Articles of Union
This Scottish copy of the Articles of Union approved the merging of Scotland's parliament with that of England and Wales, starting a period of nearly 300 years of rule from Westminster until devolution in 1999
Articles of Union, 1706
National Archives of Scotland
Photo copyright © The British Library Board
What was the status of the 'four nations' before 1700?
In the late 1200s, Wales's collection of small kingdoms succumbed to the power of England's warrior king Edward I. From 1284, it was effectively under English control.
Scotland retained its independence longer, managing to resist Edward under leaders such as William Wallace and Robert Bruce. The Declaration of Arbroath was a clarion call of Scottish nationalism. However, four centuries later, the economic and defence advantages of union saw it join with England and Wales.
English involvement in Ireland had been complex and often violent, with a large proportion of the Irish population slaughtered during the upheavals of the English civil war.
England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland had been united under the Protectorate but, with the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, the former system of self-government was re-established. With a single king, it was inevitable that over time the individual nations would be drawn together under one parliament, but it still took another 140 years. The Articles of Union were a significant step in the process, officially uniting England and Wales with Scotland.
What led up to the Union of 1707?
England's Queen Mary died childless in 1694 and by 1700 it was likely that her sister, Anne, would have no surviving children. The 1701 Act of Settlement restated that there would be no Catholic succession, and specified that the crown passed to the heirs of James I's Protestant grand-daughter, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, which is how George I became king in 1714.
However, the English had not consulted the Scots about this, causing a rift with the Scottish Parliament. Mary's husband William III had developed good relations with the Scots and made plans to unite the two countries, but after William's death in 1702, the Scots refused to pass the Act of Settlement. Their parliament introduced bills to allow them to choose their own monarch. The English feared they might choose a Catholic. James II had died in September 1701 and his son, the 'Old Pretender', was in exile in France and was recognised by the French king as James III of England and Ireland and James VIII of Scotland.
It took five years of difficult negotiations with Scotland before the Treaty of Union was agreed in July 1706 and came into force on 1 May 1707. It united England, Wales and Scotland as the Kingdom of Great Britain under one parliament at Westminster. However, Scotland continued to have its own legal system, quite independent of England's. Ireland retained its parliament, though it was subordinate to Westminster.
What happened after the 1707 Union?
The Irish rebellion of 1798, so soon after the French revolution, galvanised the British government into securing their 'back door'. A further Act of Union came into effect on 1 January 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. From that date the entire kingdom was controlled from Westminster.
A new act in 1927 changed the name of the Union to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, its current official name. Southern Ireland had declared its independence in 1919, and in 1922 became the Irish Free State (renamed Eire in 1937 and formally the Republic of Ireland in 1949). Northern Ireland had its own parliament from 1922 to 1972.
In 1999 devolution re-established the Scottish parliament and created the National Assembly for Wales. The Northern Ireland Assembly was restored in May 2007.