Catalina de Erauso had a unsual start in life, unusual at least for an officer serving in the Spanish colonial army in the 1600s. Erauso was raised by nuns in a convent in the Basque region of Spain. Her parents decided she would take vows when she came of age and become a nun herself. Erauso had other ideas.
Following a beating from one of the nuns she fled the convent. Armed with a small sewing kit, Erauso fashioned a man’s doublet out of old petticoats, cut her hair short and began a more colourful life than that of the average nun.
Though she abandoned the convent before taking vows, Erauso’s unlikely beginnings would follow her throughout her life, eventually earning her the title, the Lieutenant Nun.
Erauso remained in the Basque city of San Sebastián for a couple of years after her escape, working as a page-boy. Then, in search of grander adventures she took a job as a cabin boy, on a ship bound for the New World. When the ship docked in Panama, she snuck to the shore.
On a new continent, disguised convincingly as a man, her freedom might have been guaranteed but Erauso’s knack for attracting trouble meant she was constantly in danger of being imprisoned.
Her quick temper and fighting skills meant she rarely shied away from fight. In Peru when a theatre-goer blocked her view of the stage she swiftly challenged him to a duel, slashed him across his face and stabbed his friend.
Luckily for Erauso her knack for getting into trouble was matched with a talent for getting out of it. When threatened with arrest she took refuge in convents and churches. Though she was imprisoned over the course of her life and even faced two death sentences, she always managed to evade the full punishment.
It was Erauso’s service in the Spanish colonial army that would earn her the reputation as the fearsome Lieutenant Nun. Erauso joined the army under a false name and was posted to the Concepcion, Chile,where she was re-united with her elder brother, Miguel. Erauso’s transformation from girl to man was so convincing her own brother never recognized the soldier from Basque was his younger sister. He did however take a liking to Erauso and offered her a post in his office in Chile.
In her memoirs Erauso described the years she spent serving alongside her brother as ‘the good life’ but the bliss wasn’t to last. Erauso took a liking to her brother’s mistress, an awkward circumstance that eventually led to a fist-fight between the siblings. Erauso was re-assigned to the bloody frontlines against the Mapuche Indians in Paicaibi, Chile.
Despite horrendous violence Eruaso excelled in battle and was eventually promoted to Lieutenant. She would go on to Captain her own company, but upon her return to Concepcion, Chile, Erauso’s good fortune began to flag.
Erauso stabbed a man and took refuge in a nearby church for several months. She escaped arrest, only to become embroiled in another vicious duel, this time acting as back-up for a fellow army officer. She stabbed her companion’s challenger but realised too late she had in fact killed her own brother.
Despite her brother’s death, Erauso continued duelling and scrapping. When she murdered a man following an argument over a card game, Erauso’s luck seemed finally to have run out. She was arrested, sentenced to death and even taken to the gallows.
When a fellow Basquero saw Erauso waiting to be hung he managed to win her a last minute pardon, and unbelievably, perhaps miraculously, the runaway from the convent was free again.
Undeterred, Erauso returned to her chaotic life, gambling, duelling and hiding out in churches and convents. Following yet another duel Erauso took refuge in a church in Cuzco. It was here that Bishop Juan Bautista somehow persuaded Eruaso to confess her whole remarkable life story and admit that she was in fact a woman. The Bishop, believing her to be a nun offered her a place in convent, where Erauso would remain for two years. She eventually walked free when word came from Spain proving she had never officially taken vows.
Perhaps finally exhausted the indomitable Erauso returned home to Spain. Her cover by now was well and truly blown and the Lieutenant Nun had become something of a legend.
The most remarkable aspect of Erauso’s many adventures is perhaps that, despite her unconventional choices and her very un-nunnish disposition to duelling, brawling and seducing, Erauso was welcomed home as a hero.
Upon her return King Felipe IV of Spain granted her a generous pension in return for her service in the army and Pope Urban VIII awarded her special dispensation to wear men’s clothing, which she continued to do for the remainder of her life.
With her freedom now fully secured, Erauso returned to the New World. She is said to have lived out the rest of her life in Mexico working as a mule driver, perhaps finally enjoying a quieter life, but according the account of one friar who saw her, still wearing a sword and silver dagger.