URSULA, reputed saint and martyr of Cologne, whose date of death is variously given as 238, 283, and 451, was, according to the earliest form of the developed legend, a British maiden, the only daughter of the pious Christian king Deonotus. She was christened Ursula (a diminutive of ‘Ursa,’ a she bear), because she was to slay ‘the bear’—i.e. the devil. She resolved to become a nun, but was sought in marriage by the heathen son of a ‘certain most ferocious tyrant,’ who threatened to waste the land with fire and sword if she refused. As the result of a vision, in which was revealed her future martyrdom, Ursula consented on condition that she was allowed as companions ten noble virgins who, like Ursula, were to have each a thousand attendant virgins and a ship. The prince was, moreover, to become a Christian. The eleven ships, with Pinnosa, Ursula's chief companion, as admiral, after cruising for three years round the British coasts, sailed up the Rhine to Cologne and to Basel, whence Ursula and her companions went on foot to Rome. Returning to Cologne, which had meanwhile been seized by the Huns, they were massacred in 238, Ursula being slain by an arrow. The inhabitants after the withdrawal of the Huns buried them with more than mortal honours, and built a church outside the walls, which was rebuilt on a grander scale long afterwards at the bidding of one Clematius, a wise man from the east.
From an early period traces of this legend are found at Cologne. There existed in late Roman times a church outside the walls dedicated to some unknown virgin martyrs, which, on the authority of a fourth or fifth century inscription walled up in the modern church of St. Ursula, was restored by Clematius on the scene of their martyrdom. A charter of Lothair II (d. 869) and other charters dated 922, 927, and 941 refer to the ‘monastery of the eleven thousand virgins’ at Cologne. The earliest details of the story of these martyrs occur in a ‘Sermo in Natali SS. Virginum XI Millium,’ dating from between 751 and 839, which declares that few names of these martyrs are known, and that they were driven from Britain by the persecution of Diocletian and Maximian. Soon afterwards allusions to the virgin martyrs became common (see Oscar Schade, Die Sage von der heiligen Ursula, pp. 11 sqq.). The metrical martyrology of Wandelbert of Prüm, written about 850, already mentions ‘thousands’ of virgin-martyrs. After this, numerous references to the number eleven thousand and the names of individual virgins begin to appear. An Essen calendar of the ninth or tenth century, however, gives eleven virgins and mentions their names. Another litany of the same century gives the same names in a different order, Martha and Saula heading the list, as they do in the martyrology of Usuardus (d. 877).
The prominence of Ursula's name in connection with the story dates from the twelfth century. At Cologne, where Cathari and others had expressed some scepticism, the legend received fresh impetus by a series of discoveries beginning in 1106, when a large number of bones were found during the excavation required by the new walls for the city. These bones were given out to be the relics of the virgin martyrs, and the locality became known as the ‘Ager Ursulinus.’ St. Norbert of Prémontré came to search for them, but the most enthusiastic investigator was the archbishop of Cologne, Rainald of Dassel, Barbarossa's chief minister, whose principal agent was Gerlach, abbot of Deutz. Gerlach discovered a body labelled ‘Ursula Regina,’ and bones were found with inscriptions attached declaring them to be the bones of bishops, cardinals, and even of a pope, Cyriacus, otherwise unknown to history. The scepticism aroused by these wholesale discoveries was silenced by the visions of Elizabeth of Schönau (d. 1165), which provided elaborate explanations of all difficulties and inconsistencies. Further and even more extravagant explanations were supplied after Elizabeth's death by two books written in 1183 and 1187, probably by the blessed Hermann, popularly called Hermann Joseph. Geoffrey of Monmouth first interwove the legend with the general history of the time, embellished it with many fanciful details and historical anachronisms, and gave universal currency to what was originally a purely local tradition (see his Hist. Brittonum, lib. v. chaps. ix.–xix.). By the end of the twelfth century the saint had become one of the most widely revered in Europe. At Cologne a famous church, served first by nuns and afterwards by canonesses, rose on the site of the discoveries, which by an extension of the city became included within its walls. This church still contains the tomb of St. Ursula and a wonderful collection of relics of the virgin-host (see Vill, Wegweiser zur Kirche der heiligen Ursula in Köln). Relics were scattered throughout Europe with a lavish hand until Boniface IX (d. 1404) forbade further translations of them. Churches were dedicated to St. Ursula all over Europe, especially in North Germany, but also in Italy, Hungary, Spain, and Britain (for the hospital of St. Ursula at Leicester, see Dugdale, Monasticon, vi. 765). Heligoland was often called the ‘island of St. Ursula,’ and the story grew that she stopped there on her way to the Rhine. She came to be looked on as the special patron of maidens; gilds and societies were established under her patronage, especially in the Rhineland and Swabia; the oldest was founded at Cracow in the fourteenth century, and they were generally called ‘St. Ursula ships,’ a symbol intimately associated with the saint (cf. Baring Gould, Lives of the Saints, Oct. ii., p. 544; Ein fast grosse lobliche Bruderschaft genand Sandt Ursulas Schifflein, Nuremberg? 1525; The Confraternity of St. Ursula at St. Lawrence Jewry, London, 1550). The cult of Ursula was never more universal than in the fifteenth century, when she held almost a unique position as a favourite subject both of German and Italian painters. One of the earliest religious orders founded during the counter-reformation was that of the Ursulines in 1537 (see Chronique de l'Ordre des Ursulines, Paris, 1576, 2 vols.); and special devotion was shown to St. Ursula by the jesuits, who in 1588 organised a brilliant translation of Ursulan relics to Lisbon.
A representation of St. Ursula painted before 1450 is preserved in one of the wings of the famous Dombild at Cologne, and in the Ursula church in the same city her story is told in a series of old but much restored pictures. In the Wallraf Richartz Museum, Cologne, are at least fourteen pictures, by early German masters, treating of her history. Of infinitely greater merit than these is the series of exquisitely finished small pictures painted by Hans Memling about 1486 to adorn the shrine of St. Ursula at Bruges, in which a portion of her relics is preserved. Her history is also delineated in the series of nine pictures painted about 1495 by Vittore Carpaccio, and now in the academy at Venice. An especially fine Moretto at Brescia has Ursula as its central subject (Pater, Miscellaneous Studies, p. 97). Lorenzo di Credi, Palma Vecchio, and Martino da Udine have also painted what was evidently a favourite subject with Venetian artists (cf. The Legend of St. Ursula, 1869; Mrs. Jamieson, Sacred and Legendary Art, pp. 297–306; Dutron, La Légende de Sainte Ursule d'après les anciens tableaux de l'Eglise de Sainte-Ursule à Cologne, 1860; Keverberg, Ursule d'après les Peintures d'Hemling, Ghent, 1818; and for Carpaccio, Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, 1872, No. xx. pp. 14–16, and 1876, pp. 339–41, 350–7, where he apparently follows late Italian versions of the legend).