Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics
ST URSULA AND THE ELEVEN THOUSAND VIRGINS
 IN the middle of the fifth century lived and reigned in Brittany a King, Theonotus by name,
with his Queen, Daria. They had one daughter who was not only more beautiful than the day,
and more gentle than the dove, but wiser than the serpent. For it appears that she knew
all the things that were in those days to be known. Not only was she deeply versed in
philosophy, in theology, in poetry, and in history from the very days of Adam down to her
own, but she could read the stars, and knew the courses of the winds. She was, in short,
the marvel of the age, and the fame of her learning, virtue, and beauty spread far and
wide. It was, then, not to be wondered at that many suitors asked for her hand, but her
parents being Christians had consented to Ursula dedicating herself to Christ, and taking
vows of perpetual chastity; hence all offers of marriage were under one pretext or another
Queen Daria died when her daughter was fifteen years old, and Ursula thereafter devoted
herself to her father, aiding him, by her sound counsel and her charming presence, in the
dispensing of justice, and in the duties of the court.
When Agrippinus, the King of England, heard of the' renown of the princess of Brittany he
eagerly desired her as a wife to his son Conon, who was as shining a pattern of manly
qualities as Ursula of maidenly virtues. He therefore sent ambassadors to Theonotus, and
to these he promised rich rewards should they return to
 him with a favourable answer, but menaced them with punishment should they meet with a
Theonotus's quandary may be divined. How dare he offend the powerful King of England by
denying him the hand of Ursula for his son? On the other hand, how break the vows made by
his daughter to be the bride of Christ alone?
As the King sat in his chamber in dejection pondering the question, wondering what answer
he could on the morrow give to the ambassadors whom he had received with kindness and had
caused to be sumptuously housed and entertained in his palace, Ursula came to him, and
noting his troubled countenance asked the cause of his sadness. When he had explained this
to her, she exclaimed:
"My kind father and honoured King, lay aside all fear, and permit me to-morrow to answer
these ambassadors in person."
Such was Theonotus's faith in the sagacity of the princess that he asked nothing better
than to leave the matter in her hands, convinced that none could so well solve the
On the morrow, therefore, when the ambassadors had again been ushered into his presence,
Ursula took her place on the throne beside her father, and there with matchless grace and
dignity received and greeted them. Presently, divinely inspired, she thus addressed them:
"Esteemed ambassadors of the great King of England—I thank you for the honourable
message you have brought me. I thank the King and his princely son for their words, which
are kinder than I, in my unworthiness, deserve. I feel myself already almost a daughter to
your King, and here declare to you that to the offer of no other bridegroom than his son
will I ever listen. I make, however, three conditions before consenting to become his
bride. First, he shall send me ten virgins
 of the noblest families of his land to be my companions. And with each of the ten he shall
send a thousand attendant maidens, and a thousand for myself as well. Secondly, he shall
permit me and my eleven thousand companions to honour our virginity for the space of three
years and he shall furnish us ships in which we may travel to visit holy places and the
shrines of Saints. Thirdly, the Prince and his court shall be baptized to my faith, for
none but a Christian can I ever marry."
The Princess with her unfailing wisdom had reasoned thus: "Either the King of England will
consider these conditions impossible and briefly refuse them, in which case no harm is
done, or, if he grant them, then, with a Christian prince who will eventually be ruler
over a Christian court, and eleven thousand Christian virgins to spread the Gospel
throughout the land, will not the whole realm of England be won to God?" for she counted
upon converting all her companions in the space of three years of pilgrimage.
When the ambassadors returned to England with Ursula's answer, and with glowing accounts
of her beauty, her kindness, and wisdom, King Agrippinus paused not one moment. No
conditions in his esteem were too hard in the way of acquiring this peerless Princess. The
Prince, aglow with enthusiasm, unhesitatingly caused himself and all his followers to be
Then the King summoned his vassals in the various realms subservient to him to send
forthwith eleven thousand spotless virgins of gentlest origin, to accompany the Princess
Ursula of Brittany, affianced bride of his son Conon, upon her travels.
