Act of Union

views updated May 11 2018

Act of Union

By the Act of Union in 1800, the British and Irish parliaments created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, whose continued existence had become the central issue in Irish politics by the end of the nineteenth century, when Irish politics was sharply divided into unionist and nationalist camps. In return for consenting to the abolition of its venerable legislature, Ireland was empowered to send one hundred representatives to the House of Commons and twenty-eight representative peers to the House of Lords at Westminster. Significantly, because the Act of Union did not provide for the abolition of the executive, headed by a lord lieutenant and a chief secretary, and allowed for the gradual amalgamation of the financial structures of the two kingdoms over a quarter-century, the degree of integration achieved was far from complete. This fact was lost sight of in the nineteenth century, no less completely than the fact that the Act of Union was welcomed by many in Ireland. British support for a union had grown during the late eighteenth century in response to mounting problems in Ireland, while the concession to Irish Catholics of the parliamentary franchise in 1793 persuaded many Irish Protestants of the desirability of a closer connection with their British coreligionists. Given this context, it was therefore not surprising that the out-break of rebellion in Ireland in 1798 should be the spur that prompted Prime Minister William Pitt, who had long believed that a union was the optimal solution to Anglo-Irish relations, to authorize Lord Cornwallis, the lord lieutenant of Ireland, and his chief secretary, Lord Castlereagh, to secure Irish approval for the measure in 1799. But their preparations were insufficient to overcome the opposition of a complex of commercial metropolitan, Whig, Patriot, and ascendancy interests, and the scheme could not proceed at this point. Determined to prevail, Cornwallis and Castlereagh redoubled their efforts. Through the distribution of an exceptional amount of patronage, the authorization of funds to compensate borough owners, public lobbying, and the suggestion to Catholics that Emancipation would follow the implementation of a union, they were able to present the measure to the Irish Parliament in 1800 with greater confidence of success. The coalition of opposition interests put up a robust rearguard resistance, but the deployment of secret-service funds transmitted illegally from Great Britain was indicative of official determination to ensure that the measure reached the statute book. The inability of the opposition to sustain strong public resistance, or to overcome their own internal suspicions and animosities was also important, with the result that the administration prevailed by a comfortable margin in every division that mattered. The British Parliament passed the same measure without serious dissent, and it took effect on 1 January 1801.

SEE ALSO Eighteenth-Century Politics: 1795 to 1800—Repression, Rebellion, and Union; Government from 1690 to 1800; Orange Order: Origins, 1784 to 1800; Politics: 1690 to 1800—A Protestant Kingdom; Repeal Movement; Unionism from 1885 to 1922; Primary Documents: Irish Act of Union (1 August 1800)


Bolton, Geoffrey C. The Passing of the Irish Act of Union. 1966. Geoghegan, Patrick M. The Irish Act of Union: A Study in High Politics. 1999.

Kelly, James. "The Origins of the Act of Union: An Examination of Unionist Opinion in Britain and Ireland, 1650–1800." Irish Historical Studies 25, no. 99 (May 1987): 236–263.

Kelly, James. "Popular Politics in Ireland and the Act of Union." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6, ser. 10 (2000): 259–287.

James Kelly

Union, Act of (Scotland)

views updated May 29 2018

Union, Act of (Scotland), 1707. United England and Scotland and established the kingdom of Great Britain. In 1603 there was a union of crowns when James VI of Scotland became James I of England but, despite the king's wish the two countries remained independent states until 1707 (except for a brief legislative union during the Interregnum). After 1688 William III was anxious to promote union and in 1700 the House of Lords approved a bill authorizing the appointment of commissioners to negotiate, but the Commons did not agree. The process was restarted on the accession of Anne in 1702, but commissioners did not meet until April 1706, as there was much opposition or indifference in both countries. The English government was driven to seek a union when in 1705, to try to extract economic concessions, the Scottish Parliament passed an act allowing Scotland to choose a successor to the Scottish crown on Anne's death, putting the prospect of the Hanoverian succession in jeopardy. The articles of union negotiated by the commissioners formed the basis of the Acts passed by both the English and Scottish Parliaments.

