In Context: The United Kingdom

In Context

Following the EU Referendum there have been calls by some for the future of the United Kingdom to be looked at closely. Some, such as Scottish Nationalists, argue for a repeat of the Scottish Independence Referendum. Elsewhere, there have been calls for discussion about the position of Northern Ireland and London to take place. 

Clearly much of the current discussion is a direct response to the result of the EU Referendum. As the UK begins it’s journey towards exiting the Union, there will be many political attempts to influence that process. While it is unclear whether there will be any legislative moves to split up the Unions that form the United Kingdom, it is clear that it is desired by some.

To place these discussions into their historical context, here is a brief history of the making of the United Kingdom. This content does not look at the way in which the respective unions developed or their advantages / disadvantages, though the history of these issues may be covered in a separate post.

While the British Isles are relatively small, they have for a long time been home to peoples of very varied backgrounds. Even dating back to pre-Roman times there wasn’t particularly one group that could be considered to be ‘The British’ and the Isles were divided up along tribal lines. Of course that was changed to an extent by the Roman occupation of much of the Isles – but there remained large areas in which the tradition of resisting occupation was fostered and grew. Following the departure of the Roman legions the early kingdoms developed. Not the countries that we now know as England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but a greater number of kingdoms, that roughly speaking conform with some modern regions. As the Danes took control of much of the North and the East of England and pillaged the coast around the entirety of the Isles, alliances were formed and old kingdoms destroyed to a degree that the Isles had four recognisable kingdoms – albeit very independent ones – by 954 when the last Viking ruler was forced out of Northumbria. The Danes did, however, continue to have significant influence in the now unified England, as King Cnut, followed by his sons, ruled England and Denmark from 1016 until the accession of King Edward the Confessor in 1042.

Following the Norman Invasion and conquest of England the relationship between the four nations became one that was driven largely by attempts, first by the Normans, then by later rulers, to shore up borders; exert political and economic supremacy and to end any threats of invasion. It sparks a period of some 650 years in which there was an ongoing struggle for domination of the Isles. This led to English overlordship of Scotland, Wales and Ireland being exerted during the Medieval period and several well known and popularised attempts to wrestle back independence and self governance.

Union with Wales

The first formal unity. The first time that parliament legislated on ‘union’ between any of the four kingdoms was in 1536. Against a backdrop of Henry VIII’s break with Rome and enforcing his rule over the marcher Lords, his government issued an act that formalised the ‘union’ with Wales. From 1536, English was to be the language of the Welsh Courts and the powers of lords, including the English, Marcher lords, was curtailed. There is a more detailed account of this Act here. This Act was updated in 1543. Additional detail is available here.

At the same time the English were making moves to formalise their overlordship of Ireland. in 1541 Ireland was declared a dependent kingdom. However in reality only Dublin and the surrounding area, known as the pale, were fully under the control of the English.

Union with Scotland

The Act of Union of 1707 formalised links between England and Scotland. However, this was not an act that was warmly welcomed by all. Scots were regarded as a potential threat to the new political order in England. With the House of Hanover assuming the throne, there was substantial support within Scotland for the ousted Stuart family. The Act of Union here was one that would manage the populace rather than wholly embrace the concept of union. Scotland was to be represented by 45 MPs. Note: at the same time, Cornwall which had only recently been incorporated into the English parliament, had more representatives in parliament.


Scotland’s Act of Union wasn’t the first time that government had, in effect, been controlled by London. Under Cromwell’s rule the Scots and Irish were both forced into a union under his government from 1652 until Restoration. There had also been discussions and overtures from both sides towards forms of union between the parliaments of England and Scotland over the course of the 17th century. To this end a federation style union had been proposed in 1641, an idea revisited again two years later. That type of union was favoured by the Scottish estates as it retained their main powers. ‘In contrast was an ‘incorporation’ which would place control firmly in the hands of politicians in England: this idea was proposed and rejected in 1648, 1689 and 1702.

Union with Ireland

Union with Ireland grew in importance to Westminster politicians in the latter stages of the eighteenth century. Following the American Revolution and attempts at an invasion by the French in 1798, it was politically prudent for the English to formalise union. In 1800 the Act of Union with Ireland came into being. Ireland was represented at Westminster in a similar manner to that in which Scotland and Wales were. Irish concerns had been abated, to an extent, by comments from Scots about the perceived benefits of union. Note: whilst Scotland did have economic benefits from the relationship in the longer term, union itself was followed by a medium term period of recession. The same happened in Ireland.


The BBC – Article on the creation of the Union by professor Allan Mcinnes.

British Library – some excellent resources are available in the Library regarding the development of the United Kingdom.

National Archives – educational resources from the National Archives.


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