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Katherine Naylor: Petition for Divorce Granted

Puritan Woman

When we left Katherine Naylor in my previous blog, she was 33 years old, a widow with two children and substantial property. In 17th century Puritan New England, widows did not remain unmarried very long, especially if there was property involved. In Puritan culture, marriage was an equal partnership, but the husband was the undisputed head of the household. It was his responsibility to maintain an orderly house in good standing with the church and the magistrates. A disorderly house could affect the entire community.

Puritans inspect a tavern

Puritan culture also had an ambiance of watchfulness. Puritans believed that God predestined certain people for salvation and the rest for damnation. Men and women were granted church membership on the basis of their personal testimony of faith and their public behavior. The presumption was that church members were destined for salvation. But only God knew who would actually be saved. Thus, much emphasis was put on outward behavior which led to a culture of watchfulness. From ministers to housemaids, people watched each other to discern if all was well.

Puritan Household

In 1663, Robert Nanny – Katherine’s first husband – died. Katherine continued to live in their house with her two children, Samuel & Mary. In 1666, Katherine married Edward Naylor who moved into the house and managed Katherine’s property and the property held in trust for her children. Katherine bore two more surviving children: Tabitha in 1667 and Lydia in 1668. On the surface, all appeared well. 

In 1671 Katherine Naylor petitioned the court for a divorce on the grounds that Edward Naylor failed in his role as head of household and did not model appropriate behavior. She charged he was cruel and violent; that she feared for her life. He did not care about religion and could not insure their children would be properly educated in the fear of God. He committed “whoredoms.” In addition, Katherine pled that she needed to secure the estate Robert Nanny left to her and their two children before it was used to satisfy Edward’s creditors.

Edward’s Whoredoms aka Promiscuous Sexual Activities

Evidence proved that Edward Naylor frequented Alice Thomas’s “bawdy house,” that he was the father of Mary Read’s illegitimate child, and that he carried on a public relationship with Mary More. Fornication and adultery were public concerns, because such activities undermined the family  and tainted the entire community with sin. There was also the issue of who would support illegitimate children.

Couple in sexually compromising position

Mary Read was a servant in the Naylor household when she became pregnant in 1668; Katherine Naylor was also pregnant at the time. In 1671 Mary Read testified that Edward Naylor fathered her child. Several family members and others gave evidence about Mary Read’s relationship with Edward Naylor. Mary’s family wanted the court to declare Naylor the father of Mary’s child so he would take financial responsibility.

The midwives who attended Mary testified that they interrogated Mary about the father while she was in labor. Puritans believed such an admission was proof of paternity, and the father would be required to provide financial support. Mary admitted Edward Naylor was the father but to please keep the information quiet. Presumably, she already had a financial arrangement with Naylor.

Couple Courting

Naylor also had a somewhat public relationship with Mary More. The couple traveled together and passed themselves off as married. They met for liaisons in shops, taverns, and houses where they were easily seen. Five men and eight women testified about the relationship. Susanna Cross deposed that when Mary brought a man to her house in June 1670 and sat in his lap, she thought they were married, but then later she thought perhaps they weren’t.

Jan Anibal and William Godfrey heard a couple talking and laughing in Widow Thomas’s shop. They crept up the stairs, peeked into the room, and saw Naylor with Mary More.

And then there was Alice Thomas’s brothel near the Naylor house lot. Thomas appeared before the Suffolk County Court and convicted of sponsoring frequent secret entertainments of a lascivious nature and enabling persons to commit ‘carnal wickedness.’ The court sentenced Thomas to a fine, prison and a public humiliation that included being whipped at a cart’s tail.

Suffice to say, the charge of whoredom was proven.

Drunkenness & Violence

A Drunkard

The issue of drunkenness was also the sign of a disorderly house. Servants testified that Naylor left the house short of provisions, and they lent Katherine money to buy bread, butter, and cheese. In addition, Naylor ordered that various items be kept locked away from his wife, saying she was wasteful. This prevented Katherine from doing her wifely duty and providing for her family.

Naylor was an abusive drunk. He whipped his children and kicked them down the stairs. He made his daughter stand in her shift outside in the cold. Elizabeth Haridine said that Naylor once lifted his one-year-old child out of her cradle and threw her on the floor.

Mary Jackson testified that one Sunday Naylor abused Katherine to the point that she was in bed for two days. Naylor tried to prevent his family and servants from praying on a Sabbath night, saying that he would not pray nor allow anyone else to do so.

Thus, Edward Naylor did not provide for his family either physically or spiritually, and his disrespect for Katherine’s effort to fulfill her wifely duties shattered the Puritan marriage ideal.

The Verdict

Puritans Going to Church

The court granted Katherine’s petition for divorce and allowed her to keep her home and inheritance from her first marriage. Naylor was tried in civil court and found guilty of cruelty and fornication. He was banished from Boston and the surrounding area. Naylor later petitioned the court saying the divorce and banishment left him an outlaw unable to pay his creditors. He was allowed to come back to Boston after providing a bond for good behavior. Less than two years later, he forfeited the bond because he “intruded” into Katherine’s company.

By removing Edward Naylor from Katherine’s family unit, the court restored an orderly household whose members were again part of an orderly community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Katherine did not remarry.

🦉 🦉 🦉

Sandra’s Books: Ambition, Arrogance & PrideSaxon HeroinesTwo CoinsRama’s Labyrinth.

Illustrations & A Few Sources

A Fair Puritan by E. Percy Moran c. 1897; Tavern Puritans by William Cullen Bryant & Sydney Howard Gay, 1881; New England 1920; Couple Making Love, 1646; Couple Courting by a Tree by Léon Bonnat, 1871; A Drunken Man Standing by Aleksandr Orlovsky, 1822; Early Puritans Going to Worship by George Henry Boughton, 1872. Melissa Ann Johnson. “The Talk of the Town: Women, Gossip, and Watchfulness in 17th Century Massachusetts.” Dissertation. University of Michigan. 2019. Lauren J. Cook. “Katherine Nanny, Alias Naylor.” Historical Archeology. 32:1.15-19.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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