The history of St Ursula, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “rests on ten lines, and these are open to question” – but the subsequent legend “would fill more than a hundred pages”.
The ten lines in question form a Latin inscription in stone, attributed to Clematius and still existing today in the choir of the Church of St Ursula at Cologne in Germany.
Experts have declared that the stone dates back to the fourth or fifth century. The interpretation of the inscription has been much debated, but tells at least of the nobleman Clematius’ rebuilding of a ruined basilica on his own land in the city of Cologne, and he did so because he was prompted by visions to honour a number of virgins who has been martyred there.
The inscription entirely fails to name, date or number these poor souls, however, and Ursula herself only appears in documents dating from five centuries later.
Those later documents mention varying numbers of ‘virgins of Cologne’, from five to eight to eleven. Another document names them in the thousands, and days they were persecuted by the Roman emperors Diocletian and Maximian.
One tradition states that they came from the east, encouraged by a veiled reference to the Orient in Clematius’ inscription; another says they came from Great Britain.
By the tenth century, the group was universally referred to as “the eleven thousand virgins”, and always accompanying the name of Ursula.
The figure is widely agreed to have resulted from someone mistranscribing some Latin many centuries ago (reading “11 thousand” instead of “11 martyrs”), but the following story has stuck.
The legend tells that Ursula was the daughter of the king of Cornwall and was betrothed to the governor of Brittany, perhaps in the fourth century (her death is said to have been in 383).
She set sail to join him accompanied by 11,000 virgin handmaidens (clearly a huge fleet was needed – even the Titanic only held 2,220 people).
They became caught up in a storm which miraculously brought them to Gaul in only a single day, and Ursula was moved my this to set out on a pilgrimage to Rome and beyond before going to marry her fiancé.
At Rome, an otherwise unrecorded Pope by the name of Cyriacus was persuaded to join her. When they arrived at Cologne, they encountered the Huns who were laying siege to the city, and were massacred.
They were buried there, supposedly in the basilica that Clematius later repaired. A tradition dating back to the 16th century also says that St Mary Axe, a lost church in the city of London where the ‘Gherkin’ skyscraper now stands, was also named after Ursula and the virgins, and contained the axe that the Huns used to kill them.
Although so little, if anything, is known of Ursula, her name has inspired people down the ages since. In the 15th century, Columbus names the Virgin Islands after her. In 1520, Magellan also named a cape after the virgins.
Hildegard of Bingen wrote songs honouring Ursula and her handmaidens. In 1535, St Angela Merici founded the Order of Ursulines, dedicated to the education of young women, the first of its kind and still going today. Many similar congregations have been formed since.
Ursula’s memorial is 21 October, though she was removed from the universal calendar of saints by the Pope in 1969. As well as patron of young women, and students in general, she is still celebrated in Cologne and at the University of Paris.
Other ‘U’ Saints
- St Ulrich (890-973) was a Swiss nobleman and later bishop who built many churches. He was the first saint to be canonised by a Pope, and is patron against fever, dizziness, mice and moles (feast 4 July).