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 declined.
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 refusal.
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 difficulty.
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 baptized.
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 dedication?
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 sojourned 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.