Helena of Britain, the Girl of the Essex Fells
Ever since that far-off day in the infancy of the world, when lands began to form and rivers to flow seaward, the little river Colne has wound its crooked way through the fertile fields of Essex eastward to the broad North Sea.
Through hill-land and through moor-land, past Moyns and Great Yeldham, past Halstead and Chappel and the walls of Colchester, turning now this way and now that until it comes to Mersea Island and the sea, the little river flows to-day even as it sped along one pleasant summer morning sixteen hundred and forty years ago, when a little British princess, only fairly in her teens, reclined in comfortable contentment in her gilded barge and floated down the river from her father's palace at Colchester to the strand at Wivanloe.
For this little girl of fourteen, Helena, the princess, was a king's daughter, and, according to all accounts, a very bright and charming girl besides—which all princesses have not been. Her father was Coel, second prince of Britain and king of that part of ancient England, which includes the present shires of Essex and of Suffolk, about the river Colne.
Not a very large kingdom this, but even as small as it was, King Coel did not hold it in undisputed sway. For he was one of the tributary princes of Britain, in the days when Roman arms, and Roman law, and Roman dress, and Roman manners, had place and power throughout England, from the Isle of Wight, to the Northern highlands, behind whose forest-crowned hills those savage natives known as the Picts—"the tattooed folk"—held possession of ancient Scotland, and defied the eagles of Rome.
The monotonous song of the rowers, keeping time with each dip of the broad-bladed oars, rose and fell in answer to the beats of the master's silver baton, and Helena too followed the measure with the tap, tap, of her sandaled foot.
Suddenly there shot out around one of the frequent turns in the river, the gleam of other oars, the high prow of a larger galley, and across the water came the oar-song of a larger company of rowers. Helena started to her feet.
"Look, Cleon," she cried, pointing, eagerly towards the approaching boat, " 't is my father's own trireme. Why this haste to return, think'st thou?"
"I cannot tell, little mistress," replied the freedman Cleon, her galley-master; "the king thy father must have urgent tidings, to make him return thus quickly to Camalodunum."
Both the girl and the galley-master spoke in Latin, for the language of the Empire was the language of those in authority or in official life even in its remotest provinces, and the galley-master did but use the name which the Roman lords of Britain had given to the prosperous city on the Colne, in which the native Prince, King Coel, had his court—the city which to-day is known under its later Saxon name of Colchester.
It was, indeed, a curious state of affairs in England. I doubt if many of my girl and boy readers, no matter how, well they may stand in their history classes, have ever thought of the England of Hereward and Ivanhoe, of Paul Dombey and Tom Brown, as a Roman land.
And yet at the time when this little Flavia Julia Helena was sailing down the river Colne, the island of Britain, in its southern section at least, was almost as Roman in manner, custom, and speech as was Rome itself.
For nearly five hundred years, from the days of Caesar the conqueror, to those of Honorius the unfortunate, was England, or Britain as it was called, a Roman province, broken only in its allegiance by the early revolts of the conquered people or by the later usurpations of ambitious and unpincipled governors.
And, at the date of our story, in the year 255 A.D., the beautiful island had so far grown out of the barbarisms of ancient Britain as to have long since forgotten the gloomy rites and open-air altars of the Druids, and all the half-savage surroundings of those stern old priests.
Everywhere Roman temples testified to the acceptance by the people of the gods of Rome, and little Helena herself each morning hung the altar of the emperor-god Claudius with garlands in the stately temple which had been built in his honor in her father's palace town, asked the protection of Cybele, "the Heavenly Virgin," and performed the rites that the Empire demanded for "the thousand gods of Rome."
Throughout the land, south of the massive wall which the great Emperor Hadrian had stretched across the island from the mouth of the Solway to the mouth of the Tyne, the people themselves who had gathered into or about the thirty growing Roman cities which the conquerors had founded and beautified, had become Roman in language, religion, dress, and ways, while the educational influences of Rome, always following the course of her conquering eagles, had planted schools and colleges throughout the land, and laid the foundation for that native learning which in later years was to make the English nation so great and powerful.
And what a mighty empire must have been that of Rome that, in those far-off days, when rapid transit was unknown, and steam and electricity both lay dormant, could have entered into the lives of two bright young maidens so many leagues removed from one another—Zenobia, the dusky Palmyrean of the East, and Helena, the fresh-faced English girl of the West.
But to such distant and widely separated confines had this power of the vast Empire extended; and to this thoughtful young princess, drifting down the winding English river, the sense of Roman supremacy and power would come again and again.
