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The Union of the Ages

The following is part 2 of a 3-part essay by Frank Taylor. It appeared in the March 2009 issue of Sovereignty.

Bar room historians date the union between England and Scotland as firstly the union of Crowns in 1603 and secondly the union of Parliaments in 1707.

However the true history of close ties between the two countries is vastly older than that!

In truth, it dates back at least to the attempted conquest of Scotland by Athelstan in the early 10th century. His success in securing the submission of Constantine II, King of Scots at the Treaty of Eamont Bridge in 927 and his victory at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 over the alliance of Constantine, Owen I, ruler of the Strathclyde Britons, and Olaf III Guthfrithson, the Norse King of Dublin, led to him proclaiming the title, "King of all Britain".

Athelstan's reign has been seen as the first time that kingdoms of England, Wales and Scotland were united under one ruler.

The relationship has waxed and waned ever since. There were at least two periods of direct rule by conquest; that of Edward I in the early 14th century and by Cromwell during the Protectorate and the Commonwealth.

These linkages are not merely older, they are much more complicated. Prior to King Alfred, England consisted of a patchwork of local fiefdoms. At that time Scotland followed the same pattern. As any recognisable nation, Scotland covered only the land of the erstwhile Picts...roughly from Stirling to Moray.

The Highlands and Islands were in Norse hands, whilst Galloway, Fife, Argyll and Strathclyde were to all intents and purposes independent fiefdom - and mostly remained so until the 13th century. The Borders and Lothians were disputed territory. There was even, for a period, a fiefdom of Cumbria, which stretched roughly from present day Preston to Lanark.

Even in the earliest times there were marital alliances between Scots Kings and nobles and the English lines of Wessex and Northumberland. The Bruce's claim to the Scottish throne rested on such English lineage.

However marital alliances in that era were no more than a modest deterrent against the local turf wars they were intended to prevent. English Kings continued to have their eyes on the Lothians, and even Fife and the wholly ungovernable Galloway, whilst Scottish Kings sought advancement into Northumberland, and what is now Cumbria, Durham and even Yorkshire.

And so it continued. Henry II once got as far north as Falkirk, whilst one of King David's southern forays took him as far as Skipton.

Scotland desired greater strength and prestige. Thus the House of Dunkeld became increasingly welcoming to the Normans, who were masters par excellence in the art of fashioning stone and all that went with that. The Normans would provide the fruits of their architecture and engineering in the form of castles, churches, cathedrals and palaces, in return for land and titles.

Thus with the arrival of great Norman families such as the Comyns and the FitzAllans and later the Carrs and the Vescis, Scotland became steadily more integrated into the Norman commonwealth, which eventually stretched in substantial patches from Crete (and arguably Jerusalem) to Inverness.

As Scotland became more Normanised, so relations with England drew closer.

The newly crowned Alexander II supported the Barons in their battle with King John. It was Scots troops as much as English who welcomed Prince Louis at Dover in the summer of 1215, after the Barons had deposed King John. A Norman-Scots magnate and Constable of Scotland, Alan de Galloway was a signatory to the Magna Carta. Other signatories also had cross-border links.

The Kings of Dunkeld were also Earls of Huntingdon. By marriage to Henry III's sister Joan, Alexander II became his brother-in-law. For sure there were always the territorial tensions typical of medieval politics. Alexander had his own tensions within Scotland and eventually conquered Galloway in 1235.

But after the Treaty of York in 1237 settled the issue of the Anglo-Scots border, the two families became so politically and personally close that the historian David Carpenter has recently speculated that this might all have led to a union of crowns three centuries before James's descent on London.

That was not to be. A sequence of tragic deaths rendered the House of Dunkeld extinct within the space of a few years and Edward I succeeded to the throne of England. In demanding homage from Alexander III, which has father had forsworn in 1237, Edward created a deep and enduring fissure.

So the 14th century opened with war and not harmony between England and Scotland. During the 15th century, England was far more pre-occupied with its own civil strife, and with France, to concern itself greatly with its northerly neighbour. Yet during Tudor times the affairs of the two states again become progressively more closely entwined, to the point that after 1603 they shared a single monarch.

Thus Scotland and England become deeply involved in each others' affairs during the Stuart period.

The English Civil War spread into Scotland. Scots troops fought for King Charles under Montrose and for Parliament under the Covenantors, both on Scottish soil and English.

Like James, many Covenanters desired full union of the two nations, but only on condition that uniformity of religious observance could be achieved, by coercion if necessary, throughout the British Isles.

Such religious uniformity proved, inevitably, an intractable stumbling block. However these times demonstrated an increasingly deeper and complex web of cross-border allegiances and alliances, not merely on the matter of religious observance, but on wider issues of law, governance, succession and policy.

Contrary to some impressions, Scottish government under Cromwell was generally well managed. Certainly there was no improvement after the English withdrawal at the Restoration, when the likes of Lord Lauderdale were able to engage in peculation on an almost industrial scale.

It is true that when the union of Parliaments finally arrived, there was more than a hint of gerrymander well assisted by economic desperation. But history is full of the doings of small cabals and oligarchs!

Part 1 of this essay can be found here.
Part 3 of this essay can be found here.

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