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James Henrisoun: Positive Visionary for Union

This is the third in our chronological series examining the Scottish Origins of British Unionism, written by John Provan who has an MA (Hons) in History. Here we look at the work of the Scotsman James Henrisoun, "a Scottish patriot who deeply loved his native land, whose British unionism arose firmly from his 'earnest zeale and vnfained affeccion towardes my countrey' ."

We don't have a date of birth for him, but as "early as 1527 he appears to have owned land on the south side of the High Street" [Edinburgh] and he died "apparently, by 1570" (Merriman at p.103, p.86 and p.103).

His two main works, which we describe below, were published in 1547 and 1548.

Pic: Our best-selling "Scottish and British" T-shirts and Hoodies are available at our Store here.

James Henrisoun (also referred to in some places as Henrison, Harrison, and also as Harrysone) was among the first champions of British unionism.

Despite being a Scotsman of rather mundane origins, his polemical skills and remarkable vision catapulted him into the circles of the kings and political leaders of his day. His tumultuous life would encompass experiences of exile, imprisonment, war, religious revolution, dynastic intrigue and poison plots that would match the drama of any work of fiction.

All this was a remarkable career for a man who began his working life as an ordinary merchant, trading between his native Edinburgh and the Low Countries.

It was this connection to the nearby ports of Holland that would plunge Henrisoun into the world of radical politics by introducing him to the Protestant religion. His friend and trading partner Francis Aikman later became a close associate of John Knox in leading Scotland's Protestant revolution (1559-60). [1]

This new faith ultimately led to Henrisoun's exile from his native kingdom to neighbouring England. It was there that he made his name as a fierce critic of Scotland's ruling Catholic powers, headed by figures such as Cardinal Beaton and the Earl of Arran who dominated the regency of the infant Queen Mary.

But far from contenting himself with such attacks on the powers of his day, he also offered a very positive alternative for Scotland's future, which radiates the energy of a man captivated by the great revolutions of the age.

It was this vision which led to Henrisoun presenting a remarkable case for Anglo-Scottish union in two chief works: An Exhortacion to the Scottes, to conforme them selfes to the honorable, expedient, and godly union betwene the twoo realmes of England and Scotlande published in the summer of 1547, and The Godly and Golden Book published in July 1548 – which is also notable for popularising the term "Great Britain". [2]

The timing of these works is significant because they coincide with a series of English military incursions into Scotland as part of the conflict surrounding "The Rough Wooing" (December 1543 – March 1551) whereby Henry VIII attempted to enforce an alliance between England and Scotland via the marriage of his Protestant son Prince Edward to the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots.

After a brief flirtation with Protestantism, the regent Earl of Arran sought to rebuild ties with Catholic France and reneged on his promise to marry Mary to Edward.

As the persecution of Protestants continued in Scotland, they came to champion the proposed Anglo-Scottish marriage, which would have led to both kingdoms being united under a single Protestant monarch. (For example see our article on John Elder here.)

But none championed it with more strength and flair than James Henrisoun. In his two chief written works, he made a comprehensive case for union rooted in the ideals of common nationhood, religious unity and economic improvement.


In Henrysoun's 'Exhortacion to the Scottes', he uses the terms 'Britain' or 'Britons' ninety-nine times. [3]

This ought to lay to rest the accusation that Britishness is "an artificial construct" borne of the Union of 1707.

Writing over a century and a half before that event, Henrisoun demonstrates a very deep sense of British patriotism that is perhaps unsurprising for a Scottish exile who was warmly welcomed in neighbouring England.

But an outstanding aspect of Henrisoun's Britishness is its sense of antiquity.

According to Henrisoun, Britain was an ancient kingdom which long preceded the later division into English and Scots:

"And likewise of England and Scotlande, I doubt not to saie and am able to prove that the greate part of both realmes, is come of the old Brytaynes…" [4]

Henrisoun built upon this theme of common nationhood in his Godly and Golden Book to argue for the many benefits that a return to this ancient unity would bring.

The appeal of such a message was no doubt amplified by the ongoing Anglo-Scottish conflict surrounding the Rough Wooing (1543-1551), while Scotland was still reeling from its losses (including the crème of its nobility) during the Battle of Flodden (1513).

Most likely in reference to the schemes of men like Arran and Beaton, Henrisoun notes the misery that petty factionalism had caused in propagating these constant wars between the British kingdoms:

"What mysheif [mischief] haith Insurged in realmes by Intestyn [internal] devision, what depopulacion haith ensewed in counteres by cyvill descencyouns what detestable morther haith been commyted in Cities by separat faccounis..." [5]

But beyond such domestic strife, this disunity also crippled their ability to resist conquest by foreign powers. In hearkening back to the even more fractured past of Britain's ancient Celts, Henrisoun notes that it was this vulnerability which had allowed almost all of Britain to be subjected by the Romans:

"Britayns at the first were under kyngs and afterwards by faccions and seditions of princes and great men, were so divided in themselfs, that to resist an universal peril, scarsely twoo or three countreys at the most would agre together: so fighting in partes, at last the whole was overcome." [6]

