Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Mysterious Origins of St. Helen’s: Part Two

Right…last week we established that St. Helen’s in Churchtown was originally a keeill. Not any old keeill, it must be said, but a Celtic/Romano keeill and, therefore, probably one of the earliest semi Pagan/Christian sites in Britain. To this end we presented you with the Chi-Rho cross that currently leans against the vestry wall (designed by Emperor Constantine in the third century) and ended on a photograph of a carved stone figure inside the church about which we’d now better add some sort of explanation.
According to the church guide, this almost life-size effigy is ‘Possibly a tombstone of a Norman knight.’
Then again, it’s possibly not.
For a start it’s very crudely carved, far more so than you’d expect from a mediaeval mason. And it’s extremely old, the fact that the face is completely worn away illustrating this amply.
Then there’s the problem with its feet. Or rather ‘the lack of its feet’. Here’s another photograph of the lower half of the figure, to show you what we mean.

It’s not that the carving originally had feet that wore away over the centuries and/or broke off in some accident or other. Close examination of the effigy reveals that the legs were deliberately carved as stumps (you can actually see the ends of the bones sticking out) and there’s probably a good reason for this.
According to the third century church historian Eusebius, early Christian martyrs often suffered the indignity of having their feet hacked off, a practice common in Constantine’s day. In fact, Eusebius was appointed bishop by Constantine himself, so our footloose carving definitely rings true to the period.
Time for a quick diversion. It might be appropriate at this point to say something about St. Helen herself, a popular saint amongst early Christians, mainly because she was, of course, Constantine’s mum. It was St. Helen who set herself up on a mission to recover the ‘True Cross of Christ’ (i.e. the actual cross on which Jesus was allegedly crucified). This she accomplished, to all intents and purposes, rather well, presenting her results to the Vatican where they remain to this day. In more recent times, archaeologists have examined the aforementioned pieces of wood and reached the conclusion that they do indeed date to the right period and are of the right sort of wood to have been Christ’s cross. (This doesn’t mean it was the actual cross, of course, but it narrows the possibilities down to less than a million to one chance against.)
Other fragments of the true cross crop up all over the world and have lead to the idea that, if they were all glued back together, then Jesus must have been crucified on a cross the size of a giant redwood tree. Oddly enough, this is just one of those urban myths that crop up with such frequency. In reality, if all the pieces were reconnected, they still wouldn’t make up a normal sized crucifix. But perhaps we’re going off at too much of a tangent, so let’s take a few steps backwards.
St. Helen and Constantine (along with Bishop Eusebius) are recorded inside the church (as you might expect) courtesy the stained glass window at the east end of the Lady Chapel, shown below. (The Pre-Raphaelite artwork in some of our church windows locally is superb, isn’t it? That’s just a personal observation, you understand, and has little to do with this article. It perhaps ought to be noted that these are relatively recent additions and, other than referring to the Constantine, Chi-Rho, Eusebius connection have nothing whatsoever to do with St. Helen’s great antiquity.)

To summarise then, it’s pretty certain that the original church upon whose foundations St. Helen’s was built was a Celtic/Romano keeill, constructed long before Garstang came into existence (which explains why it’s so far from the town) and serving the known Roman and Brigante farms around Nateby.
What do you mean, “What Roman and Brigante farms?” The ones whose earthworks can be seen in the aerial photograph below, that’s what.

These earthworks clearly show Celtic banjo-shaped farms, as well as Roman cattle and horse farms, all side-by-side and companionably integrated. The chances are, another settlement of some description was located at nearby Bowgreave (Alvin Cook has informed us that earthworks are apparently still visible in the wood there), which would explain why the keeill itself was originally located at Churchtown. Keeills often served several communities and were deliberately built between the settlements. The fact that Roman farmers and Celtic farmers were sharing the land would also explain why the church had such a Romano/Celtic influence. No doubt the Norse got involved in the running of St. Helen’s at a later date, but that’s another story.
One final word about Constantine; he died on the twenty-second of May, 337, at Ankyrona having been baptised on his deathbed by Eusebius. Or so the story goes. Despite the last minute conversion (quite possibly an exercise in propaganda rather than a reality) he was buried in a traditional pagan manner, so the semi-Pagan, semi-Christian aspects of St. Helen’s church are, once again, in keeping.
In conclusion then, was Ken Emery correct in his assumption that Roman blocks were incorporated into the walls of St. Helen’s? Well, we’ll let our readers decide that one, whilst we go and continue our investigations elsewhere.


John said...

Very nice work, and a good summation: I expect we'll be seeing another fine book one of these days?

Are mutilated statues common for that time period? I mean, statues of mutilated martyrs, of course. Odd, that, showing the bones and all, but what better way to relate to the huddled masses, eh? Gives an immediate impression of suffering for a cause and all that.

Nicely done, wrapping it all together!

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


I can't say that I've seen too many effigies with bones sticking out of the stumps. During the mediaeval period altar tombs sometimes appeared in a two-tiered variety, portraying a somewhat romanticised version of the grave's owner on the lower layer and their skeletonised form (skeletonised? That's probably not a real word but it sounds so convincing I reckon I ought to try and introduce it into common usage) on the top.

There is a third part to this posting, incidentally, which deals with the history of the Chi Rho cross itself (along with some intriguing stuff about Constantine's real religious beliefs...well, I think it's intriguing anyway) but a break from the subject for a couple of weeks wouldn't go amiss, so it can wait for now.

The Actor said...

Once again a very interesting article. Bring on the final chapter.

Brian Hughes said...


Will do...in a couple of weeks time.

JahTeh said...

I blogged about this, August 17 2007. Constantine changed his mind about Christianity when he saw a meteorite blaze across the Italian sky. Anyone checking the Sirente impact site has to be careful of unexploded ammunition from 20th century wars but the main crater is verified and dated.

Brian Hughes said...


Well...that's not exactly how the legend runs. It's might have been a meterorite in reality, who knows? Certainly an excellent theory. What Eusebius recorded was that Constantine had a vision of a blazing cross in the clouds.

Or something like that.

On other hand, the whole story was possibly just made up. Without wanting to sound too heretical, most of these stories are. (Well, that's me condemned to eternal Hell...again.)

It's interesting to note that the original 'chi rho cross' was also the sign of...ah...but there's more about this in the article due to be posted on Sunday evening (GMT) and I wouldn't want to give the game away in advance. (The tension, eh? The suspense! The drama! The Enigma! I'm starting to get the hang of these cliffhangers now.)