For this charming young girl—said, later, to have been the most beautiful woman of her time in England—though reared to Roman ways and Roman speech, had too well furnished a mind not to think for herself. "She spake," so says the record, "many tongues and was replete with piety." The only child of King Coel, her doting old father had given her the finest education that Rome could offer. She was, even before she grew to womanhood, so we are told, a fine musician, a marvellous worker in tapestry, in hammered brass and pottery, and was altogether as wise and wonderful a young woman as even these later centuries can show.
But, for all this grand education, she loved to hear the legends and stories of her people that in various ways would come to her ears, either as the simple tales of her British nurse, or in the wild songs of the wandering bards, or singers.
As she listened to these she thought less of those crude and barbaric ways of her ancestors that Rome had so vastly bettered than of their national independence and freedom from the galling yoke of Rome, and, as was natural, she cherished the memory of Boadicea, the warrior queen, and made a hero of the fiery young Caractacus.
It is always so, you know. Every bright young imagination is apt to find greater glories in the misty past, or grander possibilities in a still more misty future than in the too practical and prosaic present in which both duty and destiny lie. And so Helena the princess, Leaning against the soft cushions of her gilded barge, had sighed for the days of the old-time British valor and freedom, and, even as she looked off toward the approaching triareme, she was wondering how she could awake to thoughts of British glory her rather heavy-witted father, Coel the King—an hereditary prince of that ancient Britain in which he was now, alas, but a tributary prince of the all too powerful Rome.
Now, "old King Cole," as Mother Goose tells us—for young Helena's father was none other than the veritable "old King Cole" of our nursery jingle—was a "jolly old soul," and a jolly old soul is very rarely an independent or ambitious one. So long as he could have "his pipe and his bowl" not, of course, his long pipe of tobacco that all the Mother Goose artists insist upon giving him—but the reed pipe upon which his musicians played—so long, in other words, as he could live in ease and comfort, undisturbed in his enjoyment of the good things of life by his Roman over-lords, he cared for no change. Rome took the responsibility and he took things easily. But this very day, while his daughter Helena was floating down the river to meet him on the strand at Wivanloe, he was returning from an unsuccessful boar-hunt in the Essex woods, very much out of sorts—cross because he had not captured the big boar he had hoped to kill, cross because his favorite musicians had been "confiscated" by the Roman governor or propraetor at Londinium (as London was then called), and still more cross because he had that day received dispatches from Rome demanding a special and unexpected tax levy, or tribute, to meet the necessary expenses of the new Emperor Diocletian.
Something else had happened to increase his ill temper. His "jolly old soul," vexed by the numerous crosses of the day, was thrown into still greater perplexity by the arrival, just as he stood fretful and chafing on the shore at Wivanloe, of one who even now was with him on the trireme, bearing him company back to his palace at Camolodunum—Carausius the admiral.
This Carausius, the admiral, was an especially vigorous, valorous, and fiery young fellow of twenty-one. He was cousin to the Princess Helena and a prince of the blood royal of ancient Britain. Educated under the strict military system of Rome, he had risen to distinction in the naval force of the Empire, and was now the commanding officer in the northern fleet that had its central station at Gessoriacum, now Boulogne, on the northern coast of France. He had chased and scattered the German pirates who had so long ravaged the northern seas, had been named by the Emperor admiral of the north, and was the especial pride, as he was the dashing young leader, of the Roman sailors along the English Channel and the German shores.
The light barge of the princess approached the heavier boat of the king, her father. At her signal the oarsmen drew up alongside, and, scarce waiting for either boat to more than slacken speed, the nimble-footed girl sprang lightly to the deck of her father's galley. Then bidding the obedient Cleon take her own barge back to the palace, she hurried at once, and without question, like the petted only child she was, into the high-raised cabin at the stern, where beneath the Roman standards sat her father the king.
Helena entered the apartment at a most exciting moment. For there, facing her portly old father, whose clouded face bespoke his troubled mind, stood her trimly-built young cousin Carausius the admiral, bronzed with his long exposure to the sea-blasts, a handsome young viking, and, in the eyes of the hero-loving Helen, very much of a hero because of his acknowledged daring and his valorous deeds.
Neither man seemed to have noticed the sudden entrance of the girl, so deep were they in talk.
