Saint Ursula

Last week I mentioned the legends of St. Ursula and presented the rather scary picture above of her martyrdom along with that of the 1,000 virgins travelling with her. Since there were some questions, I thought I’d tell her story, or one of them, for there are many.

This, I think, might be the most complete version of the story. Ursula was the daughter of a king of Brittany (presumably in the third century, but possibly earlier). Both were Christians. A pagan king of England wanted her to marry his son, Conon. Ursula, not wanting to marry a pagan, insisted on some conditions. Conon would have to be baptised a Christian and go with her on a pilgrimage to Rome. For the journey, she would be given ten virgins as companions and each of them would have a thousand virgin attendants. Somewhat surprisingly, the English king and his son were able to meet these conditions and Ursula and her husband-to-be set off for Rome with their virgin companions.

They sailed along the Rhine, disembarking at Cologne and Basle. In Rome Pope Ciriacus (a late third-century pope) baptised Conon, who chose the name Etherius. The pope decided to return with them, but when they arrived at Cologne, it was being besieged by the Huns. These killed Etherius and, having failed to rape them, the virgin attendants. No mention is made of what happened to the pope, but his own story says that he was martyred around 303 just outside Rome. The leader of the Huns proposed marriage to Ursula and was refused. She was then shot with an arrow.

Yes, it doesn’t make much sense. It makes even less sense when you read that the whole thing grew out of a Latin inscription found in the church of St. Ursula in Cologne around 400. All that the inscription said was that a man named Clematius had restored a ruined church in dedication to some local virgin martyrs. There was nothing about who they were nor how they died.

Over the centuries embellishments were added and there’s one version of the story that has Ursula as a Cornish princess who sailed to Brittany to be married with 11,000 maidens and 60,000 serving women.

As a saint she was very popular in the area around Cologne; Northern France; what is now Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg; and Venice. Considering her supposed connection to England, she wasn’t at all popular here. One of my sources tells me that only two churches were dedicated to her in the early Middle Ages.

In 1969 the calendar of saints in the Roman Catholic church was reformed and saints for whom there was no real evidence that they had ever existed were dropped. St Ursula was one of them.

I don’t want you to think that I’m mocking the idea of virgin martyrs; I’m not. The ease with which Ursula’s story was created and embellished is a testament to how many young Christian women (and men) were martyred for their refusal to conform to the pagan world in which they lived. The names of the women martyred in Cologne are unknown, but their memory lives on in Ursula’s legends.

Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer
Hall’s Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art by James Hall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under The Medieval Church

23 responses to “Saint Ursula

  1. Interesting, thank you April. After seeing last week’s blog, I remembered vaguely something about a Cornish princess and her virgin attendants, but that was all.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That is sad, mad, and bad! I didn’t realise you can be an ex-saint, that’s not good for all the people who revered her. It is an amazing picture though, reminds me of the Book of Hours.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. What a wild tale! Thanks, April. It’s interesting how legends evolve over time.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Used to have a very thick volume about saints and their days, which had belonged to my very devout great-great-grandma. It was a serious work, but when I read it, I was mostly amused and/or just plain grossed-out due to the many, MANY virgins and disgusting ways the majority of them were martyred. Seemed like most of them had embellished histories.

    Vatican II wiped out the majority of them, so I’ve been told. Apparently parents-to-be and their priests used such books to select saints to represent their children. Saint days were celebrated sorta like second birthdays. If you read Maria Von Trapp’s book, she describes this tradition, which her family also followed. Great-great-grandma’s family was from southern Germany, which was predominately Catholic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There have been lots of persecutions, which means many martyrs, and persecutors can be quite inventive in the ways in which they torture and kill people. I’ve always found the stories of martyrs very moving, unless they’re obviously fanciful, as in the case of St Ursula. I can’t help wondering what the real martyrs who were commemorated by that church in Cologne went through.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the picture. She looks so mildly dismayed: Oh, dear, how inconvenient. I’ve been shot with an arrow.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. We have the example of Saint Ursula on how to behave when we’re faced with an army of bowmen (losing the composure she exemplifies).

    I’m having too much fun with this post. 😂

    Thank you, April and loyal minions! 💗

    Liked by 1 person

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