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Acts of Union 1707

Related subjects: British History 1500-1750

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The Acts of Union were a pair of Parliamentary Acts passed in 1707 by the Parliament of Scotland and the Parliament of England to put into effect the terms of the Treaty of Union that had been agreed on 22 July 1706, following negotiation between commissioners representing the parliaments of the two countries. The Acts joined the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland (previously separate states, with separate legislatures but with the same monarch) into a single United Kingdom of Great Britain.

The two countries had shared a monarch since the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne from his double first cousin twice removed, Queen Elizabeth I. Although described as a Union of Crowns, until 1707 there were in fact two separate Crowns resting on the same head. There had been three attempts in 1606, 1667, and 1689 to unite the two countries by Acts of Parliament, but it was not until the early 18th century that the idea had the will of both political establishments behind them, albeit for rather different reasons.

The Acts took effect on 1 May 1707. On this date, the Scots Parliament and the English Parliament united to form the Parliament of Great Britain, based in the Palace of Westminster in London, the home of the English Parliament. Hence, the Acts are referred to as the Union of the Parliaments. On the Union, historian Simon Schama said "What began as a hostile merger, would end in a full partnership in the most powerful going concern in the world ... it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history."

Historical background

Previous attempts at union

England and Scotland were separate states for several centuries before eventual union, and English attempts to take over Scotland by military force in the late 13th and early 14th centuries were ultimately unsuccessful (see the Wars of Scottish Independence). The first attempts at Union surrounded the foreseen unification of the Royal lines of Scotland and England. In pursuing the English throne in the 1560s, Mary, Queen of Scots pledged herself to a peaceful union between the two kingdoms.

Early Stuart union

The first Union flag, created by James VI and I, symbolising the uniting of England and Scotland under one Crown

The first attempt to unite the parliaments of England and Scotland was by Mary's son, King James VI and I. On his accession to the English throne in 1603 King James announced his intention to unite his two realms so that he would not be "guilty of bigamy". James used his Royal prerogative powers to take the style of 'King of Great Britain' and to give an explicitly British character to his court and person. Whilst James assumed the creation of a full union was a foregone conclusion, the Parliament of England was concerned that the formation of a new state would deprive England of its ancient liberties, taking on the more absolutist monarchical structure which James had previously enjoyed in Scotland. In the meantime, James declared that Great Britain should be viewed 'as presently united, and as one realm and kingdom, and the subjects of both realms as one people'.

The Scottish and English parliaments established a commission to negotiate a union, formulating an instrument of union between the two countries. A latent unpopularity of the union remained, however, and when James dropped his policy of a speedy union the topic quietly disappeared from the legislative agenda. When the House of Commons attempted to revive the proposal in 1610, it was met with a more open hostility.

Union during the interregnum

Flag of the Commonwealth (1651–58) showing the 'perfected' union between England and Scotland

The Solemn League and Covenant 1643 sought a forced union of the Church of England into the Church of Scotland, and although the covenant referred repeatedly to union between the three kingdoms, a political union was not spelled out.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, in which the Covenanters had fought for the King, Oliver Cromwell conquered Scotland and began a process of creating a 'Godly Britannic' Union between the former Kingdoms. In 1651, the Parliament of England issued the Tender of Union declaration supporting Scotland's incorporation into the Commonwealth and sent Commissioners to Scotland with the express purpose of securing support for Union, which was assented to by the Commissioners (Members of Parliament) in Scotland. On 12 April 1654, Cromwell – styling himself Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland – enacted An Ordinance by the Protector for the Union of England and Scotland which created 'one Commonwealth and under one Government' to be known as the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. The ordinance was ratified by the Second Protectorate Parliament, as an Act of Union, on 26 June 1657. One united Parliament sat in Westminster, with 30 representatives from Scotland and 30 from Ireland joining the existing members from England. Whilst free trade was brought about amongst the new Commonwealth, the economic benefits were generally not felt as a result of heavy taxation used to fund Cromwell's New Model Army.

This republican union was dissolved automatically with the restoration of King Charles II to the thrones of England and Scotland. Scottish members expelled from the Commonwealth Parliament petitioned unsuccessfully for a continuance of the union. Cromwell's union had simultaneously raised interest in and suspicion of the concept of union and when Charles II attempted to recreate the union and fulfil the work of his grandfather in 1669, negotiations between Commissioners ground to a halt.

Later attempts

An abortive scheme for union occurred in Scotland in 1670.

Following the Glorious Revolution in 1689, the records of the Parliament of Scotland show much discussion of possible union. William and Mary, whilst supportive of the idea, had no interest in allowing it to delay their enthronement. Impetus for this incorporating union came almost entirely from the direction of Scotland. In the 1690s, however, the economic position of Scotland worsened and the relations between Scotland and England became strained. By the 18th century, however, union became a significant matter on the political agenda.

