It’s another exciting British constitutional history post. Hurrah!

Just because people seem confused on all this (for some reason).

Before 1535, England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland were legally separate countries. Following the English conquest of Ireland in the 12th century and of Wales in the 13th, England, Ireland and Wales had a single ruler, who was styled King of England and Lord of Ireland, but were administered as separate countries. Scotland had a completely separate king.

However, Henry VIII is often seen as a chap who shook things up a bit, and relations between the Home Nations were no exception.

Between 1535 and 1543, the Laws in Wales Acts extended English law to Wales, replaced Welsh local government with an English model, and gave Welsh constituencies representation in the English parliament. After 1543, Wales was effectively part of England from a legal/administrative point of view.

In 1542, the Irish Parliament’s Crown of Ireland Act made the King of England, whoever he might be, the king of Ireland; but unlike Wales, Ireland remained administered separately.

In 1603, King James VI of Scotland also became King of England (and hence, Ireland), as Elizabeth I’s nearest heir. Although James liked the idea of unifying his territories, both the English and Scottish aristocracy and parliaments told him roundly to piss off. So at this point, James was king of the independent states of England (including Wales), Ireland and Scotland, in much the same constitutional way that Elizabeth II is queen of the independent states of the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. Although obviously, he had rather more power then than she does now…

By 1706, following failed attempts throughout the 17th century, the Scottish aristocracy eventually accepted the concept of union between the two countries (largely because Scotland was bankrupt following its disastrous colonial adventures in central America). In 1707, each country’s parliament passed an Act of Union, creating a united kingdom of England and Scotland – referred to as Great Britain – with a single parliament, a free trade area and a single currency, although Scotland retained its unique and separate legal system, and the established Church of Scotland was not integrated into the Church of England or fully controlled by the UK monarch or parliament [see Chris in comments]. All laws of either nation that were incompatible with the Act were repealed by the Act. At this point, Queen Anne became Queen of Great Britain and Queen of Ireland.

In 1800, the parliaments of Great Britain and Ireland each passed another Act of Union, creating a united kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, referred to imaginatively as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with a single parliament, a customs union, and a single currency – a similar drill to 1707. Part of the deal to gain Irish acceptance was that Catholics would be given the right to vote in and stand for the UK parliament (previously, only Protestants were eligible to stand for either parliament) – although this was later vetoed by King George III, much to the ire of the (posh, Catholic segment of the) Irish.

Unlike the 1707 Act, which was legitimately voted for by the Scottish parliament, the passage of the 1800 Act in the Irish parliament was driven by epic bribery, as well as by the lies about Catholic emancipation. The Catholic Relief Act was eventually passed in 1829 – too late to stop the Irish from being deeply and fairly pissed off about the whole event.

A few years after (most of – see Thumb in comments and my reply) Ireland effectively seceded from the Union in 1921 to form the Irish Free State and hence lost its representation in Westminster, the legal name of the remaining entity was changed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927. King George V became King of the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) and King of (most of) Ireland.

(Most of) Ireland declared itself a republic in 1948, at which point King George VI ceased to be King of (most of) Ireland – although bizarrely, the Republic of Ireland parliament didn’t repeal the Act of Union until 1962.

The recent devolution in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, although massively important in practice, hasn’t changed the overall legal status of of the above – we’re still in the same position as in 1948. The state of which Elizabeth II is queen is still the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the UK Parliament is still sovereign over the four nations that make up the state.

Sources: Laws in Wales Acts (1535, 1543), Crown of Ireland Act, 1707 Acts (England, Scotland), 1800 Acts (Great Britain, Ireland), Anglo-Irish Treaty 1921, Royal & Parliamentary Titles Act 1927, Republic of Ireland Act 1948, Statute Law Revision (Pre-Union Irish Statutes) Act 1962.

14 thoughts on “It’s another exciting British constitutional history post. Hurrah!

  1. "UK Parliament is still sovereign over the four nations that make up the state."

