United Kingdom: How and when did Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland become a part of the Union?

The United Kingdom today consists of four British states: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But it wasn’t always so. For many centuries, England remained the British superpower and the four states spent a large chunk of their histories in conflict with one another. Future political and strategic alliances brought these former kingdoms together. But it’s important to know where and when it all started and how they ended up united.

The History of England

Britain (then called Britannia) had been a part of the Roman Empire for many years and after the fall of the empire around the 5th century, the land adopted new ways of governance. England, in particular, was divided into several kingdoms that spent close to five centuries fighting amongst each other for supreme rulership and dominance. One of these kingdoms was Wessex, where a king named Alfred (i.e. Alfred the Great) would drive the birth of England.

The island also experienced major transformations, mostly from the arrivals of migrants from Scandinavia and Europe. In 848, when King Alfred was born, the people of England were referred to as Anglo-Saxons.

Alfred became the King of Wessex when he was 21 years old, and one of his first major tasks was to fight against the Vikings, who were rapidly conquering most of northern Europe. He managed to ward off his enemies, and his efforts helped him become the ruler of many other English kingdoms. Alfred died in 899. At the time of his death, his kingdom spanned a significant portion of England. He was effectively recognized the first king of the Anglo-Saxons. Alfred’s bravery and capability in fighting off the Vikings earned him the name “Alfred the Great.”

William the Conqueror

William the Conqueror

The king’s grandson, Æthelstan would later unite many more kingdoms to form the Kingdom of England, which continued to grow over the next six centuries. Many other prominent rulers succeeded Æthelstan, including Richard the Lionheart and Edward the Confessor.

RELATED: Relationship between Edward the Confessor and William the Conqueror

By the 1000s, England had become a powerhouse in Britain and many other rulers across Europe made claims for the throne, including William the Duke of Normandy who invaded England. He emerged victorious at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and he became king of England. William the Conqueror eventually drove out the remaining Vikings in Britain and finally brought all the English kingdoms together.

READ MORE: Everything you need to know about the Battle of Hastings

The History of Scotland

Map showing geographic Scotland

Despite being in the same geographical region, Scotland was never under Roman rule. The closest interaction that Scotland had with the Romans was during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, who constructed Hadrian’s Wall to protect Britain from attacks from the north and keep the so-called barbarians out of Roman-controlled England. The Romans named the area of northern Britannia, Caledonia and called the Scottish people Picts. Because of this, Scotland had its own unique history.

But much like England, the journey to the birth of Scotland commenced around the 5th century. Around that time, Celtic immigrants from Ireland, who were called Scots, arrived in Clyde. They were Christians and by the 6th century, many of the Picts, including their king had converted to Christianity. Around the 800s, the Scottish king, Kenneth MacAlpine included the Picts’ kingdom and by the following century, it had become Scotland.

Following William the Duke of Normandy’s invasions, many English people migrated to the Lowlands of Scotland and through interactions, the Scots adopted certain aspects of English culture. As a result, Scotland experienced an economic boom.

In the decades that followed, England and Scotland would enter into several bitter battles in a bid to invade and conquer each other. But England was more powerful and established and would eventually conquer certain parts of Scotland. This invasion spurred the Scots to fight for independence, first led by the renowned Scottish knight, William Wallace who won in the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. However, they lost in the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. Wallace managed to escape the English for years but was eventually captured and executed in 1305.

With Wallace dead, Scotland’s “Outlaw King”, Robert the Bruce, took over and he managed to secure Scotland’s independence from England in 1328 after the First War of Scottish Independence. A second war would later emerge after Robert’s death, but it died down after England was forced to concentrate on the Hundred Years’ War against France.

READ MORE: 10 Most Influential Scottish Monarchs and Their Reigns

The History of Ireland

The Celts arrived in Ireland around 300 BC during the Iron Age and were very influential in transforming Irish cultural practices. By the 5th century, several Christian missionaries had settled in Ireland and many Irish people converted to the religion.

Unlike England, Ireland was struggled to deal effectively with the Vikings and as a result was conquered by the Scandinavian warriors. The Vikings then founded Dublin, which became Ireland’s capital around 988. Eventually, the Vikings were defeated by Brian Boru who was the High King of Ireland.

Following William the Duke of Normandy’s invasion of England, Britain saw the rise in Norman influence, as the Normans established many towns, churches, and castles. It was also the beginning of England’s control of Ireland but the English would later be distracted by the Hundred Years’ War and fail to properly establish an effective rule over Ireland.

