Catalina de Erauso, also known as the ‘Nun Lieutenant’, was a legendary Basque soldier and duellist in the 17th century.
Raised in a convent, De Erauso ran away at age 15 shortly before taking her vows as a nun. As Spanish society allowed little freedom for women, she took to disguising herself as a young man. After a few years roaming Spain as a page, she signed up on a ship to Peru as a cabin boy.
She worked in the Peruvian town of Trujillo in a store, but had to leave after injuring a relative of her employer in a duel. She moved to Lima but again had to leave in shame following a scandal involving a young woman. This led to her enlisting in the Spanish army and fighting in Chile during the Arauco War. At one point she was under the command of her own brother, Miguel, who never recognized her.
On the front lines in Chile, De Erauso reached the rank of lieutenant and became famed for her sword-fighting skills, however she fell into disfavour for killing an enemy leader who her superiors wanted captured alive. Disgraced, she fell into the habits of drinking and gambling, which in turn led to her fighting in a number of duels. This led to tragedy when she inadvertently killed her own brother in a duel gone wrong.
Grief-stricken she became an outlaw and con-artist, on one occasion absconding with a dowry paid to her to marry a young woman. She eventually entered into a convent in Lima after confessing her sex to a bishop. On return to Europe in 1624 De Erauso’s story had become public knowledge and she toured Italy as a celebrity. She was so famous that she was reportedly granted special dispensation by Pope Urban VIII to wear men’s clothing.
She returned to New Spain in 1645, using the name Antonio de Erauso, where she worked as a mule driver on the road from Veracruz. She died in Cuetlaxtla in 1650. Her autobiography, Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, is still widely read today.