'Of the Union of Britayne': Robert Pont and the Unionism of a Scottish Reformer



A Force For Good activists celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the Union Bridge which physically unifies Scotland and England, over the River Tweed (26 July 2020).


Scottish Unionism has a rich history of thought and action, going back centuries. In this article, John Provan, who has an MA (Hons) in History, examines the British Vision of Robert Pont (1529–1606), who rose to become Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.


'Of the Union of Britayne' was a tract published in 1604, shortly after the Scotsman James VI's succession to the English throne, by the Protestant reformer Robert Pont of Perthshire.


Pont was born in Culross in Fife in 1529, and rose to prominence amongst the kingdom's Protestant leaders, becoming Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.


He was in many ways a typical Scot of his time – a radical Protestant and an ardent unionist. Indeed, throughout his writings, it becomes clear that Pont's vision of a godly nation was inseparable from his desire to see a full union between the kingdoms of Scotland and England.


He remarked that "peace under one king, one law, one religion and fayth shal be the true happines of Brittaine".


He argued for a complete union encompassing both the ecclesiastical and political spheres, claiming that "for to these tow heads, religion and pollicy, may be reduced whatsoever can be sayed of the gaine arising from the connexion of the kingdomes".


Throughout the tract, he goes on to develop a comprehensive case for union, drawing on a shared Protestant and British heritage, as well as outlining the more practical economic and political benefits which it would bring.


These themes culminate in his concept of a very full and incorporating union – one which would merge forever the feudal kingdoms of Scotland and England into a united British nation.


RELIGIOUS UNION

The first half of the tract deals primarily with the issue of religious union. At the time this tract was written, both Scotland and England had embraced Protestantism, and many Protestants dreamed of a powerful British state which could unite the two peoples against the Catholic powers of the continent. Pont leaves no doubt as to the primary importance of religious unity:


"I say then, that state seemeth to me most blessed in which religion and civill pollycy florissh: and of these tow the former to have the precendency, as having a reference to divine, the latter to humaine and worldlie matters."


For Pont, his concept of Britain was very much that of a Protestant nation.


He regarded the shared Protestant faith as the cornerstone of British identity, which would provide the common interest that makes people seek to bind themselves under one government. He spoke of this shared faith as being "the strongest band to tie and knitt men's mindes together".


Contrasting Britain with France and the various continental powers that had been torn apart by religious division, he goes on to speak of:


"...the good that accompanieth the connexion of realmes mayntaining one and the true divine worship, that we may drawe this to an hypothesis of the union of the kingdomes of England and Scotland under one prince in one religion..."


Just as with many other tracts of the time, Pont looked to scriptural precedent when considering the issue of union. He cites the example of the ancient Israelites, who despite once living under a single king, became divided into two peoples – the Kingdom of Judah in the south, and the Kingdom of Israel or Ephraim in the north. The latter is the ten tribes spoken of below:


"An example we have in God's people, the Israelites. So long as they remayned under the rule of David and Salomon, true religion triumphed: but when for Salomon's defection and suffering idolatrie God was growen angrie with this united kingedome, sodenlie was their a revolt from the posterity of Salomon, and a new empire of ten tribes established."


Pont feared that just as had happened with the ancient Israelites, the Britons of his own day might slide into divisions and idolatry.


It is no surprise then that Pont should take great joy in the succession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne; he regarded this good fortune as God's hand paving the way for union, observing that "God's providence hath so wrought by this union for our weale".


Yet this opportunity for a godly union also placed a responsibility upon the nation to keep to the true religion, an arrangement that hearkened back to the covenants of ancient Israel. Pont warned:


"...how easily is the civill society of men dissolved, when once the bond of religion is broken."


Pont demonstrates just how intertwined the Protestant religion has historically been with British identity; in our more secular age, it could be said that nothing has ever quite filled the place that this shared Protestant ethos once filled in a sense of common Britishness.


CIVIL UNION

Although Pont viewed the Protestant faith as the foundation of British nationhood, he also argued for the many benefits that civil union would bring.


For example, the boundaries between Scotland and England meant that those living in Scotland were being denied the opportunities that free access to England and her colonies would create. Scotland was something of an economic backwater, and constant warfare with England had led the Scots to develop their closest economic links with the trading ports of Holland and Northern Germany.


This incessant conflict had also led to large areas of the borderlands between Scotland and England becoming effectively bandit country, making passage between the two kingdoms treacherous.


Pont believed that union would provide the conditions to allow for free travel and financial prosperity:


"And that it may be lawfull for the farthest dweller without impeachement, without pledg or pass, freelie to travell and traffique thorowgh so ample a dominion...and merchants pass with their marchandize freed from many and divers sorts of toll and impost".


The safety that union would bring was not just concerned with domestic banditry, but by the much more substantial threats that both the English and Scots faced from their enemies overseas.


Scotland had long ago abandoned the Auld Alliance with France, and there were no great Protestant powers on the continent to rival the Catholic empires of France or Spain. Only union could make Britain secure within itself on its island home, and provide a sustainable geopolitical situation where it could resist its enemies with its powerful navy:


"For whom should the Britons dread (if God be favourable) being made one entire bodie undevided..."


Such considerations show a more pragmatic side to Pont's unionism. For all the romanticised imagery and religious symbolism that he was wont to employ, union was in many ways seen as a necessity amidst the circumstances of his own age.


With the Scots and English already united under one King, there was little sense in leaving them economically, socially and militarily fractured – if Britain was to become great, it would have to be united. Only then could the people of Scotland and England live together in an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.


HISTORIC UNION

One of the most interesting aspects of Pont's 'Union of Britayne' is the strength of his belief in British nationhood, which radiates throughout the work. He clearly does not view union as an endeavour between two separate nations, but rather as the unification (or indeed, re-unification) of a single nation: the British.


While claims of Scottish and English nationhood date back to the later dark ages (in the form of the Dalriadans and the Saxons, respectively), Pont harks back to much more ancient claims of British nationhood, which he traces to the very first people of the island: