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Helena, Mother of Constantine

St. Helena

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Helena Facts

Known for: mother of Roman Emperor Constantine I, saint in the eastern and western churches, reported to be the discoverer of the "true cross"
Dates: about 248 CE to about 328 CE; her birth year is estimated from a report by the contemporary historian Eusebius that she was about 80 near the time of her death
Feast Day: August 19 in the western church, and May 21 in the eastern church
Also known as: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, Saint Helena, St. Helena

Origin: The historian Procopius reports that Constantine named a city in Bithynia, Asia Minor, Helenopolis, to honor her birthplace, which implies but not with certainty that she was born there. That location is now in Turkey.

Britain has been claimed as her birthplace, but that claim is unlikely, based on a medieval legend retold by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The claim that she was Jewish is also unlikely to be true. Trier (now in Germany) was claimed as her birthplace in 9th and 11th century lives of Helena, but that's also unlikely to be accurate.

Helena Biography:

Helena met an aristocrat, Constantinius Chlorus, perhaps while he was among those fighting Zenobia. Some later sources allege they met in Britain. Whether they married legally or not is a matter of dispute among historians. Their son, Constantine, was born about 272. It's also not known whether Helena and Constantius had other children. Little is known of Helena's life for more than 30 years after her son was born.

Constantius achieved higher and higher rank first under Diocletian, and then under his co-emperor Maximian. In 293 to 305, Constantius served as Caesar with Maximian as Augustus in the Tetrarchy. Constantius was married in 289 to Theodora, daughter of Maximian; either Helena and Constantius had divorced by that point, or were not married. In 305, Maximian passed the title of Augustus to Constantius. As Constantius was dying in 306, he proclaimed his son by Helena, Constantine, as his successor; that succession seems to have been decided during Maximian's lifetime. But that by-passed the younger sons of Constantius by Theodora, which would later be grounds for contention about the imperial succession.

When Constantine became emperor, Helena's fortunes changed, and she appears back in the public view somewhat. She was granted much land around Rome. By some accounts, including Eusebius of Caesarea, a major source for information about Constantine, in about 312 Constantine convinced his mother, Helena, to become a Christian. In some later accounts, both Constantius and Helena were said to have been Christians earlier.

In 324, as Constantine won major battles ending the civil war in the wake of the failure of the Tetrarchy, Helena was granted the title of Augusta by her son, and again she received financial rewards with the recognition.

In about 326 or 327, Helena traveled to Palestine on an official inspection for her son of the construction of churches that he had ordered. Although the earliest stories of this journey omit any mention of Helena's role in the discovery of the True Cross (on which Jesus was crucified, and which became a popular relic), later in the century she began to be credited by Christian writers with that find. In Jerusalem, she is credited with having a temple to Venus (or Jupiter) torn down and replaced with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the cross was supposed to have been discovered.

On that journey, she also is reported to have ordered built a church on the location identified with the burning bush in the story of Moses. Other relics she is credited with finding on her travels were nails from the crucifixion and a tunic worn by Jesus before his crucifixion. Her palace in Jerusalem was converted to the Basilica of the Holy Cross.

In 326, Constantine had his eldest son and his wife killed; Helena supposedly played a role in the killings.

Her death at -- perhaps -- Trier in 328 or 329 was followed by her burial at a mausoleum near the basilica of St. Peter and St. Marcellinus near Rome, built on some of the lands which had been granted to Helena before Constantine was emperor. As happened with some other Christian saints, some or her bones were sent as relics to other locations.

St. Helena was a popular saint in medieval Europe, with many legends told about her life. She was considered a model for a good Christian woman ruler.

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