How the kingdom was united

Words: Lucy Graham


In recent times it hasn’t often felt like the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ deserves its name. The discrepancies between England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland in their handling of COVID-19, the Scottish referendum and Brexit are only the most recent demonstrations of disunity within the Kingdom. 

One of the reasons for this is the underlying conflict caused by differing approaches to government: parliamentary sovereignty (in which the Prime Minister in Westminster has authority over all four territories) and permissive authority (the devolution which has occurred in the last two decades to give more autonomy to Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland). The asymmetrical arrangements that these conflicting principles have produced have now come to prominence because of Brexit. The possibility of fluid, informal negotiations no longer apply to the zero-sum game that is the exit deal. Who has power over what, how and why, will have to be explicitly decided and institutionalised once and for all. This will be the making or breaking of the United Kingdom.

The history of the relationships between the four territories is little-known, and blame for this lies, as with so much else, at the door of the English government: history is written by the victors. History teaching in England has created a profound belief in English exceptionalism and superiority.

Take the established narrative taught to schoolchildren about the English Civil War. They’re told it was a conflict between King Charles I and Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell, which boiled down to the moralistic victory of representative government over absolute monarchy. 

It wasn’t until I got to university that I learned a different version of the story: the ‘War of the Three Kingdoms’. This was a conflict which occurred across England, Ireland, and Scotland over English overlordship, and was one of the bloodiest to ever take place on British soil. The civil war in England was only one, introspective aspect of this conflict which would not have happened without events in Ireland and Scotland.

More significantly, though, the War of the Three Kingdoms included horrific acts of brutality. I’m referring here to massacres such as the one at Drogheda in Ireland in 1649, in which Cromwell ordered the deaths of Catholics, including women and children, in the name of religious orthodoxy. Cromwell may have ‘won’ the conflict, but he won by using methods we typically associate with the British imperialism of the 19th century.

This example shows how England teaches a sanitised version of its history. Given the current demands for Britain to face up to and repent for its imperial past, it’s essential to look at what happened at home in what has been called ‘England’s first empire’ by R.R. Davies.

The first major attempt at conquering Ireland came under Henry II in the 12th century. Henry supposedly obtained papal sanction for this ‘civilising’ mission in which the English set out to ‘save’ the barbaric Irish from themselves. Conquest was never completed, but the English achieved a foothold in Ireland known as the Pale. This would form the base of the colonial violence which erupted in the 16th century, triggered by Henry VIII’s break from Rome in 1534, which required not only England to become Protestant, but Ireland, as its dependency, to follow suit

Since Ireland was staunchly Catholic, there was widespread resistance. Centuries of intermittent religious warfare began which ultimately led to the division of Northern and Southern Ireland. In attempting to impose English dominion, English monarchs sanctioned atrocities: war, murder, rape and torture, as well as conventional imperial tools like plantations and wide-scale dispossession

If Scotland never experienced colonial destruction in quite the same way as Ireland, it didn’t emerge unscathed from English interests either. It was viewed as a dependent and inferior kingdom as a result of successful English military campaigns. Scottish kings were made to swear homage and fealty to the Kings of England, degrading them to the same level as English Barons. The Stone of Scone (part of the coronation ritual in Scotland) remained in England until 1996

While England never fully conquered Scotland, they invaded multiple times over several centuries. The conflicts produced icons on both sides: Edward I, known as the ‘Hammer of the Scots’, and Scottish national heroes like William Wallace (‘Braveheart’) and Robert the Bruce.

One of the key differences between the English treatments of Scotland and Ireland was the dynastic accident which saw James VI of Scotland become king of England, too, after Elizabeth I died childless in 1603. The Stuart dynasty brought the countries closer together in the Act of Union of 1707, uniting them permanently under one crown, but kept religion and the economy separate. Some concessions were granted to Scotland, such as an end to English economic restrictions, but the two countries remained on an unequal footing.

The Stuarts were English kings ruling from London in the interests of England, which they deemed more important. This is part of the reason for the continuing political and economic discrepancy between the two countries, and part of the reason that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was met in England with such derision.

The history of Wales is different. Unlike Scotland and Ireland, it had been conquered militarily by the 13th century. The process of subjugation was begun by the piecemeal conquest of Anglo-Norman barons such as William FitzOsbern, who built Chepstow castle, and was completed by military campaigns under Edward I. The Marches of Wales, which formed the boundary between England and Wales, remained fractious and notoriously difficult to manage, but the rest of the country was pacified. 

Wales may have been designated as a principality by Henry VIII’s Act of Union in 1536, but from the medieval period it was subsumed and became more akin to an English county than a kingdom. The structures of the English legal and administrative system were rolled out across Wales, including boroughs, shires, castles, and assizes (itinerant justice courts) which transformed the people and the landscape. Wales became the success story for local English imperialism. This is why the Reformation did not unleash the violent unrest in Wales that it did in Ireland and Scotland: the English chokehold was too tight. That this assimilation was more peaceful and achieved integration does not make the English imperial conquest any more palatable.

This brief overview of some of the key historical moments which define the bonds between the countries on these islands, selective and simplified though it is, helps show the violent and fragile foundations of the ‘United’ Kingdom. I believe that there could be a future for Britain, but only if we face up to and dismantle England’s local imperial dominance. The relationships between the countries have to be equal and open. No longer can we allow England to dominate by virtue of its past.

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Lucy Graham is a third year undergraduate historian at Emmanuel College specialising in medieval history.