James Nayler (Naylor), 1618-60

Charismatic preacher regarded by some as a potential leader of the Quaker movement until he was cruelly punished by Parliament for committing blasphemy.

Born at Ardsley near Wakefield in the West Riding of Yorkshire, James Nayler was a farmer until the outbreak of the First Civil War when he left his farm in the care of his wife and daughters and enlisted in the Parliamentarian army. He served under the Fairfaxes in Yorkshire and later became a quartermaster in John Lambert's regiment of horse in the New Model Army. Nayler is known to have served at the battle of Dunbar in 1650 where he was noted as a gifted extempore preacher. He left the army in 1651 owing to ill health, returned to Yorkshire and resumed farming. According to his own account, however, a heavenly voice interrupted him whilst ploughing one day and commanded him to leave home and take to the road as an itinerant preacher. Nayler became associated with the Children of the Light, the sect popularly known as the Quakers.

With his gift for preaching and strong personal charisma, Nayler became a leading figure in the establishment of the Quaker movement in northern England during 1652-4. Nayler and George Fox stayed at Swarthmoor Hall in 1652 where they persuaded the magistrate Thomas Fell to extend his protection to persecuted Quakers. Apart from a brief period of imprisonment at Applebly in Westmorland in April 1653, Nayler travelled and preached extensively in the northern counties throughout 1653-4.

In June 1655, Nayler went to London where he joined the mission of Francis Howgill and Edward Burrough. He quickly became the most prominent of the Quaker preachers in London and many outsiders regarded him as the leader of the movement. In 1656, Nayler became the centre of a group led by Martha Simmonds that looked to him for support in a doctrinal dispute with Howgill and Burrough. Nayler apparently collapsed under the strain of the dispute and lay trembling and quaking for several days in a spiritual crisis. Concerned that Martha and her group were exerting a dangerous influence over him, London Quakers took Nayler to a meeting at Bristol in the summer of 1656. In the hope of healing the rift that was developing in the movement, he was then encouraged to visit George Fox in prison at Launceston, but on the journey Nayler himself was arrested as a vagabond and imprisoned at Exeter. When Fox was released late in September 1656, he visited Nayler in Exeter gaol. The meeting resulted in an open breach when Nayler refused to kiss Fox's hand as an act of submission.

Nayler was released from prison in October 1656 and travelled to Bristol in company with seven Friends, including Martha Simmonds. The group travelled in procession through Glastonbury and Wells and entered Bristol on 24 October. Nayler went on horseback while his companions sang hosannas and cast garments before him in what many regarded as a blasphemous imitation of Christ's entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The Bristol Quakers immediately disassociated themselves from Nayler and his followers, who were arrested and charged under the Blasphemy Act of 1650. Although Nayler maintained it was a symbolic act, he was accused of impersonating Christ and claiming divine status. The case came to the attention of the Second Protectorate Parliament. Despite legal doubts regarding Parliament's authority to conduct a trial, Nayler was taken to London to answer to the House of Commons.

Many MPs were suspicious of the religious freedom granted under the Protectorate and regarded Nayler's case as an example of the worst excesses of toleration. In December 1656, a majority declared him guilty of blasphemy and a fierce debate ensued regarding the extent of his punishment, with some MPs demanding that he should be stoned to death in accordance with the Old Testament penalty for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). Despite Cromwell's call for leniency, Nayler was sentenced to be whipped through the streets, exposed in the pillory, have his tongue bored through with a red-hot iron and to have the letter "B" for blasphemer branded on his forehead. He was then returned to Bristol and made to repeat his ride in reverse while facing the rear of his horse. Finally, he was taken back to London and committed to solitary confinement in Bridewell for an indefinite period. His supporters proclaimed Nayler's Christ-like suffering during his ordeal.

From July 1657, certain Friends were allowed to visit Nayler in prison and moves towards reconciliation began to be made, though George Fox was reluctant to reinstate him. Nayler remained in prison until September 1659 when the reconvened Rump Parliament declared an amnesty for Quaker prisoners. Early in 1660, George Fox grudgingly agreed to a reconciliation and Nayler resumed preaching in London. In October 1660, Nayler set out for Yorkshire, but he was violently robbed near Huntingdon. Brought to the home of a nearby Quaker, he died the following day.


Leo Damrosch, James Nayler, Oxford DNB, 2004

Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (London 1972)

Rosemary Anne Moore, The Light in Their Consciences: Early Quakers in Britain (Penn State Press, 2000)


James Nayler's Spiritual Writings Street Corner Society

An account of Nayler's ride into Bristol, his trial and punishment Bristol Radical History Group