[ELH] Dr G. R. Jones: The cult of St Helen

'In the gathering gloom, lorries poured down the rutted lanes, hauling their guns behind them. Tanks waited at the Grbavica crossroads and 'Lenka', 'Biljana' and 'St Helena' were finally on the move. Stuck in position for almost two years, Serb soldiers had painted names on the great armoured monsters, each topped with an anti-aircraft cannon that they had used almost daily to rain death on Sarajevo' (Tim Judah, The Times (London), Monday, February 21, 1993, p. 1).

A far cry from Walton on the Wharfe in West Yorkshire, where this little girl was photographed at St Helen's Well in 1906. The chapel here (now lost) was visited by the antiquarian John Leland in c. 1540, and in 1900 there were found here rare medicinal plants, including bryony and vervain.

Helena, mother of Constantine, supposed rediscoverer of the so-called True Cross, entered 'national' consciousness in the Orthodox lands, and also in Europe's off-shore island of Britain, particularly among the Celts but also among the English.

She and her son were commemorated as the ideal types of Christian monarchy in coronation ceremonies in several European lands, in which the new ruler and consort were accalimed 'New Constantine, New Helen'.

In Britain, however, Helen was a popular dedicatee of churches in the North country, where she was also invoked for the finding of lost objects, including cattle. More 'holy' wells were named for Helen than for any other non-biblical female saint. See my page on The Cults of St Helen and The Holy Cross

Helen is present in Welsh folklore, too, and casting back before the Christian era, there appear to be echoes in the presentation of some aspects of these Helens of the earlier 'ideal' women, Helen of Troy and the Greek goddess Helen.

Biographical outlines

Helena, mother of Constantine

Born c. 248, ?Drepanum, ?Colchester, ?Trier; a bona stabularia (St Ambrose), that is, 'a person of low social status and good character' (stabularia, lit. 'serving wench')

Concubine to Constantius Chlorus c. 270. Separated 289 on CC's marriage.

Son Constantine born c. 272/3

Constantius appointed caesar (effectively deputy emperor) to Western augustus, Maxentius. Eastern emperor was Diocletian.

Constantine proclaimed augustus by father's soldiers stationed at York, in northern Britain, 306.

Battle of the Milvian Bridge, C's vision of the Sign of the Cross followed by defeat of Maxentius and capture of Rome, 312.

Helena's pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Autumn 323 or early Spring 327, resulted in the building by, or for her of basilican churches, including

The Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem (above)

and The Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem (above).

Helena was held by end of the fourth century to have rediscovered at Jerusalem the cross on which Jesus died, the 'True' or 'Holy' Cross.

End of Helena's coinage Spring 329: ?marks her death, ?aged about 80

Wife of Magnus Maximus, supposedly 'Helena'

Husband, a high-ranking soldier, proclaimed Western emperor in Britain 383, beheaded at Aquileia (between Venice and Trieste) 388 (e. g. Gildas, De Excidio Britonum, published in Latin and English as The Ruin of Britain and Other Works, trs. and ed. Michael Winterbottom (Chichester, Phillimore, 1978), pp. 20-21.

During her husband's rule, she is said to have been a devout hostess at the imperial palace at Trier, on the Moselle in modern Germany,

during a visit of St Martin, bishop of Tours (Sulpicius Severus, Dialogi, ed. G. Augello (Palermo, 1969), II 6 (biographical anecdotes of St Martin, c. 420)

MM's wife was identified in Welsh heroic literature, genealogies and Triads (mnemonic trios of themes in bardic repertoire) as Elen Lluyddawc, 'Helen of the Hosts', that is armies (earliest surviving MSS. of 12th c., preserving much earlier material). Elen was the heroine of a romantic tale Breudwyt Macsen, 'The Dream of Maxen Wledig', in the cycle of folk and heroic tales known as the Mabinogion) (Jeffrey Gantz (ed.), The Mabinogion (Harmondsworth, Penguin Classics, 1976); Rachel Bromwich (ed.), Trioedd Ynys Prydein, The Welsh Triads [Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1978], pp. 341-3, 534; and Studies in Early British History [ed. N. K. Chadwick et al], pp. 107-9; P. C. Bartrum, Early Welsh Genealogical Texts (Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1986), see index, p. 186.

Roman roads named after her in Wales: sarnau Elen, 'Helen's Roads'.

Daughter of MM, Severa, said to have been wife of Vortigern (Eliseg Pillar, Llangollen, ?9th c.)

By various alleged offspring, MM and his wife appear among the ancestors of the British Royal Family

MM's wife also named as Ceindrech, late form of Brittonic name meaning 'Fair of Face'.

Conflation of Elen Lluyddawc with an earlier Elen, a British deity and mythical figure, with the mother of Constantine, and with the Greek Helen.

The Greek Helen

The relationship of Homer's Helen of Troy to the Greek deity of the same name, daughter of Zeus and Leda the Swan and sister of Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri, 'Heavenly Twins', Castor and Pollux, is discussed by Jack Lindsay, Helen of Troy, Woman and Goddess (London, Constable, 1974).

Printed and electronic publications

A short biography of Empress Helena, with links to other sites, is on the Web at http://www.roman-emperors.org/helena.htm - written by Jan Willem Drijvers (University of Groningen), author of Helena Augusta, The Mother of Constantine the Great and the Legend of Her Finding of the True Cross, Brill's Studies in Intellectual History 27 (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1992).

An excellently written and illustrated Internet guide to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem (a joint project of the Franciscans and the Vatican), is at http://www.christusrex.org/www1/jhs/TSspintr.html

Helena figures in a recent, controversial, popular account of the Titulus Crucis, the plaque supposedly nailed above Jesus' head at his crucifixion, and of Helena's finding of the so-called True Cross: Carsten Peter Thiede [Professor of New Testament History, Basle] and Matthew d'Ancona [deputy editor, The Sunday Telegraph], The Quest for the True Cross (London, Phoenix, 2000).

The Dream of Maxen Wledig, trs. by Lady Charlotte Guest, is on the Web at http://www.zinescene.org/mabin/maxen.html.

'Holy' Wells

For 'holy' wells, see James Rattue, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context (Woodbridge, Boydell Press, 1995).

See also Graham Jones, 'Holy wells and the cult of St Helen', Landscape History 8 (1986), pp. 59-75.

[Leicester University] [*]
Last updated: 11 January 2001 00:05
Dr G.R. Jones

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