Friday, 29 September 2017

Was the Empress Helena a Briton?

There is an odd and nagging question about the origin of the empress Helena. She is noted in medieval sources, starting with the highly regarded Henry of Huntingdon, as a Briton, and is recorded as such in Roman Catholic and Orthodox hagiographies. Given the ability to place her ancestry as something rather grander in the core of the empire, why is she placed in such a troublesome peripheral province? Procopius, who was not a Christian, claimed she was born at Drepana in Bithynia, Asia Minor, later renamed Helenopolis, but that proves nothing more than an association, as Cyril Mango remarks – there were other cities called by that name.

Follis of Helena as empress

 Could her father have been a Briton, serving in the Roman army? It was normal practice to assign soldiers to serve elsewhere than their home province. Senior officers could marry, so Helena could have been born in an eastern province while her (unnamed) father was serving there. A reasonable guess would be Dardania in what is now Bulgaria, because that is where Flavius Valerius Constantius was born, both supposed to be in AD250. Their son, Constantine, was born in Naissus, Dardania in February 272, when both were 21. There would be nothing in imperial practice forbidding a provincial nobleman from Britain, a decurion with territorial claims in Britain, from marrying his daughter to a local youth with prospects; political enemies in her lifetime called Helena a stabularia,  a stable maid. This might suggest her father held the rank of comes stabuli, count of the stables, a newly created post of some status (Valens and Aetius both later held that position) in Moesia. This post morphed over time into the high rank of Constable, particularly in France.

The pair would have been unable to go to Britain because of the plague of Cyprian (AD250-70) and the coup that launched the Gallic Empire (AD260-71); after the death of Aurelian in 275, Constantius might have been fighting for Rome in Germany, and may have accompanied the Hastingi Vandals sent to Britain as dediticii of Probus, for all we know.

The Balkans – then known as Haemus Mons – were a place where the Plague of Cyprian was extremely destructive. Some have claimed it was smallpox, but the description of the symptoms don’t sound like it:

the bowels, relaxed into a constant flux, discharge the bodily strength; that a fire originated in the marrow ferments into wounds of the fauces; that the intestines are shaken with a continual vomiting; that the eyes are on fire with the injected blood; that in some cases the feet or some parts of the limbs are taken off by the contagion of diseased putrefaction; that from the weakness arising by the maiming and loss of the body, either the gait is enfeebled, or the hearing is obstructed, or the sight darkened (Cyprian On the plague)

Whatever it was, it doesn’t sound like smallpox, which a recent study suggests can’t be traced earlier than AD1580 (Current Archaeology 324, 2017, p.11). It may have been more than one disease, or even a disease which no longer exists.

I should add that there are many inscriptions linking British soldiers to postings in the Danubian provinces. Anthony Birley records this in The People of Roman Britain (pp.101-6). It might well have been the case that soldiers from that area of the empire were in turn posted in Britain. So we can posit a scenario where the daughter – perhaps the only child – of a Romano-British army officer who held a territorial title in Britain, married a rising Roman officer, which gave him the right to claim that title in Britain. Lest that seem far-fetched, in the sixteenth century William the Silent, a German princeling, inherited a French title, Comte d’Orange, and was given a principality in Flanders to rule by his Spanish master.

This might explain why Constantius was so involved and so successful in Britain. Otherwise, why did the Caesar of the West spend many years fighting in a distant province? And in 305-6, when he had the whole of the West at his command, why go back to Britain? Perhaps he was a king there too?

Medal, found in Gaul, showing Constantius Chlorus receiving the surrender of London in AD295

There is evidence from earlier and later times of British territorial succession passing from parent to daughter to be exercised by the daughter’s husband. This was known to the Greeks (it’s how Perseus became king, by marrying Andromeda, the king of Ethiopia’s daughter; ‘Andromeda’ is Greek for ‘ruler of men’). The independence of Boudicca and the rape of her daughters make more sense if she is the ruler by inheritance and her daughters her heirs. As heirs to a local throne, their rape precluded them ever being married (it happens that way in Africa today) and thus passing on the royal authority. Likewise, Cartimandua exhibited royal authority over the Brigantes, who obeyed her rather than her own husband Venutius.

In AD731, Bede says that the royal inheritance of the Picts was down the female line (Historia Ecclesiastica 1.1) and the same is heard in Irish epics. Carla Nayland (The Female Royal Line: matrilineal succession amongst the Picts?) has pointed out that the Norman succession of Stephen and then Henry II is matrilinear, although the men inherited and not sisters (, consulted 2 September 2016)). Then again, George I of Hanover and Great Britain inherited that way only 300 years ago.