The English had control of Ireland until after the 14th century. That was when the traditional Gaelic culture and practices made a comeback. The Irish were able to reclaim some of their lost territories but they also gained more power through their intermarriages with the Anglo-Normans.

England attempted to regain control by introducing the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 but they failed. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, it appeared that England’s attempt to conquer Ireland did not work. Later English monarchs made attempts to reclaim Ireland through military campaigns and setting up English settlements in Ireland.

By the 1540s, during the reign of Henry VIII, Ireland had become part of England, meaning whoever wore the English Crown also ruled Ireland. This was made possible by the 1542 Crown of Ireland Act. Henry VIII became the first English monarch to rule Ireland. However, despite having an English ruler, the Irish had their own parliament.

The English monarchs, especially the Protestant Tudor monarchs, encouraged the immigration of Scottish Protestants into Ireland. This was a carefully orchestrated move to weaken the powerbase of Irish Catholics. It is not surprising that Irish Catholics came to lock horns with the English Crown in several rebellions in the years that followed. In most cases, England, in partnership with the Protestant minority in Ireland, was able to effectively crush the rebellions.

RELATED: How the English monarch became the Supreme Head of the Church in England

The History of Wales

Map showing Wales

Wales remained under Roman rule from the 1st century until its fall. Following the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the Welsh Celts successfully prevented them from invading their land. Eventually, the Norman invasion of England led to Wales falling under English rule in 1093. In 1284, King Edward I conquered northern Wales and turned it into a principality through the Statute of Rhuddlan. The statue was a royal ordinance and not an act of parliament. It provided a constitutional framework for the government of the Principality of Wales from the 13th century to around 1536. It was then  was superseded by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542.

Following Edward’s rule, the heir apparent (first in an order of succession) to the English throne was given the “Prince of Wales” title, with the most recent being Prince William and his wife, Catherine, who became the Prince and Princess of Wales after the death of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022.

Even though England had conquered Wales, Wales was technically not part of English domain. It was not until during the reign of Tudor monarch Henry VIII when the Acts of Union was passed. Those 16h century Acts of Union brought England and Wales together in a political union. Welsh laws were abandoned, and in their stead, English laws and customs prevailed over Wales. Wales unequivocally became part of the realm of England.

In 1997, some Welsh nationalist aspirations were appeased when a Welsh referendum voted to have power devolved to an elected Welsh assembly.

Union of the Crowns

The three kingdoms would eventually merge following the death of the English monarch, Queen Elizabeth I in 1603. Because she had no children, the chance came for the two kingdoms to unite after years of conflict. Back in Scotland, James VI had ascended the throne following the abdication of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots. As Elizabeth and James were distant cousins, James succeeded the childless English monarch and became James I of England and Ireland.

This phenomenon, known as the Union of the Crowns, signified the birth of Britain and the start of the kingdom’s history. Despite having an English ruler, each land maintained semi-autonomous status and had independent militaries, legal systems, and parliaments. That is, England and Scotland had the same king, however, they were two separate kingdoms, politically.

The personal union between the crowns of England and Scotland began in 1603, when James VI of Scotland inherited the English crown from his first cousin twice removed, Queen Elizabeth I. Image: James I of England and VI of Scotland.

The 17th century is regarded as one of the most significant turning points in Britain. 24 years into turbulent reign of James I’s successor, Charles I, the English monarch was executed. His execution happened in 1649, just seven years after the break out of the English Civil War (1642-1651). Charles I’s death transformed Britain from a kingdom into a republic, with the English politician and military officer named Oliver Cromwell becoming Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland from 1653 to 1658.

The Various Acts of Union

The monarchy made a comeback after Cromwell’s death in 1658, with the Stuart Restoration in 1660 that saw Charles II ascend the throne. However, the few years of Cromwell’s leadership had left some severe consequences across Britain. England, having been the undisputed powerhouse in the British Isles, was unwilling to give up power, and its capital, London, continued to wield a lot of power over the other kingdoms. In the years that followed, the British kingdoms would enter into various agreements:

The Acts of Union 1707

A new type of system of governance was introduced: the constitutional monarchy. This type of governance limited the powers of monarchs by making the Parliament sovereign. Towards the end of the 1600s, England and Scotland began discussions on a formal union, and in 1707, the Acts of the Union was passed during the reign of Queen Anne.