Without delay from all corners of the kingdom flocked the maidens, and having been
gathered together at the capital of King Theonotus, they were met by Ursula, who greeted
them with sisterly affection, and saw to their comfort and entertainment.
 On the following day she collected them all in a meadow which lay without the walls of the
city, and from a throne raised high above the ground she addressed the assemblage. She
preached to them of the glory of God and of His Son Jesus Christ, of faith, charity,
purity, and of a life dedicated to Heaven. With such eloquence she spoke that the eleven
thousand were moved to tears of joy, and promised to do whatever she wished, and to follow
her whithersoever she should lead them. Ursula blessed them, and ordered them to be
baptized on the spot, in a brook which ran through the meadow.
Never on earth was witnessed such a scene. One may picture the Elysian fields dotted with
the multitudinous figures of the happy shades. One may imagine the gardens of Paradise
peopled with the angelic choir, but surely never upon this globe was seen vision so lovely
as this! The early spring day, the azure sky, the fresh morning breeze, the sun lending to
the air that peculiarly luminous quality which comes only with the birth of the year, a
golden haze drenching the landscape in a bath of radiance. The tender green of the meadow
painted with gayest flowers: crocus, tulip, daffodil, harebell, heartsease, pimpernel,
hyacinth, cyclamen, lily. And, crowning glory of all, eleven thousand maidens attired in
richest garments of hues and modes defying description, ornamented with silver and gold,
encrusted with gems, and each maiden beautiful as good, and good as wise! All manner of
maidens, fair and dark, small and tall, round and slim, vivid and shy, stately and demure,
and every one young and therefore sweet!
Then is it a wonder that barons and knights came from the east and came from the west and
from north and south to see with their own eyes this incredible and unsurpassed spectacle,
and that tears came to the eyes of all at sight of so much beauty, such fervour, and such
EMBARKATION OF THE VIRGINS
 Ursula soon wrote to the English Prince, her affianced consort, thanking him for his
compliance with all her wishes, and bidding him to her father's court.
Needless to say Conon without an hour's delay replied to the summons, and was received
with honour and ceremony. The Prince's happiness at beholding the Princess whom he had won
can better be divined than described.
It was not long, however, before Ursula, in the presence of her father and the court,
addressed him in these words: "My gracious Prince, it has been revealed to me in a vision
from Heaven that I must depart with my companions to visit the Holy City of Rome. Do thou,
then, I pray, remain here, a help and a comfort to my father until my return. And if it
should be God's will that I return not, then shalt thou, having been a son to my father,
inherit his throne."
It is said by some that the Prince obeyed this behest, but as there are other versions of
the story, we prefer to believe that he found it impossible to let Ursula depart from his
sight and that he accompanied her to Rome.
The eleven thousand virgins embarked, then, upon eleven ships, and although with them went
no mariners yet they were not unattended, for many prelates and a number of chivalrous
knights accompanied them.
A marvel it was to see how the maidens, miraculously taught, manned the ships, and with
what skill they sailed them! They were days of delight which followed, for the weather
continued flawless, the winds favourable; the ships might almost have been said to sail of
themselves, which left the virgins free to spend their days upon the spacious decks in
elevated intercourse and in enjoyment of the charming scene. Surely the seabirds paused in
mid-flight and the fishes leaped from the waves to behold the unbelievable fleet!
They did not journey directly to Rome, but first sailed up the Rhine to Cologne. Here they
 a brief space, reposing. And here in a dream it was made known to Ursula that she would
one day return, and with all her companions win the crown of martyrdom. This news she
imparted to the maidens, and far from being saddened by the revelation of impending death,
all with one accord rejoiced and fell to singing jubilant hymns of thanksgiving that they
had been found worthy to give their lives in the High Cause.
They sailed on up the Rhine to Basle. There they left their ships, and journeyed on foot
over the Alps and across the plains of Liguria, led over the snows and the steep mountains
peaks by angels, who went before, pointing the way, flinging bridges for them over the
torrents, and furnishing them with food sand shelter.
