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Saint Ursula
Virgin and Martyr
Died date has been assigned by different writers to 238, 283, 383, 451, and 640.
Venerated in Catholic Church
Major shrine Cologne Cathedral
Feast October 21
Attributes arrow; banner; cloak; clock; maiden shot with arrows; depicted accompanied by a varied number of companions who are being martyred in various ways; ship
Patronage Cologne, Delphi, England, archers, orphans, students

Saint Ursula ("little female bear" in Latin) is a British Christian saint. Her feast day in the Catholic Church is October 21. Because of the lack of sure information about the anonymous group of holy virgins who on some uncertain date were killed at Cologne,[1] their commemoration was omitted from the Catholic calendar of saints for universal liturgical celebration, when this was revised in 1969, but they have been kept in the Roman Martyrology, the official, though incomplete, list of saints of the Catholic Church.

Her legend, probably unhistorical,[2][3] is that she was a Romano-British princess who, at the request of her father King Donaut of Dumnonia in south-west England, set sail to join her future husband, the pagan Governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica (Brittany), along with 11,000 virginal handmaidens. However, a miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, where Ursula declared that before her marriage she would undertake a pan-European pilgrimage. She headed for Rome, with her followers, and persuaded the Pope, Cyriacus (unknown in the pontifical records), and Sulpicius, Bishop of Ravenna, to join them. After setting out for Cologne, which was being besieged by Huns, all the virgins were beheaded in a dreadful massacre. The Huns' leader shot Ursula dead, supposedly in 383 (the date varies).


Life of Saint Ursula

Hans Memling, The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula.

The legend of Ursula is based on a 4th- or 5th-century inscription from the Church of St. Ursula (on the Ursulaplatz) in Cologne. It states the ancient basilica had been restored on the site where some holy virgins were killed.[4] The text of the inscription is:


Anonymous, Stone carving, choir of the Church of St. Ursula at Cologne, [5]

The Catholic Encyclopedia writes that “this legend, with its countless variants and increasingly fabulous developments, would fill more than a hundred pages. Various characteristics of it were already regarded with suspicion by certain medieval writers, and since Baronius have been universally rejected.”[6] Neither Jerome nor Gregory of Tours refer to Ursula in their writings.[7] However, it is noteworthy that Gregory of Tours does make mention of the legend of the Theban Legion, to whom a church was dedicated that once stood in Cologne.[8] The most important hagiographers (Bede, Ado, Usuard, Notker the Stammerer, Rabanus Maurus) of the early Middle Ages also do not enter Ursula under 21 October, her feast day.[9] A legend resembling Ursula’s appeared in its full form between 731 and 839, but it does not mention the name of Ursula, but that of Pinnosa or Vinnosa as the leader of the martyred group.[10]

While there was a tradition of virgin martyrs in Cologne by the 5th century, this was limited to a small number between two and eleven according to different sources. The 11,000 were first mentioned in the 9th century; suggestions as to where this came from have included reading the name "Undecimillia" or "Ximillia" as a number, or reading the abbreviation "XI. M. V." as eleven thousand (in Roman numerals) virgins rather than eleven martyred virgins. One scholar has written that in the eighth century, the relics of virgin martyrs were found, among which were included those of a girl named Ursula, who was eleven years old-–in Latin, undecimilia. Undecimilia was subsequently misread or misinterpreted as undicimila (11,000), thus producing the legend of the 11,000 virgins.[11] Another theory is that there was only one virgin martyr, named Undecimilla, “which by some blundering monk was changed into eleven thousand.”[12]

The Dream of St. Ursula, Vittore Carpaccio, 1495; tempera on canvas, 274 x 267 cm Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.

The Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne contains the alleged relics of Ursula and her 11,000 companions.[13] It contains what has been described as a "veritable tsunami of ribs, shoulder blades, and femurs...arranged in zigzags and swirls and even in the shapes of Latin words."[14] The Goldene Kammer (Golden Chamber), a 17th century chapel attached to the Basilica of St. Ursula, contains sculptures of their heads and torsos, some of the heads encased in silver, others covered with stuffs of gold and caps of cloth of gold and velvet; loose bones thickly texture the upper walls.”[15][16] The peculiarities of the relics themselves have thrown doubt upon the historicity of Ursula and her "11,000 maidens." When skeletons of little children, ranging in age from two months to seven years, were found buried with one of the sacred virgins in 1183, Hermann Joseph, a Praemonstratensian canon at Steinfeld, explained that these children were distant relatives of the eleven thousand.[17] A surgeon of eminence was once banished from Cologne for opining that, among the collection of bones which are said to pertain to the heads, there were several belonging to full-grown mastiffs.[18] The relics may have proceeded from a forgotten burial ground.[19]

It has also been theorized that Ursula is a Christianized form of the goddess Freya, who welcomed the souls of dead maidens.[20]

Today the story of Saint Ursula is overwhelmingly considered to be fiction. Accordingly, nothing is known about the girls, if any, who are said to have been martyred at the spot. The commemoration, in the Mass of Saint Hilarion on 21 October, of Saint Ursula and her companions that was formerly in the Catholic calendar of saints for use wherever the Roman Rite is celebrated was removed in 1969, because "their Passio is entirely fabulous: nothing, not even their names, is known about the virgin saints who were killed at Cologne at some uncertain time".[21] The Roman Martyrology, the official but professedly incomplete list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church, speaks of these virgin saints as follows: "At Cologne in Germany, commemoration of virgin saints who ended their life in martyrdom for Christ in the place where afterwards the city's basilica was built, dedicated in honour of the innocent young girl Ursula who is looked on as their leader."[22]. Their feast day remains on 21 October.


Saint Ursula on the coat-of-arms of British Virgin Islands

Hildegard of Bingen composed many chants in honour of her.[23] It was recorded that Elizabeth of Schönau experienced a vision that revealed to her the martyrdom of Ursula and her companions.[24]

The street in London called St Mary Axe is sometimes said to be derived from a church, now demolished, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. It was said to be located where the skyscraper informally known as "the Gherkin" is now located. The church contained a holy relic: an axe used by the Huns to execute the virgins. However, this legend cannot be dated any earlier than 1514.[25]

In the 1480s, Hans Memling fashioned a wooden shrine that contained the relics of Ursula. It told the story of Ursula in six bow-arched panels, with the two front panels showing Ursula accompanied by 10 virgins, each representing 1,000 virgins.[26]

Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands after Ursula and her virgins. On 21 October 1521, Ferdinand Magellan rounded Cape Virgenes and entered the Straits of Magellan, naming the cape after Ursula's virgins. Portuguese explorer João Álvares Fagundes in 1521 named 'Eleven Thousand Virgins' what is now known as Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

A tradition in the Swiss city of Basel, about 400 km south of Cologne, has it that Ursula and her companions passed through Basel intending to go to Rome. The legend is commemorated in the name of Eleven Thousand Virgins Alley (Elftausendjungfern-Gässlein), which climbs one side of the Münsterberg hill at the heart of the city.

The Order of Ursulines, founded in 1535 by Angela Merici, and especially devoted to the education of young girls, has also helped to spread throughout the world the name and the cult of St. Ursula. St. Ursula was named the patron saint of students.

Michael Haydn wrote the Missa in honorem Sanctae Ursulae to commemorate the day Ursula Oswald joined a Bemedictine Abbey.


