October 21 – The Tale of Saint Ursula
Once upon a time, there was a just and most Christian King of Britain, called Maurus. To him and to his wife Daria was born a little girl, the fairest creature that this earth ever saw. She came into the world wrapped in a hairy mantle, and all men wondered greatly what this might mean.
Then the King gathered together his wise men to inquire of them. But they could not make known the thing to him, for only God in Heaven knew how the rough robe signified that she should follow holiness and purity all her days, and the wisdom of Saint John the Baptist. And because of the mantle, they called her Ursula, ‘Little Bear.’
Now Ursula grew day by day in grace and loveliness, and in such wisdom that all men marveled. Yet should they not have marveled, since with God all things are possible. And when she was fifteen years old she was a light of all wisdom, and a glass of all beauty, and a fountain of Scripture and of sweet ways. Lovelier woman there was not alive. Her speech was so full of all delight that it seemed as though an angel of Paradise had taken human flesh. And in all the kingdom no weighty thing was done without counsel of Ursula.So her fame was carried through the earth, and a King of England, a heathen of Over-sea, hearing, was taken with the love of her. And he set all his heart on having her for wife to his son Æther, and for daughter in his home. So he sent a mighty and honorable embassy, of earls and marquesses, with goodly company of knights and ladies and philosophers; bidding them, with all courtesy and discretion, pray King Maurus to give Ursula in marriage to Æther.
“But,” he said, “if Maurus will not hear your gentle words, open to him all my heart, and tell him that I will ravage his land with fire, and slay his people, and make himself die a cruel death, and will, after, lead Ursula away with me. Give him but three days to answer, for I am wasted with desire to finish the matter and hold Ursula in my ward.”
But when the ambassadors came to King Maurus, he would not have his daughter wed a heathen; so, since prayers and gifts did not move him, they spoke out all the threats. Now the land of Britain was little, and its soldiers few, while the heathen was a mighty king and a conqueror; so Maurus and his Queen and his councilors, and all the people, were in sore distress.
But on the evening of the second day Ursula went into her chamber and shut close the doors, and before the image of the Father, who is very pitiful, prayed all night with tears, telling how she had vowed in her heart to live a holy maiden all her days, having Christ alone for spouse. But if His will were that she should wed the son of the heathen King, she prayed that wisdom might be given her to turn the hearts of all that people who knew not faith or holiness, and power to comfort her father and mother, and all the people of her fatherland.
And when the clear light of dawn was in the air she fell asleep. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to her in a dream, saying, “Ursula, your prayer is heard. At the sun-rising you shall go boldly before the ambassadors of the King of Over-sea, for the God of Heaven shall give you wisdom, and teach your tongue what it should speak.”
When it was day, Ursula rose to bless and glorify the name of God. She put on for covering and for beauty an inwrought mantle like the starry sky, and was crowned with a coronet of gems. Then, straightway passing to her father’s chamber, she told him what grace had been done to her that night, and all that now was in her heart to answer to the ambassadors of Over-sea. So, though long he would not, she persuaded her father.
Then Maurus, and his lords and councilors, and the ambassadors of the heathen King, were gathered in the Hall of Council. And when Ursula entered the place where these lords were, one said to the other, “Who is this that comes from Paradise?” For she moved in all noble gentleness, with eyes inclined to earth, learned and frank and fair, delightful above all women upon earth. Behind her came a hundred maidens, clothed in white silk, fair and lovely. They shone brightly as the stars, but Ursula shone as the moon and the evening star.
Now this was the answer Ursula made, which the King caused to be written, and sealed with the royal seal, and gave to the ambassadors of the King of the Over-sea.
“I will take,” she said, “for spouse, Æther, the son of my lord, the King of Over-sea. But I ask of my lord three graces, and with heart and soul pray of him to grant them.
“The first grace I ask is this, that he and the Queen and their son, my spouse, be baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
“The second grace is that three years may be given me, before the bridal, in which to go to and fro upon the sea, that I may visit the bodies of the Saints in Rome, and the blessed places of the Holy Land.
“And for the last grace, I ask that he choose ten fair maidens of his kingdom, and with each of these a thousand more, all of gentle blood, who shall come to me here in Britain, and go with me in gladness upon the sea, following this my holy pilgrimage.”