After years of conflict, the two kingdoms had become one. Britain was subsequently “United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain.”

The political union of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland happened on 1 May 1707. As a result, the Kingdom of Great Britain was created, with Queen Anne serving as the first monarch.

But it was more strategic than sentimental. Scotland was determined not to suffer the same fate as Wales. They were also in need of financial support from the English to support its quest to establish colonies in other regions. On the English side, the decision to unionize with Scotland stemmed out of the fear that the Scots would ally with France, who has been England’s mainland Europe arch rivals for many centuries.

While Scotland’s legal and religious bodies remained autonomous, everything else, including currency, parliament, monarchy, and flag became one with England. The formation of Great Britain also introduced a new flag, the Union Jack, which was a combination of the English and Scottish flags. It became the symbol of Britain, and the new kingdom spent the next years expanding its empire and amassing a lot of power and wealth.

The Acts of Union 1800

In 1800, the Kingdom of Ireland joined the Kingdom of Great Britain in what is known as the Acts of Union 1800. This union resulted in the creation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The act was enforced the following year, in 1801, and the newly-combined Parliament held its first meeting in January 1801.

Following the merger of the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland on 1 January 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was born. George III served as its first monarch

The Union Jack that is known today was redesigned from the original concept to include the red cross of St Patrick of Ireland. The 1800s became a prosperous time for the United Kingdom, and the “lesser” kingdoms, Ireland and Scotland, gained a lot of power as well.

Devolution in the United Kingdom

From left to right: The Senedd, home to the Welsh Parliament; Scottish Parliament Building, Edinburgh; and the Northern Ireland Assembly

When it comes to the governance of the United Kingdom, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales each have their own devolved governments. Those three countries are led by a first minister and deputy first minister. They also have a devolved unicameral legislature.

The Scots have the Scottish Parliament; in Northern Ireland, they have the Northern Ireland Assembly; and in Wales, they have the Welsh Parliament. As for England, the affairs of the government are handled by the UK’s government and Parliament (the Senedd).

Interestingly, MPs from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales who have seats in the English House of Commons (i.e. the lower house of Parliament of the UK) can vote on issues that affect only England. However, MPs of the House of Commons are unable to vote on issues that have been devolved to the three other countries.

Some Notable Monarchs of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the secession of southern Ireland in the 1920s. Image: George V (reign: 1910-1936)

Since the merger of the Kingdom of Great Britain (which comprised the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland) and the Kingdom of Ireland, there have been 13 British monarchs. As constitutional monarchs, their role in the legislative process has usually ceremonial.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the secession of southern Ireland in the 1920s.

Here are some of the monarchs that have ruled:

King George IV (1820-1830)

King George IV succeeded his father, George III on 29th January 1820. He was previously the Prince Regent, acting as king on behalf of his father, who suffered from mental illness. The monarch was known for living a lavish lifestyle and is said to have played a part in influencing the fashion of the Regency era. He oversaw the construction of the Royal Pavilion, remodeled Buckingham Palace, and rebuilt Windsor Castle.

Due to his charisma and charm, George IV was known as “the first gentleman of England.” However his popularity waned because of his poor relationship with his family and reckless extravagance. When he died in 1830, after a ten-year reign, his younger brother, William IV succeeded him.

Queen Victoria (1837-1901)

Queen Victoria reigned for 63 years and seven months, from 1837 to 1901. She was the longest-serving monarch until the reign of Queen Elizabeth II and ushered the United Kingdom into the Victoria era, a time which saw significant expansion in various sectors across the kingdom. In 1876, she received another title, Empress of India, from the British government.

As the daughter of Prince Edward and Princess Victoria, she ascended the throne at the age of 18 after her older brothers died without having any heirs. She was also known as “the grandmother of Europe”, as many of children married into royal families across Europe. Her bloodline was also responsible for spreading hemophilia amongst European monarchs. Victoria died in 1901 at the age of 81 and was succeeded by her son, Edward VII.

READ MORE: Major Accomplishments of Queen Victoria

King Edward VIII (1936)

King Edward VIII had one of the shortest reigns since the establishment of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland who gave up his position for love. He was crowned king in January 1936 and had abdicated the throne by December.

The reason behind his abdication was his relationship and plan to marry a twice-divorced American woman called Wallis Simpson. The United Kingdom was against the relationship, saying that it wasn’t right for a potential queen consort to have been a divorcee. Plus, Edward VIII’s marriage to Simpson would have been a stark contrast to his position as the head of the Church of England, which at that time did not support divorce.

