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Prophetic Unionism, and the 1603 Union of the Crowns



We continue our examination of the 1603 Union of the Crowns by highlighting how Arthurian and Biblical themes helped to explain the circumstances and forge a unique sense of British identity. We call this colourful mix "Prophetic Unionism".


Picture: This engraving by Willem van de Passe (c. 1598-1637) shows 5 of James VI's 7 children, and his extended family. To his right, is his deceased Queen, Anne of Denmark, and his sons Prince Henry, and Charles who has his hand on the Bible, and the deceased Princesses Mary and Sophia. Missing are Margaret and Robert who also died in infancy. On his left is his daughter Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, with her husband Frederick, and 7 of their children. They would go on to have 13 children, of whom one, Sophia Electress of Hanover, was the mother of George I.


Some of the verse at the bottom reads:


Thus Britain's Sovereign, with his princely Son

In peace and plenty, reigns like Solomon.

------------------


And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all. Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwelling places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God.

Ezekiel 37: 22-23


The above verses from Ezekiel speak of the ancient Israelites who were divided by God into two kingdoms – Israel and Judah – as punishment for their idolatry. Prophets of the Old Testament would predict their reunification under a single, godly king.


Yet despite speaking of a different people, in a far-off land thousands of years in the past, these words once resonated deeply in the hearts of the people of Scotland and England.


With the seemingly providential Union of the Crowns in 1603, a flurry of literature was produced throughout the British Isles, utilising a fascinating and eclectic mixture of Biblical prophecy, medieval soothsaying and Arthurian legend, in order to make sense of this drastic development.


Ezekiel's twin message of political union and religious reformation seemed particularly poignant in the tumultuous world of newly Protestant and newly unified Britain, and it was combined with native mythologies of ancient Britannia to form a unique, prophecy-based strain of unionist thought.


This prophetic, and at times, apocalyptic unionism – in the sense of cataclysmic events bringing an end to a dark age and ushering in a bright future – was championed most vociferously by Scots who looked to defend the right of their fellow Scot, James VI, to rule all Britain from his London throne.


It would be a powerful force in shaping the character of the British identity during its formative years.


The DIVERSE ORIGINS of the PROPHECIES

Arthurian Inspiration

The native Arthurian legends have an appropriately British beginning; many of them are recorded in the Prophetiae Merlini (The Prophecy of Merlin) a collection of Brittonic prophecies by the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth which was largely incorporated into his work of 1136, the Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain).


These prophecies were attributed to the mythical wizard Merlin, a prominent figure in Arthurian legend who frequently prophesied on the fate of the British people.


The most notable of these was the promise that a new King Arthur would arise and restore the British throne, whether in the form of a new king after his likeness, or an almost messianic return of Arthur himself.


Geoffrey's Vita Merlini (The Life of Merlin) prophesied that the British throne would one day be revived, long after its collapse in the face of Saxon invasion:


…for it is the will of the highest Judge that the Britons shall through weakness lose their noble kingdom for a long time, until Conan shall come in his chariot from Brittany, and Cadwalader the venerated leader of the Welsh, who shall join together Scots and Cumbrians, Cornishmen and men of Brittany in a firm league, and shall return to their people their lost crown, expelling the enemy and renewing the times of Brutus…


Geoffrey's contemporary William of Malmesbury observed the widespread belief in this prophecy during the period, noting that "Arthur's grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return".


John Lydgate, writing hundreds of years later in the 15th Century, shows that the tradition never entirely dissipated, commenting on the belief that Arthur "shall return as lord...and reign in Britain".


Scottish Inspiration, fused with Arthurian

The distinctly British outlook of these medieval Arthurian legends would eventually be fused together with a uniquely Scottish strain of prophetic unionist thought.


The most famous of Scotland's medieval prophets was Thomas the Rhymer, a 13th Century laird from Berwickshire who would later be immortalised in the ballads of Walter Scott.


