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CUNERA (c. 337 or 454), patron saint of sufferers of throat complaints and of cattle diseases. According to legend, she was the daughter of a certain Duke Aurelius and Florencia, the Christian daugher of the sultan of Babylon. Cunera never married.

In the fourteenth-century biography (Passio) of Cunera, her life is connected with that of ‘her cousin’, Saint Ursula of Cologne. In 337 Ursula supposedly asked Cunera to join her on a pilgrimage to Rome. On their return voyage, the ships carrying them were raided near Cologne, and all of Cunera’s travelling companions, including Ursula and her 11,000 virgins, were killed. Cunera, however, was rescued by the King of the Rhine, who was captivated by her beauty. He hid her under his cloak and took her to his castle at Rhenen.

There she spurned all luxury and spent her time praying, fasting and helping the poor. The king valued her so highly that he gave her the key ‘to all his possessions’, so that in his absence she actually exercised power. The queen thus grew to hate Cunera and tried to discredit her in the eyes of the king. When the queen noticed that Cunera was collecting leftovers from the table to give to the poor, she told her husband that the girl was stealing from him. The king summoned the girl and demanded to see what she was hiding beneath her cloak. Cunera prayed to God for help, and the bread she had taken turned into wood-shavings. The queen, more furious than ever, decided to kill her.

Death by strangulation

One day when the king was out hunting, the queen and one of her maidservants strangled Cunera with a piece of cloth and buried her in a stable. When the king returned and asked where she was, the queen said that Cunera’s family had suddenly arrived and had taken her with them. Strangely, though, the horses that had been used for the hunt balked at entering the stable where Cunera was buried. That evening a stable-boy saw candles burning in the form of a cross. He told the king, who sent his servants to investigate. They found the fresh grave and dug up Cunera’s body. The king realized at once what had happened and had his wife tortured so much that afterwards she roamed the countryside three days long like a madwoman, tearing her hair and rending her clothes, until she finally threw herself off a mountain.

Many years later Willibrord, the first bishop of Utrecht (658-739), passed by Rhenen on his way to Cologne. The locals told him about the miracles that had taken place there, and asked that Cunera’s body be exhumed and placed in a shrine, which amounted to unofficial canonisation. In fact, the bishop returned to officiate at the ceremony and chose 28 October, the day of her death, as her feast day. Later, when she was included in Utrecht’s calendar of saints, the date was changed to 12 June, the day of her translation. The grave in Rhenen was the site of many miracles.

This fairy-tale-like story contains a number of historical facts. First there is the castle of the King of the Rhine: archaeological research has shown that there was indeed a centre of power near Rhenen in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. The jealous queen could have thrown herself off one of the nearby mountains – Donderberg, Laarseberg or Grebbeberg, for example. The cloth used to strangle Cunera (the ‘dwale’) – mentioned in the fourteenth century as a relic – is now linked to a cloth preserved in the Museum Het Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. The fabric, which closely resembles Coptic textile from Egypt, dates from the fourth or fifth century. In a centre of power like Rhenen probably was at the time, it would not have been unusual to find such an expensive piece of cloth. Finally, being presented with the key – symbol of power – is a rather common theme in early medieval literature and is, moreover, a realistic element of courtly life. When the king was away the queen was the guardian of the royal treasury, which enabled her to establish a degree of political power. The loss of this right would certainly have been infuriating.

The fact that the story seems to include a remarkable amount of historical fact does not mean that Cunera actually existed. Perhaps a centuries-old tale was used to create a legendary saint. It is conceivable that Cunera was an aristocratic saint. With the advent of Christianity, the elite presented such saints as a means of maintaining their traditional authority and social standing. It gave them an opportunity to dedicate a church or monastery to a saint of their own.


Cunera is first mentioned in an English manuscript written between 1054 and 1072. She is named among such Netherlandish saints as Willibrordus, Trudo and Liudger, and the women Pelagia and Walburga, the latter a follower of Boniface and venerated in Tiel. Interest in local saints was not encouraged by the Church. It is not in the least odd that Bishop Meinwerc of Paderborn, the son of Adela of Hamaland, made it clear that he was not impressed by this saint, as can be deduced from his biography of around 1160. Apparently the local population did not share his opinion, for according to this story they were prepared to swear on Cunera’s relics.

Thus the worship of Cunera had already become part of popular culture by the twelfth century. According to Cunera’s biography, it was the local population who asked the bishop to raise her to sainthood. The Passio, recorded in the second half of the fourteenth century, had certainly been prompted by a desire on the part of the inhabitants to turn Rhenen into a place of pilgrimage with a view to generating some income. The miracles that took place near Cunera’s grave were recorded as well. The Passio S. Cunerae was included in 1479 in the first printings of the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), the famous collection of lives of the saints, and Cunera was included in the Utrecht calendar of saints. The veneration of the saint – as the protectress of horses, among other things – reached its apex in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Even in the twentieth century, cattle were blessed in her name in Heeswijk in the province of Brabant during the Cunera pilgrimage week in June. In 1969, large-scale ecclesiastical cleansing led to her removal from the official Roman Catholic calendar of saints.

Reference work(s)



UB Utrecht, Manuscript Collection: Vita Cunerae virginis et martyris, hs. 390 (Eccl. 20), f. 101v-102v. (c. 1419).


  • Fr. Gerlacus, De H. Cunera. Haar leven, hare relikwieën, hare vereering en mirakelen, in het kort beschreven (3d ed.; Venlo s.a. [1891] [first ed.: 1883]).
  • E.M.Th. Emonds, De legende van Sinte Cunera in de Middeleeuwen (Leiden 1922).
  • Dat leven van Cunera. Transcription of 'Dat leuen ende die passie vander heyliger maget sinte Cunera die in die stadt van Rhenen rustende is. Met haer tekenen ende mirakelen die gheschiet sijn ende noch dagelicx geschien die God gedaen heeft doer die heylighe (ca. 1530)’, J. Combrink ed. (Rhenen 1988).
  • Fons van Buuren, ‘Sint Cunera van Rhenen, een legende’, in: A. Mulder-Bakker and M. Carasso-Kok ed., Gouden legenden. Heiligenlevens en heiligenverering in de Nederlanden (Hilversum 1997) 109-125.
  • M. Carasso-Kok, ‘Cunera van Rhenen tussen legende en werkelijkheid. Historische elementen en receptie van een Noord-Nederlands heiligenleven’, Jaarboek voor Middeleeuwse Geschiedenis 4 (2001) 28-65.


Wood engraving with scenes from the life of Cunera. From: Dat leven van Cunera, ed. Combrink.

Author: Dimphéna Groffen

last updated: 08/03/2017