Nun Lieutenant

Today, on the occasion of the International Women’s Day we would like to present you a bio of an extraordinary woman whose deeds, though often outrageous and morally dubious, made her a completely independent person, thing extremely rare for a woman living in the 17th century. Catalina de Erauso did not only stand up to her parents but also opposed all the social norms to live the life on her own terms.

Catalina de Erauso was born in 1585 in a small Spanish village of San Sebastián. As a daughter of a conservative military captain she did not have much say in terms of her own future. While all her brothers were supposed to follow their father’s footsteps, Catalina and her four sisters were all destined to join the local convent and lead the life of piety and purity. For that reason, in the age of four Catalina was sent to join the Dominican nunnery where she was brought up under the watchful eye of her aunt Ursula, convent’s prioress. She spent there all her childhood and finally, in the age of 15, she was ready to take the vows and become a nun in the Dominican order, just like it was planned by her parents.

However, Catalina detested the life of discipline and blind obedience. Under cover of night, while all nuns and pupils in the convent where gathered for a midnight prayer, the girl cut her hair short, stole all the secular clothing she could find and fled the nunnery. Since Spanish society didn’t grant women much freedom, especially at such a young age, Catalina disguised herself as a man. For a few years, she has travelled through the country, seeking shelter wherever she could and undertaking seasonal jobs. After a few months, she managed to find a stable position as a page of don Juan de Idiáquez, secretary to the king. During her service there, she briefly encountered her father, who was desperately looking for his disobedient daughter but luckily did not recognize Catalina in her disguise.

However, Catalina got quickly bored with the living in a palace and was feeling constraint by the dull life of an obedient page. For that reason, she soon quit the job and took up a position of a cabin boy on a transatlantic ship, making her way to the American continent. She enjoyed the freedom of life in the New World and decided to settle there for a longer time. In order to gather sufficient funds to start her life in America, Catalina secretly knocked out the ship’s captain, stole his money and some of the ships’s cargo. She fled the port and embarked again on the journey into unknown. However, her savings run out soon and the woman ended up in a small town of Trujillo where she befriended the local merchant. She got the job at his shop and it seemed that she finally found the right place to settle. Unfortunately, Catalina’s good fortune didn’t last long. After a few months, as a result of an argument, she got into a duel with the merchant’s cousin and killed her opponent. Catalina once again had to leave her shelter and flee from her employer’s wrath.

In the meantime, Chile’s population started to revolt against colonial Spaniards who were urgently looking for young men to join the army and stop the rebellion. Not having a better place to go Catalina enlisted in the Spanish army where her path crossed one more time with her family’s. By coincidence Catalina was fighting under the command of her own brother, Miguel, who just like his father earlier didn’t recognize his sister in the masculine disguise. Catalina enjoyed quite good reputation in the army – during the battles she reached the rank of lieutenant and maintained good relations with her fellow soldiers. Unfortunately, the good times again didn’t last long. After getting mixed up in a duel with one of the soldiers, Catalina accidentally killed her brother in a series of unfortunate events. De Erauso could not handle the emotional burden of her deed. In despair, she deserted the Army and wandered through the desolated Chilean towns getting into troubles wherever she could. After a few months, Catalina got the reputation of a dangerous outlaw. During one of the fights she got seriously injured. Lying on what she thought was her deathbed, she received the Last Rites and confessed to the priest her real gender. Miraculously, Cataline’s health conditions suddenly improved and the she soon fully recovered. However, after making the confession, it was impossible for her to go back to her disguised identity. Catalina decided to return to Spain.

Catalina’s reception in Europe was a complete shock to the young, still emotionally shattered woman. It turned out that her story quickly spread in the local newspapers where the woman became known as “Nun Lieutenant”. The disgraced outlaw suddenly turned into a celebrity.  De Erauso’s fame was so big that Pope Urban VIII invited her even to an audience in Rome during which he gave her dispensation for her deeds. King of Spain, on the other hand, granted Catalina a pardon for her desertion and paid her a military pension for her service during the Arauco War. De Erauso, having found forgiveness and redemption in her home country, decided to go back to America far from the commotion that arose around her life. She used her pension to set up a business as a mule driver transporting goods in New Mexico. Until her death in 1650, she didn’t give up on her adventurous lifestyle, being known among the locals as an exceptional, bold character.

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