Cordula was, according to a legend in an edition of the Roman Martyrology presented in an English translation on a traditionalist Catholic Website,[27] one of Ursula’s companions: "Being terrified by the punishments and slaughter of the others, Cordula hid herself, but repenting her deed, on the next day she declared herself to the Huns of her own accord, and thus was the last of them all to receive the crown of martyrdom". In his Albert the Great (R. Washbourne, 1876), 360-362, Joachim Sighart recounts that, on 14 February 1277, while work was being done at the church of St John the Baptist (Johanniterkirche) in Cologne, Cordula’s body was discovered; it was fragrant and on her forehead was written: "Cordula, Queen and Virgin"; when Albert the Great heard of the finding, he sang mass and transferred the relics. Later, Cordula's supposed remains were moved to Königswinter and Rimini.[28] Cordula's head was claimed by the Cathedral of Palencia.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Calendarium Romanum (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 143
  2. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins
  3. ^ Santi e Beati: Sant'Orsola e compagne
  4. ^ Saint Ursula - Britannica Online Encyclopedia
  5. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: "St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins"
  6. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins
  7. ^ Online Encyclopedia: Saint Ursula
  8. ^ Online Encyclopedia: Saint Ursula
  9. ^ Online Encyclopedia: Saint Ursula
  10. ^ Online Encyclopedia: Saint Ursula
  11. ^ Santi Beati: Sant'Orsola e compagne
  12. ^ The Penny Magazine: Cologne
  13. ^ The Penny Magazine: Cologne
  14. ^ Quigley, Christine (2001) Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland; p. 169.
  15. ^ The Penny Magazine: Cologne
  16. ^ Quigley, Christine (2001) Skulls and Skeletons: Human Bone Collections and Accumulations, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland; p. 169.
  17. ^ Online Encyclopedia: Saint Ursula
  18. ^ The Penny Magazine: Cologne
  19. ^ The Ecole Glossary: Ursula
  20. ^ Online Encyclopedia: Saint Ursula
  21. ^ Calendarium Romanum. Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969; p. 143
  22. ^ Martyrologium Romanum. Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001 ISBN 88-209-7210-7)
  23. ^ An entire album of songs for St Ursula has been issued on CD by the a cappella group Anonymous 4: 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula, Harmonia Mundi, 1997.
  24. ^ The Ecole Glossary
  25. ^ ***Harben Dictionary Window***
  26. ^ The Memling Museum in Bruges, Brugge
  27. ^ Oct 22 "Martyrology; Oct 22". Oct 22. Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  28. ^ Cordula's Web Editors. "Cordula's Web - St Cordula's Day.". Retrieved 2009-10-21. 
  29. ^ Liverpool museums - ''The Life of St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins', c. 1400-1410', by Valencian School (Artwork of the Month)

External links


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

ST URSULA, and her companions, virgins and martyrs, are commemorated by the Roman Catholic church on the 21st of October. The Breviary gives no legend; but in current works, such as Butler's Lives of the Saints, it is to the effect that "these holy martyrs seem. .. to have met a glorious death in defence of their virginity from the army of the Huns... .

They came originally from Britain, and Ursula was the conductor and encourager of the holy troop." The scene of the martyrdom is placed near the lower Rhine.

