Acts of Union
In the past, England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland were separate countries. Over the centuries, they were brought together through a series of agreements called the Acts of Union. An Act is a name given to a law that has been approved by Parliament. The Acts of Union first created the country called Great Britain, and then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. They also produced the British flag, called the “Union Flag”.
ENGLAND AND WALES
Edward I, King of England, conquered Wales in 1284. When Henry VII won the throne of England in 1485 to become the first Tudor king, he was supported by the Welsh, because he was descended from the powerful Welsh nobleman Owen Tudor. Henry VII’s son Henry VIII decided to unite Wales formally with his kingdom of England by passing the first Act of Union in 1536. This was extended by another Act in 1543. Under these Acts, Welsh citizens now had the same laws, taxes, and rights as the citizens of England, and Welsh representatives could sit in the English parliament. But the Welsh language could no longer be used in official business.
ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND
In 1603, King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England as James I. The two monarchies were united, but Scotland and England remained separate countries. They had their own parliaments, their own legal systems and Churches, and their own taxes, including taxes on trade between the two countries. By the end of the 17th century, Scotland was facing financial and political turmoil. People on both sides of the border argued that it would be easier to bring the two countries together, under one system of tax, and with one parliament (at Westminster in London). The idea of creating a union became more pressing for England after 1688, when King James II (James VII of Scotland) was forced from the throne of England and was replaced by William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution. The English feared that the heirs of James II might try to claim the throne of Scotland, and were worried that an independent Scotland could be a danger. So in 1707, the parliament of England produced another Act of Union. This united Scotland with England and Wales, to create a country now formally called Great Britain.
The Scottish parliament agreed to the Act, and so voted for its own extinction—from now on, Scotland would send representatives to the national parliament at Westminster. Scotland was allowed to keep its own Presbyterian Church (the Church of Scotland) and its own legal system, and Scottish merchants could now trade freely (without paying trade taxes on many products) with England and all of England’s colonies worldwide.
GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND
England tightened its grip on Ireland during Tudor times, and in 1649 Oliver Cromwell conducted a vicious campaign to win complete control over it. Most of Ireland was now ruled by Protestant landlords, whereas most of the people were Catholic. Ireland had its own parliament in Dublin, which was controlled by Protestants. The situation caused deep resentment among the Irish, and there were a number of rebellions. During one of these, in 1798, a French army landed in western Ireland to support the rebels but was defeated. Because of this unstable and dangerous situation, the British parliament, led by William Pitt the Younger, persuaded the Irish parliament to vote for the Act of Union, which was passed in 1800. This created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. Irish representatives now served in the parliament at Westminster, and the Irish parliament was closed. It marked the start of a long and bitter campaign in Ireland to restore Home Rule, which eventually led to independence for southern Ireland.
In 1999 a process to give the people of Scotland and Wales a greater say over their own affairs was introduced. This process is called “devolution”. In Scotland, a Scottish Parliament was opened in Edinburgh. In Cardiff, a Welsh Assembly was opened. Both these institutions took control of some areas of government, such as health and education, but the Parliament at Westminster remains the national body for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. An assembly for Northern Ireland was also created in Belfast as part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.