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

'Cologne version' (From Anna Jameson)

Once on a time there reigned in Brittany a king, whose name was Theonotus, and he was married to a Sicilian princess whose name was Daria. Both were Christians, and they were blessed with one daughter, whom they called Ursula, and whom they educated with exceeding care.
      When Ursula was about fifteen, her mother, Queen Daria, died, leaving the king almost inconsolable; but Ursula, though so young, supplied the place of her mother in the court. She was not only wonderfully beautiful, and gifted with all the external graces of her sex, but accomplished in all the learning of the time. Her mind was a perfect storehouse of wisdom and knowledge: she had read about the stars and the courses of the winds ; all that had ever happened in the world from the days of Adam she had by heart ; the poets and the philosophers were to her what childish recreations are to others : but, above all, she was profoundly versed in theology and school divinity, so that the doctors were astonished and confounded by her argumentative powers. To these accomplishments were added the more excellent gifts of humility, piety, and charity, so that she was esteemed the most accomplished princess of the time. Her father, who loved her as the light of his eyes, desired nothing better than to keep her always at his side.
     But the fame of her beauty, her virtue, and her wondrous learning, was spread through all the neighbouring lands, so that many of the neighbouring princes desired her in marriage: but Ursula refused every offer.

     Not far from Brittany, on the other side of the great ocean, was a country called England, vast and powerful, but the people were still in the darkness of paganism ; and the king of this country had an only son, whose name was Conon, as celebrated for his beauty of person, his warlike prowess, and physical strength, as Ursula for her piety, her graces, and her learning.

    He was now old enough to seek a wife ; and his father, King Agrippinus, hearing of the great beauty and virtue of Ursula, sent ambassadors to demand her in marriage for his son.

When the ambassadors arrived at the palace of the King of Brittany, they were very courteously received, but the king was secretly much embarrassed, for he knew that his daughter had made a vow of perpetual chastity, having dedicated herself to Christ; at the same time he feared to offend the powerful monarch of England by refusing his request. Therefore he delayed to give an answer, and, having commanded the ambassadors to be sumptuously lodged and entertained, he retired to his chamber, and, leaning his head on his hand, he meditated what was best to be done; but he could think of no help to deliver him from this strait.

    While thus he sat apart in doubt and sadness, the princess entered, and, learning the cause of his melancholy, she said with a smile, ' Is this all ? Be of good cheer, my king and father! for, if it please you, I will myself answer these ambassadors.' And her father replied, ' As thou wilt, my daughter.'

   So the next day, when the ambassadors were again introduced, St. Ursula was seated on a throne by her father's side, and, having: received and returned their salutation with unspeakable grace and dignity, she thus addressed them: ' I thank my lord the King of England, and Conon, his princely son, and his noble barons, and you, sirs, his honourable ambassadors, for the honour ye have done me, so much greater than my deserving. I hold myself bound to your king as to a second father, and to the prince his son as to my brother and bridegroom, for to no other will I ever listen. But I have to ask three things. First, he shall give for me as my ladies and companions ten virgins of the noblest blood in his kingdom, and to each of these a thousand attendants, and to me also a thousand maidens to wait on me. Secondly, he shall permit me for the space of three years to honours my virginity, and, with my companions, to visit the holy shrines where repose the bodies of the saints. And my third demand is, that the prince and his court shall receive baptism; for other than a perfect Christian I cannot wed.'

      Now you shall understand that this wise princess, Ursula, made these conditions, thinking in her heart, 'either the King of England will refuse these demands, or, if he grant them, then eleven thousand virgins are redeemed and dedicated to the service of God.' The ambassadors, being dismissed with honour, returned to their own country, where they made such a report of the unequalled beauty and wisdom of the princess that the king thought no conditions too hard, and the prince his son was inflamed by desire to obtain her; so he commanded himself to be forthwith baptized ; and the king wrote letters to all his vassals in his kingdom of France, in Scotland, and in the province of Cornwall, to all his princes, dukes, counts, barons, and noble knights, desiring that they would send him the required number of maidens, spotless and beautiful, and of noble birth, to wait on the princess Ursula, who was to wed his heir the Prince Conon; and from all parts these noble virgins came trooping, fair and accomplished in all female learning, and attired in rich garments, wearing jewels of gold and silver. Being assembled in Brittany, in the capital of King Theonotus, Ursula received them not only with great gladness and courtesy, but with a sisterly tenderness, and with thanksgiving, praising God that so many of her own sex had been redeemed from the world's vanities: and the fame of this noble assembly of virgins having gone forth to all the countries round about, the barons and knights were gathered together from east and west to view this spectacle; and you may think how much they were amazed and edified by the sight of so much beauty and so much devotion.

