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Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33.1 (2003) 47-89

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Reading Queenship in Cynewulf's Elene

Stacy S. Klein
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Just a few years after sending Augustine to convert the English in 596, Gregory followed up his missionary efforts with a letter to Bertha, queen of Kent. Gently scolding the Christian queen for failing to convert her husband, Æthelberht, Gregory urged Bertha to take Helena—the fourth-century Christian empress and mother of Constantine—as a role model and to convert the king as well as the entire race of the English. 1

Nam sicut per recordandæ memoriæ Helenam matrem piissimi Constantini imperatoris ad Christianam fidem corda Romanorum accendit, ita et per gloriæ vestræ studium in Anglorum gentem ejus misericordiam confidimus operari. Et quidem jamdudum gloriosi filii nostri conjugis vestri animos prudentiæ vestræ bono, sicut revera Christianæ, debuistis inflectere, ut pro regni et animæ suæ salute fidem, quam colitis sequeretur. 2
[For as He kindled the hearts of the Romans towards the Christian faith by means of the ever memorable Helena, mother of the most pious emperor Constantine, so we trust that His mercy is working through your earnestness, O glorious one, upon the English race. And indeed it was your duty this long time past, by the excellence of your prudence, like a true Christian, to have predisposed the mind of our illustrious son, your consort, to follow the faith which you cherish, for the salvation of his kingdom and of his soul.] 3

In viewing Helena as a model of how a queen might ideally direct her energies, Gregory was not alone. Throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, writers frequently drew on Helena as an exemplar of [End Page 47] queenship, invoking the well-known empress as a shorthand for praising and influencing their own empresses and queens. In his Church History (440s), Theodoret, for example, commemorates the fourth-century empress Aelia Flaccilla, wife of Theodosius the Great, in terms that bear a striking resemblance to the discussion of Helena in Rufinus's Church History(ca. 402). 4 Empress Aelia Pulcheria was honored at the 451 Council of Chalcedon as "The New Helena." 5 Gregory of Tours, in his Glory of the Martyrs (585-95), claims that the Frankish Queen Radegund "is comparable to Helena in both merit and faith." 6 And Baudonivia's sixth-century Vita Radegundilikens Radegund's efforts to secure relics of the True Cross to Helena's, claiming that "what Helena did in oriental lands, Radegund the blessed did in Gaul." 7 The practice of using Helena as an exemplar of queenship continued long after Gregory's death, as illustrated by Pope Hadrian's 787 letter to the widowed Empress Irene and her son, Constantine VI, urging them to restore the Eastern Church's former practice of image veneration and thus be called "another Constantine and another Helena." 8

For Gregory the Great, as for so many late antique and early medieval writers, Helena's appeal lay in the fact that she was a powerful empress who used her political power to further the religious life of the nation. Moreover, as the mother of Constantine—the first royal figure in western Europe to bring Christianity under the official recognition of the state—Helena was strongly associated with the emergence of a unity between church and state, the very unity that Gregory so desperately longed to establish in England. To invoke Helena was to invoke a powerful historical precedent for the idea that religion and politics should and in fact could be united and, more specifically, that it was incumbent upon queens to foster this union. Repeatedly held out before royal women as an exemplar and occasionally lauded as an earthly, more political counterpart of the queen of all queens, the Virgin Mary, Helena held extraordinary cultural capital throughout late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, functioning, in short, as a kind of originary Christian queen. 9

But like most originary figures, Helena was surrounded by a myriad of myths and legends, all...