History resources, stories and news. Author: Dan Moorhouse
Making of the United Kingdom – Foundations of Empire
The making of the United Kingdom and Ireland was the foundation of the British Empire. Yet the different parts within the United Kingdom had not always been politically united. Historically there are 3 kingdoms and one principality within what now forms the British/Western Isles. England, Ireland and Scotland have each had their own monarchy’s at different periods in history. Wales had a number of princedoms throughout the modern geographical region. These often had an element of unity under one prince who was effectively the overlord.
England had been the more dominant kingdom within the isles for some time. Following the Norman Conquest of England, this saw incursions into neighbouring lands begin to happen. The Normans gained control of parts of Southern Wales. The Anglo-Welsh relationship following the Normans saw English kings and the Marcher Lords who governed the border area for the English seek to increase dominance over the rest of Wales. This led to wars in Wales and uprisings against English occupiers. Edward I famously sent a large army into Northern Wales to secure English domination. He did this through a major castle building project, creating a ring of fortifications around the mountains of Snowdonia. In theory it contained rebellious Welshmen into the heights where they could present little risk. The Castles were largely coastal, enabling England to supply their castles and providing secure places from which they could trade.
Revolts to ‘Prince of Wales’
Revolts against this English domination continued. Once the last of the great Welsh princes was defeated the English made a point of using his title and installed the eldest son of King Edward I as ‘Prince of Wales’ in an investiture ceremony at Caernarvon. It was, and remains, a symbolic role. Others were appointed to manage the affairs of the Welsh, often done for them for England’s benefit. Revolts often arose in Wales. The rebellions against King Henry IV saw much Welsh involvement. The Wars of the Roses saw the Welsh coast used for supplies and landing armies of invasion.
Act of Union – Towards A United Kingdom?
With the principality of Wales held quite securely under the Tudors, an Act of Union was introduced binding England and Wales together. This covered administrative matters, defence policy, taxation, all of the main functions of a late medieval / early modern government. And despite the Tudor family having Welsh Roots, it was a very pro-English arrangement. Language and Culture was suppressed which continued to be the case, albeit with differing levels of Anglicisation, throughout the period of the rise and fall of the British Empire.
English links with Ireland also had a long and often violent history. English trading interests made Ireland ripe for the Anglo-Normans to exploit. This led to conflicts and a series of alliances which over time led to England having a Lieutenant of Ireland and effective overlordship of the island. Dominance was not total, and many Irish nobles allied themselves with English factions. By the late medieval period many of the Irish lordships were linked to English ones. Intermarriage and grants of land had created a semi-autonomous system that meant that parts of Ireland was largely under the control of English kings, whilst other areas were much more independent. As divisive as that may have been at times, it often saw the alliances with English, Scottish and Welsh nobles mirroring the differences between Irish noble houses.
The Reformation’s impact in Anglo-Irish affairs: Towards a United Kingdom?
Change that was much more clinical and forces was to come as a result of the Reformation. This created religious divisions between different parts of Ireland which also meant that the dominant Catholic faith in Ireland was in opposition to the dominance of Protestants, in its various forms, in English and Scottish governments. This was one factor in the decisions made by English puritan politicians of the Commonwealth era to use force in Ireland. The issues from this point on are discussed in this unit.
More recent history is covered in a different section. Based on coursework possibilities in English and Welsh schools there are brief overviews of later political issues surrounding the 19/20th century history: Home Rule, Partition and the troubles in Northern Ireland.
Anglo-Scottish relations in the Middle Ages
Anglo-Scottish relations have also been turbulent over the years. for centuries there were disputes over the border and regular incursions over the border by men from both England and Scotland to raid farms, seize goods, or destroy things. The relationship between the monarchy of England and that of Scotland was also turbulent. On a positive side there were regular marriages between nobles and ladies from either side of the border. These were designed to foster better relations, or to act as security on agreements. It didn’t always work though. English kings became involved in decisions over who ought to be the King of Scotland. It created an overlordship that England’s monarchs were eager to exploit, leading to a number of wars from the medieval period through to the Act of Union.
James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England: Towards a United Kingdom?
The intermarriages did provide the potential for the violence to come to an end though. The heir of England’s Queen Elizabeth I was King James VI of Scotland. He became England’s king in 1603, having been Scotland’s king since the execution of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots, on Elizabeth’s orders in 1587. The unity of monarchy did not result in an immediate unification of government though. Nor was there an immediate convergence of ideas and ideals. As with Ireland the Scots found themselves divided in terms of their relationship with England. It led to violence and cynical decision making. These issues are discussed in this unit. They include the Glencoe Massacre, clearance of the Highlands and forced migration. As with the Irish, many were forced into migration to the Americas.
Eventually the four component parts of the British Isles had become united in terms of the monarch and government. It meant that parliament had representatives from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as it still has today. The monarchy of England and Scotland had merged into one with the accession of James VI/I as heir to Elizabeth I. As Ireland and Wales already had accepted or been coerced into acceptance of the English monarch, this united the four under one king or queen. This remains the case today, though Ireland had separated into the Republic of Ireland, which is not part of the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland, which does maintain the political and monarchical links.