    Now when Ursula had collected all her virgins together, on a fresh and fair morning in the springtime, she desired them to meet in a meadow near the city, which meadow was of the freshest green, all over enamelled with the brightest flowers; and she ascended a throne which was raised in the midst, and preached to all the assembled virgins of things concerning the glory of God, and of his Son our Lord and Saviour, with wonderful eloquence; and of Christian charity, and of a pure and a holy life dedicated to Heaven. And all these virgins, being moved with a holy zeal, wept, and, lifting up their hands and their voices, promised to follow her whithersoever she should lead. And she blessed them and comforted them; and as there were many among them who had never received baptism, she ordered that they should be baptized in the clear stream which flowed through that flowery meadow.

   Then Ursula called for a pen, and wrote a letter to her bridegroom, the son of the King of England, saying, that as he had complied with all her wishes and fulfilled all her demands, he had good leave to wait upon her forthwith. So he, as became a true knight, came immediately; and she received him with great honour; and, in presence of her father, she said to him,  Sir, my gracious prince and consort, it has been revealed to me in a vision that I must depart hence on my pilgrimage to visit the shrines in the holy city of Rome, with these my companions; thou meanwhile shalt remain here to comfort my father and assist him in his government till my return ; or if God should dispose of me otherwise, this kingdom shall be yours by right.' Some say that the prince remained, but others relate that he accompanied her on her voyage; however this may be, the glorious virgin embarked with all her maidens on board a fleet of ships prepared for them, and many holy prelates accompanied them.

    There were no sailors on board, and it was a wonder to see with what skill these wise virgins steered the vessels and managed the sails, being miraculously taught we must therefore suppose that it was by no mistake of theirs, but by the providence of God, that they sailed to the north instead of the south, and were driven by the winds into the mouth of the Rhine as far as the port of Cologne. Here they reposed for a brief time, during which it was revealed to St. Ursula, that on her return she and her companions should on that spot suffer martyrdom for the cause of God: all which she made known to her companions ; and they all together lifted up their voices in hymns of thanksgiving that they should be found worthy so to die.

    So they proceeded on their voyage up the river till they came to the city of Basle; there they disembarked, and crossed over the high mountains into the plains of Liguria. Over the rocks and snows of the Alps they were miraculously conducted, for six angels went before them perpetually, clearing the road from all impediments, throwing bridges over the mountain torrents, and every night pitching tents for their shelter and refreshment. So they came at length to the river Tiber, and, descending the river, they reached Rome, that famous city, where is the holy shrine of St. Peter and St. Paul.

    In those days was Cyriacus bishop of Rome: he was famous for his sanctity; and hearing of the arrival of St. Ursula and all her fair and glorious company of maidens, he was, as you may suppose, greatly amazed and troubled in mind, not knowing what it might portend. So he went out to meet them, with all his clergy in procession. When St. Ursula, kneeling down before him, explained to him the cause of her coming, and implored his blessing for herself and her companions, who can express his admiration and contentment! He not only gave them his blessing, but commanded that they should be honourably lodged and entertained; and, to preserve their maidenly honour and decorum, tents were pitched for them outside the walls of the city, on the plain towards Tivoli.

   Now it happened that the valiant son of King Appinus, who had been left in Brittany, became every day more and more impatient to learn some tidings of his princess-bride, and at length he resolved toset out in search of her; and, by a miracle, he had arrived in the city of Rome on the selfsame day, but by a different route. Being happily reunited, he knelt with Ursula at the feet of Cyriacus and received baptism at his hands, changing his name from Conon to that of Ethereus, to express the purity and regeneration of his soul. He no longer aspired to the possession of Ursula, but fixed his hope on sharing with her the crown of martyrdom on earth, looking to a perpetual reunion in heaven, where neither sorrow nor separation should touch them more.

