The She-Apostle, By Glyn Redworth

What really motivated the first female Christian missionary, and would-be martyr, Luisa de Carvajal?
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Catholicism is not kind to women – and never has been. Today, the all-male hierarchy excludes women with vocations from priestly ministry on the grounds of their gender, while patronisingly telling them they are special but just not special enough to be the equals of men. As their role model, the chaps in clerical collars suggest to Catholic women the Virgin Mary, an odd choice, you might think, since, according to the same men, Christ's mother gave birth to a child without first having sex.

It was, it seems, ever thus in Christianity, which developed a deep-rooted misogyny almost from the start. I say almost because it is clear that the Jesus of the gospels did not demean women. It was his early disciples who chose to overlook that part of his example – to the frustration of generations of Catholic women ever after, including Luisa de Carvajal, the subject of this engrossing biography.

A Spanish noblewoman born in 1566 into a grand but odd family (her grandfather was a bishop, but evidently such things didn't cause raised eyebrows back then), from an early age she felt called by God to serve him as a missionary, living in the world rather than locked away in a nunnery. At the time, saintly men with a similar vocation were free to turn their backs on the material world and opt to live in religious community, but still go out and about on the streets ministering to the needy and marginalised. Women, though, were not allowed such liberty. It was the enclosure of the convent walls, or nothing.

De Carvajal was not one to take no for an answer, however, and used her elevated station in life, and close connections with the Spanish royal family, to carve out a third way. Her beaterio – or community of holy women – followed nun-like rules and practices, but was not a closed-in convent. It continued to play a role in the world, offering alms to the poor and demanding a voice in church disputes and, as such, was a forerunner of the "active" women's religious orders that emerged from the late-17th century onwards.

At first in Madrid, and then in the city of Valladolid, de Carvajal made quite a splash, bankrolling her whole operation with her large inheritance, and protecting herself against the churchmen who would close her down through the patronage of her aristocratic contacts. Her most influential period came after 1605 when she settled in England, determined to win this newly Protestant nation back for the Pope, but without any clearly defined means of achieving it other than by force of her personality. She had been inspired to make this missionary journey, recounts her biographer Glyn Redworth, a historian based at Manchester University, when living next door to the English College in Valladolid, a centre for training the brave but fanatical young clerics who would then return to home shores and support those Recusant Catholics who were keeping the flickering flame of faith alive in their priest-holes.

But de Carvajal's determination to go to England went deeper, Redworth shows. The woman whom he argues (not entirely convincingly) could claim to be the first female missionary in Christianity, was rather hooked on the idea of martyrdom. Catholics in England – especially in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot which immediately preceded de Carvajal's arrival at Dover – faced torture and the gallows if caught practising their faith. She welcomed such a prospect with an open heart.

This taste for martyrdom was, in this account, akin to a kind of sickness, with its roots in her upbringing by a deeply pious uncle, the Marquis de Almazan, who was addicted to mortification of the flesh – whipping himself until he bled (a practice alive and well in the ranks of Opus Dei today) – and who trained his niece to do likewise. When he gave her her first whip, made of silk, she stole a silver clasp from one of her cousins and attached it to ' the strands so as to be able to make herself bleed with each stroke. The sado-masochism of this uncle-niece relationship has overtones of sexual abuse, to which Redworth is alive.

Setting up a beaterio which she called The Company of the Sovereign Virgin Mary next door to the Spanish ambassador's residence in London, de Carvajal went out of her way to flaunt her Catholic faith – wearing nun's garb in the streets and visiting soon-to-be-executed priests in prison. She used all the influence she could muster at the Spanish Court to block overtures of peace with the Protestant English. She managed in the process to make sworn enemies of both the Archbishop of Canterbury and local English Catholic leaders, who favoured a more pragmatic path towards reaching a compromise with the new national church. Twice arrested and jailed, she remained an inveterate hothead and troublemaker, feisty in retrospect but undoubtedly a major irritant to many at the time. She failed finally to achieve martyrdom, expiring peacefully in her bed in 1614, but it wasn't for the lack of trying.

Prejudiced, high-handed and wilful, Luisa de Carvajal was undoubtedly flawed and even destructive, but I couldn't help liking her in spite of myself. That Catholicism failed to harness her enthusiasm more constructively tells you much about how it treated women at the time. And how they reacted to that treatment. That many Catholic women, latter-day Luisas, continue to watch frustrated from the side aisles of their church is to our continuing shame.

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