Erauso, Catalina de (1592–1635)

views updated

Erauso, Catalina de (1592–1635)

Spanish woman who fled a convent and, disguised as a man, rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Spanish colonial army in South America, then returned to Spain where her exploits were immortalized. Name variations: Erauzo; Erauzú; Francisco de Erauso; Francisco de Loyola; Alfonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán; called La Monja Alférez ("the Nun Ensign"). Pronunciation: Eh-RAU-so. Born Catalina de Erauso on February 10, 1592 (some sources cite 1585), in San Sebastián, in northern Spain; disappeared and assumed dead in Mexico at Veracruz, 1635 (some sources cite her survival in Mexico until 1650); daughter of Miguel de Erauso and María Pérez de Galarraga y Arce; attended the Dominican Convent of San Sebastián el Antiguo, to age 15; never married; no children.

Escaped the convent, dressed as a man, and worked as an accountant and page (1607); fled to America as a "cabin boy" and became soldier of fortune in Perú, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina (beginning 1608); revealed in confession that she was a woman (c. 1623); returned to Spain, where she was received by the king and awarded lifelong military pension, then visited the Pope (1625); collaborated with Juan Pérez de Montalván in penning drama based on her adventures (c. 1626–27); returned to Mexico (1630).

Disguised as a man, Catalina de Erauso, the legendary "nun-ensign," knifed rivals, killed soldiers, and swashbuckled her way towards acceptance and even popularity in the intolerant Spanish society of the 1600s. What we know of the adventurous life of this runaway novice comes to us filtered through the prejudices of her century. Even so, Erauso emerges as one of the most rebellious Spanish women of all time. In the story of her life, it is difficult to separate fact from myth, truth from fiction; even the volume that appeared as her autobiography, 200 years after it was alleged to have been written, may be apocryphal, and her death is shrouded in mystery. Many of the adventures attributed to her may well be a composite of the lives of several historic personages. But there was a real Catalina de Erauso, and the heart of her story is true.

The fate of Catalina de Erauso was decided, to some extent, long before her birth. Her father was a soldier, serving in Flanders, when he was gravely wounded in battle and made a vow to the Virgin of Atocha. He promised to marry, should he survive his wounds, and all his sons would serve in the army, while all his daughters would become nuns. Some years later, in 1592, Catalina was born in the coastal town of San Sebastián, in the northern Basque region of Spain, and spent most of her childhood, along with her three older sisters, interned in the Dominican Convent of San Sebastián el Antiguo. Some sources indicate that her cloistered life may have begun by the time she was four years old.

From the beginning, Catalina rebelled against the restrictions of convent life. At age 15, following a violent quarrel with an older nun, she climbed the convent wall and escaped, taking some of the convent money with her. She lived off the countryside, eating roots and wild berries for three days before approaching a peasant to plead for a pair of pants. Then, according to her autobiography, "I cut off my hair and threw it away, and the third night I started off I knew not where, scurrying over roads and skirting villages so as to get far away."

Approaching the town of Vitoria, Erauso introduced herself as Francisco de Loyola, the name she would use for the next several years. She found employment as a messenger, then as an accountant for a merchant in Vitoria, saving her money. After two years, she set off in search of adventure, wandering throughout northern Spain until she sought work again in the town of Valladolid, as a page in the mansion of Juan Idiáguez, secretary to Spain's king, Philip III. Idiáguez was so impressed by the manners and intelligence of the "young boy" that he made Catalina a special page to receive visitors. She wore the gold-braided and buttoned uniform happily, until the day she had to announce a new guest, her father, who had come to ask his old friend Idiáguez for help in locating his escaped daughter. Still unrecognized, Erauso wrapped her few possessions in a bundle and stole away that night.

Returning to San Sebastián, the town of her birth, Erauso hid out in the home of an aunt who protected her secret while the girl decided whether to make herself known to her parents. After several months, her need for freedom won out, and she headed south to the Andalusian coastal town of Cádiz, where she enrolled as a "cabin boy" in the Spanish navy. At age 19, she embarked for Mexico, dreaming of the conquest and conversion of "heathen" Indians to Christianity by means of the sword.

His Holiness [Pope Urban VIII] was clearly amazed at my story and graciously gave me leave to go on wearing men's clothes, urging me to live upright in the future, to avoid injuring my neighbor, and to fear God's vengeance respecting His commandment—Thou shalt not kill.

—Catalina de Erauso

The ship landed at Veracruz, where Erauso, true to her nature, deserted the navy in favor of joining the Spanish army, which promised more challenges and more risks. Spain's colonial enterprise was then in full swing, with armies spread throughout Mexico and Central and South America. In addition to expanding colonial territories, soldiers imposed the political and religious will of the Spanish monarchy on the various Indian nations. As the soldier "Francisco," Erauso traveled the length of South America, gaining a reputation both for courage and skill in battle. She also gained a reputation as somewhat of a playboy, courting various women and not infrequently finding herself in duels with her rivals.

