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Meet Catalina de Erauso, the Lieutenant Nun!

Catalina de Erauso, also known as “La Monja Alférez” (The Lieutenant Nun) was born in 1592 in Donostia-San Sebastián to a noble family. Catalina was destined to become a nun and was raised in the San Sebastián el Antiguo convent from the age of four. At the age of fifteen, just before she was to take her vows, Catalina escaped from the nunnery after being beat by a superior nun. She dressed as a man and called herself “Francisco de Loyola.” Catalina then visited Valladolid and Bilbao where Catalina became a cabin boy on a ship bound for the Indies. Upon reaching Panama, Catalina jumped ship and enlisted as a soldier under the name “Alonso Díaz Ramírez de Guzmán.”

After a fight where Catalina killed a man she appeared to be fatally wounded. In what Catalina assumed was a deathbed confession, Catalina revealed her gender for the first time. However, Catalina survived and after four months of convalescence left for Guamanga, Chile. In Chile Catalina enlisted in the Army. As a soldier Catalina served under several captains, including her oldest brother, who never recognized her. In Catalina’s autobiography it says, “I remained with my brother as his aide, dining at his table for nearly three years without his ever realizing anything. I went with him sometimes to the house of a girlfriend he had there. Other times I went there without him. He found out about this and took it hard, telling me to keep away from there. He lay in wait for me and caught me at it again. When I came out he attacked me with his belt and injured my hand.”

After this incident Catalina was sent off to the front and became a second Lieutenant, becoming distinguished for bravery in battle. When Catalina’s commanding officer was killed in battle, she was given a temporary captaincy. However, after mistakenly killing her own brother (Captain Miguel de Erauso) Catalina deserted the army and fled towards Peru. While crossing the Andes Catalina ran into trouble and became severely ill. Catalina, once again near death, was nursed back to health by a widowed rancher and her daughter. The daughter fell in love with Catalina, who did not return her feelings. Catalina wrote,

“After having me there for eight days, the good woman told me that I could stay there and be master of the house. I expressed much appreciation for the kindness she showed me in my waywardness, and offered to serve her as best I could. After a few more days she gave me to understand that she would consider it a favor if I would marry the daughter that she had there with her. The daughter was ugly as the devil, very contrary to my taste, which was always the pretty faces.”

Nevertheless, Catalina agreed to the marriage and accepted the young woman’s dowry. Catalina obtained part of the dowry without having to undergo the marriage ceremony and then abandoned the girl and her mother. Traveling the countryside Catalina wandered from town to town, gambling, picking fights, stealing, and quickly earning a reputation as a dangerous outlaw. Catalina was pursued by the law into Lima, Peru. In 1619, after being surrounded in Guamanga, Catalina revealed her true name and gender to Bishop Fray Agustin de Carvajal. She was examined by midwives and found to still be a virgin and entered a convent for two and a half years. Eventually, Catalina grew restless of the convent and journeyed back to Cadiz, Spain. When Catalina returned to Spain crowds of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the Lieutenant Nun. Catalina traveled to Rome and toured Italy, achieving such a level of fame that Pope Urban VIII granted Catalina special dispensation to wear men’s clothing.

Catalina wrote her autobiography between 1626 and 1630. Her memoir ends in 1626 and unfortunately we know very little about Catalina’s life after the close of the memoir. Some critics believe that Catalina did not write her memoir herself and that it may have been penned by someone who was acquainted with Catalina’s fame and deeds. In 1629, Catalina signed over her portion of the family estate to her sister Mariana. The next year, Catalina left again for the New World under the name of Antonio de Erauso and remained in New Spain for the rest of her life. In the centuries since many books, plays, and films have been made based on de Erauso’s adventures, travels, and astonishing secret.

Travels of Catalina de Erauso

For more on Catalina de Erauso check out our book, In Search of Catalina de Erauso: The National and Sexual Identity of the Lieutenant Nun.