Thomas prophesied that a descendant of Robert the Bruce would one day restore the British throne:


"Where dwells thou, or in what country,

or who shall rule the isle of Britain

From the North to the South Sea?

A French wife shall bear the son.

Shall rule all Britain to the sea,

that of the Bruce's blood shall come

as near to the ninth degree."


As a contemporary of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, Thomas the Rhymer lived in a time of turbulent and ever-changing Anglo-Scottish relations. His prophecy that a Scotsman would one day rule all Britain was a Scottish attempt to settle forever the dynastic disputes between the two kingdoms. It is significant in showing that Britannic monarchy was a Scottish aspiration as well as an English one – even in the glory days of nationalist icons like Wallace and Bruce.


While in the past, Scottish thinkers like George Buchanan and John Mair had dismissed the Arthurian prophecies of Merlin as the ramblings of a pagan mystic, suddenly Scottish writers leapt to the defence of those prophecies which spoke of their new British king.


The Whole Prophecy of Scotland was published at Edinburgh in 1603 by Robert Waldegrave. It was among the first documents of the post-medieval era to attribute a historical value to Merlin's prophecies:


"Merlin says in his book who will read right,

Although his sayings be uncouth, they shall be true found."


The same document quoted from the prophecies of Thomas the Rhymer, and his dream of a descendent of Robert Bruce sitting upon the British throne.


James Maxwell was another Scot who was quick to defend the prophecies of Merlin and Thomas, and especially to combat the accusations that Merlin was of an un-Christian character:


"I do think that he was...well seen in the admirable secrets of nature and especially in astrology, and that his horoscope or constellation did incline him to aim at foreknowledge and foretelling of things to come; the like whereof has befallen to many others more."


Indeed, the voices which were raised to defend this prophetic unionism were almost entirely Scottish.


John Gordon, a prominent advocate for full political union throughout the Jacobean union debates of the early 17th Century, lends another interesting example in his A Panegyrique of Congratulation for the Concord of the Realms of Great Britain in Unity of Religion and under One King, focusing on the divine roots of true prophecy to argue that union was the will of God:

"If we examine the order of Histories, we shall observe, that this most happy union of English and Scottish under one King, hath been long before foreseen by the divine providence, to be finally effected in our age."


Another Scotsman, in the form of James VI himself, shrewdly appealed to the legitimacy offered to his Britannic monarchy by the ancient British kingdom of Arthurian lore.


This is surely the historical background which he has in mind when he intriguingly speaks of his newly-united British kingdom not just as a unification, but as a reunification of what was originally one people.


For example, in his Proclamation of 20 October 1604 regarding his Style, he spoke of "Namely the blessed Union, or rather Reuniting of these two mighty, famous and ancient Kingdoms of England and Scotland, under one Imperial Crown".


This theme was developed in Scotsman John Russell's Treatise on the Happy and Blissed Union where he appealed to the antiquity of a godly British king who predated even King Arthur, and presented a case for Britannic monarchy which was very much from the viewpoint of a Scottish Presbyterian:


The ancient chronographers have observed that about the year of God 180, Britain was the first place of the world which publicly received the faith of Christ (to the great honour of this isle): for Lucius, the first King of Great Britain, predecessor and forerunner of his Majesty, in those days, removed the priests of the gentiles and substituted in their place bishops and Christian pastors.


Biblical Inspiration

This message of reunification was core to all the various strands which influenced prophetic unionism, yet it was Biblical prophecy which provided the most powerful and emotive source of inspiration.


Indeed, it was the classic text the Declaration of Arbroath which morphed Biblical and native medieval prophecy together, and cemented the association of the Scots and the English with Ezekiel's Old Testament prophecies on Israel's reunification.


While the Declaration is best known for asserting Scotland's independence as a sovereign kingdom, it also made a remarkable statement on the supposed origins of the Scottish people:


They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today.


