Saints of the Day – Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins of Cologne

Saint UrsulaArticle

A group of virgins who were martyred at Cologne, Germany, perhaps under Diocletian in the 4th c.Their number probably 11 rather than 11,000, an exaggeration due to a misreading of Roman numerals and letters (Encyclopedia), or because of later events. During the 12th century a pious romance was preposterously elaborated through the mistakes of imaginative visionaries; a public burial ground uncovered at Cologne was taken to be the grave of the martyrs, false relics came into circulation, and forged epitaphs of non- existent persons were produced (Attwater).

There are two forms of the legend: one in Cologne and another Gallic. The legend says that Ursula was the daughter of a Christian king of Britain, who was granted a three-year postponement of a marriage she did not wish to a pagan prince, set sail with 10 companions in 11 ships. Each of her companions travelled with 1,000 maid-servants. They sailed to Cologne and then along the Rhein to Basel. At Basel they moored their ships and crossed the Alps in order to visit Rome. Ursula decided to lead her companions back to Cologne. There the leader of the Huns fell in love with her, was spurned, and massacred both the British princess and her 11,000 companions.

According to another legend, Amorica was settled by British colonizers and soldiers after Emperor Magnus Clemens Maximu conquered Britain and Gaul in 383. The ruler of the settlers, Cynan Meiriadog, called on King Dionotus of Cornwall for wives for the settlers, whereupon Dionotus sent his daughter Ursula, who was to marry Cynan, with 11,000 noble maidens and 60,000 common women. Their fleet was shipwrecked and all the women were enslaved or murdered (Delaney).

The story is difficult to believe as it stands. The earliest reference to the legend of her speaks only of 10 companions. The present story began to be told only in the 8th or 9th century. Yet some truth attaches itself to the tale, as is generally the case. An ancient stone let into the wall of Saint Ursula’s Church in Cologne records that a certain senator Clematius rebuilt a memorial church in the 4th century over on the site of the martyrdom of a number of maidens. Nothing more is said about them for another 400 years, when in the ninth century the ramifying legend appears as taking shape (Attwater).

Baring-Gould suggests that Saint Ursula with her bow and arrow, her ship and company of maidens, sails up the Rhine as Urschel, the Teutonic moon goddess, sailed before her, with all the graceful attributes of Isis and Diana. She is likely to be one of the saints who has become confused with the old gods, that is, a real martyr’s story has been embellished with that particulars of an old myth (Roeder).

Saint Ursula is represented as a princess holding an arrow. Sometimes (1) with maidens under her mantle; (2) an angel comes to her as she sleeps (Vittore Carpaccio’s The Dream of Saint Ursula); (3) she takes leave of her royal parents; (4) in a boat surrounded by maidens and ecclesiastics, as she sails down the Rhein; or (5) she and her companions massacred by bowmen (Roeder).

Other images include:

Giovanni Bellini’s Virgin with Saints Mary Magdalene and Ursula

Vittore Carpaccio’s The Apotheosis of Saint Ursula, 1491, Venice.

Claude Lorrain’s The Embarkation of Saint Ursula.

Saint Ursula is venerated at Cologne. She is considered the patroness of maidens, drapers, and teachers; invoked for chastity and holy wedlock, and against the plague (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 5 August 2020. Web. 3 December 2020. <>