    After this blessed company had duly performed their devotions at the shrine of St. Peter and St. Paul, the good Cyriacus would fain have detained them longer: but Ursula showed him that it was necessary they should depart in order to receive the crown ' already laid up for them in heaven.' When the bishop heard this, he resolved to accompany her. In vain his clergy represented that it did not become a pope of Rome and a man of venerable years to run after a company of maidens, however immaculate they might be. But Cyriacus had been counselled by an angel of God, and he made ready to set forth and embark with them on the river Rhine.

    Now it happened that there were at Rome in those days two great Roman captains, cruel heathens, who commanded all the Imperial troops in Germania. They, being astonished at the sight of this multitude of virgins, said one to the other,  'Shall we suffer this? If we allow these Christian maidens to return to Germania, they will convert the whole nation; or if they marry husbands, then they will have so many children —no doubt all Christians — that our empire will cease; therefore let us take counsel what is best to be done.'

    So these wicked pagans consulted together, and wrote letters to a certain barbarian king of the Huns, who was then besieging Cologne, and instructed him what he should do.

    Meanwhile St. Ursula and her virgins, with her husband and his faithful knights, prepared to embark. With them went Pope Cyriacus, and in his train Vincenzio and Giacomo, cardinals; and Solfino, archbishop of Ravenna; and Folatino, bishop of Lucca; and the bishop of Faenza, and the patriarch of Grado, and many other prelates: and after a long and perilous journey they arrived in the port of Cologne.

    They found the city besieged by a great army of barbarians encamped on a plain outside the gates. These pagans, seeing a number of vessels, filled, not with fierce warriors, but beautiful virgins, unarmed youths, and venerable bearded men, stood still at first, staring with amazement ; but after a short pause, remembering their instructions, they rushed upon the unresisting victims. One of the first who perished was the Prince Ethercus, who fell, pierced through by an arrow, at the feet of his beloved princess. Then Cyriacus, the cardinals, and several barons, sank to the earth, or perished in the stream.

    When the men were dispatched, the fierce barbarians rushed upon the virgins just as a pack of gaunt hungry wolves might fall on a flock of milk-white lambs. Finding that the noble maidens resisted their brutality, their rage was excited, and they drew their swords and massacred them all.

    Then was it worthy of all admiration to behold these illustrious virgins, who had struggled to defend their virtue, now meekly resigned, and ready as sheep for the slaughter, embracing and encouraging each other! Oh, then! Had you seen the glorious St. Ursula, worthy to be the captain and leader of this army of virgin martyrs, how she flew from one to the other, heartening them with brave words to die for their faith and honour! Inspired by her voice, her aspect, they did not quail, but offered themselves to death; and thus by hundreds and by thousands they perished, and the plain was strewed with their limbs and ran in rivers with their blood. But the barbarians, awed by the majestic beauty of St. Ursula, had no power to strike her, but carried her before their prince, who, looking: on her with admiration, said to her, ' Weep not, for though thou has lost thy companions, I will be thy husband, and thou shalt be the greatest queen in all Germany!' To which St. Ursula, all glowing with indignation and a holy scorn, replied, O thou cruel man! — blind and senseless as thou art cruel! Thinkest thou I can weep?  Or dost thou hold me so base, so cowardly, that I would consent to survive my dear companions and sisters . Thou art deceived, O son of Sathan! for I defy thee, and him whom thou servest !’

   When the proud pagan heard these words, he was seized with fury, and bending his bow, which he held in his hand, he, with three arrows, transfixed her pure breast, so that she fell dead, and her spirit ascended into heaven, with all the glorious sisterhood of martyrs whom she had led to death, and with her betrothed husband and his companions: and there, with palms in their hands and crowns upon their heads, they stand round the throne of Christ; and live in his light and in his approving smile, blessing him and praising him forever. — Amen !

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