The Legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins

     I have included two versions of the legend here. One is from The Golden Legend of Jacobus Voragine, and the other described by Anna Jameson in Sacred and Legendary Art (Volume 2) as 'The Cologne version'. She does not give a source, but it is probably taken from The Passions of Cologne as described by the Catholic Encyclopaedia.  The two versions are similar, but there are interesting differences which make it worthwhile studying them side by side. 


  The Golden Legend Version                                      The Cologne Version

     One major element of disagreement between the various versions of the Legend is - where Ursula actually came from. In the original Caxton translation of the Golden Legend Ursula's father was a king 'in Britain'. Confusingly, the Pagan king who wished to marry his son to Ursula is described as the 'King of England'. In William Granger Ryan's modern translation of the Golden Legend these are rendered as 'Britain' and 'Anglia'. (The version included here is my own modernisation of the Caxton version, slightly abridged.)
   In Mrs Jameson's Cologne version Ursula's father was a King in Brittany, while the bridegroom was a pagan from over the channel in England. (This at least sounds true to life - there are still plenty of Pagans here.) However, other versions of the story firmly state that Ursula's father was King Dionotus of Dumnonia in south-west England - roughly centred on present day Cornwall and Devonshire - and the Pagan king was from Armorica, modern day Brittany. Geoffrey of Monmouth claims that the virgins were sent to Armorica by Dionotus to provide brides:

      'In the meanwhile the Gauls and Aquitanians did sore harass Conan and the Armorican Britons, and annoy them continually with repeated incursions, which Conan withstood, repaying slaughter with slaughter and right manfully defending the country committed unto him. And when the victory had fallen unto him, he was minded to give wives unto his comrades-in-arms so that unto them might be born heirs that should possess that land in perpetuity. And that they might make no mixture with the Gauls, he issued decree that women should come from the island of Britain to be married unto them. He therefore sent messengers into the island unto Dionotus, King of Cornwall, who had succeeded his brother Caradoc in the kingdom, that he should take charge of this business. For he himself teas noble and exceeding powerful, and unto him had Maximian entrusted the rule of the island while he himself was busied in the aforesaid emprises. Now Dionotus had a daughter of marvellous beauty whose name was Ursula, whom Conan did desire above all things beside. . . .'
(Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, Book 5 Chapter 14. c 1150.) 

Geoffrey tells us that the ships of the virgins were scattered and wrecked on 'barbarous islands' of the cost of Germany where they were slaughtered by the 'detestable Huns and Picts'.  A fourth and rather flowery version of the story by John Ruskin places the massacre in 'Slavonia', which must be very annoying to the citizens of Cologne.  (Link to text below).
   So here's a bald outline of the most familiar version of the tale. Ursula, the perfect Christian woman, caught the eye of a Pagan king and his son, who send ambassadors to Ursula's father to seek her hand in marriage. This left the father in difficulty - he didn't want to offend the powerful King, but he knew his daughter wouldn't be keen.
   The problem was solved by Ursula herself.  She agreed to the marriage, but set conditions that she thought the would be suitor couldn't possibly agree to.  He, and the whole of his father's court, would have to convert. He would have to allow her three years to 'dedicate her virginity', and would have to supply all those thousands of virgins. The cunning plan backfired, though; the prince and his father agreed to everything.
   The 11,000 virgins arrived, and they, Ursula, and a back-up team of knights and servants, set off on a pilgrimage.  They arrived in Cologne, then went to Basle, and finally turned up in Rome where the Pope, Ciriacus, was so impressed by Ursula that he decided to go along with her back to Cologne, even though he had been told in a dream that he himself would be martyred.
     The two villains of the piece - pagans called Maximus and Africanus - thought that all this could only encourage Christianity, so they sent word to their friends the Huns to slaughter them on arrival, which they did, along with Ursula's intended who had received a message telling him to get to Cologne (or Slavonia) to be martyred alongside Ursula.  At first, Ursula was spared, as she had caught the eye of the prince of the Huns, but when she refused his approaches she was shot in the heart with an arrow.

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The Catholic Encyclopaedia (an excellent and sceptical look at the St Ursula Legend.)

The Ruskin Text at Project Gutenberg. Open in a new tab.