Electronic Enlightenment colloquium on the sociology of the letter

Printing prophets: James Nayler1 and Sabbatai Sevi in English and Italian correspondence and newspapers — Brandon Marriott, University of Oxford


One rainy Friday afternoon in October 1656, the Quaker leader James Nayler rode his horse into Bristol surrounded by followers singing songs of praise. This act, which replicated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, led to their arrest and interrogation before the magistrates of the city. Nayler and his adherents were then taken to London where, after much debate, the English Parliament charged Nayler with blasphemy. His punishment was severe. He was whipped through the streets of London and Bristol, had the letter ‘B’ branded on his forehead for blasphemy, a hole bored through his tongue, and imprisoned.

A decade later and a continent away, Sabbatai Sevi emerged as a Jewish messianic claimant in the Ottoman Empire. With the help of his prophet, Nathan of Gaza, Sevi gained a mass following, which became known as the Sabbatian movement. By 1666, Jews from Yemen to the West Indies accepted him as their messiah. As the movement grew, it attracted the attention of the Ottoman authorities who had Sevi arrested. Standing in front of the heads of the Ottoman Empire, Sevi was presented with an ultimatum: convert to Islam or die. Sevi chose the former and most of his followers abandoned their beliefs in the new Muslim servant of the Sultan.

Nayler and Sevi never met. They did not even travel to any of the same places. The actions of both, however, garnered attention across the early-modern Judeo-Christian world. Reports of Nayler’s actions were spread eastward from England to Italy, while stories about Sevi were moved in the opposite direction –travelling westward from the Ottoman Empire through Italy to England and beyond. These two men may have been religious figures, but their stories surfaced in the handwritten correspondence of merchants and diplomats as well as printed news sources in a variety of seventeenth-century states.

This paper explores English and Italian press reports about Nayler and Sevi, comparing both their content and the process in which they acquired their information. In doing so, it seeks to identify possible relationships between publications and correspondence spanning religious, national, and professional divides. Thinking together different types of sources in this manner demonstrates both entangled relationships and disconnections between correspondence and publications, thereby providing insight into cross-religious understandings, the transnational transmission of information and misinformation, and the interaction between religious, mercantile, and political spheres in the seventeenth century.

James Nayler

Within a week of the Bristol episode, news of Nayler’s actions appeared in the English press. Stories in the Mercurius Politicus and the Publick Intelligencer used almost the same language, suggesting either one was copying the other or both were using the same source. The numerous reports offered negative descriptions. They spoke of Nayler’s ‘great misdemeanors’.2 He was ‘a grand Impostor, and a great Seducer of the people’.3 He was ‘guilty of horrid Blasphemy.4 The gazettes even printed selections of the letters found on Nayler from his followers that gave him ‘the same Titles which are applicable to non but Christ himself’.5 By publishing excerpts of the letters used by the Parliament to condemn Nayler for blasphemy, the gazettes were printing correspondence to provide their readers with tangible evidence of the crimes that Nayler committed.

One of the last references to Nayler in an English gazette was an advertisement for ‘The Grand Impostor examined’,6 which was one of two pamphlets published in December about Nayler’s actions at Bristol. These pamphlets, The grand impostor examined by John Deacon and Sathan inthron’d by Ralph Farmer, attacked Nayler and the Quakers. They too described Nayler as an ‘Impostor’ who had ‘come this way to play their pranks with us’.7 While Deacon called him ‘a deluded and deluding Quaker and Impostor’, Farmer went further: the Quakers were ‘Satans Factors’.8 Both pamphlets also included the letters from Nayler’s followers that addressed him as Jesus. Although the gazettes contained only excerpts, Farmer included full versions of the letters with his own comments as well as trial transcripts. Deacon, not wanting to duplicate correspondence that had been already published without need, just included two or three of the most important letters.

