The legend of Saint Ursula is based on a 4th- or 5th-century inscription from the Church of St. Ursula, located on Ursulaplatz in Cologne. It states that the ancient basilica had been restored on the site where some holy virgins were killed. In Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea (1265–66; Golden Legend) Ursula is a British princess who went to Rome accompanied by 11,000 virgins and was killed with them by the Huns on the return from the pilgrimage. Although it is generally agreed that Ursula was of Romano-British descent and that prior to her untimely demise she was betrothed to a man of high rank and was completing a holy pilgrimage through Europe to Rome before her marriage.
Ursula was raised up by God to preserve the maidens and widows of her time from seduction and dishonor, and to enroll them in the celestial army of crowned martyrs. She accomplished her mission with extraordinary energy and constancy, with the guide of The archangel Raphael who appeared on her dream.
Ursula had vowed herself to God since at the young age. She was not exactly beautiful; she was tall and strong, resolute and energetic, of a very grave countenance and masculine bearing. She was, at the time of her martyrdom, thirty-three years old.
A warrior, powerful and renowned, requested of her father the privilege of witnessing the exercises of the maidens of whom he had heard so much. Though embarrassed by the request, Ursula’s father dared not refuse. He tried, at first, to put him off; but the man insisted until he gained his point. He was charmed with Ursula’s skill and beauty and at once, asked her in marriage, saying that her young companions should espouse his officers in a country beyond the sea not yet peopled.
Ursula went by night to the playground and besought God in earnest prayer. The archangel Raphael appeared to her, consoled her, and instructed her to request that each of her companions might be allowed to choose ten other maidens, and to demand a delay of three years in which to practice all sorts of naval combats and maneuvers. He exhorted her to confidence in God, who would not permit her vow of virginity to be violated.
In these three years she was, with God’s help, to convert her companions to Christianity. Ursula delivered these conditions to her father who, in turn, proposed them to the suitor. He accepted them. Ursula and her ten companions chose respectively ten other maidens, who became their pupils. The father had five small vessels fitted out for them, upon each of which were about twenty girls and also a few sailors to teach them how to manage the sails and fight at sea. Ursula had, by this time, converted all her maidens, among whom were some only twelve years old. They were baptized by the priests. Ursula’s courage and confidence in God increased every day. Ursula’s wonderful earnestness and courage are quite indescribable.
As they sailed from England under pretense of joining their destined husbands, a great storm arose which separated their vessels from those of their attendants, and drove them toward the Netherlands. They could make use of neither sails nor oars, and the sea miraculously arose as they neared the land. As soon as they disembarked, their dangers began. A savage nation tried to oppose their progress; but at Ursula’s words, the maidens were allowed to return unmolested to their ships. A city lay at the point at which they quitted the open sea to sail up the Rhine, and here they encountered great troubles; but Ursula spoke for all, answered all.
When violent hands were about to be laid on the virgins, they boldly flew to arms and received supernatural assistance which paralyzed their aggressors, rendered them powerless to harm them. Before reaching Cologne, they were more than once challenged, interrogated, and threatened by the barbarous tribes, the Huns, along the shores. It was Ursula who always responded, and who urged her companions to ply their oars.
They arrived safe at Cologne where they found a Christian community and a little church. Here they sojourned for a time. The widows who had joined them on the journey and many young girls remained behind when Ursula proceeded further on her way.
Before setting out, however, she earnestly exhorted them to martyrdom as Christian matrons and virgins, rather than suffer violence from the pagan barbarians. They scattered throughout the surrounding district, spreading everywhere the teachings and heroic spirit of Ursula, who had departed with five vessels.
On reaching Basle, some of her little company remained there with the ships whilst she herself set out for Rome with about forty of her maidens, accompanied by the priests and guides. They went processionally like pilgrims, through wildernesses and mountainous districts, praying and chanting psalms. Wherever they halted, Ursula spoke of the espousals with Jesus and of the pure, immaculate death of virgins.
At Rome they visited the tombs of the martyrs and the different places sanctified by their death. As they were informed that their short dresses and freedom of demeanor attracted attention, they procured mantles. The Pope, Leo the Great, sent for Ursula who disclosed to him the secret of her mission, related her visions, and received his advice with humility and submission. He gave her his benediction and presented her with some relics. On their departure, they were joined by Bishop Cyriacus and two priests, one Peter of Egypt, and the other from St. Augustine’s birth-place, a nephew of the one who had bestowed lands on the saint for his monastery.
Reverence for the holy relics was their chief motive in following Ursula. She took with her to Cologne a relic of St. Peter which is still venerated as such, though none know whence it came; one of St. Paul; some hair of St. John the Evangelist, and a scrap of the garment he wore when cast into the boiling oil. On the return of the pilgrims to Basle, they were joined by so many recruits that eleven vessels were necessary to convey them to Cologne.
Meantime, the Huns had made an irruption into the country, bringing with them misery and confusion.
At some distance from the city, the angel Raphael appeared to Ursula in a vision, made known the approach of her martyr’s crown, and told her all that she was to do; among other things, that she was to oppose resistance until her little army had been duly prepared and baptized. This vision Ursula communicated to her assistants, and all turned their thoughts to God.
As they approached Cologne, they were saluted by the shouts and darts of the Huns; but they rowed vigorously and passed the city. They would not have disembarked at all in its vicinity, were it not that so many of their party were there awaiting their arrival. They landed, therefore, about a league and a half above Cologne and halted in a field between two thickets where they pitched a sort of camp. Here I saw those that had remained behind hurrying to join them with their recruits. Ursula and the priests addressed the different bands and prepared them for the struggle.
The Huns approached and their leaders accosted Ursula; they insisted on being allowed to choose among the maidens. The latter, however, courageously prepared to defend themselves, whilst some of the inhabitants of the city and the country around who had suffered from the Huns, and others who had become acquainted with the virgins that had remained in Cologne, joined the pious little army armed with poles, clubs, and whatever else they could find. This was what had been commanded Ursula by the angel, that time might be gained until all were prepared for martyrdom.
During the engagement, Ursula running hither and thither, zealously exhorting the bands in the rear and ardently praying. The priests were everywhere busily baptizing, for numbers of pagan women and girls had come over to them. By the time all were prepared for death, the Huns had surrounded them on all sides. They now ceased defending themselves and gave themselves up to martyrdom, singing the praises of God.
Then the Huns fell upon them and slew them with axe and spear. A whole row of virgins fall at one time under the darts of the barbarians; among them was one named Editha, of whom we have a relic. Ursula herself fell pierced by a lance. Among the bodies that strewed the field of martyrdom there were, besides the British virgin great numbers of those that had joined them at various places, also the priests from Rome, some other men, and some of their enemies. Many more were massacred on board the ships. They went joyfully singing and dancing to martyrdom as if to a marriage-feast.
Later on many others gave themselves up and were put to death in different parts of the country. Shortly after, the Huns withdrew from the district. The bodies of the virgins and other martyrs were soon after interred in an enclosed field near Cologne. Deep pits were dug and walled in, and there the bodies were devoutly laid in rows.
Excerpt taken from The Life and Revelations of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, who received many visions of the Life of Christ, including his Passion (which famously became resource material for Mel Gibson’s movie, Passion of the Christ) and the lives of a great number of saints—all in astonishing detail. One of these saints was St. Ursula.