On June 12 Canon O'Hanlon brings us an account of a saint from one of the most popular hagiographical romances of the Middle Ages - The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula and her Companions. I have found myself increasingly interested in the tale of the British princess who set sail for the continent accompanied by her maidens, only for all of them to meet a martyr's death. Some of the companions were said to have been of Irish or Scottish origin and it is on this basis that Canon O'Hanlon has noted a number of their feastdays in his Lives of the Irish Saints. The virgin martyr Cunera, commemorated on this day is one such saint, the 17th-century Irish hagiologist Father John Colgan had investigated her life. It is one of the strengths of O'Hanlon's work that he is able to access the European sources for such saints and thus he is able to bring us a detailed account of Saint Cunera and her relics. As I read his account I couldn't help feeling that hagiography of this type must have been the medieval equivalent of the blockbuster movie, our saintly heroine is the product of a romantic elopement between two people caught up in the Crusades, saved initially from the martyr's fate of her companions by a dashing ruler, she falls foul of his jealous wife and ends up being strangled on the orders of her rival. The wicked queen, needless to say, comes to a sticky end herself whereas her victim's remains are discovered through divine intervention and go on to work many miracles. A Dutch academic has published an interesting article,'A Dutch saint and a database of badges and ampullae', which discusses the medieval pilgrimage to Saint Cunera at Rhenen. The picture above shows a 16th-century reliquary bust from the Netherlands of an unknown saint who is probably a companion of Saint Ursula. It formed part of the Treasures of Heaven: Saints Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe Exhibition at the British Museum in 2011.
St. Cunera, Virgin and Martyr.
We are not able to understand, on what grounds the present holy woman has been classed among our Irish saints. Her personality, as also her period, has raised various historic doubts. A wonderful combination of impossibilities and improbabilities, it is stated, must be found in the household tale, adopted for the account of this saint, who is supposed to have been one of St. Ursula's companions. It is not possible now to say, what foundation of truth may underlie that fabulous character, which the story presents, for it abounds in absurd anachronisms and misstatements. In the very infancy of the typographic art, her Legend had been printed. Thus the "Hystorie plurimorum Sanctorum," printed at Louvain, a.d. 1485, has a notice of Kunera, Virgo et Martyr. To this Molanus alludes in his work. This St. Cunera is mentioned by Father Hermann Crombach, S.J., in his work on St. Ursula and her companions in martyrdom. He used for this purpose a Manuscript, which belonged to the Cathedral Church of St. Martin, at Utrecht, as also one submitted to him by the Archbishop of Phillipi, who was named Philip, and who was Vicar Apostolic of the Federate States of Holland. It seems to have been Colgan's intention, that the Acts of St. Cunera, a virgin, should be published, on the 12th day of June. Her name is found in anothei memorandum. In Colgan's posthumous Calendar he mentions St. Cunera, virgin, at the 12th of June, as one whose Acts he had prepared for publication. The Bollandists have published Acts of this holy virgin and martyr. A previous commentary has been added by Father Daniel Papebroke, who has entered upon a process of difficult investigation to illustrate her history and period. Her Legend is given in a sermon, which was delivered on the day of her festival, and it seems to have been composed about the beginning of the fourteenth century. To this various miracles are added, and which have been attributed to this holy virgin's and martyr's intercession. These Acts are illustrated with notes. In the "Acta Sanctorum Belgii Selecta," the Acts of St. Cunera, virgin and martyr, are given at the 12th of June, in a Historico-critical commentary by Father Daniel Papebroke. A simple notice of this holy woman occurs in the compilation of Mgr. Paul Guerin. The Latin Legend of St. Cunera seems to have been compiled from popular traditions, and to have been incorporated into the Lessons of a Breviary, or of some office, used in the church of Rhenen. Of this Legend there are other versions, but they are all worthless and unreliable.
