Celtic Lore and James VI and I’s Attempts at Union

In Westminster Abbey, underneath the coronation chair, there lays a plain stone. The stone, commonly known as the Coronation Stone, or the Stone of Scone, serves primarily as the place where English monarchs are crowned. However, before being used by the English crown, the stone was used by the Scottish kings according to legend. During Edward I’s war with Scotland in 1296, the stone was taken as a spoil of war and placed in Westminster Abbey. In the 1328 Treaty of Northampton, one of the terms was the restitution of the stone to Scotland. Despite the agreement of these terms, the stone remained in Westminster.[1] Thus it was notable when James VI of Scotland was crowned king of England in 1603 on this Scottish relic.

The Union of the Crowns in 1603 would prompt James to further unify England and Scotland. His ambitions for unification could be explained through the Celtic influences of the Stone of Scone’s prophecy and the tale of Lughaid Laighe. The Stone’s lineage can be traced back through various legends; the most common and popular being that Fergus MacErc (Fergus the Great) brought the stone from Ireland to Scotland.[2] Though James VI and I viewed the Celts of the Highlands as uncivilized, the aforesaid Celtic lore can help explain James’ attempts and failures to a unify England and Scotland under parliament.

During the sixteenth century, England and Scotland both had their own rulers and coexisted, it was a tenuous coexistence. The Tudor line was left without a successor after Queen Elizabeth died without an heir. This led to secret correspondence, before her death, between her and James VI of Scotland to secure his accession to the English throne. By James VI’s coronation at Westminster in 1603, on the Stone of Scone, he secured his claim and fulfilled the stone’s prophecy. According to Hector Boece, a sixteenth-century Scottish chronicler:

Unless the fixed decrees of fate give way

The Scots shall govern and the scepter away

Where’er this stone they find, and is dread sound obey.[3]

In other words, wherever the stone is, the Scots shall rule. James’ accession convinced him and others of the Celtic prophecy, that he was the rightful king of Scotland and of England.

James VI and I saw the union of the kingdoms not just as political happenstance, but something personal, stating that “anyone impugneth them [the kingdoms] doth but endeavor to separate that which God hath put together…in sacred conjunction of wedlock.” The rhetoric of wedlock is an allusion to the Celtic tradition of marriage between a king and the land he rules. James described himself as a “monarch sprung from Ferguse race”, alluding to his Celtic forebears, supposedly descendant of Fergus MacErc, in order to credit his use of the king’s marriage practice metaphor in his rhetoric in parliament. In Irish and Scottish literature, the country was spoken of as a woman and apotheosized as a goddess, representing sovereignty, which a king must marry: the metaphor James refers to when he is crowned king of England and his advocacy to join England and Scotland.[4]

The Irish tale of Lughaid Laighe details the allusion of marriage in James’ speech in parliament. The tale talks of a king with six sons all named Lughaid, due to another prophecy that a son named so would be king. However, as the brothers were on a hunting trip they were forced to seek shelter. An ugly woman then entered and demanded that one of them sleep with her or all would be killed. Lughaid Laighe agreed to save his brothers, but as night fell the woman became incredibly beautiful and then eventually pregnant, supposedly making Lughaid Laighe king. Thus any king would have to marry the woman to continue his sovereignty over the land.[5] There were similar stories in Scotland, in concurrence with Ireland, especially one story where the goddess lived inside a stone—supposedly, the Stone of Scone and the Lia Fail, for Scotland and Ireland respectively. The goddess within the stone would then remain with her husband, the faithful king. Another example of this Celtic influence is found in correspondence with Cecil, chief minister to Elizabeth, when James was promised during the feast of the coronation that the “marriage” aspect would not be forgotten.[6] Though whether the ceremony was preformed as previous kings did is unknown, James, however believed in it. The influence of Celtic traditions on James created the belief that the two kingdoms were now united by “marriage” and would advocated for a legalized union in Parliament.

James VI and I’s campaign for Anglo-Scottish union can now be appreciated through an understanding of the Celtic lore. James saw himself as a father of twins, Scotland and England, to be loved, supposedly, equally.[7] James first political attempt came in 1604, but the House of Commons rejected James’ proposal of a political union and disillusioned the king.[8] Although his accession to the throne was peaceful, tensions between the Scots and the English grew since James was bringing Scottish advisers to England. Before arriving in England, Cecil and Northampton, former advisers to Queen Elizabeth, opposed retaining any Scottish advisers in England.[9] Even after the union, both England an Scotland continued their mutual dislike towards each other. This became evident when many Englishmen expressed concern over the Scots in James’ Privy and Outer Chambers, and the Privy Council when James forced his Scottish advisers into such positions. By James’ actions, Cecil and other Englishmen who organized the union were now being accused of selling out the rest of England.[10]

In 1607, James called another session to discuss funds and legislation for union. The outcome was unfavorable due to concerns of the Scots monopoly in the Bedchamber. The result was James’ dissolution of Parliament in 1610, and again in 1614 when grievances rose against the Scots in James’ Bedchamber again.[11] However, James continued to allow Scots in the Bed Chamber because it was breathing space in a growing conservative England, that is a slight xenophobia, and distrust. Parliament remained oblivious to the Celtic lore James kept referring to, hence failed to see James’ motives for this union. Additionally, England’s dislike of the Scots and James strong will that political coherence was disrupted leading to a failure in unifying the kingdoms. The culmination of James’ ambitions founded in Celtic lore and England’s lack of response that James was left with a limited cohesive relation in Parliament and failure to secure a union.

-Ian Colliard


[1] G.W.S Barrow, “Observations on the Coronation Stone of Scotland of Scotland.” The Scottish Historical Review 76, no. 201 (1997): 118.

[2] P.W. Joyce, “The Lia Fail and the Westminster Coronation Stone.” The Irish Monthly 12, no. 133 (1884): 326.

[3] Michael J. Enright, “King James and His Island: An Archaic Kingship Belief?” The Scottish Historical Review 55, no. 159 (1976): 33.

[4] Enright, “King James and His Island: An Archaic Kingship Belief?” 29-32.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Ibid., 34.

[7] Ibid., 40.

[8] Neil Cuddy, “Anglo-Scottish Union and the Court of James I, 1603-1625: The Alexander Prize Essay Proxime Accessit.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 39 (1989): 107.

[9] Cuddy, “Anglo-Scottish Union and the Court of James I, 1603-1625,” 109.

[10] Ibid., 111.

[11] Ibid., 114-116.

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