March 31, 2009

The Imperial Crown and the Union of the Kingdoms

Edward Freeman, the great 19th Century medievalist, wrote of the English Scottish relationship in the middle ages that 'the vassalage of Scotland was an essential part of the public law of the Isle of Britain'. Freeman spoke for many Englishmen throughout the centuries- restating a case that depended upon medieval precedent and was supposed to have modern implications. He and various other Englishmen including Francis Palgrave in the 19th and William Attwood in the 18th Century argued that the Scottish crown had always been a feudal possession of the English crown. Such arguments went all the way back to the days of William the Conqueror who had maintained that his Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc, had sovereignty over the entire island. The argument of course was supported by historical precedents- both Henry II and Henry VIII had in different ways asserted their authority over the northern part of the island- and its importance was political. It both reasserted the unique status of the English crown- as an imperial crown raised above other sub-kingships- and it made clear that the British state was a continuation of the English state. Freeman and those who shared his ideas unwrote the union- turning it into an English empire.

For Scottish unionists that was an anathema. They attacked the argument historically- David Hume poured derision upon those who believed in such myths, suggesting that only amongst monkish historians and propagandist English kings could anyone find support for these fallacies. Hume, the pre-eminent enlightenment historian of Britain, argued that the only Scottish concession to English claims had been obtained under duress. He suggested that Scotland's history was free and independent of any English claims. Of course for Hume and other Scottish unionists this was vital: without Scottish co-eval status Scotland would descend into a conquered province. Without 1707, Scotland was threatened by an imperial England just as Ireland or other further flung parts of the world were. That claim developed into the 19th Century, as Professor Kidd shows, into an image that far from following the imperial crown of England, the Scots and English were part of two sister Kingdoms who had voluntarily allied together. Indeed Scottish unionists with a racial bent (a particular 19th Century ideological fixation) developed the argument that the Scots and English were the same people- both Saxon and indeed that the Scots were more purely Saxon than the English were. The antiquary John Pinkerton for example argued that Scots dialect was an older more Gothic dialect than English which had been perverted.

Union between the English and Scots was an alternative to English domination or conquest of the Scots as well as to Scottish independence. To understand the choice that the Scots in the early 18th Century made, we have to understand what they saw as the alternatives. Union was a statement of equality with the English- an attempt even to control the overmighty southern neighbour. Furthermore though it enables us to see how Scots responded to union- they sought to destroy and disparage the occasional English effort to reconceptualise the union as an English empire led by the Imperial Crown- they sought a sisterly union not an imperial relationship. In a curious way therefore, developing the idea of Scotland within the union meant developing a conception of Scotland outside the union, an independent nation with a history separate to England. That is one of the interesting ironies of 1707: the Scottish defence of union developed a Scottish history suitable for nationalists to pick up on later.


Rumbold said...

Good post. I wonder how much the personal union under James VI and I affected Scottish attitudes to union in 1707?

You will also be pleased to hear more confirmation that yours is an erudite blog: the word verification was 'chess'.