What were the Acts of Union?

On 1 May 1707, two acts took effect: one passed by the Parliament of Scotland and the other by the Parliament of England. Together, they enacted the Treaty of Union to bring together their individual states into the United Kingdom of Great Britain.


While they had already shared the same monarchs for more than 100 years, England and Scotland now had a shared sovereignty, parliament and flag, as well as taxation, coinage and trade systems. This was a key step in the formation of the Britain that exists today.

Had there been attempts to unite England and Scotland before the 18th century?

Since 1603, England and Scotland had been in a dynastic union with a shared monarch. Elizabeth I had died without an heir, ending the Tudor line and resulting in her cousin James VI, who had ruled Scotland since 1567, becoming King of England and Ireland. But they remained separate kingdoms: two crowns, just on one head. Despite promises that he would return often to Scotland, James VI and I moved his court to England and only travelled north again on one occasion in the following 22 years. His wish was to establish a “blessed union”, but neither of his parliaments were enthusiastic about that idea and rebuffed his attempts.

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell (Photo by GettyImages)

The Commonwealth formed after the Civil Wars, when Oliver Cromwell was ruling as Lord Protector, then tried to force the issue in the 1650s by declaring that Scotland had to join with England and Ireland. The Scots were given 30 seats in parliament, but most were not filled during this brief period of union, and it was scrapped with the restoration of Charles II in 1660.

So what were the motivations that eventually led to union?

Coming to the throne in 1702, Queen Anne announced in her first speech to the Westminster parliament that union was “very necessary”. She was its ardent advocate, but it was really the issue of the royal succession that got parliament involved. In 1701, the Act of Settlement had been passed to ensure the crown would go to a Protestant, bypassing the now-excluded Catholic heirs in favour of the House of Hanover (in Lower Saxony, Germany), namely Electress Sophia, granddaughter of James VI and I, and her descendants.

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Anne was a Protestant, but, despite her numerous pregnancies, had no surviving children. But she did have a Catholic half-brother, James Francis Edward Stuart, whose father had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and who still intended to take the throne despite the Act of Settlement. He declared himself James VIII and III, and there were many in Scotland – known as the Jacobites – who supported his restoration.

The threat of the Jacobites made the English nervous, especially as it made it more likely that the Scots would turn once again to their historic allies, the French, and reignite the ‘Auld Alliance’. Increasingly, the English parliament – with Anne’s eager backing – came to the belief that union would be the strongest safeguard against this.

Why did the Scottish come round to the idea?

A major concern the Scots had about the prospect of union was that they would lose their independence and be absorbed as a region of England. And there was a precedent for this: Wales, conquered by Edward I in the 13th century, had been annexed by law in the 1530s and 40s.

Portrait of King Edward I of England
Portrait of King Edward I of England. (Photo by GettyImages)

By the end of the 18th century, however, Scotland was in desperate financial circumstances, and the pressure to agree to uniting with England grew more pronounced. To begin, the 1690s saw Scotland ravaged by a period of widespread famine and poverty, brought on by a series of failed harvests and an economic slump exacerbated by wars and declining trade. As much as 15 per cent of the population perished in these ‘Seven III Years’.

Then there was the disastrous ‘Darien scheme’. To rejuvenate the economy, an ambitious plan was devised to establish a colony at Darien (on the Isthmus of Panama), from where the Scots could carry out trade in both Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The colony, it was hoped, would become so profitable that it could rival England’s East India Company. The scheme proved so popular that it received investments from all over Scotland, at every level of society, totalling £400,000 in a matter of weeks.

In November 1698, the first expedition to settle Darien arrived, but ended in catastrophe eight months later as fewer than 300 of the 1,200 settlers survived and the colony of New Edinburgh was abandoned. That was not the end, though, as a second expedition had set out before news had reached Scotland. Arriving in late 1699, these 1,300 settlers discovered the place deserted and started rebuilding, only to suffer the same inhospitable conditions and diseases that had devastated the first group, as well as attacks from Spanish forces. By the time the colony was abandoned for good, there were only a handful of survivors boarding the boat back home.