Then spoke one of the nobles of the land to Maurus, saying, “My lord the King, this your daughter is the Dove of Peace come from Paradise, the same that in the days of the flood brought to the Ark of Noah the olive-branch of good news.” And at the answer were the ambassadors so full of joy that they well-nigh could not speak, and with praise and triumph, they went their way, and told their master all the sweet answer of Ursula.
Then my lord the King said, “Praised and blessed be the name of our God Malcometto, who has given my soul for comfort that which it desired. Truly there is not a franker lady under the wheel of the sun; and by the body of my mother I swear there is nothing she can ask that I will not freely give. First of the maidens she desires shall be my daughter Florence.” Then all his lords rose, man by man, and gladly named each his child.
So the will of Ursula was done; and that King, and all his folk, were baptized into the Holy Faith. And Æther, with the English maidens, in number above ten thousand, came to the land of Britain.Then Ursula chose her own four sisters, Habila and Julia and Victoria and Aurea, and a thousand daughters of her people, with certain holy bishops and great lords and grave councilors, and an abbot of the order of Saint Benedict, men full of all wisdom and friends of God.
So all that company set sail in eleven ships, and passing this way and that upon the sea, rejoiced in it, and in this their maiden pilgrimage. And those who dwelt by the shores of the sea came forth in multitudes to gaze upon them as they passed, and to each man it appeared a delightful vision. For the ships sailed in fair order, side by side, with sound of sweet psalms and murmur of the waters. And the maidens were clad, some in scarlet and some in pure samite, some in rich silk of Damascus, some in cloth of gold, and some in the purple robe that is woven in Judea. Some wore crowns, others garlands of flowers. Upon the shoulder of each was the visible cross, in the hands of each a pilgrim’s staff by their sides were pilgrims’ scrips, and each ship’s company sailed under the gonfalon of the Holy Cross. Ursula in the midst was like a ray of sunlight, and the Angel of the Lord was ever with them for guide.
So in the holy time of Lent they came to Rome. And when my Lord the Pope came forth, under the Castle of Saint Angelo, with great state, to greet them, seeing their blessed assembly, he put off the mantle of Peter, and with many bishops, priests, and brothers, and certain cardinals, set himself to go with them on their blessed pilgrimage.
At length they came to the land of Slavonia, whose ruler was friend and liegeman to the Soldan of Babylon. Then the Lord of the Saracens sent straightway to the Soldan, telling what a mighty company had come to his land, and how they were Christian folk. And the Soldan gathered all his men of war, and with great rage the host of the heathen made against the company of Ursula.
And when they were nigh, the Soldan cried and said, “What folk are ye?” And Ursula spoke in answer, “We are Christian folk; our feet are turned to the blessed tomb of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the saving of our souls, and that we may win grace to pass into eternal life, in the blessed Paradise.” And the Soldan answered, “Either deny your God, or I will slay you all with the sword. So shall ye die a dolorous death, and see your land no more.” And Ursula answered, “Even so we desire to be sure witnesses for the name of God, declaring and preaching the glory of His name; because He has made heaven and earth and the sea by His Word; and afterward all living things; and afterward has willed, Himself, to die for our salvation and glory. And who follows Him shall go to rejoice in His Fatherland and in His Kingdom.”
Reliquary of St Ursula,1505, in the Palais du Tau, Reims, France.
Then she turned to her people: “My sisters and my brothers, in this place God has given us great grace. Embrace and make it sure, for our death in this place will be life perpetual, and joy and sweetness never-ending. And there, above, we shall be with the Majesty and the angels of Paradise.” Then she called her spouse to comfort and teach him. And he answered her with these words: “To me it appears three thousand years that death is a-coming, so much have I already tasted of the sweetness of Paradise.”
Then the Soldan gave commandment that they should all be slain with the sword. And so was it done.
Yet when he saw Ursula standing in the midst of all that slaughter, like the fairest stalk of corn in harvest, and how she was exceeding lovely, beyond the tongues of this earth to tell, he would have saved her alive, and taken her for wife. But when she would not, and rebuked him, he was moved with anger. Now there was a bow in his hand, and he set an arrow on the string, and drew it with all his strength, and it pierced the heart of the glorious maiden. So she went to God.And one maiden only, whose name was Corbula, through fear hid herself in the ship. But God, who had chosen all that company, gave her heart, and with the dawn of the next day she came forth willingly, and received the martyr’s crown.
Whosoever reads this holy history, let him not think it a great thing to say an Our Father and a Hail Mary for the soul of him who has written it.
- John Ruskin
Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 119