In short, we have evidence before and after the time of  Helena of women succeeding to positions of power, so there is no immediate need to assume that women in Britain had no such power in the Roman period. While women had relatively little direct power in the core of the Roman empire, we know too little about local power in the peripheral provinces.

Tradition links Constantius and Helena with Nottingham, then not a Roman city. However, the River Trent (Roman ‘Trisantona’) flows through it, linking it to the Humber Estuary and the sea. Nottingham Castle Rock would be a good defensive site and was riddled with caves. The lower Trent valley is noted as the First Border Land (Erest Myrcna Lond, that is, Mercia). The border in question is one exploited by Anglo-Saxons who may have been ex-Roman soldiers based in that area.

Nottingham Castle Rock was well known in British sources; Asser’s Life of King Alfred, written in the late 800s refers to it ‘Tig Guocobauc’, which he translates into Latin as Speluncarum Domus, the house of caves. In this early medieval context, ‘domus’ meant ‘palace’, as is widely used in Frankish Latin.

The same tradition makes ‘Old King Cole’ the father of Helena. Tradition makes strange connections, but rarely invents a whole unsubstantiated myth. ‘Old Coel’ (Coel Hen in Welsh) appears in many traditions as ruler of Hen Ogledd, the Old North.

Then there is the surprising issue of the Five Boroughs (Lincoln, Derby, Stamford, Leicester, Nottingham), a well-defined and cohesive area, not incorporated into the Viking Kingdoms of York or East Anglia. It survived well after the Vikings as an Earldom. Could that have been a British territory? The Five Boroughs seem to be contiguous with the lands of the Pre-Roman tribe known today as the Corieltauvi, based around Leicester (Ratae Corieltauvorum), but once referred to as Coritani, a term no longer used. The Fosse Way passes through the territory, so a later function of the Corieltauvi may have been to supply troops to protect the road. A lesser known Four Boroughs (Northampton, Bedford, Huntingdon and Cambridge), also a Viking creation, may be added to that, along with the British enclave around the Chilterns, Anglicised into the Cilternsaetan by the 650s.

On the basis of an earlier discussion, in which I suggested that the small Roman province of Flavia Caesariensis occupied the same territory as the medieval bishopric of Lincoln (with its see originally at Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire), it is clear that the territory of the Corieltauvi forms the northern half of that medieval bishopric. The province was created out of a larger province Caesariensis by Diocletian, ‘Flavia’ deriving from Flavius Valerius Constantius and ‘Maxima’ Caesariensis from Maximian, who as Augustus got the larger share.

Consequently, I suggest that the Roman province of  Flavia Caesariensis, created under the Diocletianic Tetrarchy, was derived from the tribal lands of the Corieltauvi, which for all we know, could have been maintained as a core territory for the family of Helena (whom Constantius had been required to divorce to marry Theodora, the natural daughter of the Augustus Maximian) and later, under the new Christian disposition, formed a see of Lincoln. By AD314, there was a bishop of Lincoln, Adelphius, who attended the Council of Arles. It had been a guiding principle for the Christian Church to have church provinces matching the boundaries of secular provinces, with a bishop in every town which had a governor and a metropolitan in every town with a vicarius. As Adelphius has a Greek name (‘brother’) it seems likely he was an easterner.

Lincoln maintained a fourth century church within its walls in the post-Roman period, known subsequently as St Paul in the Bail, after the missionary St Paulinus. This church stood in the middle of the Roman Forum, and was connected with a well, known to have been dug some time in the first century AD. There is an artist’s impression of what that church may have looked like.

Artist's impression of what Lincoln's St Paul in the Bail may have looked like

If speculation is of any help, ‘Coel’ may be a corruption of ‘Corieltauvi’; by that scenario, the civitas of the Corieltauvi is the same place as Flavia Caesariensis and the Roman see of Lincoln, and thus of the Erest Myrcna Lond, which gave its name to Mercia. When Mercia broke up in the middle of the ninth century, its core territory was remembered and survived as the Five Boroughs and after that as the Earldom of Leofric. Even now, the East Midlands has an area identity.

All of this is speculative. We can never know why the Christian Church has always thought one of its most famous saints was of British origin, when it could have easily assigned her to Bithynia or anywhere it pleased.

A final curiosity of Helena is her burial. The has a monumental tomb at Rome:

Monumental mausoleum to St Helena, Rome

Her head is allegedly venerated at Trier:

Her sarcophagus however is in the Vatican Museum

Sarcophagus in porphyry of St Helena, Vatican Museum

In detail, we can see men with what look like Phrygian caps:

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