Which woman is tied to Christopher Columbus’ journeys to the new world?
For those who answer “Queen Isabella of Castile,” you remember your elementary school history classes well. Isabella of Castile and her husband, King Ferdinand II of Aragon, financed Columbus’ voyages to the New World.
However, St. Ursula — a British saint from nearly 1,100 years before Columbus and Queen Isabella — also has ties to his voyages. She also has ties to the travels of some other European explorers.
In the British Virgin Islands, Oct. 21 is a national holiday. This is because it’s the day when Columbus — on his second voyage across the Atlantic in 1493 — discovered a group of islands which he named Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes (St. Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins), shortened to Las Vírgenes. These later became the U.S. Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.
There is not a lot known factually about St. Ursula. There is so little known, in fact, that her feast day was removed from the official Catholic Church calendar in 1969. It is not clear that she really existed, or, if she did, whether she might be an amalgam of several British holy women. Her feast day, when it was part of the church calendar, fell on Oct. 21.
During the Middle Ages, St. Ursula became extremely popular. So popular, in fact, that her story became the equivalent of a modern best-selling romance.
Ursula, whose name means “little female bear,” was said to have been a Christian British princess who lived in the fourth century. Her father was the king of Cornwall. For political purposes, he decided to marry Ursula to the non-Christian prince of Brittany on the other side of the English Channel. Several forms of the story say that Ursula was accompanied to her wedding by 11,000 women: 1,000 attendants for each of her 10 ladies-in-waiting is the most common listing.
As the stories go, Ursula either asked for a delay of the wedding for three years, in order to make a pilgrimage to Rome, or her ships were blown off course by a storm on the North Sea.
Enter the Huns
Either way, Ursula and her companions traveled across Europe to Rome. When they were finally returning home for her to be married, they were attacked by the Huns near Cologne in what is now Germany. (These are the same warriors made famous by Attila the Hun, who lived about 100 years later than St. Ursula.)
The Hun chieftain became enthralled by Ursula’s beauty and wanted to marry her. She refused and she and all the women with her ended up martyred. Ursula is sometimes shown with an arrow because it was said she was shot by one. (One of the women is said to have survived for a day, so that she had time to record their sad story.)
Today, in the Cologne Cathedral, there is an inscription referring to “the 11,000 martyrs.” The inscription dates to about the time of Ursula, certainly not later than the fifth century according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. The inscription does not mention Ursula by name or the number of the “virgin martyrs” it honors, but the story is similar to Ursula’s.
The travels of St. Ursula fascinated people of Columbus’ time. This is why it was not only Columbus who named places he discovered after her and her fellow travelers. Among others who did the same were:
- Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer. On Oct. 21, 1520, Magellan sailed into what is now the Straits of Magellan near Chile, after rounding the southernmost part of South America. The cape he saw there — near what is now Patagonia, Argentina — he called Cabo Virgenes for the same virgin martyrs with St. Ursula.
- Joao Alvares Fagundes, another Portuguese explorer in 1521, discovered an archipelago off the coast of what is now Newfoundland in Canada. He named it “11,000 Virgins.” Today, it is called Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.
- St. Angela de Merici. While she was not an explorer, in 1535, St. Angela founded the Ursuline Sisters in a house near the Church of St. Afra in Brescia in Lombardy, Italy. This became the first teaching order of women in the Catholic Church.
Today, in the British Virgin Islands, besides being a national holiday, St. Ursula’s Day (or a day close to it) is also the day for the Royal British Virgin Islands Yacht Club’s annual St. Ursula’s Day race, called “The Virgin’s Race” and the “Willy T Virgin’s Cup.” The rules stipulate that all boats must have a female captain and at least half the crew must be women. (The 2017 race was canceled because of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. This year, it is set for Oct. 20.)
Sources: “Catholic Encyclopedia”; royalbviyc.com; aglobalworld.com; catholic.org; atlasobscura.com; history.com; sailchecker.com; and christianiconography.com