The 1707 Window of Opportunity by David White


The Duke of Queensberry (created Duke of Dover in 1708) presenting the Act of Union to Queen Anne in 1707

For the last several years as the case for Scottish independence has lodged itself at or near the top of the political agenda in Scotland with support for secession hovering steadily between 45% and 51% since 2014, there has been increased interest in how the union between England and Scotland came about in the first place. Why did it happen in 1707 and not earlier? Was it inevitable? Was it a popular event? Or was it all down to the “parcel of rogues in a nation” in the words of Robert Burns? The following article attempts to place the Treaty of Union in its historical context, a context of war, royal succession, religious anxieties, political self-interest and economic imperialism. It also suggests that the contingencies of war and a very particular alignment of political-dynastic conditions coincided to create an opportunity which had not occurred before and was unlikely afterwards to have been as conducive to union as it was in 1707.

Over the period 1704-06 during the War of the Spanish Succession, the fortunes of the allied armies in their struggle against Louis XIV of France soared. The Duke of Marlborough won an overwhelming victory at Blenheim which had the effect of ending Bavaria’s participation on the French side. It also prevented an attack on Vienna out of Italy and therefore greatly boosted the position of Austria. Furthermore, with the safeguarding of the Dutch nation and a major incursion into the Spanish Netherlands, it changed the whole momentum of the war by putting the French on the defensive. Subsequent victories at Ulm, Ingolstad, Landau, Barcelona, Ramillies, Antwerp, Dunkirk and Turin shifted the theatre of warfare on to French and Spanish soil, while the capture of Gibraltar accentuated English and Dutch naval superiority.[1]

The timing of the Battle of Blenheim is of particular importance. News of the victory which occurred on August 2nd 1704 did not get back to London until shortly after royal assent had been granted on August 5th to the Act of Security, a bill which which had been passed by the Scottish parliament the previous year. This act granted Scotland the right to select a monarch of her own choice when the childless Queen Anne died. Should the Scots choose a sovereign other than the heirs of Sophia, the Elector of Hanover, whom the English parliament had already decided upon in the Act of Settlement of 1701 without ever consulting the Scottish Parliament, then unification of the two countries would be a constitutional impossibility.[2]

The conjunction of the Scottish Act of Security and Marlborough’s pivotal victory is an example of a watershed moment in history. Looking back from our 21st-century perspective, it may seem inevitable that Britain would become a united country. Both England and Scotland were Protestant nations; outside of the Highlands, their populations spoke the same language; geographically they shared a small island; and each was ruled over by the same monarch, a situation which had prevailed for more than a century. While the decisive victory at Blenheim, where Scottish soldiers played a very large role in the battle, points to a future which we can see clearly leading up to our age where there is a long-established United Kingdom, the acceptance by Queen Anne of the Act of Security marks the high-water mark of a different development which might have seen Scotland and England go their separate ways as independent nations.[3]  

The Treaty of Union of 1707 was not the first attempt to see England and Scotland united politically. James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England in 1603, wanted to unite the parliaments, but this was rejected out of hand by the English one. The Scottish Covenanters sought to create a federal state in 1643 when they held the military balance during the civil war, but overplayed their hand with their demand for equal political power in the proposed union with their much larger neighbour, whose parliament rejected the proposal. Cromwell simply abolished the Scottish parliament in 1651 after his military conquest of the country and declared that all the British Isles were one commonwealth. After Cromwell’s death, two Bills of Union were introduced in 1659 in the English parliament but rejected. Further attempts were made in 1670, 1689, 1700 and 1702.[4]

King William III

The attempts at promoting union in 1700 and 1702 were both supported by King William III under the impetus of an impending and inevitable succession crisis for the British monarchy. William and Mary were childless, the queen had died in 1694, and Mary’s sister, Anne, lost the last of her children in 1700. Anne would inherit if William died before her, but then the direct line would come to an end.

Queen Anne

The nearest living relative after that was the Stuart whom William had usurped in 1688, the former James II, now living in exile in France under the protection and patronage of Louis XIV with whom England had recently been at war and was highly likely to be again in the near future. The return of James was an unacceptable proposition because he was a Catholic, because he  might be

James Edward Stuart c.1703

minded to enlist England as an ally of Louis in his European wars, and because of a fear that he might repudiate the National Debt which had grown enormously in recent years. The problem intensified when Louis reversed his position of recognising William as King of England which he had asserted in the Treaty of Ryswick in 1697. Upon the death of James in 1701, he now upheld the claim of his son, James Edward Stuart, later known as the Old Pretender, as the rightful claimant to the thrones of England and Scotland.[5] 

The dynastic crisis was a serious one because of the power and significance of religion in this era. Both Episcopalian England and Presbyterian Scotland were united in their determination not allow the monarchy to be occupied by a Catholic. This might seem to have been an ideal opportunity for a harmonious agreement to be reached, but there were other forces at work. The union of the crowns was a constitutional arrangement which had acted to the disadvantage of the smaller nation, Scotland. Both pro-unionists and anti-unionists in Scotland agreed on this fact – their dispute was over the best solution, whether complete union or complete separation. Now, in 1704, an opportunity to renegotiate the unequal relationship beckoned.[6]