    Not quite. You can make a pretty good case that the UK Parliament is not sovereign on one specific point, which is that it is not permitted to impose bishops on the Church of Scotland against its will. This is enshrined in the 1707 Act of Union, and means that if we want to be super-pedantic we should say that sovereignty is shared between *three* bodies (as well as the Crown), the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

  2. "Ireland declared itself a republic in 1948, at which point King George VI ceased to be King of Ireland (although bizarrely, the Irish parliament didn’t repeal the Act of Union until 1962)."

    What suzerainty does the monarch now exercise over Northern Ireland? Is she queen of it, lord of it, or is suzerainty over the province then solely exercised by Parliament? Or is its status quite sui generis? Ireland's proclamation of a republic seems to leave a gap.

  3. I see what you mean, but no. I've changed the terminology for clarity/accuracy.

    The problem when writing about Ireland in English (*) is that there isn't an English name for "the political entity that consists of most of Ireland and which has existed since 1921" that is different from the English name for "the island whose biggest cities are Dublin and Belfast". The political entity was called the Irish Free State from 1921-1937, just Ireland from 1937-1948, and formally Ireland but informally the Republic of Ireland from 1948 onwards. I didn't talk about the 1937 move from Dominion to independent monarchy with same monarch in the original post, because COME ON.

    George V was king of the British Dominion that was the Irish Free State in the same way he was king of the Dominion of Canada; George VI was king of the-independent-political-entity-that-was-called-Ireland in the same way that Elizabeth II is now queen of Canada; and the 1948 declaration said that George VI was no longer in any sense the king of the-independent-political-entity-that-was-called-Ireland.

    George V and George VI were kings of the UK, and therefore of Northern Ireland, throughout (well, depending on how you count Edward VIII, but that's a whole other game).

    (*) actually, the same problem arises when writing about it in Irish. There's a tendency among English writers to try and dodge this problem by using 'Eire' to mean 'the-independent-political-entity-that-is-called-Ireland-and-excluding-NI'. However, Eire is just the Irish word for 'Ireland', with exactly the same double-meaning as the English word, so this usage is actively wrong – which is why I haven't used it here.

  4. Ok, thanks. I was just starting to think that the constitutional arrangement was even weirder than I'd understood, and that R. of Ireland's proclamation of a republic had somehow affected the status of the (province? kingdom? country?) of N. Ireland.

  5. Of course, since the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements, the phrase "Island of Ireland" also has a political and economic meaning as well as being the name of a large rock.

    Also, briefly towards the end of the First World War, the then king was king of something called Northern Ireland and also of something called Southern Ireland. He was king of Southern Ireland in the way he was of the Free State up to 1937, but that begs the question "so what was this Northern Ireland thing then?" Because it was self-governing like a Dominion, it had a parliament and a high court and laws of its own, but also explicitly part of the UK and kinged in the normal way. In some ways it was less part of the UK than Scotland (separate administration, own parliament and responsible government), in other ways more (same judicial system).

  6. My understanding is that the Irish Republic and the UK worked out who owned some lighthouses in the 1980s. Unravelling responsibility after separation takes a while…

  7. Are you suggesting that losing Wales and Scotland is no biggy historically speaking then? Or is this just interesting stuff, which it is btw?

  8. Just to note that although it's probably correct to say that "The Republic of Ireland repealed the Act of Union in 1962", the name of the country was "Ireland", per the constitution; "The Republic Of Ireland" is a description, per the Republic Of Ireland Act 1949.

  9. Newmania: no real agenda here, just interesting stuff. I looked it up originally for an argument about something else, but it's tangential.

    Dsquared: true. I did try phrasing it as "the (rest of) Ireland Parliament", but that just sounded insane. I'm happy to use the description from the 1949 Act where necessary for clarity.

  10. Good call. I thought the Dail was misused in English like Eire, but it is actually the constitutional English term for the lower house of the relevant parliament. Will use in future.

  11. Constitutionally, the Prime Minister of (Republic of) Ireland is only referred as the Taoiseach, but I bet few outside Ireland would actually use it, let alone be able to spell it!

  12. I think that for the purposes of repealing the Act of Union, that would have been an Act of the Oireachtas, as both the Dail and the Seanad would have signed off on it.

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