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Issue 60 - State and Nationhood

Scotland Magazine Issue 60
December 2011

 

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State and Nationhood

James Irvine Robertson looks at the Act of Settlement 1701

In 1560, the people of Scotland through their Parliament repudiated the Pope’s authority and approved the Protestant Confession of Faith.

One man’s lust had already turned the Church on its head south of the border. Henry VIII declared himself its head in 1534 when the Pope’s refused him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon when Ann Boleyn declined to share his bed without a wedding ring on her finger. His daughter Mary reinstated Roman Catholicism and it was left to her sister Queen Elizabeth to establish the Church of England once the stench of the burning martyrs had subsided.

For Britain and for much of northern Europe Roman Catholicism became associated with absolutism and Protestantism with freedom. Of course this is a gross simplification but at either extreme of the religious divide it was largely true.

The Quakers and the Puritans rejected any authority save that of their own consciences while the Pope with the enthusiastic support of many of the European monarchs unleashed the Inquisition on those who deviated from the dictates of Rome. In Europe religion was the great political fault line, as significant and divisive as the clash between communism and capitalism in the late 20th century. It led to warfare throughout the continent in the 16th and 17th centuries, not least in England, Scotland and Ireland.

The Stuart monarchs believed in the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings. Set forth by James VI in 1598 in ‘True Law of Free Monarchies’, it states ‘the King is overlord of the whole land, so is he master over every person that inhabiteth the same, having power over the life and death of every one of them.’ And God ordained that this was so. James inherited the throne of England in 1603 and his political skill ensured stability in both England and Scotland throughout his reign. But his son Charles inherited his father’s convictions without having the same intelligence and flexibility to know when to temper them to achieve his ends. In England he was head of the Church through his bishops and was suspected of being under the influence of his French queen Henrietta Maria and trying to move the Church of England closer to Rome. Presbyterian Scotland consistently rejected his attempts to impose episcopacy and this triggered the armed clash between the monarch and his people in the Bishops Wars of 1638. The king’s attempts to raise money without the consent of parliament led to the English Civil War which bloodily engulfed Britain and resulted in the execution of the king and Cromwell’s iron dictatorship, but his Commonwealth did not survive his death and Charles II returned to the throne in 1660.

Charles II was a hedonist, more interested in his mistresses than moulding the nation. He converted to Roman Catholicism on his death bed. His brother James II and VII was an open Catholic and had already tried to force his religion on Scotland when he was Lord High Commissioner. He tried to rule as an autocrat and introduced a standing army to protect himself and his rule from further rebellion. His rule was tolerated until his queen bore a son. At the prospect of the establishment of a Catholic dynasty, he was driven from the throne by a group of English nobles and into exile. His daughter Mary, together with her unequivocally Protestant husband William of Orange were invited to rule in his place as joint monarchs.

There had been no consultation with the Scottish parliament over James’s deposition but, just as the English Parliament passed the Bill of Rights in 1688, the Scots parliament passed the Claim of Rights in 1690. And, like the Bill of Rights, it enacted important guarantees of civil liberty - the independence of the judiciary, the right to fair trials, the right of appeal without risking sanctions, the prohibition of the use of the army to enforce the will of the king, and that the king could not raise money without the consent of Parliament.

Mary died in 1694. William in 1701. Before that it had been clear that their successor Queen Anne would not produce an heir. It raised the prospect of a return of the Roman Catholic Stuarts. The Act of Settlement of 1701 was therefore passed by the English Parliament. The throne would be inherited by the descendants of James VI & I’s granddaughter Sophia who married the Elector of Hanover. No Roman Catholic could ever inherit the throne. The independence of judges was guaranteed. No one in receipt of money from the crown could be a member of parliament. No pardon by the monarch can save a subject being impeached by the House of Commons. In essence its provisions ensured that the king would always be bound by Parliament and constitutional law.

Again the Scots parliament produced its own act, but with an important difference. Scotland could choose its own monarch from the descendants of Scottish kings. The Scots sovereign would be different from that of England unless certain conditions were met.

‘Unless there be such conditions of government settled and enacted as may secure the honour and sovereignty of this crown and kingdom, the freedom, frequency and power of parliaments, the freedom of religion, liberty and trade of the nation from English or any foreign influence, with power to the said meeting of estates to add such further conditions of government as they shall think necessary.’ The Lord High Commissioner to the Parliament of Scotland refused to give the act the royal assent so the Scots refused to exact taxes and threatened to withdraw troops from British army which was fighting on the Continent in the War of the Spanish Succession against France, so the Act was given assent in 1704.

The situation was intolerable. It would be absurdly divisive to have different monarchs either side of the border. The English put on pressure by passing the Alien Act threatening to cut trade and free movement between the countries. This led directly to the Act of Union in 1707 in which was a clause to ensure that the heir to the British throne would be under the terms of the Act of Settlement.

The direct line of the Stuart monarchs was illegitimate in both kingdoms for all time. Their claims to the throne were fantasy, rejected by the people of both nations who never again wished to be ruled by dictators. But could not prevent the destructive tragedy of the Jacobite rebellions.