Long-term discontent with the arrangement had existed among the Scots for generations. It was partly on account of this that the Covenanters displayed such intense fervour and were keen to impose their will on England when they saw an opportunity during the civil war. After the Restoration, Scotland was excluded from any free trade arrangement with England. She was not exempted from the stipulations of the Navigation Acts, but was in fact treated with the same high-handedness dealt out to Spanish and French maritime traders, to the extent that Scottish shipping, suspected of English-defined illicit trading, was often seized not just upon the high seas, but in Scottish waters and sometimes even in her ports. She was excluded from plantation and colonial trade. All Royal Charters for colonial enterprises, such as the East India Company, were monopolised by English companies and investors. Scotland’s staple export goods, such as cattle, coal, linen and beer, were periodically subject to stringent import taxes into England. Her traditional trading with the Baltic was almost totally destroyed, while that with France and the Netherlands declined seriously – not just because of the Navigation Acts, but also on account of the wars with these nations which England dragged Scotland into. Scotland had no say whatsoever in the declaration of wars, nor was she party to any treaties, whether political or economic, with other nations.[7]

The most recent event in this long history of perceived and actual injustices had occurred between 1695 and 1702. Denied any participation in the chartered companies of England, the Scottish parliament authorised its own venture, the Company of Scotland, which planned to set up a Scottish colony and trading venture in the Isthmus of Panama, on the Gulf of Darien. When shares were offered internationally, there was a rush to buy them in London, but pressure from the Crown and parliament intimidated all the English investors into withdrawing, while further diplomatic threats stopped initially interested parties in Amsterdam and Hamburg from buying in. All the capital had to be raised in Scotland and it tied up about half of all the country’s liquidity. The scheme itself was a disaster, partly because it was poorly planned, poorly managed and subject to armed hostility from the Spanish who laid claim to the area. However, it was not at all helped by the orders from London that no aid was to be given to the beleaguered Scottish colonists by the governors of English Caribbean and American colonies. 2,000 people died and about a quarter of all Scotland’s capital wealth was lost.[8]

It has long been argued by many historians from the 19th century (beginning with Macaulay) till recently, and by pro-Unionist politicians to this day, that Scotland traded her independence for purely economic advantage – that the Union was a mutually beneficial arrangement, particularly favourable to Scotland which was economically backward and stagnant and needed to ride on the coat-tails of England’s surge to prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries. This, however, is a very narrow historical view as well as an Anglocentric patronising one.[9]

It cannot be denied that the role of economics played a significant part in the debate and events leading up to Union in 1707, and that the calamity of Darien loomed large in the labyrinthine political manoeuvrings which occurred in the Scottish body politic at that time. However, the political solution was not nearly as clearcut as teleological hindsight might suggest. Many Scots at the time saw England as the problem, not the solution. Additionally, the entrance of England into the war against Louis XIV complicated the issue because there was a need for both Scottish soldiers and Scottish taxes to help finance the campaigns. The man charged by Queen Anne with dealing with Scottish affairs was Lord Godolphin, the English Lord Treasurer. He knew little of the northern kingdom and cared about it not at all except that it should remain quiet, subservient and compliant, and come up with its share of  the money needed to supply Marlborough.[10]

When the simmering resentments of being treated as second-class subjects while suffering economic discrimination and sabotage met up with the presumption and arrogance of the Act of Settlement and with the fact of Scotland being dragged into yet another war without consultation, there occurred a unity of purpose among almost all the fractious factions of the Scottish parliament, the church and the population at large. When an election in 1703 produced a new Scottish parliament with a significant number of Jacobites in it, Godolphin’s insincere offer of negotiations for political union were dismissed out of hand, the Act of Security was passed with a large majority, and a further measure, the Act Concerning Peace and War declared that Scotland would only ever go to war in future if her parliament approved it, rather than the Privy Council, packed with Anne’s nominees, which had sanctioned Scotland declaring war on France the previous year.[11]

As the year 1704 began, it became clear that the Scottish parliament had not only expressed a voice for political independence, it was prepared to back it up with action. It refused to sanction the supply of taxation revenues to London, monies desperately needed for the war on the continent, until such time as the two defiantly self-assertive acts of the Scottish parliament were given royal assent. It was under these circumstances that Anne gave her seal of approval on August 5th 1704. To contemporary commentators, it seemed highly unlikely that political union would be forthcoming any time soon, and that upon Anne’s death it was more probable that full separation would occur.[12]

Then came the series of victories which turned the tide of war in favour of England and her allies. Confidence returned to the English government and, within a year, they had embarked on a far more proactive and aggressive policy towards Scotland. In February 1705 the London parliament passed the Aliens Act which declared that, unless Scotland accepted the Hanoverian succession or negotiated a full union of the parliaments, Scots would be treated as aliens and any estates which they held in England would be forfeit. Furthermore a ban was placed upon the importation of Scottish linen, coal and cattle. At the same time, strategic bribing of some of Scotland’s most prominent politically active nobles led to wildly fluctuating alliances and Machiavellian political manoeuvrings within the Scots parliament. By late 1705 Union was back on the agenda. By 1706 negotiations had been started. Collusion and chicanery by the Duke of Hamilton led to a situation where the commissioners who would represent Scotland were chosen by Queen Anne rather than by the Scottish Assembly.[13]