Around the time these sources were circulating, three Italian diplomats were stationed in London. These men were intrigued with the story of Nayler and discussed him in their regular diplomatic reports they sent home. Each man, however, dedicated a different amount of space in their dispatches to the events. The Venetian ambassador, Francesco Giavarina, only referenced Nayler indirectly when he described a letter from Oliver Cromwell to the Parliament that expressed outrage for pronouncing the sentence against Nayler without seeking his advice.9

The Genoese diplomat Francesco Bernardi, on the other hand, wrote about Nayler in three of his reports. Bernardi saw Nayler as a political rebel whose actions were part of a ‘conspiracy’ against the present government.10 This ‘so-called Christ’ aimed for nothing less than the total destruction of Christianity and every good government.11 And Bernardi drew parallels between Nayler and a 1647 Neapolitan revolutionary named ‘Massaniello’ to describe the English response to the Quaker leader.12

Bernardi acquired the news about Nayler’s actions and arrest from the political arena he was a part of and ignored available English news publications. Bernardi stated that Nayler was guilty of ‘horrible blasphemy’ as a ‘grand impostor, and a seducer of the people’ like the gazettes, but this came from Cromwell’s interview with Nayler, which Bernardi quoted from extensively. He also claimed that Cromwell said to Nayler, ‘You are a seducer of the people’.13 Bernardi does not appear to have drawn his information from the English gazettes or pamphlets because two of his letters state (inaccurately and contrary to those sources) that Nayler was to have his ears cut off as part of his punishment.14

The Tuscan ambassador, Amerigo Salvetti, wrote the most about Nayler. Salvetti mentioned Nayler in at least six reports, mostly written in January. In almost every case, he offered a description of Nayler as the man who acted as Christ, suggesting that he believed the Tuscan government would not be concerned enough to remember Nayler otherwise. Unlike in most other sources, Nayler was not called ‘a grand impostor’ in Salvetti’s correspondence.15 Indeed, Salvetti’s writings were characterized by an entirely different tone and language. Salvetti described Nayler’s ‘melancholy mood’, ‘melancholy humours’, and his ‘madness’ in Bristol.16 Unlike his Genoese colleague, the Tuscan diplomat neither focused on the political events nor inaccurately described Nayler’s punishment, which suggests means they probably used different sources.

All these letters were sent to the Italian peninsula where avvisi (early handwritten or printed newspapers similar in form and content to gazettes) editors were renowned for acquiring such diplomatic correspondence and printing the information found therein. The Venetian diplomat did not write anything about Nayler and no extant Venetian avvisi mention Nayler either. But stories about Nayler are found in avvisi from three other Italian cities. On January 6th 1657, an avviso printed in Genoa, and reprinted in Tuscany, stated that four women and one man whom they called the messiah had been imprisoned in England after speaking against the government.17 In this case, reports of Nayler’s actions in their barest form were interpreted in a political manner and published in Genoa and Florence within three months of his entry into Bristol. The lack of names in the avviso means that it was most likely unrelated to any of the Italian diplomatic dispatches from England, which all provided Nayler’s name.

A more detailed report appeared in a Milan avviso on February 7th 1657: James Nayler, the head of the Quakers, had been punished by the Parliament in London for divulging himself as the messiah. After describing his punishment for being a seducer of the people, it asserted that his actions were harmful and contrary to both Cromwell’s designs and the true Roman Catholic faith.18 The accurate account of Nayler’s punishment in the avviso suggests that its information did not come from Bernardi, but the usage of the common phrase ‘seducer of the people’ suggests it was not from Salvetti either. Instead, it bears the most resemblance to the English gazettes, except for the additional reference to the Catholic Church, which would have made the story more relevant for its Italian readership. Thus, Italian diplomats wrote about Nayler to their home governments and Italian avvisi editors printed accounts about Nayler; however, there does not appear to be an intersection between these channels even though diplomatic correspondence often formed the foundation for the stories found in avvisi.

