This item is a proclamation issued by James VI and I on 20 October 1604, in which he claims the name and style (i.e. title or manner of address): ‘King of Great Brittaine’. By so doing, James unites the previously separate titles of King of England and King of Scotland – the titles of King of France and Ireland are still listed separately.
From 1603, James was king of both Scotland and England. At that time they were two separate countries with different languages and cultures, and with a tradition of war and animosity between the two. James wanted to unite the two countries with a full legal and political union and this change in the name and style of the king was a part of his efforts towards that goal.
The question of union was a source of great controversy. In both Scotland and England there were pro- and anti-unionists, and there was a multitude of pamphlets, poems and other literary works circulating both in praise and in horror of the idea. Anti-unionists in Scotland were afraid of being marginalised and forgotten as the court moved south, while anti-unionists in England (many of whom held racist views of the Scots as barbaric and primitive) were suspicious of Scottish infiltration and saw it as a threat to English identity. There were also debates about the levels of equality and assimilation there should be between the two joining countries. By 1607 the union project had failed; the English parliament only allowed a Union of Crowns and the two countries remained largely separate until the Acts of Union in 1706 and 1707.
The union controversy in Shakespeare’s works
As with many other political issues of the time, Shakespeare refers to and engages with some of the debates around the question and controversy of union in his plays. King Lear, for example, explores the misery and chaos of a divided kingdom. It has particular resonances for the union debate as the province of the Duke of Albany (under whom the country is most likely to be reunited at the end of the play) was Scottish, comprising of lands north of the River Forth. The title Duke of Albany had been held by James VI and I until 1604 when it was passed to his son. As well as thematic exploration there are also local references to the debate, for example Edgar on the heath declaims: ‘Fie, foh, and fum, / I smell the blood of a British man’ (3.4.183–34), pointedly substituting ‘British’ for ‘English’ in the popular children’s rhyme.
These echoes are also felt in plays such as Coriolanus and Macbeth. Coriolanus obsesses with the idea of the body politic and its relation to the body of the king, just as James does in his union rhetoric. Macbeth, as a play set in Scotland, is loaded with political resonance. Shakespeare’s exploration is subtle, however, and scholars have variously argued that Macbeth flatteringly reflects James’s own self-presentation in its references to Edward the Confessor; that it represents English fears about Scottish barbarity; that it serves as a warning against James’s ideas of absolute monarchy; or that Malcolm, who is half English/half Scottish and has spent time at the English court, offers a unionist resolution to the horror of Macbeth’s reign.