The date has been assigned by different writers to 238, c. 283 and c. 451. The story, however, is unknown both to Jerome and to Gregory of Tours - and this though the latter gives a somewhat detailed description of the Cologne church dedicated to that Theban legion with which the tradition of the martyred virgins was very early associated. The story of their fate is not entered under 21st October in the martyrology of Bede (ob. c. 735), of Ado (c. 858), of Usuard (ante 877), Notker Balbulus (896) or Hrabanus Maurus (845); but a 9th-century life of St Cunibert (ob. 663) associates a prominent incident in the life of this saint with the basilica of the sacred virgins at Cologne (Surius vi. 275, ed. 1575). Not only does Archbishop Wichfrid attest a grant to the church of the sacred virgins outside the walls of Cologne (in 927), but he was a large donor in his own person. Still earlier a Cologne martyrology, written, as Binterim (who edited it in 1824) argues, between 889 and 891, has the following entry under 21st October: "xi. virg. Ursule Sencie Gregorie Pinose Marthe Saule Britule Satnine Rabacie Saturie Paladie." Much shorter entries are found in two of the old martyrologies printed in Migne (cxxxviii. 1207, 1275). A more definite allusion to the legend may be found (c. 850) in Wandelbert of Priim's metrical martyrology (21st October): "Tunc numerosa simul Rheni per littora fulgent Christo virgines erecta tropaea maniplis Agrippinae urbi, quarum furor impius olim Millia mactavit ductricibus inclyta sanctis." The full legend first makes its appearance in a festival discourse (sermo) for the 21st of October, written, as internal evidence seems to show, between 731 and 839. This sermo does not mention St Ursula, but makes Pinnosa or Vinnosa the leader of these spiritual "amazons," who, to avoid Maximian's persecution, left their island home of Britain, following their bridegroom Christ towards that East whence their faith had come a hundred years before. The concurrent traditions of Britain, Batavia, i.e. the Netherlands (where many chapels still preserved their memory), and Cologne are called in evidence to prove the same origin. The legend was already very old and the festival "nobis omni tempore celeberrima"; but, as all written documents had disappeared since the burning of the early church erected over the sacred bones, the preacher could only appeal to the continuous and careful memory of the society to which he belonged (nostrates). Even in his time there were sceptics who pointed dubiously to the full-grown bones of "widows" and of men among the so-called virgin relics. The author of the sermo pointedly rejects the two theories that connected the holy virgins with the Theban band and brought them as pilgrims from the East to the West; but he adds that even in his days there still existed an inscription in the church, showing how it had been restored from its foundations by a certain "Clematius, vir consularis, ex partibus Orientis." Two or three centuries later the Passio XI. MM. SS. Virginum, based apparently on the revelations made to Helentrude, a nun of Heerse near Paderborn, gives a wonderful increase of detail. The narrative in its present form may date somewhere between 900 and 1100, while Helentrude apparently flourished before 1050. According to her account, the son of a powerful pagan king demands in marriage Ursula, the beautiful daughter of Deonotus, a king "in partibus Britanniae." Ursula is warned by a dream to demand a respite of three years, during which time her companions are to be 1 i,000 virgins collected from both kingdoms. After vigorous exercise in all kinds of manly sports, to the admiration of the populace, they are carried off by a sudden breeze in eleven triremes to Thiel on the Waal in Gelderland. Thence they sail up the Rhine by way of Cologne to Basel, at which place they make fast their vessels and proceed on foot to Rome. Returning, they re-enter their ships at Basel, but are slaughtered by the Huns when they reach Cologne. Their relics are then collected and buried "sicut hodie illic est cernere," in a spot where "to this day" no meaner sepulture is permitted. Then follows the usual allusion to Clematius; the date is expressly fixed at 238, and the whole revelation is seemingly ascribed to St Cordula, one of the 11,000 who, after escaping death on the first day by hiding in one of the vessels, on the morrow gave herself up to death of her own accord. Towards the beginning of the 12th century Sigebert of Gembloux (ob. 1112) gives a brief résumé of the same story. He is the first to introduce the name of Attila, and dates the occurrence 453.

Passing over the visions and exhumations of the first half of the 12th century, we come to the singular revelations of St Elizabeth of Schdnau. These revelations, delivered in Latin, German or a mixed jargon of both languages, were turned into simple Latin by Elizabeth's brother Egbert, from whose words it would seem that in 1156 an old Roman burialground had lately been laid open near Cologne. The cemetery was naturally associated with the legend of St Ursula; and, this identification once accepted, it is not unlikely that when more careful investigations revealed male skeletons and tombstones bearing the names of men, other and more definite epitaphs were invented to reconcile the old traditions with the facts of such a damaging discovery. Hence perhaps the barefaced imposture: "Cyriacus, papa Romanus, qui cum gaudio suscepit sanctas virgines et cum eis Coloniam reversus martyrium suscepit." One or two circumstantial forgeries of this kind would form the basis of a scheme for explaining not a few other problems of the case, such as the plain inscription "Jacobus," whom St Elizabeth promptly transformed into a supposititious British archbishop of Antioch, brother to the equally imaginary British Pope Cyriacus. For these epitaphs, with others of a humbler kind, were brought before St Elizabeth to be identified in her ecstatic converse with St Verena, her cousin St Ursula, and others. Elizabeth herself at times distrusted her own revelations: there was no Cyriac in the list of the popes; Anthems, who was said to be his successor (235-36), died more than two centuries before Attila, to whom common report assigned the massacre; and it was hardly credible that James of Antioch could cut li,000 epitaphs in less than three days. Every doubt, however, was met by the invention of a new and still more improbable detail. According to St Verena, the virgins suffered when Maximus and "Africanus" were principes at Rome (? 387-88).