"I tell thee, uncle," the hot-headed admiral was saying, "it is beyond longer bearing. This new emperor—this Diocletian—who is he to dare to dictate to a prince of Britain? A foot-soldier of Illyria, the son of slaves, and the client of three coward emperors; an assassin, so it hath been said, who from chief of the domestics, hath become by his own cunning Emperor of Rome. And now hath he dared to accuse me—me, a free Briton and a Roman citizen as well, a prince and the son of princes, with having taken bribes from these German pirates whom I have vanquished. He hath openly said that I, Carausius the admiral, have filled mine own coffers while neglecting the revenues of the state. I will not bear it. I am a better king than he, did I but have my own just rights, and even though he be Diocletian the Emperor, he needeth to think twice before he dare accuse a prince of Britain with bribe-taking and perjury."
"True enough, good nephew," said King Coel, as the admiral strode up and down before him, angrily playing with the hilt of his short Roman sword, "true enough, and I too have little cause to love this low-born emperor. He hath taken from me both my players and my gold, when I can illy spare either from my comfort or my necessities. 'T is a sad pass for Britain. But Rome is mistress now. What may we hope to do?"
The Princess Helena sprang to her father's side, her young face flushed, her small hand raised in emphasis. "Do!" cried she, and the look of defiance flamed on her fair young face. "Do! Is it thou, my father, thou, my cousin, princes of Britain both, that ask so weak a question? O that I were a man! What did that brave enemy of our house, Cassivellaunus, do? what Caractacus? what the brave queen Boadicea? When the Roman drove them to despair they raised the standard of revolt, sounded their battle cries, and showed the Roman that British freemen could fight to the death for their country and their home. And thus should we do, without fear or question, and see here again in Britain a victorious kingdom ruled once more by British kings."
"Nay, nay, my daughter," said cautious King Coel, "your words are those of an unthinking girl. The power of Rome——"
But the Prince Carausius, as the girl's brave words rang out, gave her an admiring glance, and, crossing to where she stood, laid his hand approvingly upon her shoulder.
"The girl is right, uncle," he said, breaking in upon the king's cautious speech. "Too long have we bowed the neck to Roman tyranny. We, free princes of Britain that we are, have it even now in our power to stand once again as altogether free. The fleet is mine, the people are yours, if you will but amuse them. Our brothers are groaning under the load of Roman tribute, and are ripe to strike. Raise the cry at Camalodunum, my uncle; cry: 'Havoc and death to Rome!' My fleet shall pour its victorious sailors upon the coast; the legions, even now full of British fighters, shall flock to out united standards, and we shall rule—Emperors in the North, even as do the Roman conquerors rule Emperors in the South."
Young blood often sways and leads in council and in action, especially when older minds are over-cautious or sluggish in decision. The words of Carausius and Helena carried the day with Coel the king, already smarting under a sense of ill-treatment by his Roman over-lords.
The standard of revolt was raised in Camalodunum. The young admiral hurried back to France to make ready his fleet, while Coel the king, spurred on to action by the patriotic Helena, who saw herself another Boadicea—though, in truth, a younger and much fairer one—gathered a hasty following, won over to his cause the British-filled legion in his palace-town, and, descending upon the nearest Roman camps and stations, surprised, captured, scattered, or brought over their soldiers, and proclaimed himself free from the yoke of Rome and supreme prince of Britain.
Ambition is always selfish. Even when striving for the general good there lies, too often, beneath this noble motive the still deeper one of selfishness. Carausius the admiral, though determined upon kingly power, had no desire for a divided supremacy. He was determined to be sole emperor, or none. Crafty and unscrupulous, although brave and high-spirited, he deemed it wisest to delay his part of the compact until he should see how it fared with his uncle, the king, and then, upon his defeat, to climb to certain victory.
He therefore sent to his uncle promises instead of men, and when summoned by the Roman governor to assist in putting down the revolt, he returned loyal answers, but sent his aid to neither party.
King Coel after his first successes knew that, unaided, he could not hope to withstand the Roman force that must finally be brought against him. Though urged to constant action by his wise young daughter, he preferred to do nothing; and, satisfied with the acknowledgment of his power in and about his little kingdom on the Colne, he spent his time in his palace with the musicians that he loved so well, and the big bowl of liquor that he loved, it is to be feared, quite as dearly.
The musicians—the pipers and the harpers—sang his praises, and told of his mighty deeds, and, no doubt, their refrain was very much the same as the one that has been preserved for us in the jingle of Mother Goose:
But if the pleasure-loving old king was listless, young Helena was not. The misty records speak of her determined efforts, and though it is hard to understand how a girl of fifteen can do any thing toward successful generalship, much can be granted to a young lady who, if the records speak truth, was, even while a girl, "a Minerva in wisdom, and not deficient in statecraft."