The Legend of St. Cunera states, that there is a certain part of Europe, according to Isidore, called the Orcades, consisting of thirty-three islands, which were governed by the King of Orkney. Then it goes on to state, that it was at a future time governed by the King of England, in which land there was a great royal city, anciently called Orcada, but at that time known as Jork. In this city is said to have reigned King Aurelius, who was a Christian. He marched at the head of his armies in a crusade against the Saracens, according to the Legend. He was taken prisoner and carried before the Soldan of Babylon, and by the latter he was condemned to captivity. The Sultan had a daughter named Florentia, who loved the captive, while through him she was instructed in the Christian faith, and afterwards she was baptized. She effected his escape from prison, and to Orkney, together they eloped. In its capital Jork, their daughter Cunera was born. A Jewish astrologer predicted before her birth, that the child should be a paragon of virtue. The astrologer's wife made advances towards King Aurelius. These he indignantly rejected. Aurelius merited to become a saint, and afterwards he became illustrious on account of his miracles.
When the celebrated St. Ursula was about to sail from Britain on a pilgrimage to Rome with her eleven thousand virgins, St. Cunera—who is said to have been her kinswoman—joined this company. The object St. Ursula had in view was to visit the shrines of St. Peter and of St. Paul, with those of other holy persons there resting. She had previously sent messengers to the Orkney city of Jorc, entreating permission that her parents might allow their daughter Cunera to leave with her. This permission she obtained, and accordingly Cunera accompanied her to Rome. Having accomplished their pious wishes there, all were on their way home to Britain, and they sailed down the Rhine to Cologne. When the illustrious pilgrims were on their return, the whole party was massacred by the Huns, with the exception of St. Cunera. The exact time when this martyrdom took place, and its special circumstances, have been greatly contested by historians. Some have thought it referable to the Emperor Maximin, who lived in the third century; others again state, it was in the time of the tyrant Maximus, who flourished about A.D. 385; while most writers treating about this occurrence assign it to the middle of the century succeeding, and in the time of Attila. In the year 1156, many tombs, with inscriptions, were discovered at Cologne, which were thought to have been those of St. Ursula and her companions. Among these are said to have been found the names of many bishops and of other holy persons, supposed to have been her companions. At the time of that massacre Radbod, King of Frisia, and a great foe to Pepin of Heristal, is assumed to have been at Cologne. This account, however, is altogether inconsistent with historic indications. Radbod was so struck by the beauty of Cunera, that he saved her from the massacre, and hid her under his mantle, as the Legend states. Thence he carried her off to Rhenen, his capital on the Rhine, and which was in the diocese of Utrecht. This city was formerly on the left bank of the old Rhine, the bed of which is now nearly dried up; but it is on the right bank of the later course of the Rhine, which in those parts is called Lecka. The city was so called, probably because it was situated between the two Rhines. A probable conjecture has been offered, however, that St. Cunera had been a daughter to one of those chiefs who had been baptized in Frisia, by St. Willibrord; that she had deserved the reverence of a king with whom she lived; and that she had been put to death, owing to the jealousy of his wife. Afterwards, when miraculous indications had revealed her sanctity, a church was built over her place of sepulture. In reference to her the popular traditions becoming obscure, she is thought to have been regarded as one of St. Ursula's contemporaries and companions. However, we have only to pursue the narrative regarding her, as we find it in the Legend.
