Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom

The English and Irish parliaments passed the Act of Union, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The act dissolved Ireland’s parliament and unified the Church of England and the Church of Ireland. The act would lead to a history of movements for Irish nationhood and for Catholic emancipation.

Summary of Event

While Great Britain was battling revolutionary France, there was fierce unrest and rebellion in Ireland, leading the prime minister of Great Britain, William Pitt the Younger, to propose the Act of Union. [kw]Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom (July 2-Aug. 1, 1800)
[kw]Kingdom, Act of Union Forms the United (July 2-Aug. 1, 1800)
[kw]United Kingdom, Act of Union Forms the (July 2-Aug. 1, 1800)
[kw]Union Forms the United Kingdom, Act of (July 2-Aug. 1, 1800)
United Kingdom, formation of
Union, Act of (1800)
[g]England;July 2-Aug. 1, 1800: Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom[3430]
[g]Scotland;July 2-Aug. 1, 1800: Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom[3430]
[g]Wales;July 2-Aug. 1, 1800: Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom[3430]
[g]Ireland;July 2-Aug. 1, 1800: Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom[3430]
[c]Government and politics;July 2-Aug. 1, 1800: Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom[3430]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 2-Aug. 1, 1800: Act of Union Forms the United Kingdom[3430]
Cornwallis, first marquess
George III
Grattan, Henry
Pitt, William, the Younger
Tone, Wolfe

Although nominally an independent kingdom ruled by the British king, Ireland in the eighteenth century was actually little more than a British colony with a subservient Parliament and government. All political, governmental, religious, legal, social, and economic power was hoarded by the tenth of the nation belonging to the Anglican Church of Ireland Anglican Church;Ireland as established by law. The Roman Catholic Catholic Church;Ireland majority, comprising three-fourths of the population, were a subject people, disfranchised, excluded from Parliament and every kind of office on religious grounds, deprived of most of the land, obliged to pay tithes to the established Church of Ireland, and oppressed by law. The Presbyterians Presbyterianism;Ireland in Ulster fared only slightly better.

Discontent arose in Ireland during the reign of King George III. Anglican patriots, Patriots;Irish independence led by Henry Grattan and Henry Flood, yearned for an independent parliament, the growing Catholic middle class longed for Catholic emancipation emancipation, and the peasants desired to be freed from exploitation. During the American Revolutionary War, Ireland had been defended only by a militia organized by nationalists, and a number of concessions had been wrung from Great Britain. In 1782, the Irish parliament won legislative independence, though the British government continued to appoint the executive and retained effective control by corrupting its members. The government of Ireland remained the preserve of a knot of selfish and reactionary aristocrats. About thirty thousand Catholics were enfranchised in 1793 on the same basis as Protestants, but they were still excluded from Parliament and public office—even Presbyterians had been admitted in 1780. Despite Grattan’s campaign in Parliament, Catholic emancipation was stubbornly resisted.

Meanwhile, Ireland Irish independence was not immune to the revolutionary ideas that had triumphed in America and in France. Under the leadership of the Anglican Irish intellectual and patriot, Wolfe Tone, Catholics and Presbyterians, prompted by the French Revolution, joined forces in 1791 to form the Society of United Irishmen, Society of United Irishmen which stood for religious equality and a representative Irish parliament. By 1795, however, all hope of reform had vanished. The United Irishmen, their thoughts drawn to revolution, organized the country on a military basis and appealed to France for aid. A French French invasion of Ireland (1796) invasion at the end of 1796 was abortive, and a year later a large invasion fleet was defeated at Camperdown. There followed the disastrous insurrection of 1798. A small French force sent to support the rebels was easily crushed. Tone, who accompanied it, was captured and later committed suicide in Dublin; other leaders of the United Irishmen were imprisoned. Great Britain was committed to a policy of brutal repression, holding down Ireland with an army that eventually numbered 200,000.

At stake were the security of Great Britain against France and Anglican dominance in Ireland. In short, if Great Britain was to win the war with France, a permanent resolution to the Irish upheaval had to be found. William Pitt the Younger had become prime minister of Great Britain in 1783, and he believed, unlike most English, that the only way to solve the problems of Ireland was to extinguish Irish independence in a legislative union of the two kingdoms. The economic Economics;and British-Irish union[British Irish union] idea behind the act recognized the British Isles as a single economic trade entity. The suggestion was so unpopular, however, that the government was prevented from introducing proposed legislation about it to the Irish parliament in 1799. The English parliament passed the Act of Union on July 2, 1800, but only by corruption on an unprecedented scale: the wholesale promotion and creation of peers, the bestowal of sinecures and pensions, threats of dismissal from office, and the bribing of patrons of parliamentary boroughs at a cost of more than £1 million. The bill passed through the Irish parliament without furor on August 1. Catholic support was secured by a virtual promise of emancipation once the act had been passed. Pitt and First Marquess Cornwallis, the commander in chief and viceroy of Ireland, considered the offer of emancipation essential and could be conceded because in the United Kingdom the Irish Catholics would be outnumbered and outvoted many times by the majority in the British parliament. Most Catholic bishops and priests favored the Union.