The unitary state of Great Britain was established on 12 May 1707 with Anne as queen, and the succession guaranteed in the house of Hanover. The Scottish Parliament was abolished, and Scottish representation in the British parliament consisted of 45 MPs and 16 representative peers (the numbers based on the respective sizes of the two economies). Free trade between North Britain (Scotland) and South Britain (England) was established, and England's colonies were open to the Scots on an equal footing. The Scots retained their own legal system (though the House of Lords soon established its position as the highest court of appeal from the Scottish courts), as well as their own Privy Council (this, however, was abolished in 1708). The established churches were to remain the same: Anglican in England and presbyterian in Scotland.

The Union did not settle the problem of mistrust between the two nations, and though England secured immediately the succession and thus her northern frontier (one of her main objectives), Scotland's chief expectation of economic benefit was several decades in coming.

Clyve Jones

Union, Act of (Wales)

views updated May 09 2018

Union, Act of (Wales). A 20th-cent. term applied to two Acts of Parliament (1536, 1542/3) in which Wales was declared ‘incorporated, united and annexed’ to the English realm. The 1536 Act laid down principles ‘for laws and justice to be administered in Wales in like form as it is in this realm’; the Act of 1542/3 contained further details. This legislation completed social, administrative, and judicial developments in the principality and marcher lordships of Wales since Edward I's reign. It sprang from the circumstances of the 1530s: Henry VIII's divorce and the breach with Rome, royal supremacy over the church, and associated problems, and order and defence. It was also part of an attempt to bring uniformity and control to provincial government, by attacking franchises; it expressed ideas about royal sovereignty and reflected the bureaucratic genius of Thomas Cromwell. The 1536 Act created five shires (Monmouth, Brecon, Radnor, Denbigh, and Montgomery) in addition to the six of the old principality (Carmarthen, Cardigan, Anglesey, Caernarfon, Merioneth, and Flint) and existing counties palatine, Pembroke and Glamorgan. Equality at law was granted to the Welsh, and English law, which had made great advances in Wales, became official usage. Each Welsh county had one MP (prosperous Monmouth two), and each county town had one parliamentary burgess (except poor Harlech), with ‘contributory’ boroughs providing support. The 1542/3 Act created the Court of Great Sessions, with twelve shires grouped in four circuits and Monmouth joining the Oxford circuit, an anomaly that created uncertainty as to whether Monmouthshire was or was not Welsh. The Council in the Marches received statutory recognition with supervisory judicial powers. The English language, which had made considerable inroads, was the language of administration and justice, a sore point later on. The measures were welcomed by influential Welshmen and were regarded as a boon for long after; the growth of Welsh nationalism in the 20th cent. modifed this view.

Ralph Alan Griffiths

Union, Act of (Ireland)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Union, Act of (Ireland), 1801. United the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland, abolished the Irish Parliament in Dublin, and ended Irish legislative independence granted in 1782. The Act originated from Britain's difficulties in governing Ireland especially after the Irish rising of 1798, and was designed to strengthen British security against France. The first bill in 1799 failed because of the opposition of powerful protestant interests which dominated the Irish Parliament. They were bought off by bribery and lavish promises of honours and titles and the Act came into force on 1 January 1801. In place of her own House of Commons of 300 members, Ireland was given 100 MPs at Westminster, drawn from the counties and larger boroughs, while 28 Irish peers were elected for life by the whole Irish peerage to represent them in the Lords. Four bishops of the Church of Ireland, serving in rotation, also entered the Lords. The Act was intended to pave the way for catholic emancipation in Ireland but George III refused to consent and Pitt, the prime minister, resigned. The Act was always unpopular in Ireland, Daniel O'Connell and later Charles Stewart Parnell leading the agitation for repeal, but it lasted until 1920.

E. A. Smith

Union, Acts of

views updated May 18 2018

Union, Acts of Series of acts uniting England with Wales (1536) and Scotland (1707), and Britain with Ireland (1800). In addition, the 1841 Act of Union united French-speaking Lower Canada and English-speaking Upper Canada. The Welsh Acts incorporated Wales within the kingdom of England, provided Welsh parliamentary representation and made English the official language. The Scottish Act united the Kingdoms of England and Scotland to form Great Britain. Scotland retained its legal system and Presbyterian Church. In accordance with the Irish Act, the Irish legislature was abolished, and Ireland was given 32 peers and 100 seats in the British Parliament. The established Churches of the two countries were united, and free trade was introduced. The Canadian Act led to the establishment of a Parliament for the province.

Act of Union

views updated May 21 2018

Act of Union See Union