|Virgin and Martyr|
|Died||October 21, 383|
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church (formerly)|
|Major shrine||Church of St. Ursula, Cologne|
|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, England, archers, orphans, female students, Binangonan, Rizal|
Saint Ursula (Latin for 'little female bear') is a Romano-British Christian saint, died on October 21, 383. Her feast day in the pre-1970 General Roman Calendar is October 21. There is little definite information about her and the anonymous group of holy virgins who accompanied her and on some uncertain date were killed at Cologne. They remain in the Roman Martyrology, although their commemoration does not appear in the simplified Calendarium Romanum Generale (General Roman Calendar) of the 1970 Missale Romanum.
The earliest evidence of her is a 4th- or 5th-century inscription from the Church of St. Ursula, located on Ursulaplatz in Cologne which states that the ancient basilica had been restored on the site where some holy virgins were killed.
Her legendary status comes from a medieval story that she was a princess who, at the request of her father King Dionotus of Dumnonia in south-west Britain, set sail along with 11,000 virginal handmaidens to join her future husband, the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica. After a miraculous storm brought them over the sea in a single day to a Gaulish port, 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, though from late 384 AD there was a Pope Siricius), 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 massacre. The Huns' leader fatally shot Ursula with a bow and arrow in about 383 AD (the date varies).
The Catholic Encyclopedia (1911) states 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." Neither Jerome nor Gregory of Tours refers to Ursula in his writings. Gregory of Tours mentions the legend of the Theban Legion, to whom a church that once stood in Cologne was dedicated. The most important hagiographers (Bede, Ado, Usuard, Notker the Stammerer, Hrabanus Maurus) of the early Middle Ages also do not enter Ursula under October 21, her feast day.
A legend resembling Ursula's appeared in the first half of the tenth century; it does not mention the name Ursula, but rather gives the leader of the martyred group as Pinnosa or Vinnosa. Pinnosa's relics were transferred about 947 from Cologne to Essen, and from this point forward Ursula's role was emphasized. In 970, for example, the first Passio Ursulae was written, naming Ursula rather than Pinnosa as the group's leader (although Pinnosa is mentioned as one of the group's members). This change might also be due in part to the discovery at this time of an epitaph speaking of Ursula, the "innocent virgin".
According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th-century British cleric and writer, Ursula was the daughter of Dionotus, ruler of Cornwall. However, this may have been based on his misreading of the words Deo notus in the second Passio Ursulae, written about 1105. The plot may have been influenced by a story told by the 6th-century writer Procopius about a British queen sailing with 100,000 soldiers to the mouth of the Rhine in order to compel her unwilling groom Radigis, king of the Varni, to marry her.
While there was a tradition of virgin martyrs in Cologne by the fifth century, their number may have been limited to between two and eleven, according to different sources. Yet the cleric Wandelbert of the Abbey of Prüm stated in his martyrology in 848 that the number of martyrs counted "thousands of saints" who were slaughtered on the boards of the River Rhine. The 11,000 were first mentioned in the late 9th century; suggestions as to where this number came from have included the reading of 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 suggested that in the eighth or ninth century, when the relics of virgin martyrs were found, they included those of a girl named Ursula, who was eleven years old—in Latin, undecimilia. This was subsequently misread or misinterpreted as undicimila ('eleven thousand'), thus producing the legend of the 11,000 virgins. In fact, however, the stone bearing the virgin Ursula's name states that she lived eight years and two months. Another theory is that there was only one virgin martyr, named Undecimilla, "which by some blundering monk was changed into eleven thousand". It has also been suggested that cum [...] militibus, 'with [...] soldiers', was misread as cum [...] millibus, 'with [...] thousands'. Most contemporary sources, however, cling to the number 11,000. The Passio from the 970s tries to bridge conflicting traditions by stating that the eleven maidens each commanded a ship containing one thousand virgins. Implicitly, the legend also refers to the twelve heavenly legions, mentioned in Matthew 23:53.
The Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne holds the alleged relics of Ursula and her 11,000 companions. 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." 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 stuff of gold and caps of cloth of gold and velvet; loose bones thickly texture the upper walls." 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 they were distant relatives of the eleven thousand. A surgeon of eminence was once banished from Cologne for suggesting that, among the collection of bones which are said to pertain to the heads, there were several belonging to full-grown mastiffs. The relics may have come from a forgotten burial ground.
It has also been theorized that Ursula is a Christianized form of the goddess Freya, who welcomed the souls of dead maidens. Other 19th-century scholars have referred to the goddesses Nehalennia, Nerthus and Holda.
Nothing reliable is known about the girls said to have been martyred at the spot. A commemoration of Saint Ursula and her companions in the Mass of Saint Hilarion, formerly in the General Roman Calendar on October 21, 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". However, they are still mentioned in the Roman Martyrology, the official but professedly incomplete list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church, which speaks of them 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."
Cordula was, according to a legend in an edition of the Roman Martyrology presented in an English translation on a traditionalist Catholic website, 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, Joachim Sighart recounts that, on February 14, 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. Cordula's head was claimed by the Cathedral of Palencia. She is listed in the Roman Martyrology on October 22.
There are striking parallels between the 11th-century legend of Ursula and the story of Sunniva of Selje. Their names were sometimes confused by contemporaries. Both saints were considered to be Christian princesses who fled their homeland by ship in order to postpone or avert an undesired marriage with a pagan king. Both were accompanied by a large group of associates, both became victims of hostile foes. The development of their legends may have been interdependent. The martyrdom of Sunniva, however, took place after the first draft of the Passio Ursulae.
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.