So, while she advised with her father's boldest captains and strengthened so wisely the walls of ancient Colchester, or Camalodunum, that traces of her work still remain as proof of her untiring zeal, she still cherished the hope of British freedom and release from Rome. And the loving old king, deep in his pleasures, still recognized the will and wisdom of his valiant daughter, and bade his artists make in her honor a memorial that should ever speak of her valor. And this memorial, lately unearthed, and known as the Colchester Sphinx, perpetuates the lion-like qualities of a girl in her teens, who dared withstand the power of Imperial Rome.
And still no help came from her cousin, the admiral. But one day a galley speeding up the Colne brought this unsigned message to King Coel:
"To Coel, Camalodunum, Greeting:
"Save thyself. Constantius the sallow-faced, prefect of the Western praetorians, is even now on his way from Spain to crush thy revolt. Save thyself. I wait. justice will come."
"Thou seest, O daughter," said King Coel as Helena read the craven missive, "the end cometh as I knew it would. Well, man can but die." And with this philosophic reflection the "jolly old soul" only dipped his red nose still deeper into his big bowl, and bade his musicians play their loudest and merriest.
But Helena, "not deficient in statecraft," thought for both. She would save her father, her country, and herself, and shame her disloyal cousin. Discretion is the better part of valor. Let us see how discreet a little lady was this fair young Princess Helena.
The legions came to Camalodunum. Across Gaul and over the choppy channel they came, borne by the very galleys that were to have succored the British king. Up through the mouth of Thames they sailed, and landing at Londinium, marched in close array along the broad Roman road that led straight up to the gates of Camalodunum. Before the walls of Camalodunum was pitched the Roman camp, and the British king was besieged in his own palace-town.
The Roman trumpets sounded before the gate of the beleaguered city, and the herald of the prefect, standing out from his circle of guards, cried the summons to surrender:
"Coel of Britain, traitor to the Roman people and to thy lord the Emperor, hear thou! I n the name of the Senate and People of Rome, I, Constantius the prefect, charge thee to deliver up to them ere this day's sun shall set, this, their City of Camalodunum, and thine own rebel body as well. Which done they will in mercy pardon the crime of treason to the city, and will work their will and punishment only upon thee—the chief rebel. And if this be not done within the appointed time, then will the walls of this their town of Camalodunum be overthrown, and thou and all thy people be given the certain death of traitors."
King Coel heard the summons, and some spark of that very patriotism that had inspired and incited his valiant little daughter flamed in his heart. He would have returned an answer of defiance. "I can at least die with my people," he said, but young Helena interposed.
"Leave this to me, my father," she said. "As I have been the cause, so let me be the end of trouble. Say to the prefect that in three hours' time the British envoy will come to his camp with the king's answer to his summons."
The old king would have replied otherwise, but his daughter's entreaties and the counsels of his captains who knew the hopelessness of resistance, forced him to assent, and his herald made answer accordingly.
Constantius the prefect—a manly, pleasant. looking young commander, called Chlorus or "the sallow," from his pale face,—sat in his tent within the Roman camp. The three hours' grace allowed had scarcely expired when his sentry announced the arrival of the envoy of Coel of Britain.
"Bid him enter," said the prefect. Then, as the curtains of his tent were drawn aside, the prefect started in surprise, for there before him stood, not the rugged form of a British fighting man, but a fair young girl, who bent her graceful head in reverent obeisance to the youthful representative of the Imperial Caesars.
"What would'st thou with me, maiden?" asked the prefect.
"I am the daughter of Coel of Britain," said the girl, "and I am come to sue for pardon and for peace."
"The Roman people have no quarrel with the girls of Britain," said the prefect. "Hath then King Coel fallen so low in state that a maiden must plead for him?"
"He hath not fallen at all, O Prefect," replied the girl proudly; "the king, my father, would withstand thy force but that I, his daughter, know the cause of this unequal strife, and seek to make terms with the victors."
The girl's fearlessness pleased the prefect, for Constantius Chlorus was a humane and gentle man, fierce enough in fight, but seeking never to needlessly wound an enemy or lose a friend.
"And what are thy terms, fair envoy of Britain?" he demanded.
"These, O Prefect," replied Helena, "If but thou wilt remove thy cohorts to Londinium, I pledge my father's faith and mine, that he will, within five days, deliver to thee as hostage for his fealty, myself and twenty children of his councillors and captains. And further, I, Helena the princess, will bind myself to deliver up to thee, with the hostages, the chief rebel in this revolt, and the one to whose counselling this strife with Rome is due."