In 1183 the mantle of St Elizabeth fell upon Hermann Joseph, a Praemonstratensian canon at Steinfeld. He had to solve a more difficult problem than St Elizabeth's; for the skeletons of little children, ranging in age from two months to seven years, had now been found buried with the sacred virgins. But even such a difficulty Hermann explains away: the little children were brothers, sisters or more distant relatives of the 1 1,000. Hermann's revelations are mainly taken up with an attempt to show the mutual relationship of nearly all the characters he introduces. The names are a most extraordinary mixture. Among British bishops we have Michael, William, James and Columbanus. Sovereign princes - an Oliver, a Clovis and a Pepin - start out in every page, till the writer finds it necessary to apologize for the number of his kings and his own blunders. But, for all this, Hermann exposes his own doubts when he tells that often, as he wa g preparing to write, he heard a voice bidding him lay down the pen, "for whatever you write will be an unmixed lie." Hermann makes St Ursula a native of Brittany, and so approximates to the version of the story given by Geoffrey of Monmouth (Historia Britonum), according to whom Maximian, after fleeing from Rome and acquiring Britain by marriage, proceeds to conquer Brittany and settle it with men from the island opposite. For these settlers he has to find British wives, and to this end collects 11,000 noble and 60,000 plebeian virgins, who are wrecked on their passage across. Certain of the vessels being driven upon "barbarous islands," their passengers are slain by Guanius and Melga, "kings of the Huns and Picts," whom Gratian had `called in to his aid against Maximian. In this version St Ursula is a daughter of Dionotus, king of Cornwall. Hermann alludes more than once to the Historia Britonum, and even to King Arthur.

The legend of St Ursula is perhaps the most curious instance of the development of an ecclesiastical myth. Even in the earliest form known to us this legend is probably the complex growth of centuries, and any claim to the discovery of the first germ can hardly approve itself to the historic sense. These remarks apply especially to that venerable rationalization which evolves the whole legend from a misreading of Undecimilla, the name of Ursula's companion, into undecim millia, i.e. i 1,000. A more modern theory makes St Ursula the Christianized representative of the old Teutonic goddess Freya, who, in Thuringia, under the name of HOrsel or Ursel, and in Sweden Old Urschel, welcomed the souls of dead maidens. Not a few singular coincidences seem to point in the same direction, especially the two virgins, "Martha and Saula," whom Usuard states to have suffered "cum aliis pluribus" on the 10th of October, whence they were probably transferred to the 21st. It is curious to note that Jerome and many of the earliest martyrologies extant have on the 21st of October the entry, "Dasius Zoticus, Gaius cum duodecim militibus." Even in copies of Jerome this is transformed into millibus; and it is perhaps not impossible that to this misreading we may indirectly owe the "thousands" in the Ursula legend. The two entries seem to be mutually exclusive in all the early martyrologies mentioned in this article, and in those printed in Migne, cxxxvii. The earlier "Dasius" entry seems to disappear steadily, though slowly, as the Ursula legend works its way into current martyrologies.

See H. Crombach, Vita et Martyrium S. Ursulae (Cologne, 1647), and the Bollandist Acta Sanctorum, 21st October, where the story fills 230 folio pages. The rationalization of the story is to be found in Oscar Schade, Die Sage von der heiligen Ursula (Hanover, 1854)+ of which there is a short résumé in S. Baring-Gould's Lives of the Saints. See also S. Baring-Gould, Popular Myths of the Middle Ages; A. G. Stein, Die Heilige Ursula (Cologne, 1879). The credibility of some of the details was doubted as early as the 13th century by Jacobus de Voragine in the Legenda aurea. For further works, especially medieval, see A. Potthast, Bibliotheca hist. med. aevi (Berlin, 1896), p. 1616. (T. A. A.; A. J. G.)

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