The Act of Union that created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland went into effect on January 1, 1801. The imperial Parliament in London was augmented in the House of Lords by four bishops of the Anglican Church of Ireland and twenty-eight Irish representative peers elected by the entire Irish peerage, and in the House of Commons by one hundred Irish members, which brought the total number of members to 658. The Church of Ireland was united with its sister Church of England, Anglican Church but Roman Catholics were still excluded from Parliament. The Irish law courts retained their separate identity. Ireland for the first time enjoyed free trade with Great Britain and the British Empire, perhaps the only gain that Ireland really achieved from the Union. Ireland retained its separate exchequer and national debt and was to share imperial expenses for the following twenty years, when the matter would be reconsidered.

Pitt’s promise of Catholic emancipation was not kept, and the Irish felt tricked and betrayed. King George III was convinced that emancipation in any form would violate his coronation oath, and he refused to consider it. Indeed, he referred to anyone who favored emancipation as “his personal enemy.” He was supported by many of Pitt’s fellow ministers and a majority in Parliament. As a result, Pitt, Cornwallis, and Lord Castlereagh, the chief secretary of Ireland, resigned in March, 1801. Pitt returned to office in 1804 and died twenty months later.

The fight for Catholic emancipation continued, and in 1823, after an intense struggle led by Daniel O’Connell, Parliament passed an act in 1829 that gave Catholics a type of political equality. At this point, O’Connell, popularly known as “The Great Liberator,” began the struggle for what was ultimately termed “Home Rule,” Home Rule (Ireland) in an effort both to establish a separate parliament for Ireland and to eliminate the Act of Union. The Catholics in southern Ireland were determined to have the right to Home Rule, but the Protestants in Ulster insisted on maintaining the Act of Union with Great Britain.

Although there were many attempts, it was not until 1914 that the British parliament passed the Home Rule bill. After the start of World War I, however, Home Rule was discontinued. In 1920, Ireland was partitioned, with individual parliaments for both north and south. The Act of Union did not deal with the bitter and intractable problems afflicting Ireland, and they grew more vexing until they were settled by dissolution of the Union in 1921. In 1921, southern Ireland became known as the Irish Free State.

Further Reading

  • Bolton, G. C. The Passing of the Irish Act of Union. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966. A scholarly, challenging, and informative historical account of the Act of Union.
  • Brown, Michael, Patrick M. Geoghegan, and James Kelly. The Irish Act of Union: Bicentennial Essays. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2003. Contains eleven essays about the act, including discussions of the role of Ulster Presbyterians in the act’s passage and the actions of the Irish House of Commons.
  • Ehrman, John. The Younger Pitt: The Years of Acclaim. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969. Sheds light on Pitt’s economic theory, political intrigue with King George III, and Pitt’s struggle for Irish Catholic emancipation.
  • Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland: 1600-1972. London: Penguin Press, 1989. An in-depth account of the Act of Union in chapter 12 provides a perceptive, fact-filled analysis of the act and of Ireland as a whole during this period.
  • Geoghegan, Patrick M. The Irish Act of Union: A Study in High Politics, 1798-1801. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. This study of British-Irish relations between 1783 and 1801 examines the connection between the Act of Union’s adoption in 1800 and Pitt’s resignation as prime minister the following year.
  • Keogh, Dáire, and Kevin Whelan, eds. Acts of Union: The Causes, Contexts, and Consequences of the Act of Union. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2001. Collection of fourteen essays exploring various aspects of the act, including events leading to its passage, Catholic responses, and public opinion. One chapter describes how the act was depicted in political cartoons. Includes color plates of the cartoons.
  • Killen, John. The Decade of the United Irishmen: Contemporary Accounts, 1791-1801. Belfast, Ireland: Blackstaff Press, 1998. A collection of contemporary sources in which Tone and his writings play a particularly important part.
  • Lecky, William Edward Hartpole. A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century. 5 vols. London: Longmans, Green, 1892. Reprint. New York: AMS Press, 1969. Lecky’s five-volume work still retains its position as the premier source of information on the Act of Union.
  • Madden, R. R. The United Irishmen: Their Lives and Times. 7 vols. London: J. Madden, 1842-1846. An early, comprehensive account of the political structure and the principal Irish players surrounding the Act of Union, including Henry Flood, Henry Grattan, and Wolfe Tone.
  • O’Brien, Gerard. Anglo-Irish Politics in the Age of Grattan and Pitt. Blackrock, County Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1987. Sheds light on both sides of the Irish and British schism by addressing the political lives of the Irish orator and independence leader, Henry Grattan, and the British prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, who strove for Irish Catholic emancipation.
  • Pakenham, Thomas. The Year of Liberty: The Great Irish Rebellion of 1798. New York: Random House, 1997. The most complete and readable study of the rebellion, with ample illustrative material.

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Union, Act of (1800)