From Auld Alliance to creating the Union

From Auld Alliance to creating the Union

by Alan Sked
article from Monday 14, September, 2020

THE AULD ALLIANCE was a treaty of mutual defence against England signed by John Balliol and Philip IV of France in Paris in 1295. It lasted till 1560. It is still much revered and romanticised today by Scottish Anglophobes who see the EU as its modern equivalent. And, indeed, like the EU, it turned out to be a disaster for Scotland. It worked well enough for France, however. After her defeat at Agincourt in 1415 when her leaders were in a panic, an appeal was made to the Scots for help. More than 12,000 sailed to assist the French and at the battle of Bauge in 1421, the English were defeated. This provided a vital breathing space for France but in 1424 at Verneuil in a ‘second Agincourt’ 4,000 Scots were completely wiped out by the English.

Over the centuries Scottish knights continued to make their way to France but no French army ever turned up in Scotland to fight the English. Instead, French kings made appeals quite regularly to their Scottish counterparts to invade England to take the pressure off France when she was at war. Both David II and James IV were leading their armies into England at the request of the French when, first, David II was captured at the disastrous battle of Neville’s Cross in 1346 and then James IV and his leading nobles were annihilated at Flodden in 1513. At the Scottish court meanwhile there were always tensions between pro-French and pro-English factions. However, the final proof of the toxicity of the Auld Alliance came during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots, whose first husband, Francis II of France, was made king matrimonial of Scotland. Not only that but Mary signed three documents making over her kingdom of Scotland to France should there be no issue from her marriage, this despite promises to the contrary having been made to the Scots. 

In Scotland meanwhile during her absence in France, Mary’s mother, the French Mary of Guise, became regent and practically turned the country into a French province. French troops garrisoned Scottish castles and French administrators advised the Regent on policy.  It was this French preponderance which led in 1559 to a Scottish revolution which saw the Scottish nobles seize back control. But they were lucky: things might have been very different had not a political crisis in France prevented the despatch of French troops to Scotland, had not Mary of Guise suddenly died, and had not Elizabeth I of England intervened. 

The Treaty of Edinburgh of 1560, which saw both French and English troops withdraw, was, as a result a sort of peace treaty between England and France. It did not say much for Scottish independence or for the Auld Alliance which now came to an ignominious end. Factionalism at the Scottish court continued with Mary Queen of Scots’ return to Scotland in 1561. Yet it was not her Catholicism that fatally undermined her (the Pope despaired of her lack of action on behalf of Catholics) so much as her politics and marriages. Her forced abdication in 1567 and subsequent exile in England from 1568 till her execution in 1587, meant yet another Scottish monarch being held prisoner by the English while her infant son, James VI, was at the mercy of Scottish political factionalism. His first two regents were murdered and in 1582 he himself was captured by a faction led by the Earl of Gowrie. Only after a league with England was established in 1586, with James becoming a pensioner of Elizabeth I, was stability really restored.  James could then accept both his mother’s execution and exhibit neutrality towards the Spanish Armada. But this was Scottish independence at a very high price.

Religious disputes had by now brought fundamental change to Scotland. With the success of the Protestant Reformation both the Auld Alliance and submission to Rome had come to an end. England was now seen as a Protestant ally. Elizabeth I was not seen as a threat like Edward I had been. Yet the idea of looking to England as an ally had been foreseen even before the Reformation. In 1521 the Scottish theologian John Mair (or Major) had published his Historia Majoris Britanniae  in Paris in which he had condemned both the national mythologies – of Brutus and Gathelus – as irrational and looked instead to a union with England to sustain the peace and prosperity of the whole island. This was part of an intellectual trend in both England and Scotland after Flodden.

With the Union of the Crowns in 1603 little changed constitutionally, save of course that foreign policy would now be made in England. In 1604 James called himself ‘King of Great Britain’ and hoped that Scotland would ‘become but as Cumberland and Northumberland and those remote and distant shires’ but nothing happened.  Then came civil war under Charles I, occupation under Cromwell, the Restoration of 1660 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It should be noted that Scotland played no part in these latter two events. Yet in April 1689 Scotland’s Convention of Estates removed James VII from the throne and accepted William II and Mary II as King and Queen of Scotland. Moreover, the debates in the Convention displayed a sympathy for union with England. Even Fletcher of Saltoun was then in favour of it. The English Parliament, however, did not reciprocate. And the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692 and the failure of the Darien Expedition turned Scottish opinion against such sympathies.

The Darien Expedition was a fantastical scheme to found a Scottish colony or empire in Panama which could trade across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Company of Scotland provided vessels and colonists. Yet the colony was covered in jungle and swamp and the scheme threatened the interests of nearby Spanish adventurers.  It was also opposed by William II and III, who sabotaged the whole enterprise to keep in with the Spanish. Yet almost anyone who had money in Scotland had invested in it and when it failed many faced ruin at a time when harvests were failing, foreign trade had collapsed and hunger stalked the land. Economically Scotland needed to be saved and only England could help her. 