Radbod, the King of Rhenen, is said to have brought her into his palace, when she had been rescued from that death which overtook the eleven thousand virgins. While there, she kept herself constantly in the presence of God, serving him day and night, by vigils, abstinence, and other good works. While strictly observing his commandments, she despised the pomps of this life, advancing steadily from virtue to virtue. The poor were constant objects of her care. The king greatly admired her life and works, placing her over his family and giving her influence throughout his kingdom; while these privileges, so far from causing her to feel proud, rather increased her deferential humility to the king, queen, and their whole family. But his wife was displeased that a young and beautiful girl had been thus preserved, and lodged with her under the same roof. Soon did the queen resort to calumnies to tarnish the fair fame of Cunera. However, the king would not believe these stories, as he found Cunera to be so virtuous; and accordingly, he felt angry, enjoining silence on the queen, who also urged that their guest was over prodigal in wasting their substance on the poor. This charge failed, likewise, to effect her object. She was filled with envy and jealousy; so that at last, she prevailed on one of her attendants to strangle St. Cunera, with a towel, while the king was out hunting. The body was afterwards buried in a stable. The queen, who assisted in the murder and also in this attempt at concealment, engaged her waiting-maid to keep it a profound secret. They had prepared a false statement for the king on his return, and the queen told him, that during his absence the parents of Cunera had come to the palace and had hastily removed their daughter. The horse of the king was startled, it seems, and refused to enter that stable, where the corpse had been interred. Having been brought to another stable, however, he readily entered. When the king had retired for rest that evening, his ostler saw a bright light appearing above Cunera's grave, and which assumed the form of a cross, as if composed of lighted candles. This information was brought to the king, who resolved on finding out the mystery, if possible; but, when his servants were at a distance from that stable those lights appeared, yet, when they arrived at it, suddenly the phenomenon vanished. However, on entering the stable, they noticed where the earth had been recently disturbed, and again removing it, they discovered the body of St. Cunera, having the towel with which she had been strangled around her neck. She was then removed from that pit. Suspecting the queen to have been the perpetrator of this foul murder, the king flew into a violent rage, and he punished her so severely, that between consciousness of guilt and fear, she became a lunatic. Then she ran away raving mad, tearing her hair and clothes for three days, while she wandered over the country. At last, she threw herself headlong from a precipice, and thus ended her miserable life. According to the Latin Legend, this occurred A.D. 339; while it is added, that Radbod, who so greatly admired and lamented Cunera, bestowed his palace as a place, where the holy woman was to receive posthumous honours. It is said, he also richly endowed it. Thus was the place of her deposition, and her great sanctity, manifested to all.
It is added, that when Pope Sergius sent Willebrord as Archbishop to preside over the See of Utrecht, in 698, with his deacon the Blessed Adalbert, and his sub-deacon the Blessed Werenfrid, it so happened, that they passed through the town of Rhenen. There, the chief inhabitants waited on them, and reported the virtues and acts of St. Cunera. They also suppliantly stated, as the Almighty had wrought great miracles through his holy virgin and martyr, that her remains should be translated with becoming honours. Having joyfully received this testimony, St. Willibrord promised to accomplish that object which they so piously sought, but as his business was then of a pressing nature, he was obliged to postpone his intentions. However, this mission was too long placed in abeyance; and one day, while descending the Rhine with some companions, a great storm arose as they approached the eminence of Heymon, while all feared that their vessel must be submerged. St. Willibrord prayed to the Lord that the tempest might cease, and accordingly it was stilled. This threatened danger, he attributed to his neglecting that promise made to the people of Rhenen; and accordingly he directed the bark to its shore, where he landed, and he then ordered all his people to approach reverently the place, where St. Cunera's remains were preserved. This command was very cheerfully obeyed, while with religious rites and solemnities, preparations were made for a public Translation, about the commencement of the eighth century. In his Menologium Scotorum, at the 12th of June, Thomas Dempster commemorates the transference and placing of St. Kunera's relics by Willibrord, Archbishop of the Scots. St. Cunera is venerated chiefly in the diocese of Utrecht, where her beautiful church had been erected at Rhenen, over