Sabbatai Sevi

A decade later, the Jewish messiah Sabbatai Sevi arrived in Istanbul, the city home to many of the European diplomats stationed in the Ottoman Empire, including the Venetian Bailo Giovanni Ballarino. Sevi’s subsequent arrest and imprisonment captured Ballarino’s attention and, on March 18th 1666, he ended his regular diplomatic report with news of Sevi’s latest activities. According to Ballarino, Sevi deserved the death sentence like the leader of a seditious rebellion, but his intelligent and sensible deportment had won the heart of the Vizier. As such, he was only imprisoned where he was allowed to live in comfort and speak freely with his Jewish visitors. While the Jews had already given the Vizier 100,000 Reales for these privileges and the Vizier offered to release Sevi for another 100,000, Sevi forbade them to because he said he could leave anytime he wanted.19

Although this diplomatic dispatch was sent to Venice, the information found in it was not printed in any Venetian avvisi despite the avvisi editors’ interest in Sevi and their past usage of Ballarino’s reports. The extant Venetian avvisi that discuss the Jewish messiah quote merchants in Ragusa instead. They tell of Sevi’s journey from Alexandria to Istanbul and provide an account of a Jew who claimed Sevi was a seducer of the people of Israel and a cunning man.20 Sevi then, like Nayler, was understood as a political rebel in Italian diplomatic correspondence and avvisi even though there was no connection between them. Moreover, both messianic figures were portrayed similarly as ‘seducers of the people’ even though the former was an English Quaker and the latter was an Ottoman Jew.

Ballarino’s report may not have been printed in his home state, but on June 17th parts of Sevi’s story that featured prominently in Ballarino’s dispatch were published in a Turin avviso. Most importantly, the avviso repeated that the Jews had spent many thousand Reali to procure Sevi’s freedom and that with another hundred thousand they could have obtained his total liberation. Sevi, however, refused to be released through bribery because he stated he could leave whenever he wanted.21 These details are apparently only found in Ballarino’s report. Yet the actual language used in both is very different and the avviso editor claimed his account came from a source on April 2nd (almost a month after Ballarino’s account), which suggests that the story in the avviso and the diplomatic correspondence were only indirectly connected.

Reports about Sevi were also published in gazettes in England. Although the process in which the English editors acquired their information involved more intermediaries over a larger distance through multiple states, one can better track the role of mercantile and diplomatic correspondence in shaping their stories. Transmission among the English began with two sets of merchants in the English colony in Smyrna who sent regular newsletters about the latest events of mercantile significance to their business partners. With the outbreak of the Sabbatian movement, one group discussed Sevi with the local Jewry and then wrote to their business associate, the merchant Thomas Dethick in Livorno, about the Jews’ new messiah. ‘[W]ee have had many discourses with the Jewes about this man [Sevi] from the Beginninge’, they claimed in the autumn of 1666 and later told Dethick ‘of the end of the Jews frenzie in seeking a Messiah’.22 They relayed multiple accounts of Sevi’s actions, including his conversion to Islam, in which they noted that the Jewish nation was saved from punishment for ‘their recent rebellious behaviour’ because Sevi requested it on his conversion to Islam.23 A second set of English merchants in Smyrna similarly informed Dethick about Sevi, but they provided him with a slightly conflicting version of the events. They wrote that the Jews escaped punishment for their actions because their leaders (not Sevi) prostrated themselves before the Ottoman Sultan.24

In Tuscany, Dethick was in communication with other members of the English colony, including the English consul John Finch in Florence and his deputy consul Charles Chillingworth in Livorno. Like Dethick, Chillingworth and Finch received reports about Sevi from the Ottoman Empire. Finch stated that he acquired ‘a relation of the Jews Messiah’ from ‘Mr Deach and Mr Skinner in Leghorn’ who had ‘a very exact one’.25 Chillingworth similarly claimed that ‘fresh letters this weeke from Constantinople’ that told of the arrival of ‘the Jewish Prophet there’.26 These Englishmen shared their accounts among themselves and passed the news about Sevi on to the Secretary of State’s Office in London. Dethick’s letters to the Undersecretary of State Williamson described how the Jews’ ‘Cacam still continues at the Castle’ and informed him that multitudes flock to see Sevi who recently changed a solemn fast that was held to commemorate the destruction of the temple into a ‘[J]oviall feast’ to celebrate his birthday.27 Finch likewise wrote to the Secretary of State, ‘And since I have mentioned the Levant I cannot but acquaint your Lordship with the Table talke of the Jew’s messiah’.28 No fewer than eight thousand people in one day visit Sevi, Sevi is treated like a king, given a daily allowance, and allowed to go abroad whenever he pleases. While Dethick only stated that Sevi had multitudes of daily visitors, Finch’s description of eight thousand possibly reflects the gradual exaggeration of the story as it was transmitted, a process easy enough to imagine in the context of English ‘table talke’.

