The Scottish Referendum and the English Civil War: did Oliver Cromwell create the first Union with England?



With Scottish voters preparing to go to the polls this week to decide on their nation’s fate, much has been made since the referendum was announced of the history of the Act of Union in 1707, which officially brought the two countries together.

But many of the histories miss out a time, years before 1707, when England and Scotland became one nation.

In 1651, the Scottish ‘Engager’ army that had invaded England on behalf of Charles II was obliterated by the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell at Battle of Worcester. With his army gone and Scotland under military occupation, Charles’ dream of reclaiming England from the forces of Parliament that had defeated and then beheaded his father was over, and he was forced to hide in trees and peasants’ houses before fleeing to the Continent and into exile.

With the final defeat of the Royalist cause, the republican English government now planned to incorporate Scotland into the English ‘Commonwealth’. The proposals were published in October 1651 and presented to Parliament in March 1652. In a move that many Scots would say has characterised the behaviour of Westminster ever since, the Scots were never consulted over the union.

The details of the union included:

  • Annullment of the claim of Charles II to be King of Scotland
  • The Scottish saltire would be ‘received into and borne from henceforth in the army of this commonwealth, as a badge of this union’
  • all customs charges between the two nations were abolished, and the different tax systems would be standardised
  • The Scottish ‘parliament’,The Committee of Estates, was abolished but 30 Scottish MPs were entitled to sit at Westminster
  • Religious toleration (excluding Catholics and episcopalians).

The Act of Union was proclaimed in Edinburgh on 21 April 1652 and, while most Scots grudgingly accepted this imposition, the Scottish church – the Presbyterian ‘Kirk’ – not only resented breaking the promises made to the monarchy but also refused to accept toleration of the Independent sects that had sprung up during the turmoil of the wars, but was so torn by internal division that it could not mount an effective opposition.

Resistance to the occupation of Scotland by Oliver Cromwell’s forces continued among the Royalist clans of the Highlands, but after the defeat of the Glencairn Uprising of 1653-4 the military governor of Scotland General George Monck maintained control with an army of around 18,000 men and great citadels erected at Ayr, Perth and Leith near Edinburgh with a string of 20 smaller fortresses at strategic locations across Scotland as far out as Orkney and Stornoway.

Ayr Citadel

After Cromwell died in 1658 the regime he had built was usurped by a military coup, and General Monck marched south from Scotland to restore order to London and protect Parliament from its own forces – his former army of occupation was to become one of liberation and restoration. When the Rump Parliament was recalled it annulled all ordinances passed during the Protectorate’s five-year existence – the first union of England and Scotland was no more.

With the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the institutions of the theocratic government that had, in various forms, ruled Scotland since 1640 were abolished, the ‘National Covenant’ that had united the Scottish against Charles I was repudiated, and ultimate power was restored to the monarchy, which would still be based in London.

In the light of the current debate and the many pleas of the ‘No’ campaign, the great irony was that the English, rather than the Scots, were the main opponents of this first Union. At debates in Parliament in 1659, there was concern from critics that Scottish MPs – who they claimed were stooges parachuted in by the government – could hold the balance of power in the Commons and influence legislation that affected England. As The History of Parliament blog points out:

without exception, the native Scots who contributed to the discussions spoke in favour of the union, with one, William Ross of Drumgarland, MP for Dumfriesshire, making the extraordinary statement: ‘I think myself at home when I am here’. One wonders what Alex Salmond would have said in reply to that!


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