The first Acts of Union were two separate legislative acts passed in 1707 by the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland that united the two countries – previously known as the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland – into the Kingdom of Great Britain, and formalized the sense of “Britain” and the “British” people as distinct entities.
England and Scotland had in fact been ruled by the same monarch since 1603, when King James VI of Scotland inherited the English crown from his cousin Elizabeth I, who died without a natural heir. Upon inheriting the English throne, James had tried and failed to unite his two kingdoms, and several similar plans for union had been proposed throughout the seventeenth century but broke down over various political and commercial disagreements.
Queen Anne led a renewed push for union upon her ascension to the throne in 1702. The English appetite for union had grown along with its expansionist aims: “England had insufficient manpower to fight wars, sustain manufacturing and expand its empire,” writes historian Allan Macinnes. “The Scots were a ready reservoir.”
A bilateral commission of English and Scottish envoys convened in London in 1706 to negotiate the terms of a potential union. William Cowper, leader of the English commissioners and a member of Queen Anne’s Privy Council, opened negotiations by proposing that
the two kingdoms of England and Scotland be forever united into one kingdom by the name of Great Britain; that the United Kingdom of Great Britain be represented by one and the same parliament; and that the succession to the monarchy of Great Britain be vested in the House of Hanover.
The Scots were primarily concerned with matters of commerce and taxation, requiring assurances that Scottish traders would have access to colonial markets and a list of tax exemptions on certain goods. In all, the Treaty of Union, as it became known, resulted in 25 Articles of Union that were to be passed by both parliaments in order to formalize the process, the first of which declared
[t]hat the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN: And that the Ensigns Armorial of the said United Kingdom be such as Her Majesty shall think fit, and used in all Flags, Banners, Standards and Ensigns both at Sea and Land.
The Scottish parliament ratified the last of the articles on January 14th, 1707. The English parliament passed its own act of ratification on March 6th, officially unifying the two countries. The Union flag, which showed St. George’s red-and-white cross overlaid with St. Andrew’s blue-and-white cross and had been first displayed by James VI a century earlier, became the flag of the newly formed kingdom.
Macinnes, Allan I. “Acts of Union: The creation of the United Kingdom.” BBC History. BBC, 17 February 2011. Web. Accessed 12 March 2013. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/acts_of_union_01.shtml/ >
“Act of Union 1707.” Parliament: Living Heritage. Parliament, n.d. Web. Accessed 12 March 2013. <http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/legislativescrutiny/act-of-union-1707/ >
“Act of Union.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013. Web. Accessed 12 March 2013. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/614670/Act-of-Union/ >
United Kingdom. Parliament. Act of Union 1707. Web. Accessed 12 March 2013. <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Acts_of_Union_1707/ >