Spanish America’s Fighting Nun

Second thoughts… there’s nothing wrong with them, you know. We should all have them more often – think twice before committing to something that could affect our lives for ever. If is a sentiment with which, if she was alive today, Catalina de Erauso would probably wholeheartedly agree.

De Erauso achieved a level of fame which was quite extraordinary given the times in which she lived. Born in 1592 in San Sebastian, Spain, she went into a nunnery at the tender age of four years old, but left it eleven years later without taking her vows, preferring instead to choose a life of adventure over one of prayer.

Before setting out on her journey Catalina disguised herself as a man, changed her name to Francisco de Loyola and then signed up for a voyage to South America.

But a cruise in the company of swarthy men wasn’t nearly as adventurous as she thought so, upon arrival, Catalina then enlisted as a soldier under the name Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán. It was a fine name, and one that matched her fearless attitude.

She served in Chile and Peru, seeing action fighting the Mapuche Indians in what was a long-running conflict, and served under several commanders, including her own brother, who never recognised her.

Catalina de Erauso

Catalina de Erauso

One of her contemporaries describes Catalina as gregarious, tall and strong, with manly looks and a little worn round the edges, though by no means ugly, so that might explain how she was able to deceive people for such long a time.

Catalina’s temperament certainly fitted the rough and ready life of soldiering. She is said to have been involved in several duels, one of which almost cost her life.

Thinking she was on her death bed, she revealed the truth about her sex. It was a rash move because Catalina was made of tougher stuff than even she bargained for. The fighting nun rallied after four months convalescence and then moved away to another area.

But it was only a matter of time before her true identity emerged. Catalina felt obliged to impart that rather sizable nugget of information to a Peruvian bishop, Agustin de Carvaial, who persuaded her to enter a convent and reflect upon what she’d been up to.

Soon, though, the story of the fighting nun spread over the seas to Spain. Catalina was summoned back to her homeland. She returned in 1624, but not before having to change ships due to her getting into another fight.

News of her exploits spread far and wide and she became known as La Monja Alférez (The Lieutenant Nun). With the popularity of the people behind her she even petitioned the king for a pension for her years in service as a soldier. She got it, too.

So famous did Catalina become that Pope Urban VIII gave her a special dispensation to allow her wear men’s clothes. Tiring of Spain, however, she changed her name and left again in 1645. She moved to what would later become Mexico, where she worked as a mule driver until her death five years later.

In her memoirs, which were rewritten many times down the years, she recounted her acts of bravery, brawling and, well, frisky behaviour with other women – although she did emphasise that she remained a virgin.

Wouldn’t want to offend the Mother Superior now would she..?

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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13 Responses to Spanish America’s Fighting Nun

  1. What an AMAZING tale about a woman who bears MY name (nee Maria Catalina Vergara) This is just too cool, I think I just found a new HERO! THANK YOU!!!


  2. I thought you might like that post 🙂


  3. Vivian LeMay says:

    … Great blog David Lawlor. 🙂


  4. I’m not sure how this came to my Inbox, but I loved reading about this woman! Maybe it’s because I write about “bad” nuns, too . . . but English ones! Nicely done!


  5. I think she taught at my convent school, David!


  6. Her story reminded me of Pope Joan. The feminine logistics of such an experience leave me wondering.


  7. Yes. I did read about some devices that were used for toilet purposes but decided to leave that to the imagination!


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