Although women have frequently been overshadowed by men when it comes to historical Camino accounts, we know that women have been walking to Santiago since the tomb was discovered in 813 CE.
Here is a short list of some of the more notable women that travelled to Apostle’s tomb:
Empress Matilda (1102 – 1167)
She went from England to Santiago accompanied by a large party of English knights when she was only 23 years old and already the widow of the German Emperor. She is credited with having brought back to England the hand of Saint James from Santiago. The relic is now safeguarded in the Church of Saint Peter in Marlow (England). It is his left hand in case you were wondering.
Saint Bona of Pisa (1156 – 1207)
This Italian born nun and saint had a hard life. She was born out of wedlock and grew up in poverty with her mother in Pisa. She grew up to become a compulsive pilgrim, making her way 9 times to Santiago and once to the Holy Land when she was wounded and captured by pirates on her return to Italy. Happily, she was later ransomed and freed. Her obsession with Santiago appears to have come from a vision she had of Saint James when she was a child. This indefatigable pilgrim is unsurprisingly the patron saint of travellers, guides and flight attendants.
Queen and Saint Isabel of Portugal (1271 – 1336).
One of the most beloved queens and saints in Portuguese history. She went twice to Santiago on pilgrimage, the first time in 1325 accompanied by her royal entourage and the second time 10 years later, on foot and travelling incognito as a poor pilgrim. She is credited with having given Saint James (and the Bishop in Santiago) one of the most important donations ever given. She also has a street named after her in Santiago, the Rúa de Raiña (Street of the Queen).
Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303 – 1373)
Celebrity mystic and saint, Bridget was first married to a Mr. Ulf Gudmarsson. Husband and wife, accompanied by a large group of Swedish pilgrims and following a family tradition, made their way to Santiago in 1341. Apparently Bridget’s great-great-grandfather and every generation after him had also gone on pilgrimage to Santiago. Shortly after their return to Sweden, her husband died and Bridget commenced her career to sainthood. She was also a professional pilgrim visiting shrines in Scandinavia, France, Italy and the Holy Land.
Margary Kempe (1373 – 1438)
This remarkable Englishwoman became a full-time pilgrim at the age of 40, visiting many of the most important shrines across Europe, possibly inspired by Saint Bridget of Sweden. She visited Santiago in 1417. However, her story becomes even more remarkable as she was able to convince her husband to allow her to travel alone, embrace celibacy and abandon her 14 children and home. Illiterate most of her life, she is credited with having written the ‘first autobiography in English’. And no, she never learnt to write, her book was dictated to, and written by, scribes.
Shirley MacLaine (Born 1934)
In 1994, at the age of 60, the Oscar-winning actress walked on her own to Santiago de Compostela. This was when comparably few pilgrims were walking the Camino and virtually no Americans. Indeed, she may have been the first person to introduce the pilgrimage to many North Americans. Her memoir The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit is an interesting read that leaves no one indifferent.