The National Archives
Search our website
  • Search our website
  • Search our records

Uniting the Kingdoms? 1066-1603



The Birth of Great Britain

In March 1603, Elizabeth of England was dying slowly and reluctantly at Richmond Palace. In Scotland, King James VI lingered at Holyrood Palace, unwilling to remove himself further from England. As the great-great-grandson of Henry VII of England, he was Elizabeth's nearest male heir. For years, both had worked - tacitly, surreptitiously - towards his peaceful accession to her throne.

On the night of Saturday 26th March, after James had retired to bed, Sir Robert Carey, Elizabeth's cousin, was brought in to him, bruised, stiff and bloody, after riding non-stop with news of the queen's death in the early hours of Thursday. He returned to James a ring with a blue stone, given by James to Elizabeth, and secretly removed from her dead hand by Carey's sister. Thus were the kingdoms joined under one monarch.

The idea of a new realm of Great Britain, the reincarnation of Roman Britannia, had been current since the dynastic crises of both Tudor and Stuart lines in the 1540s. Now, it was requested of James (by the eminent scholar Robert Cotton) that his 'glorious Empier' should be called 'Greate Brittayne or Britannia Major (a distinction the best authors have preserved from Britannia Minor [Brittany] in France)', and that he himself be known as:

King James VI's signature. Cat ref: SP 14/1

Catalogue reference: SP 14/1 no. 3

In 1604, James did proclaim himself King of Great Britain, France and Ireland. Whether the kingdoms were to be truly united remained to be seen…


Detail from The Death of Wat Tyler. By permission of the British Library.
Detail from The Death of Wat Tyler. By permission of the British Library.