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Most of what we know about Saint Ursula is from legend. Actually, legends, plural, with many fantastic elements. But I suspect there is truth buried within this story of courage. Virgins were martyred in Cologne, Germany, and they might have come from Britain.

The oldest version, a fifth-century Latin inscription in a Cologne church bearing Saint Ursula’s name, provides only a hint: “Often admonished by divine visions and by the consideration of the majesty of the martyrdom of the holy virgins who appeared to him, Clematius, a nobleman of the East, according to vow, thoroughly restored this basilica on his own estate and at his own expense (translation from Golden Hours by J. Jackson Wray).” A ninth-century addendum gives a dire warning: “But if anyone, notwithstanding the majesty of the place where the holy virgins shed their blood for the name of Christ, should dare to bury any person here, let him know that he shall be punished by the eternal fire of hell.”

The century of the virgins’ martyrdom is unclear; it could be third, fourth, or fifth.

In earlier versions of the story, who is leading the group changes, but later versions settle on Ursula. And the number of Ursula’s companions was closer to 10 than 11,000, the latter number appearing by the ninth century.

Nicolo di Pietro's

Nicolo di Pietro’s St. Ursula, circa 1410

The legend is more fleshed out in the 11th century. Ursula and the pagan Aetherius are betrothed. Having pledged herself to Christ, Ursula seeks to delay the marriage by going on pilgrimage. She takes 10 attendants, and each woman has 1,000 companions. They sail on the Rhine and stop at Cologne, where an angel tells Ursula they will be martyred on their return visit to the city.

Undeterred, Ursula and her companions continue their journey. At Basel, they pick up the local bishop and go all the way to Rome. There, the remaining pagans, including Aetherius, are baptized. Moved by a vision of an army of martyrs, the British-born Pope Cyriacus abdicates, so that he can share their martyrdom. (Conspiracy theorists explain you can’t find any mention of this pope in the records because the powers in Rome were so mad they erased his name.)

The group returns to Cologne, where they are indeed slaughtered with arrows by Huns in hatred of the faith. Then the army of martyrs drives the Huns away.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s fictionalized history of Britain, Ursula is the daughter of Dianotus, king of Cornwell, and she and her companions are being sent to Armorica (Brittany) to provide conquering soldiers with wives. After being shipwrecked, the women are slaughtered by – you guessed it – the Huns, angry at being rebuffed by the beautiful ladies. No mention of vows of chastity or dying for Christ.

Hans Holbein the Younger's

Hans Holbein the Younger’s St. Ursula, circa 1523

Regardless of what is accurate about the legend, the martyrs existed and their story of courage has inspired generations of believers.

About 1,000 years after the virgins’ death, their story was included in The Golden Legend, a book read to St. Angela de Merici when she was a child. Ursula’s legend must have stayed with her throughout her life. In 1535, the 61-year-old Angela founded an order under the patronage of Saint Ursula. The Ursulines are best known for educating girls, founding communities and schools throughout the world.

Images are in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources

Golden Hours, J. Jackson Wray

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

St. Angela Merici,” Michael Ott. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1.

The British History of Geoffrey of Monmouth

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

Sisters of the Irish Ursuline Union

This post was originally published Jan. 16, 2014, at English Historical Fiction Authors.

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