Misinformation was just as pervasive as accurate reports. The first set of Smyrnan merchants wrote Dethick that the Ottoman authorities ‘having proved him [Sevi] an Imposture shall for his punish[ment] ride through the citty mounted on a buffalo with burning candles stuck into his...’29 Two months later, Chillingworth heard a similar story from Istanbul, and both he and Finch wrote the Secretary of State that Sevi was ‘tormented by flaming torches upon a Buffalo’.30 Alongside letters from Englishmen in the Levant, the members of the English colony in Tuscany acquired news about Sevi from the Tuscan Jewry and foreign sailors in Livorno: Finch wrote of letters received by the Jews by way of Ancona, and Dethick remarked that a French ship arrived from Alexandria, but the sailors gave ‘not any novelty’.31

The path of transmission did end in the Secretary of State’s office because Joseph Williamson was not only the Undersecretary of State, he was also the editor of the English Gazette. As such, the information he received from Tuscany was printed in London’s preeminent gazette. For example, one issue proclaimed,

Legorne, Sept. 28. Letters from Smyrna tell us . . . . The Jewes still continue their zeal to the pretended Messias, who, though a Prisoner, and at a distance, has so besotted them, as to turn their solemn Fast for the Destruction of the Temple into a Jubile, for the solemality of his birth day’.32

While this story was clearly drawn from Dethick’s letter, the following edition of the Gazette quoted Finch’s report,

Fresh news is every day brought us of the great zeal of the Jews in the Levant, to the pretended Messiah who flock in such numbers to him, that in one day no less then 8000 strangers were in the Castle, where he is prisoner, to see him; that when he goes abroad (which is as oft as he pleases) he is always attended as a King, to the admiration of all sober men.’33

The movement of these accounts from the Ottoman Empire through Tuscany to England where they were disseminated more broadly demonstrates the entanglement of English mercantile and diplomatic correspondence as well as their connection to the printing of gazettes in the seventeenth century.

A brief examination of English and Italian documents about James Nayler and Sabbatai Sevi provides insight into the multi-dimensional intersections and disconnections between correspondence and publications.34 While historians of newspapers have stated that merchant letters and diplomatic correspondence formed the basis of early news sources, these two case studies demonstrate how this process worked in different fashions in different places, and how sometimes, it did not. The case of Nayler, in particular, highlights disconnections: despite being printed in multiple English gazettes and pamphlets as well as Italian diplomatic correspondence and avvisi, there were no connections in the flow of information between any of these sources. With Sevi, there may not have been any ties between Ballarino’s diplomatic dispatch and avvisi in his own state, but his account was printed in an avviso in another Italian state through what appears to be a process of second-hand transmission. The spread of both information and misinformation about Sevi among the English, on the other hand, shows definite links between mercantile letters, diplomatic correspondence, and gazettes across multiple states.

The existing literature on Nayler and Sevi has neither dealt with many of these sources nor the links between them. The movement of the letters and the role they played in informing press reports, however, demonstrates a more complicated and connected world in which information moved and changed. In the process, these documents expose the importance of relationships between merchants, diplomats, and newspapermen — all of whom thought that these two religious figures were worthy of attention.