the spot where she suffered martyrdom, and it was distinguished by a magnificent tower. There, pilgrimages were made to her shrine by the people, who believed in the cures sa wrought through her intercession, and who also brought diseased cattle thither, hoping for their cure. It is stated, likewise, that formerly the people of Cleves and of Gelderland were accustomed to swear on the relics of St. Cunera. Females in that part of Holland frequently assumed the name Cunera, contracted to Knera or Knertje. Her festival is set down in the Cologne and Lubeck Martyrologies; as also, in some ancient Dutch Breviaries at the 12th of June. Molanus in his additions to Usuard has notices of this saint and her festival, at this date. There are other festivals of this holy virgin and martyr assigned to the 28th of October, said by one authority to have been the date for her Passion, while it may have been only the date for the Translation of her Relics; while again, in the Florarium Sanctorum, the Finding of the Relics of St. Cunera, Virgin and Martyr, is set down at the 19th December. From what has been already stated, and from what has been related regarding her relics, it is possible, there may have been two distinct Cuneras, both of them set down as a single individual. The head of a St. Cunera is preserved at Cologne, in the monastery of St. Vincent, according to the Catalogue of Ursuline Relics, which have been venerated in other churches of Cologne, besides the church of St. Ursula. Among other relics brought to Portugal in 1565, and presented to King Emanuel, by Margaret of Austria, who then ruled over Belgium, were those of St. Cunera; and while he distributed a portion of these to his niece, the rest he kept for his own kingdom. These were afterwards conveyed to France, by Antonio Notho, and bestowed on the son of Emanuel, a religious of the Cistercian order, in the year 1594.
On the 16th of May, 1615, old style, there was an inspection made of St. Cunera's relics, kept at Rhenen, by the Very Rev. Dean D. Wilger a Moerendael, of St. Peter's church, Utrecht, by the Very Rev. Victor Schorelius, vicar and senior priest of the same church, and by Jacob Boelius, prebend of the church of the Blessed Virgin. In a wooden case they found those relics, enclosed in four different swathings. In the first of these, surrounded with red linen and wrapped in white linen were two large bones, and these were one palm and a half in length; three other bones one palm in length; five other bones pretty large, but not of the same length. In the second wrapper, formed of black and worn linen on the outside, and having some linen within, were found three portions of a cranium and a little longer than a finger's length, a large bone apparently belonging to the shoulder, two parts of thicker bones and somewhat larger, seven notable fragments but of lesser size, and four portions of bones, yet still smaller. The third wrapper of red linen, with a gold lace at the opening, contained two fillets or head ornaments of linen, having insignia of the holy virgin, and gold thread intermixed. In the fourth wrapper was the towel which caused her strangulation, and more than two ells in length, by three quarters of an ell in breadth, covered with two other flowered towels, together with an old and a worn corporal over all. The Carmelite Father Damasus a S. Ludovico received a particle of St. Cunera's relics, from Right Rev. Gaspar Munster, coadjutor Bishop of Osnabruck, for the Carmelites of the Holy Sepulchre of Rennes. There it was enclosed in a precious reliquary. In the year 1602, the Jesuit College of Emmerich obtained several relics of this holy virgin, with a letter describing and authenticating them. Various other relics were kept in Utrecht; and some of these appear to have fallen into the hands of the Calvinists, from whom a wealthy Catholic named Botter purchased them at a high price. A part of these were brought to Berlikum, and again to Bedaf, where they were honoured by the Catholics, who are said to have visited as pilgrims those places where they were kept, and to have received very many spiritual and corporal benefits in consequence. The fame of St. Cunera's sanctity spread wonderously over the Low Countries, and especially through those provinces adjoining the River Rhine. Many extraordinary miracles are recorded to have been wrought through her intercession. Thus, the dead were raised to life, the sick were restored to health, the blind recovered their sight, the dumb their use of speech, paralytics were released from their debility, and captives from their prison, owing to faith in the efficacy of prayer to her. Epileptics and possessed persons were cured. Various incidents with details of names and places may be found in her Acts, which prove not only the extension of popular devotion towards this holy Virgin and Martyr, but likewise the continuous tradition, which, notwithstanding the mystery attaching to her, has brought her veneration down through long past ages even to our own times.
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Content Copyright © Omnium Sanctorum Hiberniae 2012-2015. All rights reserved.