Both the matter and the manner of the offered terms still further pleased the prefect, and he said: "Be it so, Princess." Then summoning his lieutenant, he said: "Conduct the envoy of Coel of Britain with all courtesy to the gates of the the city," and with a herald's escort the girl returned to her father.
Again the old king rebelled at the terms his daughter had made.
"I know the ways of Rome," he said. "I know what their mercy meaneth. Thou shalt never go as hostage for my faith, O daughter, nor carry out this hazardous plan."
"I have pledged my word and thine, O King," said Helena. "Surely a Briton's pledge should be as binding as a Roman's."
So she carried her point, and, in five days' time, she, with twenty of the boys and girls of Camalodunum, went as hostages to the Roman camp in London.
"Here be thy hostages, fair Princess," said Constantius the prefect as he received the children; "and this is well. But remember the rest of thy compact. Deliver to me now, according to thy promise, the chief rebel against Rome."
"She is here, O Prefect,"said the intrepid girl. I am that rebel—Helena of Britain!"
The smile upon the prefect's face changed to sudden sternness.
"Trifle not with Roman justice, girl," he said, "I demand the keeping of thy word."
"It is kept," replied the princess. "Helena of Britain is the cause and motive of this revolt against Rome. If it be rebellion for a free prince to claim his own, if it be rebellion for a prince to withstand for the sake of his people the unjust demands of the conqueror, if it be rebellion for one who loveth her father to urge that father to valiant deeds in defence of the liberties of the land over which he ruleth as king, then am I a rebel, for I have done all these, and only because of my words did the king, my father, take up arms against the might and power of Rome. I am the chief rebel. Do with me as thou wilt."
And now the prefect saw that the girl spoke the truth, and that she had indeed kept her pledge.
"Thy father and his city are pardoned," he announced after a few moments of deliberation. "Remain thou here, thou and thy companions, as hostages for Britain, until such time as I shall determine upon the punishment due to one who is so fierce a rebel against the power of Rome."
So the siege of Camalodunum was raised, and the bloodless rebellion ended. Constantius the prefect took up his residence for a while within King Coel's city, and at last returned to his command in Gaul and Spain, well pleased with the spirit of the little maiden whom, so he claimed, he still held in his power as the prisoner of Rome.
Constantius the prefect came again to Britain, and with a greater following, fully ten years after King Coel's revolt, for now, again, rebellion was afoot in the island province.
Carausius the admiral, biding his time, sought at last to carry out his scheme of sole supremacy. Sailing with his entire war-fleet to Britain, he won the legions to his side, proclaimed himself Emperor of Britain, and defied the power of Rome.
So daring and successful was his move that Rome for a time was powerless. Carausius was recognized as "associate" emperor by Rome, until such time as she should be ready to punish his rebellion, and for seven years he reigned as emperor of Britain.
But ere this came to pass, Helena the princess had gone over to Gaul, and had become the wife of Constantius the prefect,—"Since only thus," said he, "may I keep in safe custody this prisoner of Rome."
The imperial power of Carausius was but short-lived. Crafty himself, he fell a victim to the craft of others, and the sword of Allectus, his chief minister and most trusted confidant, ended his life when once again the power of Rome seemed closing about the little kingdom of Britain.
Constantius became governor of Britain, and finally caesar and emperor. But, long before that day arrived, the Princess Helena had grown into a loyal Roman wife and mother, dearly loving her little son Constantine, who, in after years, became the first and greatest Christian emperor of Rome.
She bestowed much loving care upon her native province of Britain. She became a Christian even before her renowned son had his historic vision of the flaming cross. When more than eighty years old she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There she did many good and kindly deeds, erected temples above the Sepulchre of the Saviour, at his birthplace at Bethlehem, and on the Mount of Olives. She is said, also, to have discovered upon Calvary the cross, upon which had suffered and died the Saviour she had learned to worship.
Beloved throughout her long and useful life she was canonized after her death, and is now recognized one of the saints of the Romish church.
To-day in the city of London you may see the memorial church reared to her memory—the Church of Great St. Helena, in Bishopgate. A loving, noble, wonderful, and zealous woman, she is a type of the brave young girlhood of the long ago, and, however much of fiction there may be mingled with the fact of her life-story, she was, we may feel assured, all that the chroniclers have claimed for her—"one of the grandest women of the earlier centuries."