— Brandon Marriott, University of Oxford


1 John Locke discusses Naylor in a (now damaged) letter to his father, John Locke, senior, Saturday, 25 November 1656

2 Publick Intelligencer, 27 October 1656; Issue 55.

3 Mercurius Politicus, 4 December 1656; Issue 339.

4 Mercurius Politicus, 4 December 1656; Issue 339.

5 Mercurius Politicus, 11 December 1656; Issue 340.

6 Mercurius Politicus, 29 January 1657; Issue 347.

7 Farmer, Sathan inthron'd (1656), 3.

8 Deacon, The grand impostor examined (1656), 40.

9 Francesco Giavarina to the Venetian Doge and Senate, 12 January 1657 as translated and quoted in the Venetian State Papers.

10 Francesco Bernardi, 17 December 1656, as quoted in Villani, ‘Un Masaniello Quacchero,’ 77–78.

11 Francesco Bernardi, 17 December 1656, as quoted in Villani, ‘Un Masaniello Quacchero,’ 77–78.

12 Francesco Bernardi, 26 December 1656, as quoted in Villani, ‘Un Masaniello Quacchero,’ 82.

13 Francesco Bernardi, 17 December 1656, as quoted in Villani, ‘Un Masaniello Quacchero,’ 77–78.

14 Francesco Bernardi, 17 December 1656, as quoted in Villani, ‘Un Masaniello Quacchero,’ 77–78.

15 Amerigo Salvetti, 26 January 1656, as quoted in Villani, La Corrispondenza dei Residenti Toscani a Londra (Manuscript).

16 Amerigo Salvetti, 19 January 1656 and 12 January 1656, as quoted in Villani, La Corrispondenza dei Residenti Toscani a Londra (Manuscript).

17 Vatican Secret Archives, Segretari di Stato, Avvisi, 27, 10: Genoa, 6 January 1657.

18 Central National Library of Florence, Codd Magliabechiani, XXV, 738, 74b: Milan, 7 February 1657.

19 Venetian State Archives, Senato Dispacci Ambasciatori Constantinopoli, F. 150, 19b-21: Giovanni Ballarino, 18 March 1666.

20 Vatican Secret Archives, Segretari di Stato, Avvisi, 148: Venice, 10 April 1666 and Venice, 15 May 1666.

21 Vatican Secret Archives, Segretari di Stato, Avvisi, 148: Turin, 17 June 1666.

22 National Archives at the Kew, SP 97/18/211: A. Barnardiston, J. Adderley, and N. Thurston to T. Dethick, 9 October 1666.

23 National Archives at the Kew, SP 97/18/211: A. Barnardiston, J. Adderley, and N. Thurston to T. Dethick, 9 October 1666.

24 National Archives at the Kew, SP 97/18/214: S. Pentlow, J. Foley, and T. Laxton to T. Dethick, 9 October 1666.

25 National Archives at the Kew, SP 98/6: John Finch to Lord Arlington, 22 February 1666.

26 National Archives at the Kew, SP 98/6: Charles Chillingworth to Lord Arlington, 12 April 1666.

27 National Archives at the Kew, SP 98/7: Thomas Dethick to Joseph Williamson, 27 September 1666.

28 National Archives at the Kew, SP 98/7: John Finch to Lord Arlington, 18 September 1666.

29 National Archives at the Kew, SP 98/18/156: Newsletter from A. Barnardiston, J. Adderley, and N. Thurston to T. Dethick, 17 February 1666.

30 National Archives at the Kew, SP 98/6: John Finch to Lord Arlington, 9 April 1666. Chillingworth reported it in the aforementioned letter to Lord Arlington on April 12th.

31 National Archives at the Kew, SP 98/7: John Finch to Lord Arlington, 9 April 1666 and Thomas Dethick to Joseph Williamson, 27 September 1666.

32 London Gazette, 11 October 1666.

33 London Gazette, 15 October 1666.

34 For more on the possible connections between Nayler and Sevi, see Michael Heyd’s ‘The “Jewish Quaker”: Christian Perceptions of Sabbatai Zevi as an Enthusiast,’ Hebraica Veritas?: Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 234-265 as well as my forthcoming thesis.

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