HELENA OF BRITAIN: THE GIRL OF THE ESSEX FELLS.
(Afterward known as "St. Helena," the mother of Constantine.) A.D. 255.
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 unprincipled 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.