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Gruesome life of first female missionary to Britain revealed

23 Sep 2008

A new book has shed light on the little known life of what was probably the first female missionary to Britain - in all its gory detail.

The She-Apostle  is published by Oxford University Press
The She-Apostle is published by Oxford University Press

The biography of Spaniard Luisa de Carvajal by Dr Glyn Redworth from The University of Manchester exposes the suffering endured by Catholics who refused to attend Church of England services under James I. 

One of Luisa’s missions was to secretly rescue and then preserve the remains of executed priests - who were hung, drawn and quartered – and then send them as religious relics to hardline Catholics on the continent. 

The book called ‘The She-Apostle’, published by Oxford University Press, also reveals new evidence confirming that a Gunpowder Plotter executed in 1606 was probably innocent. 

Dr Redworth, who is based at the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, is the first historian to examine hundreds of letters, writings and poems by Luisa de Carvajal - many of which were left unsorted in boxes at a Madrid convent. 

“There’s no doubt that this Spanish aristocrat was one of the first female missionaries since medieval times and possibly ancient Rome,” he said. 

“Luisa came to England not knowing a word of English to realise her dream of converting English protestants to the Catholic faith and martyring herself for the cause. 

“She was disgusted by the English, who she said threw carrots into carts which the day before had carried the bodies of plague victims. 

“But her own habits could leave a lot to be desired: she sent body parts of executed priests to her friends and allies in Europe as compelling mementoes of religious persecution. 

Dr Redworth has recently been appointed to one of the most prestigious visiting academic posts in Spain – named in honour of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter and will start his year-long tenure as the ‘Queen Victoria Eugenia’ Chair in September. 

He added: “Her remarkable life was multifaceted: she challenged stereotypes of women in London as she lived unmarried  with other women - helping the poor, including prostitutes. 

“She had some strident views on the English and Dutch Protestant ‘axis of evil’: arguing for military intervention in Ireland and the forced deportation of 400,000 Moriscos - Christians of Muslim descent living in Spain. 

“Her body remains in a casket unburied in Spain until the Catholic Church decides if she’s a saint. 

“But I wouldn’t hold your breath: after 393 years they still haven’t made up their mind.“ 

Dr Redworth says the research also throws new light on the Gunpowder Plot. 

According to his research, Louisa was invited to England by Henry Garnet, leader of the English Jesuits, who was hung, drawn and quartered six months later for his part in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. 

“The documents suggest it is unlikely that Garnet would have invited a high-profile lone Spanish female agitator into England if he was trying to keep secret a complex plot to murder the King,” he said.

Notes for editors

Dr Redworth is available for comment

Email for review copies of ‘The She-Apostle’, published by Oxford University Press.

A video interview with the author is available here: 

For more details contact:

Mike Addelman
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Humanities
The University of Manchester
0161 275 0790
07717 881567