The Martyrdom of St. Ursula

In this episode, we return to the realm of legends. This time we meet Ursula, a Breton princess. With her eleven or eleven thousand (!) virgin girlfriends, she is on her way back from a pilgrimage to Rome. This pilgrimage was supposed to be her bachelorette party for the strictly devout Christian princess from northwestern Gaul. On the way back home, she also passes Cologne by ship. But the Huns are besieging the city at this time. And no one less than Attila the Hun has an eye on the beautiful Ursula. What happens then is well known to every child growing up in Cologne. So it’s time you learned it, too.

Ursula’s martyrdom in art

The massacre of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins by the french painter Jean Bourdichon (made between 1503-1508)

Depiction of St. Ursula’s martyrdom by an unknow painter in the 16th century.

The Maryrium of St. Ursula in a woodcut from 1499.

Church of St. Ursula in Cologne

Von Hans Peter Schaefer –> Hps-poll –, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The church of St. Ursula in Cologne. One of the oldest churches in Cologne and north of the Alpes in Europe.

St. Ursula Koeln – Ursulabuesten und Schreine Von © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 4.0,

Ursula busts and her shrine in the choir of St. Ursula’s church.

By Kevin Lakhani – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

One of the walls I mentioned in the episode in that one chamber that contains thousands of bones in the church of St. Ursula.

Von Hans Peter Schaefer –> Hps-poll, – own work, first upload in de wikipedia on 07:39, 3. Apr 2005 by Hps-poll, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The room is just filled with bones, busts and relics.


Relics like this decorated bone I photographed in Speyer Cathedral, in the city of Speyer in Rhineland-Palatinate, were highly coveted in the Middle Ages as objects of veneration. And Cologne was one of the biggest producer and seller of them far and wide. It made the city and its inhabitants rich.

The small coat of arms of the city of Cologne. With the 11 tears / flames / ermine tails representing the martyrdom of St. Ursula.

The billygoat Hennes IX.

Link to his Livestream here

Hendrik Lennarz, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The predecessor of today’s mascot: Hennes VIII.

5 thoughts on “The Martyrdom of St. Ursula

  1. If visiting Cologne (when Covid is not an issue) the Shreckenskammer Brauhaus is connected to the St. Ursula building and it’s a great atmosphere to sit and take in Cologne atmosphere and enjoy a Kölsch. One of my favorite places. I hope it’s still open. I have heard a few versions of Ursala told in “Legend” format, both in English and German, and yours is told in a more “historical” fashion, and was really engaging, and fun to hear. It’s a terrible story. But you told it well.

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  2. One of my favorite places to hang out in Cologne is the Schreckenskammer. This is a Kölsch Brauhaus connected to the St. Ursula Church site. It’s a great place to sit and feel the centuries of history in the area. I like how you told the story as a historian. I have read and heard other versions told as “legend” but your take was really engaging.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The feast of Ursula lies between the Roman celebration of the Armilustrium and the fire of Isis on November 3rd. The arrow came from Mars and the ship from Isis. In addition, the holiday on October 21 was ideal for orientation, because in the 11th century Arcturus from the constellation of the Bear Guardian was exactly in the east. It is then only a small step from Arcturus, the bear keeper, to Ursula.

    Liked by 1 person

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