At length they came to the River Tiber, and so to Rome.
Cyriascus, who was at that time Pope, informed of this great concourse of maidens, went
out to meet them with all his clergy in procession. What was his delight when Ursula,
kneeling at his feet, begging his blessing, told him her mission. He not only blessed the
glorious company, but offered them honorable entertainment. They were lodged in tents
pitched in the plain beyond the city gates, whence they made their journey to the shrines
of St. Peter and St. Paul and there duly performed their devotions.
It was now that Conon, keeling with Ursula at the feet of the Pope, was again baptized,
and received the name of Ethereus in token of the whiteness of his regenerated soul.
Cyriacus would gladly have detained them, but Ursula explained that they must be on their
way to win the crown destined form them in Heaven. When the Pope heard this, it was borne
in upon him that he must leave the papacy and go to earn martyrdom. In vain his cardinals
pleaded with him not to resign his holy
 office in order to follow after a crew of foolish virgins! He remained firm, for it was by
the counsel of an angel that he had come to his determination. When the prelates could in
nowise prevail upon him to renounce what to them seemed a mistaken course, they cancelled
his name from the catalogue of high pontiffs, although he had held the office for nearly
two years—and put in his place a good man named Admetus.
Meanwhile, as Ursula with all her followers prepared to embark, not only Cyriacus joined
her, but his cardinals Vincent and James, and the archbishops of Ravenna and Lucca, the
bishop of Faenza, the patriarch of Grado, and many other dignitaries of the Church.
There were at that time two pagan Roman generals, Maximus and Africanus, who commanded the
imperial troops in Germany. When they heard of and saw this gathering of Christian maidens
they said among themselves: "Shall this thing be? Shall we permit these virgins to return
to Germany and convert the entire nation to Christianity, or if they marry, become mothers
of numberless Christian children? Nay, that would end our empire!"
So they sent messengers to their cousin, one named Julian, a powerful barbarian, King of
the Huns, and bade him bring his hosts in full force into Germany and concentrate them at
Cologne; there they told him what to do.
When, therefore, after a long and difficult journey, Ursula arrived at Cologne, she found
the city surrounded by the barbarian hordes.
These, when first they saw the strange company issuing from the ships, not fierce
warriors, but youthful maids and venerable priests, with but a few young princes, barons,
and knights among the number, all unarmed, paused for a moment in uncertainty, for sheer
wonder at the sight. Then, remembering their
 instructions, they fell upon them like wolves upon a flock of snowy sheep.
First to fall was Prince Ethereus; then Cyriacus and his cardinals and all the prelates
and knights perished in the attempt to defend the virgins. These, being left defenceless,
also resisted their assailants as long as their virtue was threatened; but when the
barbarians, infuriated by their resistance, fell upon them with the sword, they offered
themselves gladly to the slaughter, and were massacred to the last one, so that the plain
was covered with their bodies and drenched with their blood.
When they came to Ursula, however, awed by the majesty of the saintly Princess, the
barbarians dared not touch her, but led her to their King. At sight of her, Julian was
filled with admiration, and as tears filled her eyes, he said to her: "Be comforted, weep
not for thy companions, for I will make thee my spouse, and thou shalt be the greatest
Queen in all Germany!"
But, "Oh, senseless and cruel and base!" cried Ursula. "Dost thou think that I would
consent to live after the slaughter of my companions? Blind art thou, and I defy thee,
even as I defy Satan thy master!"
At which words, such was Julian's anger that, taking three arrows from his quiver, he shot
them from his bow, piercing the dauntless heart of Ursula, who sank lifeless before him.
But her spirit arose from the dead body in company with those of all the blessed
sisterhood, of her beautiful English Prince Ethereus, of Cyriacus, who had left the papal
throne to join her in martyrdom, and the many prelates and knights. All in one beatific
company they ascended to the throne of God, ever after to dwell in the light of His smile,
bearing palms in their hands and crowns upon their heads, and there to the sound of
heavenly harps ever singing blessings and praises to Him whom they serve and adore.