Passage of Acts of 1707

Both countries appointed commissioners to handle negotiations. Scotland had 31 commissioners, mainly picked by the Duke of Queensberry and the Duke of Argyll. Most favoured union, and about half were government ministers and other officials. At the head of the list was Queensberry, and the Lord Chancellor of Scotland, the Earl of Seafield.

Other commissioners were businessmen and bankers, including two directors of the Bank of Scotland, and a director of the Company of Scotland, and local leaders such as Sir James Smollet (Dumbarton), and Sir Patrick Johnston, the provost of Edinburgh. The Scottish Parliament was also well-represented.

There were an equivalent number of English commissioners, including government ministers and officers of state, such as Lord Godolphin, and the two secretaries of state, Sir Charles Hedges and Robert Harley, and a large number of Whigs who supported union. Tories were not in favour of union and were not represented on the commission.

Negotiations between the English and Scottish commissioners began in April 1706 at the Cockpit, a government building in London. The sessions opened with speeches from William Cowper, the English Lord Keeper, and Lord Seafield, the Scottish Lord Chancellor, each describing the significance of the task. Each side had its own particular concerns. Within a few days, England gained a guarantee that the Hanoverian royal dynasty would succeed Queen Anne to the Scottish crown, and the Scots received some much-desired access to English colonial markets, which would help to strengthen their economy.

After negotiations ended, the acts had to be ratified by both Parliaments. In Scotland, about 100 of the 227 members of the Parliament of Scotland were members of the Court Party, meaning that they supported the Queen and union. For extra votes the pro-court side could rely on about 25 members of the Squadrone Volante, led by the Marquess of Montrose and the Duke of Roxburghe. Opponents of the court were generally known as the Country party, and included various factions and individuals such as the Duke of Hamilton, Lord Belhaven and Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, who spoke forcefully and passionately against the union. The Court party had greater party discipline and thus gained a steady majority.

In Scotland, the Duke of Queensberry was largely responsible for the successful passage of the Union act by the Scottish Parliament. In Scotland, he received much criticism from local residents, but in England he was cheered for his action. In April 1707, he traveled to London in order to attend celebrations at the royal court, and was greeted by groups of noblemen and gentry lined along the road. From Barnet, the route was lined with crowds of cheering people, and once he reached London a huge crowd had formed. On 17 April, the Duke was gratefully received by the Queen at Kensington Palace.

Political motivations

The English perspective

The English purpose of it was to ensure that Scotland would not choose a monarch different from the one on the English throne. The two countries had shared a king for much of the previous century, but the English were concerned that an independent Scotland with a different king, even if he were a Protestant, might make alliances against England. The English succession was provided for by the English Act of Settlement 1701, which ensured that the monarch of England would be Protestant member of the House of Hanover. Until the Union of Parliaments, the Scots could choose their own successor to Queen Anne: the Scottish Act of Security 1704 explicitly required a choice different from the English monarch.

The Scottish perspective

In Scotland, it was claimed that union would enable Scotland to recover from the financial disaster wrought by the Darien scheme through English assistance and the lifting of measures put in place through the Alien Act to force the Scottish Parliament into compliance with the Act of Settlement.

The ultimate securing of the treaty in the unicameral Scottish Parliament is attributed by some to the weakness and lack of cohesion between the various opposition groups in the House, rather than to the strength of pro-incorporationists. The combined votes of the Court party with a majority of the Squadrone Volante were sufficient to ensure the final passage of the treaty through the House.

Personal financial interests were also allegedly involved. Many Commissioners had invested heavily in the Darien Scheme and they believed that they would receive compensation for their losses; Article 15, the Equivalent granted £398,085 10 s sterling to Scotland to offset future liability towards the English national debt. In essence, it was also used as a means of compensation for investors in the Darien Scheme.

Even more direct bribery was also said to be a factor. £20,000 (£240,000 Scots) was dispatched to Scotland for distribution by the Earl of Glasgow. James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry, the Queen's Commissioner in Parliament, received £12,325, the majority of the funding. (some contend that all of this money was properly accounted for as compensation for loss of office, pensions and so forth not outwith the usual run of government. It is perhaps a debate that will never be set to rest. However, records modern research shows payments were made to supporters of union that appear not to have been overdue salaries. At least four payments were made to people who were not even members of the Scottish Parliament.) Robert Burns referred to this:

We were bought and sold for English Gold,
Sic a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation.

Some of the money was used to hire spies, such as Daniel Defoe; his first reports were of vivid descriptions of violent demonstrations against the Union. "A Scots rabble is the worst of its kind," he reported, "for every Scot in favour there is 99 against". Years later John Clerk of Penicuik, originally a leading Unionist, wrote in his memoirs that,

(Defoe) was a spy among us, but not known as such, otherwise the Mob of Edinburgh would pull him to pieces.

Defoe recalls that he was hired by Robert Harley.

