Martha Simmonds (Simmons), 1624-65
An early convert to Quakerism and a central figure in the controversy surrounding James Nayler.
Martha was the daughter of George Calvert (d.1628), the vicar of Meare in Somerset, and his second wife Ann Collier. Her elder brother was Giles Calvert, a prominent publisher of radical books and pamphlets. Martha came to live in London, probably at her brother's shop, some time during the mid- or late 1640s.
Martha was an early convert to Quakerism, which was brought to London by Francis Howgill and Edward Burrough from northern England around 1654. Martha wrote several religious pamphlets describing her spiritual seeking, three of which were published by Giles Calvert during 1655-6. In 1655, Martha married Thomas Simmonds who took over from Giles Calvert as the leading publisher of Quaker literature in London. Meanwhile, Martha travelled to Essex and Hertfordshire with the Quaker missionary James Parnell.
In December 1655, she was briefly imprisoned in Colchester for disrupting church services and walking barefoot through the town in sackcloth and ashes calling for repentance.
During the summer of 1656, Martha became a central figure in a group that challenged the leadership of the London Quakers. Although the exact nature of the original dispute is obscure, it is possible that Martha and her friends expressed the commonly-held apocalyptic belief that the return of Christ was imminent. On being rebuked by Howgill and Burrough, Martha turned for support to the charismatic James Nayler. Nayler stayed at Martha's house for several days where he apparently underwent a spiritual crisis which prompted George Fox to accuse Martha of using witchcraft to ensnare him. The London Quakers tried to separate Nayler from Martha by taking him to Bristol but he was subsequently arrested for vagrancy and imprisoned at Exeter. Meanwhile, Martha obtained employment as a nurse to Jane Disbrowe, the wife of Major-General Disbrowe and sister of Oliver Cromwell. As a reward for her services, Martha obtained an order for Nayler's release, which she delivered to Exeter in company with a group of Nayler's supporters.
The group then travelled to Bristol where they enacted a symbolic "sign" that was regarded by many as a blasphemous imitation of Christ's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, with Nayler riding on horseback while his companions sang hosannas and strewed garments before him. Nayler was arrested and brought to trial before Parliament under the Blasphemy Act of 1650. He was found guilty and sentenced to be flogged, pilloried, branded and imprisoned. When Nayler stood on the pillory to have his tongue bored through on 27 December 1656, Martha sat with Hannah Stranger and Dorcas Erbury at the foot of the pillory in a scene reminiscent of the three Marys at the foot of the cross.
With Nayler imprisoned, Martha and her associates continued to disrupt Quaker meetings during the first part of 1657 but their activity gradually faded and the group had probably dispersed by the end of the year. Martha died at Bermondsey in September 1665.
Maureen Bell, Martha Simmonds, Oxford DNB, 2004
Rosemary Anne Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain (Penn State Press, 2000)
An account of Nayler's ride into Bristol, his trial and punishment Bristol Radical History Group