The She-Apostle: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Luisa de Carvajal

September 18, 2008

On Easter Saturday 1605, a middle-aged Spanish lady who spoke no English and was in chronic ill health landed at Dover. Her handicaps were of no especial concern to her because her greatest hope in coming to England was to die there, at the hands of its Government. The nation was at that time the greatest centre of religious persecution in the whole of northern Europe, as the recently established English Protestant state and Church attempted to eradicate Roman Catholicism among its people. Spain, by contrast, was the state most closely associated with a fervent, Counter-Reformation Catholicism.

The lady, Luisa de Carvajal, had left Spain specifically to seek martyrdom among the worst Christian enemies of her religion. She was sponsored in her ambition by Spanish and English Jesuits, to whom she had turned over her considerable inherited fortune. For them it was a win-win situation. If the English authorities spared her, she could be of great service in encouraging Catholicism in England; if they imprisoned or (even better) executed her, then their persecution of a high-born woman would shock Catholic Europe and trouble many Protestants as well.

During the following eight years she became the most celebrated Spanish resident in England, living with a small community of friends in London, sheltering priests, making occasional converts, debating religion with Cockneys in the streets, and embalming the limbs and trunks of Catholic clergy who had been hanged, drawn and quartered for distribution as holy relics. She also played some part in encouraging their dreadful end, by firmly opposing any compromises with the regime which would have saved their lives. In the end, she indeed became a martyr of a sort: although arrested only twice, and released after a few days in each case, the shock of the second experience was enough to bring on her death.

Her story is now the subject of this book by Glyn Redworth, the leading British expert on Anglo-Spanish relations between 1540 and 1640. He has plenty of material with which to work as de Carvajal left a large body of correspondence, with some poems and memoirs, and her career is already controversial among historians. Most controversy concerns how far she acted as the dupe and tool of men, and here Redworth provides a firm verdict: that she was intelligent, strong-minded and crafty enough to propel her own career. He also gives her psychological depth, showing how her craving for a violent and worthy death was rooted in a deep personal masochism. This was, in turn, nurtured by an upbringing of profound piety laced with savage flagellation, a taste that she retained for life: the customs officials at Dover were amused by the number of whips with which she arrived.

The book also brings out well how much England offered an escape from an insoluble dilemma in Spain: that she wanted neither to marry nor to become a nun. Instead she wished to establish a community of pious women that did good works in the world, and Counter-Reformation Spain did not allow those. In England, the religious equivalent of Indian territory, she got her wish. The one fault of the book is that it ends with her last words: it would be interesting to learn where de Carvajal is buried, and why she never quite achieved sainthood. Nonetheless, this is a beautifully crafted biography of a remarkable personality whom English history has more or less forgotten.

The She-Apostle: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Luisa de Carvajal

By Glyn Redworth. Oxford University Press. 288pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780199533534. Published 25 September 2008

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