This association of the Scots with the people of Israel, as well as the idea that they were descended from the ancient Scythians – in those days commonly believed to be the Jewish diaspora which were led away captive by the Assyrians – meant that by 1603, the Biblical prophecies of Israel's reunification took on more than the character of mere symbolism.


Scotland and England, once united under the godly King Arthur, were seen as the modern incarnations of Ezekiel's northern and southern Israelite kingdoms, respectively the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah.


In the minds of some, at least, this meant that Britain in 1603 had became the real and physical setting for the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecy of reunification.


This Biblical symbolism of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah was ubiquitous throughout unionist tracts of the early 17th Century, and it was especially prominent in the writings of Scottish authors.


As James VI embarked on a Britain-wide policy of religious reformation, the people of his kingdom naturally identified these developments with the prophet Ezekiel's message of Israel's reunification.


The relevance which many Scots felt it had to their contemporary situation was neatly summarised by the Scottish Protestant reformer Robert Pont in his 1604 tract Of the Union of Britain:


"An example we have in God's people, the Israelites. So long as they remained under the rule of David and Solomon, true religion triumphed: but when for Solomon's defection and suffering idolatry God was grown angry with this united kingdom, suddenly was there a revolt from the posterity of Solomon, and a new empire of ten tribes established – which was the cause of many calamities, and of an alteration in religion."


Just as the Israelites had flourished in a united kingdom under the righteous kings David and Solomon, but later been divided in two when they strayed from God; so too had the Britons once lived in a single kingdom under the righteous King Arthur, only to be torn apart when, as Pont argued, they turned to the idolatry of the Roman Church.


All these prophecies might seem like little more than fables, yet they appeared to have significance and fulfilment when the Scots King James VI acceded to the throne of England, and proclaimed himself "King of Great Britain".


These three strands of Arthurian, Scottish and Biblical prophecy were all employed and increasingly fused together during the dramatic events surrounding this Union.


In line with Arthurian lore, the ancient British kingdom had been reborn under a godly king. And just like Thomas the Rhymer had prophesised, a Scotsman was at the head of it!


And in the minds of some of the Britons at the time, just like the Bible had predicted, it seemed that the divided, but once united, kingdoms of the Israelites had become one again!


Whether viewed symbolically or as a literal fulfilment of prophecy, such imagery granted historic legitimacy to the Stuart's aspirations of British monarchy, and provided a stirring and highly romanticised mythology on which to base a new British identity as a result of the Union of the Crowns.


Sources:

1. Arthur H. Williamson, 'Number and National Consciousness' in Scots and Britons, Scottish Political Thought and the Union of 1603, edited by R.A. Mason (Cambridge University Press, 1994). This contains quotes and information on Scottish attitudes towards Merlin and Thomas the Rhymer around 1603.


2. David Allan, 'Arthur Redivivus: Politics and Patriotism in Reformation Scotland' in Arthurian Literature XV, edited by James P Carley and Felicity Riddy (Cambridge University Press, 1997). This contains information and quotes on Scottish attitudes towards Merlin and Thomas the Rhymer around 1603.


3. Karen Moranski, 'The Son Who Rules "all Bretaine to the sey": The Whole Prophesie and the Union of the Crowns' in Prophet Margins, The Medieval Vatic Impulse and Social Stability, edited by Edward L. Risden, Karen Moranski and Stephen Yandell (Peter Lang Publishing, 2004). This contains quotes and information on Thomas the Rhymer.


4. John Russell, 'A Treatise of the Happie and Blissed Union' in The Jacobean Union, Six Tracts of 1604, edited by Bruce Galloway and Brian Levack (Scottish History Society, 1985), pp.75-142 at 79.


5. Robert Pont, 'Of the Union of Britayne' in The Jacobean Union, Six Tracts of 1604, edited by Bruce Galloway and Brian Levack (Scottish History Society, 1985), pp.1-38, at 6.


This article is part of our series "Scottish Origins of British Unionism: The Jacobean Union and its Debate (1603 onwards)". You can find all our history articles at our British History Index.


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