John Nalson’s book An Impartial Collection of the Great Affairs of State was published in London, in two volumes, between 1682 and 1683. Nalson (1637-86), a Cambridgeshire rector, was a fervent believer in the twin pillars of the monarchy and the Anglican Church, something consistently reflected in his writing. An Impartial Collection’s focus is upon recent English history, holding up the internecine conflict of the 1640s as an example not to be followed in the 1680s, a period of further religious and political tension and upheaval. Seeking to justify the actions of Charles I (which ultimately led to regicide), An Impartial Collection is anything but neutral, and its polemic is neatly summarised in the engraved frontispiece and explanatory poem which preface the first volume.
The weeping figure of Britannia dominates the image; her miserable state comes from threats both native and foreign, at points inextricably bound. Behind her stands the façade of Old St Paul’s Cathedral in London, its north end crumbling, and buildings in flames behind it. Popular beliefs that the Great Fire of 1666 had been started by foreign agents, most likely Catholic arsonists, still retained a measure of authenticity. In 1681 a prominent plaque had been set up on the site of the Fire’s origins in Pudding Lane, its inscription blaming “the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists…”
Internal religious dissent is also a factor in Britannia’s distress; in the background a scene of battle recalls the recent Civil Wars in England, Scotland and Ireland, and in the foreground the consequences of this conflict are strewn at Britannia’s feet. The upturned royal arms, the scattered crown and diadem, the broken sceptre and an ominous axe all highlight the overthrow of the Stuart monarchy, while the casting down of the bishop’s mitre and crozier, and the discarded copy of the Magna Carta reference religious and secular, as well as royal casualties.
Developing the theme of religious upheaval prompted by internal and external factors, a Janus-faced clergyman is about to apprehend the vulnerable Britannia. According to the accompanying verses, this monstrous figure is “Rome and Geneva in epitome/They squint two ways, in the main point agree…” Catholic ‘Rome’ leads, with a rosary in one hand, and a decorative swarm of locusts, a recognised English motif for Popish agents, lining his cloak. ‘Geneva’ represents the birthplace of Presbyterianism, a form of Protestant church government without bishops, at odds with the Anglican Church’s structure and hierarchy. The ‘Solemn League & Covenant’ pinned to Geneva’s back references the agreement for Presbyterian uniformity of worship across England and Scotland, which was sought by the Scottish Covenanters during the early 1640s, in exchange for military support.
The devil at Geneva’s shoulder is described in the adjacent verses as “That Brummingham Uniter of Mankind”; during the early modern period, Birmingham and the surrounding Midlands area were often associated with religious nonconformity and dissent. Both Presbyterians and nonconformists have rejected the structure and hierarchy of the Anglican Church, and now, in league with Rome, threaten Britannia in monstrous form.
Only scant consolation can be found in the eye of God, which beams down upon the scene in an acceptable representation for Protestant audiences; this providential eye was first popularised in visual form in England during the 1620s, representing God overseeing and approving a national Protestant defence against Catholic usurpation. By the 1680s, the distinctions between “us” and “them”, in both religious and political terms, had become far more complex.
Dr. Helen Pierce