What did Shakespeare think of James I’s new flag for England and Scotland?
When James VI of Scotland became James I of England immediately after the death of Elizabeth I, one of his dearest wishes was a full political and legal union between England and Scotland. In 1606, he issued a royal decree for a new flag, used for maritime purposes, to represent the union between the two countries under his rule. The St George’s Cross of England, a red cross against a white background, was united with the St Andrew’s Cross of Scotland, a blue saltire against a white background. It was used as a maritime flag on English and Scottish ships. However, it soon became apparent that Scottish sailors were not happy that the English cross surmounted the Scottish saltire, and a version of the flag with the Scottish saltire surmounting the English cross was soon being used on Scottish ships.
The Union Flag was part of James I’s plan to have a formal union of the two realms ratified by Parliament. Unfortunately, unity between England and Scotland was not guaranteed and, despite their recent recognition of a common language and common Protestant faith, the long history of bloodshed and betrayal made such union problematic. Nevertheless, the king proposed a Treaty of Union in 1604. He styled himself the ‘King of Great Britain, France and Ireland’ in a royal proclamation in October of that year. Unfortunately, there was so much opposition to the Union that even foreign dignities could see it was not working. The Venetian ambassador to London wrote in October 1605 that the notion had been dropped:
His Majesty is now well aware that nothing can be effected, both sides displaying such obstinacy that an accommodation is impossible; and so his Majesty is resolved to abandon the question for the present, in hope that time may consume the ill-humours.
King Lear may have been written to flatter the peace-loving king who styled himself Jacubus Pacificus. The unity of the kingdom is an important theme in the play. The opening scene depicts a king recklessly dividing his kingdom and the rest of the play shows the disasters that befall a divided kingdom under a king who has shaken off the rights and responsibilities of government. In King Lear, Shakespeare dramatized James I’s politics and confirmed his views about the importance of unifying the two countries under his rule.
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