The other problem that sped on union was yet another crisis of the royal succession. William’s successor, Queen Anne, had no surviving children, forcing the English Parliament in 1701 to choose the Protestant Elector of Hanover as her heir. Scotland, of course, could make a different decision, as the Scottish Parliament in an Act of Sovereignty in 1704 made clear. But this only brought the Alien Act from England, which threatened to treat all Scots as foreigners and block Scottish exports if Scotland so decided. Also threatened was the use of force. The Scots were so outraged that they hanged an English ship’s captain on trumped-up charges of piracy. Inevitably, however, compromise was reached and the Scots agreed to negotiate a Union. And once negotiations got underway in London a Treaty was drawn up remarkably quickly: a new kingdom of Great Britain was created; the Hanoverian succession was secured; there was to be a single Parliament including 45 Scottish MPs and 16 Scottish peers; Scotland received an ‘Equivalent’ of almost £400,000 to compensate her for the higher English national debt but also to compensate the stockholders of the Darien scheme. This Treaty was ratified by the Scottish Parliament by 110 votes to 69.

Scotland did very well out of the negotiations. She acquired access to English and imperial markets, enjoyed a uniform taxation system, her sons could join British regiments, while her legal, educational and religious institutions remained untouched. 

How popular then was the Union? Its terms were debated at length in the Scottish Parliament despite the rioting mobs outside, and although there were petitions galore against it, these were from old opponents and were hardly representative. Claims of bribery of the Scottish Commissioners who negotiated in London were made and are still believed but these seem to have been based largely on a misunderstanding of the legitimate expenses due the people involved. According to Professor Smout: ‘In the end one is forced to the conclusion that the Union of Parliaments did not at the time seem of overriding importance to very many Scots.’ Control of foreign policy had been lost in 1603. Otherwise life remained much the same as far as church, law, education and even economics were concerned. Economic control of most things – estates, farms, manufactures – remained in the North. And the country was now protected from feuds over the succession as the history of Jacobitism proved. A Jacobite plot of 1708 never got off the ground, the 1715 rebellion had no support in the Lowlands and as for the Forty Five, Culloden was a victory of Scots over Scots. Three Scottish regiments fought prominently there and Scottish irregulars and volunteers numbered 13,000. More Scots enlisted against the Rebellion than in it.

The Jacobite army was composed mainly of Highlanders. Glasgow and Edinburgh were opposed and during his brief ascendancy there were several outbreaks against Charles. Even in the Highlands many of the great clans were aloof or actively hostile to the rising: Campbell, Mackay, Munro, Macpherson, Grant and Fraser, not to mention the McLeods, MacLeans, MacNeills and the MacDonalds of the Isles. Indeed, if Lochiel had persisted in his initial refusal to take up arms, the other chiefs would not have joined without him and the rebellion would have died instantly.

The Church of Scotland was absolutely opposed to the Jacobites, as were all Presbyterians. They saw the uprising as an attempt to return Scotland to a state of slavery under France and Rome. Not a single minister – and they were influential even in the Jacobite Highlands – joined the rebellion.

Contemporary witnesses put support for the rising into perspective: the Earl of Marchmont estimated that two-thirds of Scotland backed George II; Brigadier-General William Douglas put that support at more than three-quarters; while Sir Archibald Grant put it at ‘nine parts in ten of Scotland’. It would seem that the Union was quickly accepted by the vast majority of Scots. And support for it grew. The economy prospered as the industrial revolution transformed the country. The Scottish Enlightenment dazzled minds across the world and Scottish regiments played a prominent part in building up Empire and Commonwealth and taking a leading part in coalition warfare against European tyrants like Napoleon, the Kaiser and Hitler. Scottish emigrants with their democratic culture helped build up the world’s greatest democracies within the Commonwealth. Hence the Union contributed not merely to the growing wealth and freedom of Scots but to the defence and growth of freedom throughout the world.

In many ways the Union was both the logical outcome of Scottish history and its crowning glory. 

Independence had allowed the Scots to build up national institutions which the Union then preserved.  But independence had always been fragile and sometimes even nominal. The fate of Scotland was often decided by the English or their proxies in Edinburgh. Even when this was not the case Scotland herself was often without stable government and for long periods was a poor and lawless land. Union with England was always the obvious solution and when it came about it brought prosperity not poverty and enlightenment not oppression. Scotland became part of a world power with a record of success second to none.

[If you missed it Part ONE can be found here]

Alan Sked was educated at Allan Glen's School in Glasgow, before going on to study Modern and Medieval History at the University of Glasgow, followed by a DPhil in Politics at Merton College, Oxford. Sked taught at the London School of Economics where he became a leading authority on the history of the Hapsburg Empire, also teaching US and modern intellectual history and the history of sex, race and slavery. Alan Sked is now Emeritus Professor of International History at the London School of Economics.  

Engraving of James Douglas, 2nd Duke of Queensberry and 1st Duke of Dover presenting the Act of Union to Queen Anne in 1707.

ThinkScotland exists thanks to readers' support - please donate in any currency and often

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter & like and share this article
To comment on this article please go to our facebook page