St Helena of Constantine (c250 - 330) Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

St Helena of Constantine (c250 - 330)

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Saint Helena was the mother of Constantine the Great and is probably most famous as the legendary discoverer, at Golgotha in 326, of the 'True Cross' on which Christ had been crucified.

The Name

Nowadays, the name Helen is very popular. It is derived from the Greek Helios, meaning 'sun ray' or 'shining light'. There are getting on for 80 variant forms of the name Helen, which include Helena, Eileen, Ellen and Elaine. Probably the most famous bearer of the name Helen was Helen of Troy who, in Greek legend, was the most beautiful of all women.

There are various places named after Saint Helena including the small island situated midway between Africa and South America, and St Helens in Lancashire. Furthermore, Saint Helena is the Patron Saint of Colchester in Essex, so Colchester Town Hall has a statue of St Helena1, carrying a huge cross in one hand while the other arm is outstretched.

St Helena

Although there is a medieval tradition that Helena was born in England, she was probably born in Bithynia, a region of Turkey. She was the daughter of an innkeeper and, somewhere around 270 or 280, she either had an affair with or married the Roman senator Constantius I Chlorus. Shortly afterwards, their son Constantine, later to become Constantine the Great, was born. In 293, Constantius was made Caesar, or junior emperor. He separated from Helena in order to marry co-Emperor Maximian's stepdaughter.

At some stage in her life Helena converted to Christianity and became an influential protectress of the Christian church. She converted her son Constantine to Christianity, built churches in Rome and founded basilicas in the Holy Land.

On 28 October, 312, Constantine fought and defeated Maximian's troops at the Milvian (Mulvian) Bridge. It is said that at some time prior to the battle Constantine had experienced a vision of the Christian Cross superimposed upon the sun, together with the words 'In hoc signo vinces' ('By this sign you shall conquer'). Constantine therefore ordered images of the Holy Cross to be added to all the standards of his army, thus explaining his victory in one of the most decisive battles of world history.

When Constantine himself became emperor in 312, Helena was named 'Augusta' or empress.

The True Cross

As a Christian, Helena had always been obsessed with a desire to find the cross on which Christ had been crucified. In this quest, she had allegedly identified and excavated almost every significant site pertaining to the Gospel stories.

According to legend, Helena discovered the True Cross while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326.

During her missions to construct churches, Helena frequently took stonemasons and other construction workers away from their main task in order to excavate for the cross under her direction.

On one such occasion, her workmen were preparing to build the the 'Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre' on the hill called Calvary or Golgotha, the site of Christ's death. During the excavation they had to remove three centuries' worth of rubble that had accumulated on the hill, due to the construction of a temple to Venus and Jupiter by Emperor Hadrian in 135.

While this debris was being removed, the workmen apparently found the remains of three crosses in a cave, together with the nails used to crucify the victims. Also found was the placard or titulus2 from the cross of Jesus, proclaiming him 'King of the Jews'.

In order to determine which of the pieces of wood was from the cross of Jesus, Helena hit upon the idea of using them, on successive days, to touch a prominent local woman who was dying of leprosy. The third piece of wood is said to have caused the woman's lesions to be instantly cleared, which caused Helena to determine that this was a fragment from the True Cross. The largest piece was about 10cm long and black in colour; that is, it had been burned but not consumed. It is said that her son, Constantine, used one of the nails to make his horse's bridle and another to make his helmet, while two were thrown into the Adriatic Sea.

Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, was apparently in Jerusalem at the time of Helena's discovery and yet he has made no mention of it in any of his writings. This omission creates perhaps the biggest of the challenges to the authenticity of Helena's discovery. Some say that the story was invented by bishops of Jerusalem some four centuries later, though in the last 20 years scholars have begun to give rather more credence to the authenticity of Helena's discovery.

The Festival of the Exaltation of the Cross is a re-enactment of Helena's discovery of the True Cross.

The story of the finding of the True Cross has been recounted by some of the most famous luminaries from Greek and Latin literature, including the 4th-Century Byzantine historian, Socrates Scholasticus (380 - unknown date). The deeds of St Helena were also the subject of Cynewulf's most celebrated 9th-Century poem, 'Elene'.

In 330, to commemorate the finding of the True Cross, Helena built a church over the site in Jerusalem, which includes the rocky outcrop which, according to tradition, is where the cross was erected and the cave which formed Christ's tomb was located. This is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which nowadays is used by some six different religious denominations and is the most sacred site in Christendom, being recognised as the site of both Christ's death and his resurrection.

Relics of the Three Magi

St Helena is also credited with the discovery of the bones of the Three Wise Men (Magi) while on a pilgrimage to Palestine, allegedly during her 80th year. She is said to have taken the remains to the church of Hagia Sophia (The Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople. They were later moved to Milan in the 5th Century before being sent to their current resting place in Cologne Cathedral in 1163.

Helena's Last Days

Helena is known to have been still alive in 326, the year Constantine ordered the execution of his son Crispus. According to Eusebius in his Vite Const, Constantine was with her when she died in Nicomedia, at the advanced age of over 80 years. This must have been about the year 330, as this is when the last coins to be stamped with her name were minted. Her body was brought to Constantinople and was laid to rest in the imperial vault of the Church of the Apostles. It is thought that her remains were then transferred to the Abbey of Hautvillers in the French Archdiocese of Reims in 849, as was recorded by the monk Altmann in his Translatio. She was revered as a saint and the veneration even spread to Western countries, early in the 9th Century.

The Link with Colchester

It was the Welsh chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth (c1100 - c1155) who started the legend that Helena was an English princess — the daughter of Coel, king of Essex and Hertfordshire. King Coel was said to have had a daughter called Helena (or Elaine), who married Constantius Chlorus and had a son called Constantine. There was a King Coel who was king of part of England during Celtic times and the name 'Colchester' means Cole's Castle in Latin. It is not implausible that Colchester was named after King Coel. King Coel may be synonymous with the 'Old King Cole' of nursery rhyme familiarity.

Colchester's coat of arms features the True Cross, green and sprouting into new life, with three of the nails which St Helena also discovered.

St Helena is one of the patron saints of archaeologists. As the discoverer of the True Cross, she lays claim to the title of being the world's first archaeologist.

St Helena's Feast Days

St Helena has two feast days. In the West, her feast day is celebrated on 18 August, while in the East it is celebrated, together with that of Constantine, on 21 May.

1Although some sources say that this is really a statue of the Virgin Mary.2The exact wording on the titulus varies according to which version of the Bible one is using. Furthermore, the Four Evangelists do not agree on the exact wording. Thus, according to the King James Version, St Matthew (27:37) gives, 'This is Jesus the King of the Jews; St Mark (15:26), 'The King of the Jews'; St Luke (23:38), 'This is the King of the Jews'; St John (19:19-22), 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews'. According to John, this inscription was written in Hebrew, Latin and Greek.

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