In the City of London there used to be a church devoted to two virginal saints, and 11,000 virgins.
Officially known as the Church of St Mary the Virgin, St Ursula, and her 11,000 Virgins, it had a more common name, St Mary apud Ax, which seems to have derived from the sign of an Axe which hung over the east end of the church.
The axe is significant as it was thought to be a holy relic related to the 11,000 virgins.
Still with me?
Saint Ursula, or Princess Ursula at the time she was alive is said to have been betrothed by her father, the King of modern day Cornwall and Devon to the governor of Armorica, in modern day Brittany.
She travelled across the sea in a single day (pretty impressive!) with 11,000 virginal handmaidens (that’s a LOT of ships) and upon meeting her future husband, declared that she would go on a pilgrimage first.
That’s probably not the response he was expecting.
The story continues that after arriving in Rome she persuaded Pope Cyriacus (who doesn’t seem to have existed) to join her on a trip to Cologne. She was clearly taking the long route back to her future husband.
However, the legend goes that having arrived in Cologne, having dragged along the 11,000 virgins, who were presumably still virginal after all this time, and probably very hungry as that’s a lot of people to feed, her entire group were surrounded by Huns (that’s a lot of Huns) and beheaded in a massacre — using just two axes.
The Huns’ leader also shot Ursula with a bow and arrow, as presumably the axes were in use elsewhere.
Somehow, one of the two axes ended up in London, and became a holy relic which was installed in a church devoted to the recently cannonised Saint Ursula, and her 11,000 virgins.
Unsurprisingly, historians are a tiny bit suspicious about this story, and keen to dispel legend with tedious facts have roundly dismissed the idea that Ursula had 11,000 virgins with her.
Although Ursula is said to have died in the year 383, no record of her appears until at least a hundred years later, and the bulk of the story appears in a later medieval story.
It’s possible though that the story is a blending of several other legends and some mistranslations.
There is a story of a virgin, called Pinnoda who was killed in Cologne and her relics later moved to Essen, and there was a story of an English Queen sailing to the Rhine with 100,000 soldiers to marry the local King.
The 11,000 virgins were first mentioned in the late 9th century and the common thinking is that they accidentally read Undecimillia or Ximillia as a number, or reading the abbreviation XI. M. V. as ‘eleven thousand [in Roman numerals] virgins’ rather than ‘eleven martyred virgins’.
Another theory is that there was only one virgin martyr, named Undecimilla, “which by some blundering monk was changed into eleven thousand”.
Had the King of the west of England been able to do a deal with the other English Kings, then as the country probably had a population of around 1.5 million at the time, finding 11,000 virgins would have been achievable, but would have left such a devastating blow to the country that it would be a legendary event in our history.
Whatever the truth of the matter, and presuming that Ursula even existed in the first place — somehow the legend gained some credence and a church to her sainthood was erected in London. With the axe.
The church was founded around 1170, but as people even then weren’t too sure about the legend, possibly as insurance the church was also dedicated to Saint Mary the Virgin so formally known as St Marie the Virgin, St Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins.
So that’s 11,002 virgins in total.
It seems though that as the virginal tale got more dubious, St Mary became the dominant partner in the church, but it still retained the axe, and became better known as St Marie apud Ax.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries, the parish was later merged with neighbouring St Andrew Undershaft, and eventually pulled down around 1560-70 as it had fallen into disrepair.
Today there’s a plaque on the office block over the site of the church marking its location.
However, it lives on in a street name, for this is how the street of St Mary Axe gained its name, and next to the site of the old church is a famous skyscraper, 30 St Mary Axe — better known as The Gherkin.
How many people working in that phallic tower realise they are sitting next to a site of veneration to 11,000 virgins?