Apparently prone to violence and nearly unbeatable at swordplay, on one occasion Erauso was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of two young men. As the story goes, she quickly escaped, caught a ship south to Perú and again found employment with a merchant. There, in one of her frequent visits to the theater, she took exception to the attitude of a certain Señor Reyes, and the knife fight that ensued sent him to the hospital and Erauso again to jail. Released with the help of her employer, she left Perú to enlist with the troops involved in the conquest of Charcas, a region that corresponds approximately to modern-day Bolivia.

In Charcas, Erauso became military aide to Captain Recio de León and gained a reputation as a skillful and ferocious Indian fighter. At the end of the military campaign, she again found employment with a wealthy merchant, but her aggressive nature led once more to her involvement in a series of violent, but possibly apocryphal, incidents. Some narratives insist that at this point she killed one of her own brothers in a duel before realizing who he was. In another story, after threatening the mayor of a small town in a card game, she fled to La Paz, where she challenged a local official and reportedly killed him in a duel. Normally this would have brought death by hanging, but Erauso was given a life sentence because of her youth.

In prison, we are told, "Francisco" was paid visits by a rich widow, who supplied her with a dagger, a deck of cards, and a bottle of local liquor that she used to bribe her jailer and escape. Shortly after, in July of 1615, she was on board a battleship of the Spanish Armada off the coast of Perú, fighting under the name of Alfonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán, against the Dutch fleet. According to the Peruvian author Ricardo Palma, she was the only Spanish survivor of the battle.

Reaching Lima, Erauso joined troops headed for southern Chile to take part in one of the most perilous campaigns of the Spanish conquest, known as the War of the Araucania. The Araucanian Indians were renowned warriors who lived at the southern tip of Latin America. Spain never really conquered them. Erauso was stationed at Fort Paincaví, in the frigid southern Chilean region of Purén, and the autobiography ascribed to her contains a description of her role in a key battle, which won her the rank of lieutenant:

[I]n the last engagement their reinforcements came up, things took a bad turn for us, and they killed many of our men and some captains … and they captured our flag. Seeing it carried off, I and two mounted men galloped after it into the midst of the throng, trampling, killing and receiving hard knocks. One of the three soon fell dead; the two of us pressed on and reached the flag, when my comrade was laid low by a lance thrust; I received a nasty wound in the leg, killed a cacique, who was carrying the standard, recaptured it from him, and set spurs to my horse, trampling, killing and wounding no end, but was badly wounded myself, pierced by three arrows.

In the writings attributed to her, Erauso describes many hours spent wandering alone through the southern Chilean forests. Here as elsewhere, she was a solitary soul, as well as a fierce patriot and soldier, and during this period she was seemingly quite happy. But in a typical incident, playing cards with other soldiers, she thrust the same dagger given her by the Bolivian widow through the hand of a cheating companion.

While still on Chile's southern frontier, Erauso suffered a wound in her shoulder which failed to heal and was sent to the city of Concepción. After recuperating, she was assigned to lead a force of 25 men back to Fort Paincaví, where the war with the Araucanians had reached a critical point. In one battle, Catalina is purported to have turned the tide by capturing a chief named Guipihuanche, dragging him back to the fort and hanging him.

Once the Spanish made peace with the indomitable Araucanians, Erauso had no command and saw herself destined for a demotion and outpost duty at Fort Arauco. She preferred to desert her post. With two others, she traveled north and apparently crossed the Andes mountains into Argentina. Her companions died from the conditions of hunger, thirst, and the frigid temperatures, but Erauso reached Tucumán. Soon, she returned to Perú where she again enlisted in the army but was struck down by a terrible fever. Convinced that she was on her death bed, she called for a priest to make her confession and revealed her true identity for the first time since leaving Spain.

To the priest, Erauso declared that she had always felt "a special inclination to take up arms in defense of the Catholic faith, and to be employed in his majesty's service." She believed that her destiny was to become a soldier, no matter what social norms might dictate, and also insisted that she had remained a virgin. After two matrons had certified that she was "a maid entire, as on the day I was born," she was embraced by the priest, who pronounced her a remarkable person, and then made her promise that if she recovered, she would return to her family in Spain.

Recover she did, and, while still in Peru, she was received by the archbishop, who praised her valor and loyalty to the Spanish crown. On the day of Corpus Christi, in response to the public enthusiasm at learning that the notorious Alfonso Ramírez was in fact a young nun escaped from a convent, Erauso accompanied the archbishop in the procession, dressed as a Clarissan nun with her sword at her side.