The venture left Scotland on the brink of financial ruin, with many investors facing bankruptcy. The benefits of a union with England – an end to trade restrictions, protection for Scottish ships, access to English colonies, and promises of compensation for some of the losses incurred by the Darien scheme – became too attractive to ignore. But, rather than being powerless in any negotiations with the English, the Scots knew they still had something to bargain with: agreeing to the Hanoverian succession.

What was the importance of the Act of Security and the resulting Alien Act?

When the English parliament passed the Act of Settlement in 1701, naming the Hanoverians as successors to the throne, this was done without consulting its Scottish counterpart. The Scottish parliament retaliated by putting forward the Act of Security of 1704: allowing them to appoint their own successor from the Protestant descendants of Scottish kings. The act also stipulated that the person put forward by the English would not be considered unless certain political, economic and religious conditions were met. As punishment for this, the English followed up with the Alien Act of 1705. This categorised all Scots as foreign nationals, or aliens; banned Scottish imports into England or its colonies; and embargoed any exports that could help Scotland raise an army. These measures finally forced the Scottish parliament to enter discussions on the proposed union.

How did the English and Scots negotiate the union?

It was agreed that Queen Anne would appoint 31 commissioners for each nation to negotiate the terms of a union treaty. The members of the Scottish contingent were nominated by two nobles, the Duke of Queensberry (a favourite of Anne’s) and the Duke of Argyll, but both sides decided to select few known opponents to union.

Proceedings began on 16 April 1706 at the Cockpit in the Palace of Whitehall with opening speeches. Among them was William Cowper, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, representing the English commissioners. He laid out the intentions of the negotiations, declaring that “the two kingdoms of England and Scotland be forever united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain; that the United Kingdom of Great Britain be represented by one and the same parliament,” before ending with: “that the succession to the monarchy of Great Britain be vested in the House of Hanover.”

The commissioners did not actually negotiate face to face but worked in separate rooms, conveying their proposals, arguments and counter-arguments in writing. It took only three days for them to reach an agreement on the major issues: England had its guarantee for the Hanoverian succession; Scotland had access to England’s vast trade markets to boost its moribund economy.

The negotiations continued until July before the Treaty of Union was finalised. On top of establishing the union, it covered economic, judicial and trade concerns, including an English payment of £398,085 and 10 shillings to offset the responsibility Scotland now had in the national debt. In truth, most of the money went to ruined Darien investors.

What were the other terms of the Treaty of Union?

The United Kingdom would have one parliament, in Westminster; the same currency; uniform taxation; equal freedom of trade; and a new flag, made by combining the crosses of St George and St Andrew. Scotland would retain its independence when it came to the legal system and, as laid out in a subsequent act, the Presbyterian Church.

The Scottish representation in the new united parliament amounted to 45 members in the House of Commons and 16 peers in the Lords, although this was actually a small proportion of the 500 or so seats. Not everyone north of the border was happy at the prospect of union on such terms.

What were the main criticisms of the union?

Scottish poet Robbie Burns (1759–1796) in his cottage composing 'The Cotter's Saturday Night'.
A depiction of Scottish poet Robert Burns in his cottage. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The sole Scottish commissioner opposing the union, Sir George Lockhart of Carnwath, claimed that most in Scotland were against it. A deep-rooted resentment of the English was not going to be swept away by a law. Fuelled by fears of high taxation and loss of independence, there were demonstrations in Edinburgh and Glasgow in the months before the parliament ratified the treaty in January 1707. The English followed shortly afterwards, and, on 1 May 1707, Great Britain came into being. The criticisms did not stop there. There were accusations that bribery had played a major role in persuading the Scottish commissioners. Queensberry – who was met with cheering crowds in London, but pelted with stones and eggs in Scotland – received a large portion of the money gifted by the English, while Argyll received a peerage. Scottish poet Robert Burns would later denounce members of the Scottish parliament who ratified the act as being “bought and sold for English gold”.

How did the current Great Britain come into being?

In 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was established with another Act of Union – to much anger among the Irish. This was the case until 1922 when, at a time of swelling nationalism and a war for independence, the Irish Free State formed. Six of Ulster’s provinces remained part of Great Britain, as Northern Ireland.


This article was first published in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed


Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.