Following his abdication, Edward became the Duke of Windsor and he married Simpson. His brother, George VI became king. It was rumored that the couple were Nazi sympathizers. He served the British army during the Second World War and spent the rest of his life in France with Simpson until his death in 1972.

Queen Elizabeth II (1952-2022)

As of 2022, Queen Elizabeth II remains the longest-serving monarch since the establishment of the United Kingdom, reigning for 70 years and 214 days. She was the daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

Elizabeth became queen at the age of 25 after her father’s death in 1952. She was also queen of the Commonwealth nations. She was married to Philip Mountbatten and they had four children together: Charles, Anne, Andrew, and Edward.

During Elizabeth’s reign, she encountered several challenges, personal and public, including calls for the abolishment of the monarchy, as well the scandals caused by her children’s failed marriages. She was 96 when she died in 2022 and was succeeded by her first born, King Charles III.

King Charles III (2022 – present)

King Charles III ascended the throne in September 2022 following the death of his mother, Elizabeth II. Prior to that, he was known for being the longest-serving heir apparent and being the oldest person to succeed a monarch in British history. He was 73 years old when crowned king.

While serving as the Prince of Wales, he mostly served in the capacity of patron or president of several charities across the UK. He is, however, mostly known for his marriage to “the people’s Princess”, Lady Diana Spencer, which ended in a bitter divorce, as well as his remarriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles. With Diana, they welcomed two sons, William and Harry. Upon his death, his son, William is expected to succeed him.

When and why did Southern Ireland (i.e. Republic of Ireland) secede?

How and when did Wales, Scotland and Ireland become a part of the United Kingdom?

By 1921, Ireland had been successfully separated into Northern and Southern Ireland through the Government of Ireland Act 1920. Northern Ireland remained in the United Kingdom whereas Southern Ireland became a free state called Eire. The name eventually changed to the Republic of Ireland.

For many years, land reforms became the rallying cry for the Irish in a bid to end the absentee landlord system, which by the way was one of the reasons why the Irish Potato Famine (aka the Great Famine) was so devastating on the island in the 1840s. In that disaster, more than one million of the island’s inhabitants starved to death while more than two million left the island, settling in places like the United States and Australia.

Feeling very hard done by Westminster’s response to the Great Famine, the animosity Irish people had toward the English crown began to reach boiling point in the decades that followed.

By the turn of the latter part of the 1800s, supporters of Irish home rule had begun to grow. As Europe was ripped to shreds by World War I, Irish independence advocates increased their voices. This was evident in the 1916 Easter Rising which saw a group of Irish nationalists proclaim the birth of the Irish Republic. A bitter skirmish erupted after British troops try to restore control on the island. Even though, Westminster managed to suppress the rebellion, there were signs that Irish nationalists were never going to back down, and widespread protests soon morphed into guerilla warfare (by the Irish Republican Army, the IRA) against British troops stationed in Ireland.

The unwavering IRA continued its fight for Irish Independence for another couple of years, until 1921 when the two sides agreed to a cease-fire. A year later, a peace pact was struck between Irish nationalists and Britain. That pact resulted in the partition of Ireland. The south of the island was granted autonomy, while six northern counties of Ireland stayed with Westminster.

After more than a half a decade of bloody Irish independence struggle, the Irish Free State was declared on December 6, 1921. The Irish Free State made up about 80% of the land size of Ireland.

Initially, the Irish Free State agreed to be a member of the British Commonwealth, a homage to its cultural and historical ties with Britain. However, that all changed when it decided to completely severe those ties with Britain. The new country took the name Eire. The name eventually changed to the Republic of Ireland.

Recent calls for Scottish Independence

In 2014, Scotland held a referendum concerning its independence from the United Kingdom. However, more than half of its population voted to remain. Since then, many changes have occurred.

Calls for an independence referendum have increased in the wake of Britain’s 2016 decision (i.e. Brexit) to leave the European Union (E.U.). Majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland felt hard done by the overwhelming support of Brexit received in England. As a result, nationalist groups in those two countries reason that the only way they can be in the European Union is to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

As of 2022, Scotland is still preparing to organize another referendum in hopes of leaving the UK in order to secure what it reasons were immense benefits from the EU’s single market that were taken away after the Brexit vote.

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