Despite this subjection by Imperial Rome which lasted several centuries, Henrisoun maintained that Britain's integrity as a nation was not compromised. He cites the example of the European states of the Dark Ages that were torn apart by hordes of Vandals, Goths and Huns while still retaining their national character. [7]

Having learned from these lessons of the past, he goes on to argue that the solution to Britain's ongoing strife is unity under one king. After all, the threats which were posed by the great empires of France and Spain were far more grave than any of the past. Only once this unity was achieved could Britain enjoy domestic security, and flourish in a new era of peace and stability:

"...if these twoo realmes wer brought vnder one Empire and governaunce, wee should see an ende of al strief and warre, whiche will neuer come otherwise to passe. And then should wee haue this common weale of ours, beyng now out of all ordre, and in moste miserable state and condicion to bee moste happie and mooste florishing." [8]


According to Henrisoun, inseparably linked to this sense of common British nationhood was the common Protestant faith that the Scots and English had supposedly shared in their ancient past.

During Henrisoun's exile in England, he had been exposed to the land's unique mythology – a mixture of Galfridian lore that hearkened back to the days of King Arthur, and more millenarian legends that spoke of a great king who would restore the throne of Constantine, the godly ruler of the ancient Britons.

The former had largely native roots in the writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth, a medieval monk who sought to justify English claims to the Scottish throne. But it was the mythology of Constantine, rooted in the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, that truly captured Henrisoun's imagination. Far from being merely an English overlord of the Scots, Constantine was a thoroughly British prince who had ruled in a godly manner fitting of Henrisoun's Protestant convictions:

"Constantyne...was very Emperor of al Britayn, wherby the island after long servitude, was at last (as it wer by Gods providence) restored to his former libertie & honor, the emperor beyng begotten in Britayne, soone of her that was heire of Britayne, borne in Britayne, and create emperor in Britayne." [9]

Henrisoun is careful to portray Constantine's imperium as very much British, rather than just English in character.

If a new king after Constantine's likeness should arise, then far from treating the Scots as a subject people, he would "enduceth no servitude, but fredom, libertie, concord, and quietness...makyng equalitie without superiority", and the Scots and English would finally be equally yoked "under one kyng and governor as it was in the Britons tyme". [10]

God seemed to have provided the means for Anglo-Scottish union through the marriage of Mary Queen of Scots to the English Prince Edward.

This had been agreed upon by Henry VIII and Mary's regents, but Henrisoun lamented the regents' change of heart under the advice of the Scottish Cardinal Beaton. He bemoaned the failure of the Scots to seize this providential opportunity:

"But if God of his goodnesse, without our dessertes, hath in these latter daies, provided that blessed mean & remedy for the glorie of his name and for our wealth & commoditie: and wee for our parte, either of stubbornesse will not or of wilfulnesse liste not, thankfully to receive his synguler grace & benefit so freely offered, what then maie be thought in us?" [11]

The motivations behind Beaton's policy were no secret. The Cardinal opposed the prospect of union with a much more powerful Protestant neighbour. He sought to maintain Scotland's historic ties with the Catholic empire of France.

Although some modern Scots look back fondly on the Auld Alliance, it was far less popular with Henrisoun's contemporaries, especially among those who were embracing the Protestant faith in increasing numbers, and who would eventually secure Scotland's Protestant revolution (1559-60) just over a decade after Henrisoun's writings were published.

After the French had treated the Scots as little more than cannon fodder in ordering the invasion of England – which led to the disastrous Battle of Flodden (1513) – many sought to realign Scotland's allegiance towards its Island neighbour. This is a trend that can be traced back to John Mair less than a decade after Flodden.

Henrisoun appeals to the misery that the unequal alliance with France had brought to Scotland:

" is but a golden and glisteryng bayte, alluryng our simplicitie and credulitie, to that Iron hoke, that hath caught and killed afore now, the moste part of our auncestors, and now of late, no fewer of oure fathers, of our children, and of our kinsfolke while the Frenche lose not a man, but a fewe golden crounes." [12]

Only a radical change of policy could put an end to these centuries of misery and Anglo-Scottish conflict. Henrisoun hoped that if the shackles of the domineering French and their Catholic puppets in Edinburgh could be cast off, then Scotland would finally be free to flourish in peace and enjoy the Island security which the land provided.

But more than that, this newly Protestant and newly united Britain would become a light to the world, a bastion of Protestantism and pure religion as it had been in the days of Constantine and Arthur. A new godly king would recapture the spirit of these predecessors and:

"...vnite and ioyne vs [join us] in one religion. For howe godly were it, that as these two Realmes should grow into one, so should thei also agre in the concorde and vnite of one religion, and the same the pure, syncere and incorrupt religion of Christ, setting a part all the fonde supersticions, sophisticacions, and other thousandes of deuilries [devilries] brought in by the bishop of Rome and his creatures." [13]

Henrisoun's vision of Britain is thus defined not merely by the political aspects of Anglo-Scottish union, but by a highly romanticised vision of a lost golden age which was to be revived under a new godly, Protestant monarch.


In addition to Henrisoun's fascination with the church and monarchs of Britain's past, there was also a distinctly progressive aspect to his unionist thought, especially as far as social and economic issues were concerned.

