Dr Steven Reid: A union of two crowns

Creating a new flag for the Union was a delicate matter
Creating a new flag for the Union was a delicate matter
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Continuing our landmark articles to find out what ordinary people of Scotland felt about major episodes in the nation’s past, Dr Steven Reid, lecturer in Scottish history at the University of Glasgow, considers the relationship between Andrew Melville and King James VI

Late at night on Saturday 26 March 1603, James VI was woken at Holyroodhouse by an exhausted Sir Robert Carey (who had ridden from London) with the news that he had acceded to the throne of Elizabeth Tudor. In doing so he had become the first monarch of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. The scale of the challenge facing the new James VI and I was massive, the complexities of which are perhaps best summed up pictorially by a series of drafts from circa 1604 of what came to be known as the “Union Jack”. In heraldic terms, placing one coat of arms on the top or on the right of a flag makes it superior to those placed on the bottom or the left, which no doubt explains why the designers ultimately adopted such a diplomatic and complete fusion of the Saltire and the St George’s Cross.

While James’ accession looked increasingly inevitable over the last quarter of the sixteenth century (he was by far the strongest claimant to the throne after Elizabeth thanks to his great-grandmother Margaret Tudor) the “Union of Crowns” was still the biggest shift in foreign policy that Scotland has arguably ever experienced. Even though this union would be accomplished by “their” king, the Scots still had to overcome centuries of deep-seated resentment and the rather unpalatable fact of being bound to a nation that had historically been their greatest enemy. What induced them ultimately to accept it?

The answer to this question is of course multivalent and complex, but one of the decisive factors was the arrival of the Reformation, which shattered the western medieval church into “Catholic” and “Protestant” denominations. The Reformation first became visible in Scotland with the “Act Anent Heresy” of 1525 banning the import of Martin Luther’s works, and claimed its first martyr with the burning of the St Andrews master Patrick Hamilton three years later.

Small groups of evangelicals across the country began to meet in secret to pray and read the Bible in the vernacular, and then began to stage demonstrations of their new-found piety through iconoclasm (the destruction of religious statues and icons) and their refusal to observe practices such as fasting at Lent, and paying tithes.

In a few short decades, Protestantism radically altered the centuries-old triangular relationship between Scotland, England and France. Soon after Henry VIII declared himself head of the English church a party emerged in Scotland that was pro-English and pro-Protestant in contrast to the prevailing pro-French, pro-Catholic status quo at court. Protestantism gave both purpose and legitimacy to the coalition of nobility known as the “Lords of the Congregation” who conducted (with English backing) the “Reformation rebellion” in 1559-60. The “Lords” acted as much to defend their own vested interests against French overlordship of Scotland as they did to advance their new-found faith; however, it is more difficult to be cynical about the 106 small landholders who appeared at the parliament of August 1560 to legitimate their actions and approve the new national Protestant Confession of Faith. These lairds, or lesser barons, were so keen to see Scotland join the “godly” that they used an obscure parliamentary act from 1428 to justify their attendance Their willingness to speak out led indirectly to their full enfranchisement as a kind of “fourth estate” in parliament, and was an early example of the “vox populi” in action. The “Anglophile Protestant” position only grew stronger as the century progressed, and greatly assisted the political process that brought the two nations together.

This new religious affinity gave impetus to an idea of union that had only been mooted previously by the Haddington-born philosopher and theologian John Mair. Mair’s History of Greater Britain (1521) argued that our shared history, language and the fact that God had seen fit to place us on an island together meant we were naturally bound to one another. Mair, a resolute Catholic, envisaged a union of equal partners, where each nation would voluntarily liquidate their sovereign status and a new unified monarchy would be created through intermarriage of the royal houses, a process begun with the marriage of James IV and Margaret Tudor in 1503.

Mair’s ideas found resonance in the writings of a whole host of Protestant intellectuals, who believed a cultural union shaped by a shared religious purpose was the solution to centuries of warfare. John Elder, a clerk from the Highlands, presented Henry VIII with “A Proposal for Uniting Scotland with England” (1542), which urged him to conquer Scotland. Five years later the Edinburgh merchant James Henrisoun penned an “Exhortacion to the Scottes to conforme themselves to the honourable, expedient & godly union between the realmes of England and Scotland” (1547) in support of the Duke of Somerset’s impending invasion, and argued that both kingdoms came originally from “ye old Britayns” and shared the same ancient “bloud and generacion”. These ideas were developed at length in tracts and pamphlets penned by men from a range of professions and social backgrounds in the decade on either side of 1603, including the lawyer Thomas Craig, the author David Hume of Godscroft, and the minister Robert Pont, whose ‘Of the Union of Britayne’ (c. 1604) saw the ‘connexion of the realmes’ under one ruler and one religion as ‘the strongest band to tie and knitt men’s mindes together’.

Andrew Melville was the poster boy for the Presbyterian wing of the Kirk and the biggest thorn in James’ side as the king attempted to craft a church answerable to his authority and governed by bishops. He was schooled in both the hard-line theology of Calvinist Geneva and the view of James’ tutor George Buchanan that the Scots had historically elected their king and could depose or kill him if he proved to be a tyrant.

Melville never advocated Buchanan’s ultimate sanction, but he did constantly struggle to resolve in his own mind how far King James should be unquestioningly obeyed as his “godly” magistrate and how much he should be castigated when he failed (as he so often did in Melville’s eyes) to live up to the exacting standards expected of a Christian monarch. Yet Melville was always clear that James was destined to be the leader of a united Protestant kingdom that would crush the “antichristian” Papacy and Catholic Europe, and was hugely enthusiastic about the prospect. As he noted in his “On the Birth of the Scoto-Britannic Prince” (1594), a panegyric penned to celebrate the arrival of James’ first male heir, Prince Henry: “Those who ere now were divided by the Tweed, by the shores of the Solway Firth and by the Cheviot Hills, the rule of Scoto-Britannic sovereignty now joins together...To what great heights will Scoto-Britannic glory now rise With no limits set by space and time?”

As the financial consequences of an independent Scotland are hotly debated, the near-complete disregard that people like Melville and his contemporaries had for any economic argument for union is striking.

The reformers saw the issue clearly in cultural terms – a shared Protestantism over-rode all other concerns – and did not measure this by any short-term financial gain or loss. There is perhaps a case for taking a similar approach to the issue of union as we head towards 2014.

If those of us who are undecided about which way to vote thought more about whether or not we still see eye-to-eye with England on cultural issues like healthcare, social security, and education, and focused less on the extremely hypothetical issue of whether Scotland would be more or less well-off as a result of independence, we might perhaps more easily decide whether or not we want King James’ “Union Project” to continue.