruled the island as one kingdom. Upon his death, he divided his realm between his three sons; to Locrine he gave England, to Albanact Scotland, and to Camber Wales. As the eldest and the ruler of the largest land mass, Locrine demanded his brothers pay him homage for their respective lordships of Scotland and Wales. And so began claims of English hegemony over Scotland (not to mention Wales). English kings used the Brutus myth to justify their expansion, claiming the acts of homage undertaken by Albanact and Camber and their descendants signalled English overlordship of the whole island. There was always the possibility therefore, that when English playwrights evoked the Brutus myth, they spoke of an altogether different union to that envisaged by their Scottish king. Moreover, when they referred to ‘Britain’, it is not necessarily easy to discern what they meant by this, for in Elizabethan England, the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘England’ were largely synonymous. Although Anglo-Scottish union was not necessarily achieved in James’ lifetime, nor in the century in which he lived, his reign did much to sow the seeds for union, which was achieved through the Acts of Union in 1707. Parliament may have rejected James’ grand British scheme, and English playwrights and poets may have articulated varied and diverse interpretations of the King’s new Great Britain, but what this piece has shown is that there were currents of union thought circulating in Jacobean England and that Anglo-Scottish union was very much on the cards.
Ancestry UK
The Union of the Crowns in 1603

Clemmie Beresford

Clemmie wrote for Edition 3, Key events in history.
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