In both his chief works, he called for a number of innovative civic projects to bring prosperity to his native land, and in particular to help its poor. No doubt his life experiences influenced him greatly on these matters.

His focus on economic improvement is unsurprising given his past work as a merchant. His care for the plight of the poor may find its roots in his experience of English exile, for the quality of life enjoyed by the English peasantry was notably higher than it was for their Scottish counterparts.

With these concerns in mind, Henrisoun proposed a system of agricultural improvement, the plantation of new churches – which were vital sources of welfare and education – free trade, and an increase in spending on universities and the arts. [14]

Certainly, these calls for economic reform show the same energetic idealism that underpinned his calls for Anglo-Scottish union. Historian Marcus Merriman called Henrysoun's plans "a commonwealthman's manifesto for the regeneration of Scotland." [15]

Perhaps the most radical of Henrisoun's ideas was to end the system of feudal servitude by helping ordinary farm labourers to buy the land on which they worked:

"Also, to the helpe of the poor labourers of the grounde...we will that the land which they possesse and occupye at this present be sett to them in few or longe taxes of the pryces they pay for them...that they may plante and make policie and live like our substanciall commons and not as miserable cottardes, dailie charged to the warr and slaughter of there neyghboure." [16]

Such plans were intrinsically linked to the project of union, for it was only with English expertise and investment that Scotland's potential could be fully realised.

If England and Scotland were to be bound up in a common national interest and the economic barriers between the countries were removed, then English artisans would flood the previously untapped Scottish market and spread knowledge of their crafts amongst Scotland's more primitive labourers.

These English craftsmen would teach the Scots to be:

"myners; cutters of mosse...makers of iron mylls, saw mylls and others; collyerdes; dighters of wull, websters, wallers, bowers, fletchers and such other." [17]

The grandest of Henrisoun's proposed projects was almost certainly the construction of a Forth-Clyde canal, which would hugely increase trade between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and remove the need for merchant vessels to navigate the perilous waters of Scotland's northern coasts. [18] It is likely that this particular idea found its inspiration through his trade on the continent, most probably through the canal at Middelburg.

These ideas for Anglo-Scottish union and economic improvement were formulated amidst the conflict of the Rough Wooing. Even after the war ended, and the prospect of dynastic union ceased (for the meantime at least), Henrisoun stood firmly by his principles.

Upon returning to his native Scotland, he was fiercely critical of the damage caused by Somerset's English troops. Henrisoun certainly cannot be accused of being an English hack. [18]

Yet his principles cost him dearly; having already fallen foul of the Scottish establishment for his stance on the Rough Wooing, he soon found himself alienated by his patrons in England. By 1550, he had lost his burgess status in Edinburgh as well as all his material goods, while his pension was greatly reduced. [19]

At this point, his story might have ended rather ingloriously had it not been for an incredible development. Robert Stuart, relative of a cook who served in Queen Mary's household, contacted Henrisoun with a heinous plan to poison the young monarch. [20]

Henrisoun foiled the plot, but his association with Stuart left him imprisoned and friendless. In a bizarre turn of events, Henrisoun had saved the life of the young monarch whose regency he had so opposed, and who would go on to become a persecutor of his Protestant brethren.

In what was perhaps an even greater twist of irony, a call came from the French court to free Henrisoun for saving the life of their infant ally, which saw him regain his liberty. [21]

Thereafter, Henrysoun revived his fortunes in his native Edinburgh. He lived the rest of his days on a healthy pension while undertaking several royal appointments.

Putting action to his earlier calls for civic improvement, he contributed significantly to poor funds as well as the construction of a local hospital and numerous infrastructure projects. [22]

In advocating for civic virtue, economic improvement and Protestant piety, Henrisoun foreshadowed the ideals of the eighteenth century "Commonwealthmen" – those patriots whose principles fuelled the drive for liberty across Britain, and ultimately resulted in the American Revolution.

His ideals were also encapsulated in the "Scottish improvers" who drove Scotland's development following the Union of 1707.

Henrysoun was certainly a pioneer. Throughout his Exhortacion to the Scottes and The Godly and Golden Book, he provided a precedent for a powerful Scottish unionism rooted in a progressive sense of British patriotism. Modern unionism benefits from his example.


1. Marcus Merriman, "James Henrisoun and 'Great Britain': British Union and the Scottish Commonweal" in Roger Mason (Ed.), Scotland and England, 1286-1815, (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1987), p.87.

2. Ibid., p.85.

3. Ibid.

4. Arthur H Williamson, "Scotland, Antichrist and the Invention of Great Britain" in John Dwyer, Roger A Mason and Alexander Murdoch, New Perspectives on the Politics and Culture of Early Modern Scotland, (Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers Ltd, 1982), p.36.

5. Merriman, p.96.

6. Williamson, p.36.

7. Ibid.

8. Merriman, p.93.

9. Williamson, p.36.

10. Ibid., p.37.

11. Ibid.

12. Merriman, p.92.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid., p.97.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., p.98.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., p.99.

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid., p.100.

21. Ibid., p.101.

22. Ibid., p.103.



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