Catholic Encyclopedia – Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins

[Saint Ursula]Article

The history of these celebrated virgins of Cologne rests on ten lines, and these are open to question. 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. Subsequently, despite efforts more ingenious than scientific to save at least a part, the apocryphal character of the whole has been recognized by degrees. Briefly, for the solid reconstruction of the true history of the virgin martyrs, there is only the inscription of Clematius and some details furnished by ancient liturgical books. Unfortunately, these latter are very meager, and the inscription is in part extremely obscure. This document, carved on a stone which may be seen in the choir of the Church of Saint Ursula at Cologne, is couched in the following terms:


Its authenticity, which is accepted beyond the shadow of a doubt by the most eminent epigraphists (de Rossi, Ritschl), has sometimes been suspected without good reason, and Domaszewski (C. I. L., XIII, ii, 2, no. 1313) is mistaken in asserting that the stone was not carved until the fifteenth century. It belongs indisputably to the fifth century at the latest, and very probably to the fourth. The recent hypothesis of Reise, according to which the first eight lines, as far as RESTITVIT, belong to the fourth century, while the rest were added in the ninth, is more elegant than solid. With still greater reason must we reject as purely arbitrary that of J. Ficker, which divides the first eight lines into two parts, the first being of pagan origin and dating from before the Christian Era, the second dating from the second century. But despite its authenticity the inscription is far from clear. Many attempts have been made to interpret it, none of them satisfactory, but at least the following import may be gathered: A certain Clematius, a man of senatorial rank, who seems to have lived in the Orient before going to Cologne, was led by frequent visions to rebuild in this city, on land belonging to him, a basilica which had fallen into ruins, in honour of virgins who had suffered martyrdom on that spot.

This brief text is very important, for it testifies to the existence of a previous basilica, dating perhaps from the beginning of the fourth century, if not from the pre-Constantinian period. For the authentic cult and hence for the actual existence of the virgin martyrs, it is a guarantee of great value, but it must be added that the exact date of the inscription is unknown, and the information it gives is very vague. It does not indicate the number of the virgins, their names, or the period of their martyrdom. Nor does any other document supply any probable details on the last point. Our ignorance on the first two is lessened to a certain extent by the mention on 21 Oct. in various liturgical texts (martyrologies, calendars, litanies) of virgins of Cologne, now five, now eight, now eleven, for example: Ursula, Sencia, Gregoria, Pinnosa, Martha, Saula, Britula, Saturnina, Rabacia, Saturia, and Palladia. Without doubt none of these documents is prior to the ninth century, but they are independent of the legend, which already began to circulate, and their evidence must not be entirely overlooked. It is noteworthy that in only one of these lists Ursula ranks first.

After the inscription of Clematius there is a gap of nearly five hundred years in our documents, for no trace of the martyrs is found again until the ninth century. The oldest written text, “Sermo in natali sanctarum Coloniensium virginum”, which seems to date from this period, serves to prove that there was at Cologne no precise tradition relating to the virgin martyrs. According to this, they were several thousand in number, and suffered persecution during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian. The names of only a few of them were known, and of these the writer gives only one, that of Pinnosa, who was then regarded as the most important of the number. Some persons, probably in accordance with an interpretation, certainly questionable, of the inscription of Clematius, considered them as coming from the East, and connected them with the martyrs of the Theban Legion; others held them to be natives of Great Britain, and this was the opinion shared by the authors of the “Sermo”. Apparently some time after the “Sermo” we find the martyrology of Wandalbert of Prüm, compiled about 850, which speaks of several thousand virgins. On the other hand Usuard, in his martyrology dating from about 875, mentions only “Martha and Saula with several others”. But as early as the end of the ninth century or the beginning of the tenth, the phrase “the eleven thousand virgins” is admitted without dispute. How was this number reached? All sorts of explanations have been offered, some more ingenious than others. The chief and rather gratuitous suppositions have been various errors of reading or interpretation, e.g., “Ursula and her eleven thousand companions” comes from the two names Ursula and Undecimillia (Sirmond), or from Ursula and Ximillia (Leibniz), or from the abbreviation XI. M. V. (undecim martyres virgines), misinterpreted as undecim millia virginum, etc. It has been conjectured, and this is less arbitrary, that it is the combination of the eleven virgins mentioned in the ancient liturgical books with the figure of several thousand (millia) given by Wandalbert. However it may be, this number is henceforth accepted, as is also the British origin of the saints, while Ursula is substituted for Pinnosa and takes the foremost place among the virgins of Cologne.