The Treaty could be considered unpopular in Scotland: Sir George Lockhart of Carnwath, the only member of the Scottish negotiating team against union, noted that `The whole nation appears against the Union' and even Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, an ardent pro-unionist and Union negotiator, observed that the treaty was `contrary to the inclinations of at least three-fourths of the Kingdom'. Public opinion against the Treaty as it passed through the Scottish Parliament was voiced through petitions from shires, burghs, presbyteries and parishes. The Convention of Royal Burghs also petitioned against the Union and not one petition in favour of an incorporating union was received by Parliament. On the day the treaty was signed, the carilloner in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, rang the bells in the tune Why should I be so sad on my wedding day? There were also massive protests in Edinburgh and several other Scottish burghs on the day it was passed by Parliament, as threats of widespread civil unrest resulted in Parliament imposing martial law.

The Irish perspective

Ireland, the third of the "sister kingdoms" was not included in the union. It remained a separate kingdom and indeed was legally subordinate to Great Britain until 1784.

Ireland's benefits from the Union of 1707 were few. Its preferential status in trade with England now extended to Scotland. The strengthening of Great Britain improved Ireland's defence against enemies, whether foreign or domestic. Nevertheless, Ireland was left unequal and unrepresented in the Parliament of Great Britain.

In July 1707 each House of the Parliament of Ireland passed a congratulatory address to Queen Anne, praying that "May God put it in your royal heart to add greater strength and lustre to your crown, by a still more comprehensive Union". The British government did not respond to the invitation and an equal union between Great Britain and Ireland was out of consideration until the 1790s. The union with Ireland finally came about on 1 January 1801.

Provisions of the Acts

The Treaty of Union, agreed between representatives of the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland in 1706, consisted of 25 articles, 15 of which were economic in nature. In Scotland, each article was voted on separately and several clauses in articles were delegated to specialised subcommittees. Article 1 of the treaty was based on the political principle of an incorporating union and this was secured by a majority of 116 votes to 83 on 4 November 1706. In order to minimise the opposition of the Church of Scotland, an Act was also passed to secure the Presbyterian establishment of the Church, after which the Church stopped its open opposition, although hostility remained at lower levels of the clergy. The treaty as a whole was finally ratified on 16 January 1707 by a majority of 110 votes to 69.

The two Acts incorporated provisions for Scotland to send representative peers from the Peerage of Scotland to sit in the House of Lords. It guaranteed that the Church of Scotland would remain the established church in Scotland, that the Court of Session would "remain in all time coming within Scotland", and that Scots law would "remain in the same force as before". Other provisions included the restatement of the Act of Settlement 1701 and the ban on Roman Catholics from taking the throne. It also created a customs union and monetary union.

The Act provided that any "laws and statutes" that were "contrary to or inconsistent with the terms" of the Act would "cease and become void."

Soon after the Union, the Act 6 Anne c.40 (later infelicitously named the "Union with Scotland (Amendment) Act 1707") united the English and Scottish Privy Councils and decentralised Scottish administration by appointing justices of the peace in each shire to carry out administration. In effect it took the day to day government of Scotland out of the hands of politicians and into those of the College of Justice.


The English and Scottish parliaments had evolved along different lines, and for example the former Parliament of Scotland was unicameral, not bicameral. Most of the pre-Union traditions of Westminster continued unchanged by becoming the Parliament of Great Britain.

Defoe drew upon his Scottish experience to write his Tour thro' the whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1726, where he actually admitted that the increase of trade and population in Scotland, which he had predicted as a consequence of the Union, was "not the case, but rather the contrary."

Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, a vehement critic of the Union, said in An Account of a Conversation, that Scotland suffered "... the miserable and languishing condition of all places that depend upon a remote seat of government."

However by the time Samuel Johnson and James Boswell made their tour in 1773, recorded in A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland Johnson noted that Scotland was: “a nation of which the commerce is hourly extending, and the wealth increasing”, and Glasgow in particular had become one of the greatest cities of Britain.

A new Scottish Parliament

In 1999, after almost three centuries, a devolved Scottish Parliament was opened after a referendum in Scotland. The opening of the new parliament was presided over by Winifred Ewing MSP, SNP regional list member for the Highlands and Islands, in her role as the oldest member and de facto Mother of the House, being first to take the parliamentary oath to Her Majesty the Queen. During the opening address which she delivered, she concluded with the words "the Scottish Parliament, adjourned on the 25th of March in the year 1707 is hereby reconvened."

As a devolved institution, the new Scottish Parliament does not affect the powers and authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws for Scotland, which remains a constituent country of the UK. Whilst it has power to make laws in Scotland – in addition to the UK Parliament – over many home affairs issues, there are other reserved powers such as defence and foreign affairs over which it has no power.

300th anniversary

The £2 coin issued in the United Kingdom in 2007 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the Acts of Union

A commemorative two-pound coin was issued to mark the 300th anniversary of the Union, which occurred two days before the Scottish Parliament general election on 3 May 2007.

The Scottish Executive held a number of commemorative events through the year including an education project led by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, an exhibition of Union-related objects and documents at the National Museums of Scotland and an exhibition of portraits of people associated with the Union at the National Galleries of Scotland.

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