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St. Ursula

St Ursula ("little female bear" in Latin) is a British Christian saint. Her feast day in the extraordinary form calendar of the Catholic Church is October 21. The Order of Ursulines, founded in 1535 by Angela Merici, and especially devoted to the education of young girls, has also helped to spread Ursula's name throughout the world. St. Ursula was named the patron saint of students.

Because of the lack of definite information about the anonymous group of holy virgins who on some uncertain date were killed at Cologne, their commemoration was omitted from the Catholic calendar of saints for liturgical celebration when it was revised in 1969, but they have been kept in the Roman Martyrology.

Her legend, probably unhistorical, is that she was a Romano-British princess who, at the request of her father King Dionotus of Dumnonia in south-west Britain, set sail to join her future husband, the pagan governor Conan Meriadoc of Armorica, along with 11,000 virginal handmaidens. 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), 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 shot Ursula dead, in about 383 (the date varies).


The legend of Ursula is based on a 4th- or 5th-century inscription from the Church of St. Ursula (on the Ursulaplatz) in Cologne. It states that the ancient basilica had been restored on the site where some holy virgins were killed. The text of the inscription is:


The Catholic Encyclopedia 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 their 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, Rabanus Maurus) of the early Middle Ages also do not enter Ursula under 21 October, her feast day. A legend resembling Ursula's appeared in its full form between 731 and 839, but it does not mention the name of Ursula, but that of Pinnosa or Vinnosa as the leader of the martyred group.

While there was a tradition of virgin martyrs in Cologne by the 5th century, this was limited to a small number between two and eleven according to different sources. The 11,000 were first mentioned in the 9th century; suggestions as to where this came from have included reading 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 written that in the eighth century, the relics of virgin martyrs were found, among which were included those of a girl named Ursula, who was eleven years old-–in Latin, undecimilia. Undecimilia was subsequently misread or misinterpreted as undicimila (11,000), thus producing the legend of the 11,000 virgins. 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".

The Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne contains 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 these children 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.

Nothing is known about the girls, if any, who are said to have been martyred at the spot. The commemoration, in the Mass of Saint Hilarion on 21 October, of Saint Ursula and her companions that was formerly in the Catholic calendar of saints for use wherever the Roman Rite is celebrated 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". The Roman Martyrology, the official but professedly incomplete list of saints recognized by the Catholic Church, speaks of these virgin saints 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." Their feast day remains 4 August.

There is one other Christian church dedicated to Saint Ursula. It is in the small village of Llangwyryfon, near Aberystwyth in west Wales. The village name translates as "Church of the virgins". The church is dedicated to her because she is believed to have originated from this area.


Hildegard of Bingen composed many chants in honour of her. It was recorded that Elizabeth of Schonau experienced a vision that revealed to her the martyrdom of Ursula and her companions.

The street in London called St Mary Axe is sometimes said to be derived from a church, now demolished, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. It was said to be located where the skyscraper informally known as "the Gherkin" is now located. The church contained a holy relic: an axe used by the Huns to execute the virgins. However, this legend cannot be dated any earlier than 1514.

In the 1480s, Hans Memling fashioned a wooden shrine that contained the relics of Ursula, which is now at the Hans Memlingmuseum in Bruges. It told the story of Ursula in six bow-arched panels, with the two front panels showing Ursula accompanied by 10 virgins, each representing 1,000 virgins.

On 21 October 1521, Ferdinand Magellan rounded Cape Virgenes and entered the Straits of Magellan, naming the cape after Ursula's virgins. Portuguese explorer Joao Alvares Fagundes in 1521 named 'Eleven Thousand Virgins' what is now known as Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

A tradition in the Swiss city of Basel, about 400 km south of Cologne, holds that Ursula and her companions passed through Basel intending to go to Rome. The legend is commemorated in the name of Eleven Thousand Virgins Alley (Elftausendjungfern-Gasslein), which climbs one side of the Munsterberg, a hill in the centre of the city.

The Order of Ursulines, founded in 1535 by Angela Merici, and especially devoted to the education of young girls, has also helped to spread Ursula's name throughout the world. St. Ursula was named the patron saint of students.

Michael Haydn wrote the Missa in honorem Sanctae Ursulae to commemorate the day Ursula Oswald joined a Bemedictine Abbey.


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 (R. Washbourne, 1876), 360-362, Joachim Sighart recounts that, on 14 February 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 Konigswinter and Rimini. Cordula's head was claimed by the Cathedral of Palencia.

The text in this box was generated from a Wikipedia article, which is released under the CC-BY-SA.

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Item Number: KRCM-78
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Title: Hand Carved Wood or Marble Statue of St. Ursula
Item Number: KRNM-A1136
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