Posted on 11 November 2016
St Ursula was one of the most popular international saints in medieval Europe, but few people are aware of her Welsh connections and the claim that she sailed from Ceredigion to Cologne in Germany.
Now a new publication entitled St Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins looks in detail at the history and cult of St Ursula and traces the development of her legend explaining why she became so popular in many different countries and regions including Wales.
Published by the University of Wales Press and edited by Professor Jane Cartwright, Professor of Welsh at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD), the book will be officially launched at UWTSD’s Lampeter Campus on Wednesday the 16th November at 4pm.
The legend of St Ursula is an epic tale which recounts how St Ursula, the daughter of a British king, reluctantly agrees to marry a pagan prince in order to save her father’s kingdom, but delays the betrothal by insisting on performing one final pilgrimage to Rome in the company of 11,000 virgins. Ursula trains her maidens in military manoeuvers and sets sail on the high seas. She eventually converts her fiancé to Christianity and leads her followers to their death in a bloody mass martyrdom in Cologne. In the twelfth century a mass grave was discovered and it was claimed that these were the relics of St Ursula and her companions.
Ursula and her companions became associated with Llangwyryfon (the Church of the Virgins) and other Welsh chapels in Ceredigion such as Capel y Santesau and Capel Betws Leucu. Her Welsh Life is discussed in detail for the first time within the publication which sheds new light on a number of aspects of her international veneration including medieval hagiography, images, relics and medieval music. A group of eminent scholars travelled to Wales from Germany, France, America, Hungary, Iceland and England to discuss the wealth of sources available on St Ursula and this book presents the fruits of their research.
In the early sixteenth century the Life of Ursula was adapted from Latin into Welsh by Huw Pennant and it is preserved in a single manuscript in the National Library of Wales – Peniarth MS 182. Huw Pennant, poet, cleric and scribe, was keen to produce a version of her legend that Welsh-speakers who loved literature could read and understand. The Welsh text, edited and translated by Jane Cartwright, will be made available on a website hosted by the National Library of Wales next year. An AHRC-funded project based at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies (CAWCS) will provide those interested in Welsh saints with some 100 texts associated with saints in Wales and will also include images of the medieval Welsh manuscripts that preserve these legends – some of the treasures of the Welsh nation, such as the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Talgarth.
The volume also includes chapters by other scholars from Wales such as the Middle English Lives of Ursula by William Marx from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and Ursula’s connections with the military orders by Helen Nicholson from Cardiff University.
“St Ursula is a rare example of an internationally popular saint who turned native,” says the book’s editor, Professor Cartwright.
“She was popular all over Europe and as the relics venerated at Cologne were transported far and wide, so too the legend of the virgin martyrs proliferated – evolving and adapting to a variety of different contexts as it was transmitted. I’m extremely grateful to all the contributors who travelled to Wales from so many different countries to re-evaluate this important saint’s cult.”
Professor Jane Cartwright is Director of the MA in Celtic Studies at UWTSD and a researcher on The Cult of Saints in Wales project at CAWCS. Jane is also a member of the research cluster on Ancient Worlds: Peoples of the Past, Past Peoples in the Faculty of Humanities at UWTSD as well as being the author of a number of volumes on saints’ Lives and the history of medieval Wales, including Y Forwyn Fair, Santesau a Lleianod: Agweddau ar Wyryfdod a Diweirdeb yng Nghymru’r Oesoedd Canol (Cardiff, 1999); Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales (Cardiff, 2008). In addition, Professor Cartwright is the editor of the volumes Celtic Hagiography and Saints’ Cults (Cardiff, 2003) and Mary Magdalene and her Sister Martha (Washington, 2013).
If you are interested in learning more about the traditions associated with St Ursula, the new book and the project on Saints in Wales, you’re welcome to attend the book launch event that will take place at the Founders’ Library on UWTSD’s campus in Lampeter at 4pm on Wednesday, November 16th.
If you’d like to attend, please register your interest beforehand by contacting Lianne Parker by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 01570 424951