The historical St Helen (Helena Augusta)

Much of the devotion to the early and medieval saints has attached to stories and legends about them, sometimes centuries after their death. Those legends have an importance in themselves. But saints were real people, remembered by their contemporaries as especially good Christians, and the stories attached to them later. It can sometimes be helpful to think about saints not as objects of devotion, but as people who faced the challenges and experiences of life as we must do. Although traditional accounts of female saints, even into our own day, have tended to paint them as rather unwordly figures devoted to piety, prayer and charitable works, Helena was almost certainly a much more rounded and interesting character.


Where they make reference at all, the earlier sources refer to, or emphasise, Helena's humble origins. The earliest of all, Eusebius, who will actually have met her, tells us nothing of her until she was in her seventies. But he does offer us a clue as to her birth date, when he says in his Vita Constantini (Life of Constantine) that she was about eighty when she died soon after her return from her pilgrimage to Palestine. This suggests she was born around 248. Her birthplace is more uncertain, since the first references are from texts a couple of centuries after her death, stating that her son had renamed the town of Drepanum in Bythnia (in present day Anatolia) Helenopolis in her honour. There was then a local tradition that this was her birthplace, but another story contemporaneous with that gives a quite different reason. Most modern historians accept that as her most likely home town, but the supporting evidence is weak.
How she came to meet Constantius, the father of her son, is not related but some 4th century accounts describe her as a stabularia - literally one who works in a stable but more likely a looser meaning, of one who works in an inn or hostelry, was meant. That is a plausible scenario to have established a relationship with an army officer. There is one description of her during her lifetime as being the wife of Constantius, in circumstances which suggest that it would have been impolitic to do otherwise. Overwhelmingly, though, accounts written within a century or so of her death are either silent or indicate that they were unmarried. Indeed, the difference in their social station would almost certainly have made marriage impossible. Cohabitation was a common and accepted arrangement, even by Christians, then as it is today.


The next point in her story is the birth of their son, Constantine, in Naissus in Dalmatia (present day Niš in Serbia) which was Constantius's home region. This is most likely to be around 272/3, based partly on a statement by Eusebius that Constantine's age when he died was twice that of the length of his reign, but another tradition has him born a decade later. Whether she had other children is not known. Put together, it paints an entirely believable picture of somebody working in an inn, forming a relationship with one of the customers in her early twenties, becoming his partner and bearing him a child. They seem to have been together until 289, when Constantius married Theodora, the daughter of Augustus Maximian, a dynastic marriage which was an essential prerequisite to Constantius's future career.
Constantius had other children by Theodora, but Constantine was his acknowledged heir and was educated under the supervision of the Emperor Diocletian at the imperial court in Nicomedia in Bythnia, so it is entirely plausible that Helena too was there, though part of her son's training included service with the army so he was not there permanently. Constantius himself became ruler of the western part of the empire in 305, including Britain, and Constantine joined his father in Gaul. They then travelled to Britain, with the court being in York,and it was there somewhere in the vicinity of the present Minster on 25 July 306 that Constantine was proclaimed Augustus (imperial ruler) by the army on his father's death.

