Ursula is a saint in the Roman Catholic faith. Her
feast day is October 21, and she is the patron saint of school children,
catholic schools, teachers, and "holy death".
The facts of St. Ursula's life are not clearly known, and there are many
different legends associated with her life (and death). One legend says that
she lived in the fourth or fifth century AD and was the daughter of a
Christian King in Britain. Herself a devout Christian, she was betrothed
to pagan Prince Ethereus against her will. She asked her father to delay
the marriage for three years, ostensibly so that she might go on a pilgrimage
to Rome, but really so that she might escape and remain Christian (and
chaste). A variation of this story is that she insisted that she be
allowed to take eleven thousand girls on a pilgrimage, and that Ethereus
devote three years to religious instruction in hopes that the request would
be so onerous he would give up
his request for her hand. It is believed she traveled with a few (fellow
virgin) noble companions -- maybe five, eight, or ten -- but the legend
grew to include Ursula and her ten companions, and each of these eleven now
accompanied by one thousand virgins. Thus the legend is often known
as that of St. Ursula and the Eleven Thousand Virgins. In one version of the
story I read, the eleven thousand were expanded to include her father,
Ethereus (now converted), Ethereus' sister Florentina and mother, and even
After their three year sailing journey and visit to Rome, they headed back
to Britain, stopping in Cologne. Cologne was occupied by the Huns,
and Ursula and her companions (however many there were) were waylaid, perhaps
around the year 451 AD. The chief
of the Huns (pagan, of course) demanded that Ursula marry him instead,
and Ursula refused. Ursula and her companions were then murdered,
Ursula by being stabbed through the heart with an arrow.
A church was built on the site of their martyrdom, elements of which still
remain on the site of the current Church of St. Ursula in Cologne.
Another legend states that she was the daughter of King Dionotus of
Cornwall, who was called upon to send marriagable women to British settlers
in Amorica (now Brittany). Dionotus sent his daughter, and thousands of
others to Gaul, but along the way they were shipwrecked, and the women were
drowned, murdered, or sold into slavery.
As her patronage suggests, her name has been lent to many schools for girls
(including the Ursuline Academy in my hometown) run by
the Ursuline order. She was also the subject of a liturgical work by
Hildegard von Bingen in the twelfth century, one of the more beautiful
pieces of early Church music.
Sources: www.theursulines.org, the saints index at saints.catholic.org, and
the liner notes to Anonymous 4's Hildegard von Bingen: 11,000 Virgins -
Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula (Harmonia Mundi 907200).