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While researching an upcoming post about Saint Ursula and her companions, I came across a conspiracy theory involving why there are no official records of a medieval pope martyred in Cologne.

St. Ursula and her companions meet Pope Cyriacus

The arrival of St. Ursula and her companions in Rome to meet Pope Cyriacus, from the Reliquary of St. Ursula, Hans Memling, 1489

According to legend, Ursula and her companions – including 11,000 virgins – visited Rome on their pilgrimage and met Pope Cyriacus. The pagans in Ursula’s group were baptized. Moved by a vision of an army of martyrs, he relinquished the papacy to follow Ursula and her group and was slaughtered with them in Cologne.

Problem is, Pope Cyriacus appears only in this legend. Conspiracy theorists say that the cardinals were so angry, they erased his name from the books.

It sounds like an easy job. Because of the expense, books in early medieval Europe were rare and precious. With few people who knew how to read, let alone write, information about early medieval times can be scarce. But in my research about the Carolingian era, a few centuries after Ursula died, evidence of a pope’s existence is not confined to documents in Rome.  We have mentions in annals and surviving letters.

So the conspirators must have done a thorough job. In an age where messages took weeks to deliver, they would have had to hunt down monasteries and Christian kings to wipe out any trace of Cyriacus’s existence.

The story of Cyriacus is not the only invention in the legends about Ursula. Even the Catholic Encyclopedia has used the word “fables” when recounting the details. But Ursula’s story is still worth sharing because at its core is a tale of courage that has inspired generations. More about Ursula next time.


St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins,” Albert Poncelet. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15.

St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne: Relics, Reliquaries and the Visual Culture of Group Sanctity in Late Medieval Europe, Scott B. Montogomery