Mother to an emperor

Constantine's capital in the early part of his reign was in Trier and there is a strong tradition there, dating back to at least the 8th century, that Helena lived there (though the claim that was her birthplace is almost certainly fanciful). Perhaps she joined Constantine's court soon after he became emperor, and moved with him to Rome around 316 when that became his capital. Constantine's career during this period, fighting a series of wars for control of the empire until 324, was a complicated and often precarious one, and it seems likely that she would have wanted a settled home. We do know that she acquired an estate in Rome in the vicinity of the modern Porta Maggiore some time after 312. This included an area famous for pagan and Christian burial - Constantine built a basilica here soon after this date and she herself was buried there. She also owned the Palatium Sessoriarum in the same area, and the church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme is thought to be on the site of the palace chapel. All the indications are that this was where she lived in the last part of her life, though she did own estates elsewhere.
Constantine's commitment to and devotion to his mother was marked in less material ways. Before 324 she may have been described as Noblissima Femina (noble lady), but in about that year both she and his wife were proclaimed Augusta (empress). This title was not automatically bestowed even on the wives of emperors before and after this period, so it hints at some special position at court and in the empire.
Although pious tradition often has it that Helena herself brought her son to Christian faith and therefore had a direct hand in the adoption of Christianity throughout the empire, the only source we have who was really in a position to know that was Eusebius, who gives the credit to Constantine for his mother's conversion. That is not in itself conclusive, since Eusebius had reason to emphasise the emperor's piety. Constantius seems to have been sympathetic toward or at least tolerant of Christianity and did not copy Diocletian in his persecution of Christians, nor is there evidence that Constantine himself, who was with Diocletion at this time, participated in that. There are reasons to believe that Christianity may have had a strong hold in the army and that Constantine may have used the cross as an emblem prior to the date of his alleged conversion before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312. All that is also consistent with Helena already being a Christian. There are alternative, but poorly supported, theories that she might have been Jewish. On the whole, though, we can only say with certainty that Helena was a Christian during her time in Rome, though her presumed domestic chapel there may date only to 325. An additional complication is the suggestion that she was sympathetic to Arianism, as was Eusebius, a doctrine on the nature of the Trinity declared heretical at the Council of Nicaea which her son convened in 325.


Christians believe that conversion and baptism are equally valid at whatever time of life they occur (and Constantine himself is reported not to have been baptised until shortly before death). Helena's enduring fame relies upon a pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Palestine) in the last years of her life. Helena must already have been well travelled, but this adventure, over the course of two years, will almost certainly have been her biggest. Quite what inspired it we cannot really know. There had been dramatic events in Rome, and within the family, as Constantine reinforced his control. Even Helena herself might have been drawn into the quarrels and blood-letting that included the death of both Constantine's wife Fausta and eldest son. We cannot know, but it is at least as plausible that the motivations were primarily to do with Helena's faith, marked by evidence of new church building which bore her name, and the knowledge that if she was to see the places of Christ's ministry and Jerusalem in particular this was not something she could put off. It seems that the journey was made overland, and she may well have detoured to see the places of her youth. There was almost certainly a political element and Eusebius describes it as a regal tour visiting many cities and distributing largess. Eusebius claimed that churches in even the smallest cities she went to received a visit. There would have been good political reasons why Helena, as Augusta and with her local knowledge, should go on a tour of the eastern province to help unite the empire after so many years of division. But it is very likely that Jerusalem was the ultimate objective.

Work had already begun, in Constantine's name, to recover the holy sites and it must be left to our imagination how far this might have been a joint project, initiated by or supported by her. We can suppose that she was keen to see how it was getting on. Church foundation was an important statement of faith for many Christian leaders especially Constantine, and to do this where the most important Gospel events occurred must have been of supreme importance to both of them. As described in later legends their identification is made to seem so miraculous that in a more cynical age many have been led to doubt their authenticity completely. After all, almost three centuries had elapsed. But it is clear that the Romans had deliberately taken over sites of special significance to Christians by building temples on them, just as Christians were to do in reverse to pagan sites in succeeding centuries. This would have had the unintended consequence of reliably marking places the history of which would certainly have been passed down to new generations of Christians. So the process was at least in part one of re-Christianising known sites, and we can imagine Helena visiting and watching with interest as these were uncovered and new churches built. Eusebius described in detail the removal of the pagan temple and mound over Christ's tomb, and the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre there on Constantine's orders. He ascribes the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and the Church of the Ascension at the Mount of Olives to Helena herself. Sadly, but perhaps reassuring for the plausibility of the real story of her pilgrimage, there is no real reason to believe that she believed that she had uncovered fragments of the cross and nails with which Christ was crucified. Not until sixty years after her death is her name linked with the nails and wooden pieces which at the time of her visit to Jerusalem were already revered as fragments of the true cross. After a visit lasting two years, it seems that she returned home and died with her son at her side. She was buried in Rome. She was then about 80, and her death is thought to have been in about the year 328.

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