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The 80-year-old woman who discovered the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified

Saint Helena of Constantinople by Cima da Conegliano

Helena (c 249-c 329) was the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor. She is held up to reverence as the discoverer of the Cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

The story that she was the daughter of King Coel of Colchester is not found before the 12th century. In reality she was probably born in Drepanum (modern Izmit) at the eastern end of the Sea of Marmara.

According to Constantine’s secretary Eutroprius she sprang ex obscuriore matrimonio. St Ambrose, writing later in the fourth century, reported that Helena had been a stabularia, or stable-maid.

At all events, as a young woman she met, and may have married, an up-and-coming Roman general called Constantius Chlorus. Around 274 they had a son, Constantine, who was born at Naissus, modern Nis in Serbia.

Whatever Helena’s relation to Constantius Chlorus, she was rudely set aside in order that, in 289, he might marry Theodora, daughter of the Emperor Maximian. In 293 he was appointed Caesar, in charge of Gaul, Spain and Britain. He died in 305 at York, where Constantine, his son by Helena, was proclaimed emperor.

Meanwhile Helena had apparently been living in obscurity at the court of Diocletian, who ruled the Eastern Empire from Nicomedia, near Drepanum. Her son Constantine remained devoted to her; and after becoming emperor, brought her back to centre stage, both in Trier and Rome.

The contemporary historian Eusebius recorded that Helena converted to Christianity around 312, after her emperor son, inspired by a flaming cross, had destroyed his rivals at the Milvian Bridge. She became celebrated for her charity to the poor and to prisoners.

Helena was almost 80, however, when, in 327-8, she made her pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Jerusalem had been desecrated in 130 by the Emperor Hadrian, who had built a pagan temple on the supposed site of Jesus’s tomb near Calvary.

Helena ordered its demolition, and then selected a spot close by to start digging for relics.

Three crosses were found, and the true one identified when a sick woman was cured after touching it. Nails and a tunic were also discovered.

While in the Holy Land, Helena supervised work on the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and on the Church of the Mount of Olives.

She died soon after her return to Rome, and was buried on the Via Labicana.
Her remains are now in the Vatican Museum.

In 1950 Evelyn Waugh published a novel about Helena. “I liked her sanctity,” he explained, “because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry. She just discovered what it was that God had chosen for her and did it.”