By Gabriël Metsu, Christ on the Cross

3 May

The third day of May is noted as a commemoration of Saint Helena finding the remains of the cross Jesus was crucified upon. The discovery was supposedly made in the year 355, almost twenty years after the death of her son Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who legalised Christianity, and some twenty-five years after her own death. Historically, this day would have involved attendance at the parish church to acknowledge mass for the cross, or ‘rood’ in Old English.

Saint Helena was the wife of Constantius, who became a Caesar, or junior-ranking emperor, in 293, and then as Augustus, or senior emperor, from 305 to 306. He died in York, having travelled to Britain to lead the war against the Picts. Because of this, it was commonly believed in later years that Helena was in fact British, and so she became a figure of legend during the medieval age of chivalry. Little is known of her real heritage; however it seems likely she was from Asia Minor, rather than the daughter of the nursery rhyme character Old King Cole, as was claimed during the Middle Ages. When her son became emperor, he gave Helena the title of Augustus Imperatrix, offering her unlimited funds to locate Christian relics. She supposedly discovered the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, along with the Mount of Olives, and she founded churches at both. Legends tell of her finding the remains of the Burning Bush in Egypt. She then apparently found Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem, though there was a temple to a Roman god built upon it. She ordered this to be torn down, and in the tomb she found three crosses. When a dying woman touched the third cross she suddenly recovered, giving Helena unequivocal proof that this was the true cross on which Jesus was crucified.

Coel, King of the Britons, the father of Helena, by some surnamed “the Hawk-Faced,” began to reign over that portion of territory known in the present day as Essex and Hertfordshire, in the year 238, and added the principality of North Wales to his dominions shortly after, by his marriage with Seradwen, its heiress, a princess descended of the royal house of Eudda, whence in still later times came the “Pendragon kings of Uther’s royal race,” amongst whom was the celebrated Arthur.

Mrs Matthew Hall, The Queens Before the Conquest

Helena died in Rome in the year 330, the same year when a church sometimes dedicated to her was founded in Egypt. In the few years before her death after being appointed Augustus Imperatrix she had journeyed to Palestine, but these facts were of no consequence to British folk historians of the Middle Ages. According to them, the true cross used wood chopped from a tree which grew from the remains of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which both Eve and Adam ate from, resulting in their banishment from Eden. As the Bible traces Christ’s lineage back to Adam, via King David, this would tie in with the medieval fascination with the heritage and birth-right of royalty. The discovery of the cross on 3 May 355 was attributed to Helena.

Roodmas is no longer noted. Within the Catholic Church, the date was moved to 14 September to become part of Holy Cross Day in 1960, and the Church of England did the same in 2000. The relic which was supposedly discovered by Saint Helena—a small piece of ancient wood—is now inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a Greek Orthodox church at the foot of the hill upon which the Bible states Christ was crucified. There are numerous other supposed fragments of the true cross throughout the world, with at one time enough wood spread amongst medieval churches to be able to construct a large ship.

Gabriël Metsu, Christ on the Cross
Gabriël Metsu, Christ on the Cross, Public Domain
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