When the commissioners met, the Scots delegation was presented with the English proposals. They were told in no uncertain terms that nothing else could be debated or suggested. To back this up, a military force was moved up to the border. In Scotland there were popular riots against the Union in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dumfries. Petitions poured into Edinburgh, but not a single one was in favour of unification. Opposition pamphleteering vastly outstripped the few pro-Union offerings. However, none of this counted for anything. The Kirk, initially hostile to union, was mollified by being promised that its institutions and national standing would not be touched. The burghs split on the question although most were strongly against it, but the all-important noble-dominated parliament, led by the Duke of Queensberry, accepted the terms. By early 1707, Scotland had become part of the new nation of Great Britain, its parliament abolished, its political independence snuffed out.[14]

Parliament Square, Edinburgh – 18th Century

The terms of the Treaty and subsequent legislation created a free-trade area in the new state and provided about £400,000, known as the Equivalent, which was used to pay off many of the losses incurred by investors in the Darien scheme, to cover the costs of new coinage and to pay off the Scottish National debt. This latter item is of particular interest. Whereas the Scots debt stood at £160,000, the English one was a massive £18,000,000. Scotland would be obliged to pay its share of this in perpetuity, and it was a figure set only to get larger as the War of the Spanish Succession dragged on.[15]

England had effectively achieved all its goals by the passage of the Treaty of Union. A potential French ally, particularly if the Stuart pretenders had been restored in Scotland, was nullified; the Protestant settlement had been secured; the succesion of the Hanovers was assured; a source of income had not only been maintained, but actually increased; and political control of the northern half of Britain lay with London. Scotland’s foremost historian, Tom Devine, has described the Treaty of Union as “a marriage of convenience between the governing classes in Edinburgh and London.”[16] Another historian has described it as “the greatest political job of the 18th century” and that “never was a union so cheaply purchased.”[17] Yet another has argued that the period 1705-1707 was the only window of opportunity which existed for Union because prior to that there was implacable Scottish opposition, and subsequent to it, the War of the Spanish Succession began to go less well, while the Whigs in London, the keenest proponents of Union, were fast losing ground.[18] Additionally, opposition to the Union remained high for decades after the event, while three attempts were made by the Jacobites in the first half of the 18th century to actually overturn the settlement by military force.

The idea of a window of opportunity is a persuasive one, confirming the 1704-06 victories of the war in Europe as a key factor in setting the stage and providing the confidence for the actions of the English government. However, it took the political will and actions of the major players in the drama to actually make Union happen – by threats, intransigence and bribery on the part of the English, and by Scottish politicians’ self-interest, venality and lack of knowledge of the hidden agendas of the Union which would subsequently prove disadvantageous to Scotland. This was an event which, although it has been analysed in economic terms for an extremely long time, was in fact essentially a political, diplomatic and religious one, made possible by a string of military victories.


[1] Jeremy Black, “1704: Blenheim, Gibraltar and the Making of a Great Power” in History Today, Vol.54, Issue 8, 2004.

[2] J.D. Mackie, A History of Scotland, pp.255-258.

[3] Mackie, Scotland, p.264.

[4] John Prebble, The Lion in the North, pp.232 & 259-261; William Law Mathieson, “The Union of 1707: Its Story in Outline” in Scottish Historical Review, Vol.4, No.15, 1907, p.254; David Stevenson, “The Century of the Three Kingdoms” in History Today, Vol.35, Issue 3, 1985.

[5] W. Ferguson, “The Making of the Treaty of Union of 1707” in Scottish Historical Review, Vol.43, No.13, Oct. 1964, p.90; John Wells and Douglas Wills, “The Jacobite Threat to England’s Institutions and Economic Growth” in Journal of Economic History, Vol.60, No.2, June 2000, p.427.

[6] Ferguson, “Making”, p.91.

[7] Theodora Keith, “The Economic Case for the Scottish Union” in English Historical Review, Vol.24, No.93,Jan. 1909, pp.45-53; Mathieson, “Union”, p.250-252.

[8] Prebble, Lion, pp.276-283; Keith, “Economic”, p56; Mathieson, “Union”, pp.251-252.

[9] Ferguson, “Making”, pp.90-92; Paul Henderson Scott, “Bought and Sold for English Gold” in Scots Independent, Oct. 2010, p.2.

[10] Ferguson, “Making”, p.94.

[11] Michael Lynch, Scotland – A New History, pp.310-311

[12] Mackie, Scotland, p.258; Ferguson, “Making” , pp.97-98.

[13] Lynch, Scotland, pp.311-312.

[14] Lynch, Scotland, pp.312-313; Ferguson, “Making”, pp.109-110.

[15] Mackie, Scotland, p.260.

[16] T.M. Devine, The Scottish Nation 1700-2000, p.17.

[17] Ferguson, “Making”, p.110.

[18] Lynch, Scotland, p.313.