The experiences of Ursula and her eleven thousand companions became the subject of a pious romance which acquired considerable celebrity. Besides the subsequent revisions of this story there are two ancient versions, both originating at Cologne. One of these (Fuit tempore pervetusto) dates from the second half of the ninth century (969-76), and was only rarely copied during the Middle Ages. The other (Regnante Domino), also compiled in the ninth century, had a wide circulation, but adds little of importance to the first. The author of the latter, probably in order to win more credence for his account, claims to have received it from one who in turn heard it from the lips of Saint Dunstan of Canterbury, but the serious anachronisms which he commits in saying this place it under suspicion. This legendary account is well known: Ursula, the daughter of a Christian king of Great Britain, was asked in marriage by the son of a great pagan king. Desiring to remain a virgin, she obtained a delay of three years. At her request she was given as companions ten young women of noble birth, and she and each of the ten were accompanied by a thousand virgins, and the whole company, embarking in eleven ships sailed for three years. When the appointed time was come, and Ursula’s betrothed was about to claim her, a gale of wind carried the eleven thousand virgins far from the shores of England, and they went first by water to Cologne and thence to Basle, then by land from Basle to Rome. They finally returned to Cologne, where they were slain by the Huns in hatred of the Faith.

The literary origin of this romance is not easy to determine. Apart from the inscription of Clematius, transcribed in the Passion “Fuit tempore” and paraphrased in the “Regnante Domino” Passion and the “Sermo in natali”, the writers seem to have been aware of a Gallic legend of which a late version is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth: the usurper Maximus (as Geoffrey calls the Emperor Maximian), having conquered British Armorica, sent there from Great Britain 100,000 colonists and 30,000 soldiers, and committed the government of Armorica to his former enemy, now his friend, the Breton prince, Conanus Meriadocus. The latter decided to bring women from Great Britain to marry them to his subjects, to which end he appealed to Dionotus, King of Cornwall, who sent him his daughter Ursula, accompanied by 11,000 noble virgins and 60,000 other young women. As the fleet which carried them sailed towards Armorica, a violent storm destroyed some of the ships and drove the rest of them to barbarian islands in Germany, where the virgins were slain by the Huns and the Picts. The improbabilities, inconsistencies, and anachronisms of Geoffrey’s account are obvious, and have often been dealt with in detail: moreover the story of Ursula and her companions is clothed with a less ideal character than in the Passions of Cologne. However, this account has been regarded by several writers since Baronius as containing a summary of the true history of the holy martyrs. Like the Passions of Cologne, it has been subjected to the anti-scientific method, which consists in setting aside as false the improbabilities, impossibilities, and manifest fables, and regarding the rest as authentic history. As a consequence two essential traits remain: the English origin of the saints and their massacre by the Huns; and then, according as adherence is given to the “Sermo in natali”, Geoffrey of Monmouth, or the Passion “Regnante Domino”, the martyrdom of Saint Ursula is placed in the third, fourth, or fifth century. In order to account for all the details, two massacres of virgins at Cologne have been accepted, one in the third century, the other in the fifth. The different solutions with their variations suggested by scholars, sometimes with levity, sometimes with considerable learning, all share the important defect of being based on relatively late documents, unauthoritative and disfigured by manifest fables.

No conclusion can be drawn from these texts. Nevertheless, the fables they contain are insignificant in comparison with those which were invented and propagated later. As they are now unhesitatingly rejected by everyone, it suffices to treat them briefly. In the twelfth century there were discovered in the Ager Ursulanus at Cologne, some distance from the Church of Saint Ursula, skeletons not only of women, but of little children, and even of men, and with them inscriptions which it is impossible not to recognize as gross forgeries. All this gave rise to a number of fantastic legends, which are contained in the accounts of the vision of Saint Elizabeth of Schonau, and of a religious who has been regarded as identical with Blessed Hermann Joseph of Steinfeld. It may be remarked in passing that visions have played an important part in the question of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, as may be seen in those of Clematius and of the nun Helintrude contained in the Passion “Regnante Domino”. Those of the twelfth century, in combination with the inscriptions of the Ager Ursulanus, resulted in furnishing the names of a great many of the male and female companions of Ursula, in particular — and this will suffice to give an idea of the rest — that of a Pope Cyriacus, a native of Great Britain, said to have received the virgins at the time of their pilgrimage to Rome, to have abdicated the papal chair in order to follow them, and to have been martyred with them at Cologne. No doubt it was readily acknowledged that this Pope Cyriacus was unknown in the pontifical records, but this, it was said, was because the cardinals, displeased with his abdication, erased his name from all the books. Although the history of these saints of Cologne is obscure and very short, their cult was very widespread, and it would require a volume to relate in detail its many and remarkable manifestations. To mention only two characteristics, since the twelfth century a large number of relics have been sent from Cologne, not only to neighbouring countries but throughout Western Christendom, and even India and China. The legend of the Eleven Thousand Virgins has inspired a host of works of art, several of them of the highest merit, the most famous being the paintings of the old masters of Cologne, those of Memling at Bruges, and of Carpaccio at Venice.

The Order of Ursulines, founded in 1535 by Saint Angela de Merici, and especially devoted to the education of young girls, has also helped to spread throughout the world the name and the cult of Saint Ursula.

MLA Citation

  • Albert Poncelet. “Saint Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. 20 October 2013. Web. 16 April 2014. <>