Glyn Redworth, The She-Apostle: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Luisa de Carvajal, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2008.

Glyn Redworth, The She-Apostle: The Extraordinary Life and Death of Luisa de Carvajal, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York, 2008. £16.99, ISBN 978-0-19-953353-4 (hardback), pp. xii + 276.


Reviewed by: Jenna Lay, Stanford University, April 2009

Scholars of early modern English Catholicism have long understood both the symbolic and practical importance of the exilic communities that formed on the continent in the decades following the Protestant Reformation. Especially in the Low Countries and in Spain, English monasteries, colleges, and presses provided spiritual consolation, religious continuity, and textual support for the recusant population in England. In the past decade, spurred in part by Claire Walker’s indispensable Gender and Politics in Early Modern Europe: English Convents in France and the Low Countries, historians and literary critics have taken an increased interest in Catholic Englishwomen’s participation in these international religious networks. Glyn Redworth’s The She-Apostle provides an introduction to English/continental relations from the other side: this biography of Luisa de Carvajal, a Spanish noblewoman and self-appointed missionary to England, is a useful starting point for readers whose interest in English women religious has expanded to include the foreign women who assisted (and perhaps inspired) them.

De Carvajal’s mission to England will be of particular interest to members of this list, and Redworth adeptly sketches the world of religious politics that informed nearly all of her apostolic activities between her arrival in 1605 and her death (of natural causes) in 1614. De Carvajal, like many of her contemporaries, aspired to be a martyr, but she was also eager to assist English Catholics and facilitate conversions. From the Gunpowder Plot, Oath of Allegiance, and subsequent executions to ambassadorial intrigues and proposed Spanish/English marriage alliances, de Carvajal became a participant in and commentator on English religious and political affairs. As a supporter of the Jesuits in their well-documented split with the secular priests, she advocated against the Oath of Allegiance through prison visits and letters to individuals in Spain and the Low Countries; as Redworth explains, the oath provided de Carvajal with an opportunity to become ‘an effective agitator in England and a well-informed lobbyist at the princely courts of Europe’ (143). Redworth makes good use of de Carvajal’s extensive correspondence, which paints a fascinating portrait of life in early modern London and creates a rough outline of the social and religious networks that facilitated her journey. Since de Carvajal lived for a time in Valladolid, her continued ties to the English College provide the reader with new perspectives on figures such as Joseph Creswell and Michael Walpole (her first biographer).

Redworth opens his narrative with the description of a grave robbery, which was arranged by de Carvajal to recover the remains of executed priests. These early pages establish Redworth’s attempt to fuse popular biography with scholarly analysis. His book frequently leans toward the former and, as a result, includes some superficial connections to modern culture: in reference to mortification of the flesh, for example, Redworth claims that ‘there was a degree of ‘lifestyle management’ involved in suffering and an element of fashion was surely involved’ (19). The book’s summary of de Carvajal’s early life, when she was more concerned with her spiritual wellbeing than international politics, is most clearly marked by these tendencies, and Redworth seems to grow more comfortable with his subject as she travels closer to England. The last half of the book strikes a comfortable balance, and Redworth successfully incorporates archival material into an engrossing account of de Carvajal’s attempt to create an alternative to the life of an enclosed monastic.

Despite her own desire to avoid the convent, de Carvajal was drawn to the idea of a religious life. Beginning in Madrid, she formed a series of communities that adopted certain aspects of monastic discipline while rejecting any form of enclosure. While in Valladolid, she assisted a group of English women traveling to the monastery of Syon in Lisbon, and she attempted to facilitate the foundation of an English Carmelite convent. In England, her house became ‘a staging post for women who wanted to go overseas and become nuns’ (205). Even more remarkably, de Carvajal created something like a convent for herself and her companions in London; she ‘called her embryonic community the Company of the Sovereign Virgin Mary, Our Lady, drawing up a rule for its members to follow,’ which included spiritual instructions, oaths poverty, chastity and obedience, and a fourth oath of obedience to the Pope, modeled on the vow of the Jesuits (149). As Redworth explains, ‘Luisa envisaged herself as a female Jesuit. Far from wishing to live in the strict enclosure of a Teresian house, she wanted to follow the Company’s example of leading a communal life but actively working in the community for the greater good of the Roman Church’ (155). The information that Redworth includes on the daily rituals of life in de Carvajal’s small community of unenclosed women will be of interest to many members of this list, as will the obvious similarities between her mission and that of her contemporary, the Englishwoman Mary Ward. Redworth provides only a brief summary of Ward’s foundation of an apostolic order that engaged in missionary and educational activities in England, and I imagine future scholars might fruitfully engage the overlapping projects of these two early modern ‘Jesuitesses’ (156).

Redworth’s thorough understanding of his source material and helpful references to the work of other scholars provide a comprehensive introduction to de Carvajal’s life. Scholars with an interest in international religious politics, female communities and the social landscape of early modern London will find useful material here, and I imagine Redworth’s project might help spur future scholarly work on the extensive archival material associated with de Carvajal.