The nun-ensign had spent two years in a convent in Lima when word arrived from the mother superior in San Sebastián that Catalina de Erauso had never actually taken her religious vows. Advised by the local church authorities to return to Spain, Erauso departed as a celebrity. Once back in Europe, however, somewhat worried about the state of her soul, she determined to travel to Rome in search of religious guidance. She was arrested in Italy, accused of being a Spanish spy, her official papers were stolen, and she was held in jail for 50 days before being released. Barefoot and without funds, she made her way to Toulouse, France, where a friend, the Count of Gramont, supplied her with money and a horse to reach Spain. In Madrid, now probably 33 years old, Erauso gained an audience with King Philip IV, who was so impressed by her adventures that in August 1625 she was awarded a lifelong military pension in honor of her services.

Ever restless, Erauso again traveled to Italy and, accompanied by several cardinals of the Catholic Church, had an audience with Pope Urbano VIII. Her past adventures were given the blessing of the Vatican, and she received the pope's authorization to dress in men's clothing whenever she wished. According to her biographical account, "My case became notorious in Rome, and I saw myself surrounded by a remarkable crowd of great personages—princes, bishops, and cardinals—and every door was thrown open to me." When a cardinal once declared that Erauso's only defect was that she was a Spaniard, she replied, "Your Eminence, I think that is the only good thing about me."

Erauso may have settled for a while in Naples, where she wrote the autobiography entitled The Story of the Nun-Ensign. According to tradition, the manuscript was left in Italy. Many years after her death, a wealthy and cultured Spaniard, Joaquín María Ferrer, said he had discovered the original copy of her memoirs. Ferrer published the autobiography in Paris in 1829. Most scholars believe that this book is not Erauso's original version but one based on firsthand knowledge of the original manuscript or tales that had been circulating in Spain for many years.

Upon returning to Spain, the nun-ensign settled in La Coruña, where she met the author Juan Pérez de Montalván, a disciple of the renowned Spanish playwright Lope de Vega. Montalván wrote a drama based on stories told to him by Erauso, and the play became popular throughout the Iberian Peninsula. About this time, the Spanish painter Pacheco made a portrait of Erauso, which shows her to be tall and slim, dark-complexioned, with animated black eyes and a certain martial elegance in her stance. The painting hangs at the Schepeler Gallery in Aix-la-Chapelle, France.

Catalina de Erauso chose never to return to visit her parents and other relatives. Instead, eventually tiring of the sedentary life in La Coruña, she asked the king for permission to return to the Americas to enter into business in one of the many cities she knew well. The king agreed and Catalina, now adopting the name of Francisco de Erauso, sailed for Mexico in 1635. The voyage was a rough one, and the vessel arrived in the Mexican port city of Veracruz in the middle of a terrible storm. A group of officials decided to disembark despite the dangers, and Erauso asked to accompany them. Fighting the torrent, the small landing boat finally reached shore, but when the captain called the roll it was discovered that Francisco de Erauso had disappeared.

The ship's crew, assuming Erauso drowned, prayed for her soul. From this point on, all trace of Catalina de Erauso vanished from official Spanish records. Some have thought she committed suicide; there is certainly the possibility that she again fled in order to establish a new identity, since much of her life had been a struggle to maintain autonomy and anonymity.

It is also worth noting that many details of the life of Catalina de Erauso mirror the picaresque tradition so important in Spanish literature. In the picaresque genre, a male or female protagonist travels through his country, or the world, experiencing humorous, fantastic or scandalous adventures. The pícaro is a kind of antihero who lives by his or her wits, serves many masters, and usually ends up prosperous and respected after a period of youthful difficulties and rebellion. It is also true that the picaresque evolved out of the real adventures of people who revolted against the social strictures of a highly structured society and survived by their wits and agility. The stories of the nun-ensign fit both aspects of the literary tradition.

There is little doubt that her story has been enhanced, and that the "nun-ensign" is now the stuff of legend. In 1635, befitting a legend, she disappeared into the murk of a tempestuous night. According to some accounts, she lived another 15 years in the small Mexican village of Cotaxtla, where she died in 1650 at the age of 58. The bishop of Puebla, Monsignor Palafox, believed that the woman he buried there was the nun-ensign, and on her tombstone were engraved these words: "Here lies a brave and Christian woman." Whatever her end, Catalina de Erauso stands as an example of a Spanish woman who seemed destined by birth and society to spend her life in a convent, but who chose her own path to military glory and adventures that spanned two continents.


Brandon, William. Quivira. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1990.

Fitzpatrick-Kelly, James, ed. and trans. The Nun Ensign. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908 (included are the English translation of Erauso's autobiography, and Juan Pérez de Montalbán's play La monja alférez in the original Spanish, with introduction and notes).

Jarpa Gana de Laso, Sara. La monja alférez. Santiago, Chile: Editorial del Pacífico, 1960.

suggested reading:

Erauso, Catalina de. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World. Translated by Michele and Gabriel Stepto. Beacon, 1995.

Henderson, Linda Roddy, and James D. Ten Notable Women of Latin America. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1978.

Virginia Gibbs , Assistant Professor of Spanish Language and Literature, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa