Elen of the Hosts

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The garbled reference to the church of "Saynte Marie" in Rome is found in the final speech of the Nativity Play of the Chester Mystery Cycle. Unpicking the possible meaning of this reference leads into a complex web of mythology of which parts would have been familiar to the audience of the Mystery Plays.

In the Chester Mystery Plays there is a garbled reference to the church of "Saynte Marie" in Rome. It occurs at the end of the The Nativity, in the final passage spoken by the Expositor (see panel). Of all medieval drama, the Chester cycle is most closely associated with commentators such as the "Expositor" and the significance and function of these has been the subject of much debate. The Chester Mystery Plays explore the relationship between a fore-ordained savior, divination, prophets (and some false ones), death, resurrection and salvation. These are common themes in many myths and legends. Medieval scholars have wrangled over why it took so long for christian theologians to latch onto the story of Virgil and/or the Sybil, elements of which became incorporated into the Chester Mystery Play, when in fact a usurper from Britain may have spotted it first. The actual church can hardly be missed by any visitor to Rome, being one of the best known in the City and sat on top of the Capitoline Hill right next to the Capitoline Museums and behind the Victor Emmanuel II Monument. The reference to this church in the mystery play touches on many myths and legends as well as some actual history. It is unclear just how much of these stories (true or otherwise) would have been known to the audience of the mystery plays, but a detailed look at them serves to illustrate the depth of the context of the plays as well as possible links to the influence of both widespread and local myths and legends.

These myths include:

  • Roman myths about an emperor who would issue in a "Golden Age" (mostly a Greek idea) of peace, harmony, stability and prosperity. Many of these "Arcadian" myths are based on the works of the Roman poet Virgil (roughly between 44 and 38 BCE);
  • Early Christian myths about prophecy, based variously on Virgil and on either supposed "Sybilline" predictions or other oracular sayings and portents (sometimes thought to have dubious origins although both some of these and the first were extensively quoted by the Roman empersor Constantine);
  • The legends around Magnus Maximus (Latin: Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (c. 335–28 August 388) who was Roman Emperor in the western portion of the Empire from 383 to 388, but had a body of non-historical legend attached to him, including a prophetic dream;
  • The legend of Saint Elen (Welsh: Elen Luyddog, lit. "Helen of the Hosts"), often anglicized as Helen of Caernarfon (to distinguish her from Helen of Constantinople), said to be a late 4th-century founder of churches in Wales. Traditionally, she is said to have been a daughter of the Romano-British ruler Eudaf Hen (Geoffrey of Monmouth calls him Octavius) and the wife of Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus);

Many of these myth-systems share the common feature that life in the past was at some time a metaphorical paradise as compared with the present of those who believed in the myth. The myths also often hold out the hope that state of utopian society without war or crime will return at some future time. Another purpose of some of these myths is to connect elements of local history into a larger picture which is supposedly "true". For example, the 4th-century Roman emperor Constantine was, in the eyes of the church, an important figure in early christianity, and had supposedly issued an imperial decree by which the emperor supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope (by the so-called "Donation of Constantine"). The donation document is now known to be a forgery: composed probably in the 8th century, it was used, especially in the 13th century, in support of claims of political authority by the papacy (as opposed to the orthodox Byzantine church).

Keeping The Story Simple

This is quite a complicated story and a much longer article could be written on it. A much simplified summary of the main themes can be obtained by reading the captions under the various illustrations. The key points are:

  • The Chester Mystery Plays refer to a Roman legend which was well known in medieval times but hardly remembered today;
  • The legend was used by Carausius, a Roman usurper associated with the Legio XX of Chester, to justify his rebellion;
  • Shortly thereafter the legend (as expressed by the poet Virgil) was used by the Emperor Constantine;
  • Constantine (or namesakes) are involved in early versions of the Arthurian Legends;
  • Later political use was made of the Arthurian Legends (as well as other "prophetic" legends);

The Chester Nativity

The Sybil of Cumaea, one of several on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. These pagan prophets might seem a strange thing to include on the Pope's roof. Exactly which Sybil is associated with which prophecy gets confusing.

The version of the nativity in the Chester Mystery Plays is different from the one in the bible as it features a walk-on part by the Roman emperor Octavian/Augustus. The play moves from Joseph's house at Nazareth to the Emperor's court at Rome, partly to show why Octavian ordered the general tax but more importantly to evaluate the pax Romana into which the "Prince of Peace" was born. The dispatch of the "taxman" from Rome to Judea is not without a local reference with Octavian telling his messenger to "take the highest horse before Boughton", which was the site of the gallows and the place of Execution at Chester.

According to the Chester play, the Roman senate believe that the long peace and prosperity of Octavian's rule must be a sign of his divinity and request his deification, but Octavian recognises his own mortality and rejects the offer. He then consults a sibyl who foretells the birth of a child of greater power than he. The action in the Mystery Play returns to Bethlehem for the birth, but then reverts to Rome, where Octavian is granted a vision of the Virgin and Child in a star and orders his countrymen to worship the Child - something entirely fictional. In the course of the play the pax Romana is shown to have been based upon a primitive kind of early warning system, the Temple of Peace, "contrived by a fiend", so that Rome always had advance notice of rebellion. According to one version: "at Christ's birth, the structure collapsed, and subsequently a church has been built to commemorate the vision".

There was, in fact, a Temple of Peace in ancient Rome, but this was not built until 71 AD under Emperor Vespasian. The funds to create this grand monument were acquired through Vespasian's sacking of Jerusalem during the Jewish-Roman Wars. The interior and surrounding buildings were decorated with the treasures collected there by the Roman army. However, the rather peculiar appearance of Octavian/Augustus in the Chester Mystery Play would not have come as a surprise to the original audience. As is explained in detail below the "prophecy" aspect of the Mystery Play would have been familiar. It is even mentioned in the Banns:

  • "Of Octavian the Emperor, that could not well allow the prophecy of ancient Sibyl the sage, ye Wrights and Slaters with good players in show lustily bring forth your well­decked carriage. The Birth of Christ shall all see in that stage. If the Scriptures awarrant not of the midwives' report the author telleth his author; then take it in sport"

Indeed, the story of the sibyl (and other prophets) was so well known that it occurs on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where five of Michaelangelo's seven prophets are also found in the Chester cycle: Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jonah and Joel.

Santa Maria in Ara Coeli

The local connection to Chester is that the "church" mentioned in the Banns of the Mystery Palys is actually Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. It was this church where Edward Gibbon was struck with the idea to write his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. As he wrote in his "Autobiography":

Emperor Augustus and the Sibyl of Tibur, 1520s painting by circle of Jan van Scorel, National Museum in Warsaw. The legend of Octavian/Augustus and the Sybil was a common theme in medieval art and is referenced in the Chester Mystery Plays.
  • "It was at Rome, on the 15th of October 1764, as I sat musing amid the ruins of the capitol, while the bare-footed friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to my mind.”

Gibbon (an anti-catholic who believed that Constantine's adoption of Christianity had brought down Rome) was mistaken about the Temple of Jupiter; this church was actually the former Temple of Juno Moneta: the protectress of the city's funds. Money was coined in her temple for over four centuries, before the mint was moved to a new location near the Colosseum during the reign of emperor Domitian. The church also contains the marble tomb of Cecchino Bracci, pupil and lover of artist Michelangelo who had dedicated a number of poems in his name. The tomb's design (not the carving) is by Michelangelo.

Originally the church was named Sancta Maria in Capitolio, since it was sited on the Capitoline Hill (Campidoglio, in Italian) of Ancient Rome; by the 14th century it had been renamed. A medieval legend included in the mid-12th-century guide to Rome, Mirabilia Urbis Romae, claimed that the church was built over a place where emperor Augustus heard a voice saying “Ecce ara primogeniti Dei”, (this is the altar of the first born of God - the words are still carved there), another states it is in the place where the Tiburtine Sibyl (or a different Sybil in other versions) prophesied to Octavian the coming of the Christ:

  • "For this reason the figures of Augustus and of the Tiburtine sibyl are painted on either side of the arch above the high altar".

Yet another legend says that the original high altar bore an inscription which read:

  • "Noscas quod Caesar tunc struxit Octavianus hanc ara, celi sacra proles cum patet ei (“You know that then Caesar Octavian erected this altar, when the offspring of heaven was revealed to him”)"

Celi is the genitive of proles, not ara, but the two words may have been read together. One of the most plausible reasons is the fact that the ancient citadel which once stood here, known as the Arx Capitolina, may have mutated into Arx Coeli with the establishment of Christianity, later Ara Coeli. A later legend substituted an apparition of Mary, frequently depicted in medieval art.

Mirabilia Urbis Romae ("Marvels of the City of Rome") is a much-copied medieval Latin text that served generations of pilgrims and tourists as a guide to the city of Rome. The original, which was written by a canon of St Peter's, dates from the 1140s. The text survives in numerous manuscripts. It is not considered an accurate work, even the Catholic Encyclopedia reports:

  • "Unhampered by any very accurate knowledge of the historical continuity of the city, the unknown author has described the monuments of Rome, displaying a considerable amount of inventive faculty."
Santa Maria in Ara Coeli in Rome, somewhat overshadowed by the Victor Emmanuel II Monument. Cola di Rienzo met his death near the spot where his statue commemorates him. The church and its associated myths and legends would have been well known to travellers on pigrimage to Rome.

The legend-filled Mirabilia remained the standard guide to the city until the fifteenth century and so is likely to have been available to the author of the Chester Mystery Plays. At first Sancta Maria followed the Greek ("orthodox") rite, a sign of the power of the Byzantine exarch. Taken over by the papacy by the 9th century, the church was given first to the Benedictines, then, by papal bull to the Franciscans in 1249–1250; under the Franciscans it received its Romanesque-Gothic aspect. The arches that divide the nave from the aisles are supported on columns, no two precisely alike, scavenged from Roman ruins (it overlooks the extensive ruins of the forum). During the Middle Ages, this church became the centre of the religious and civil life of the city, in particular during the republican "renewal" of the 14th century, when the self-proclaimed Tribune and reviver of the Roman Republic Cola di Rienzo inaugurated the monumental stairway of 124 steps in front of the church, designed in 1348 by Simone Andreozzi, on the occasion of the Black Death. In the Middle Ages, condemned criminals were executed at the foot of the steps; there Cola di Rienzo himself met his death in 1384, near the spot where his 1877 statue (by Girolamo Masini) commemorates him.

The legend about Octavian (23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) and the Sybil has a long and complex pedigree which dates back to the Roman poet Virgil (traditional dates 15 October 70 BC – 21 September 19 BC). In the Middle Ages, Virgil's reputation was such that it inspired legends associating him with magic and prophecy: both Christians and pagans would select a passage at random from Virgil’s works as method of divination. From at least the 3rd century, Christian thinkers interpreted Eclogues 4, which describes the birth of a boy ushering in a golden age, as a prediction of the nativity. The relevant part of Eclogue 4 reads:

  • "Now is come the last age of the Cumaean prophecy / The great cycle of periods is born anew./ Now returns the Maid, returns the reign of Saturn: / Now from high heaven a new generation comes down. / Yet do thou at that boy's birth, / In whom the iron race shall begin to cease, / And the golden to arise over all the world," (the most often quoted part is in italics)
The ruins of the Temple of Saturn (right) seen from Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. In Roman mythology, Saturn ruled during the mythical "Golden Age", and continued to be associated with wealth (and coinage). His temple housed the treasury, the aerarium, where the Roman Republic's reserves of gold and silver were stored.

In consequence, Virgil came to be seen as a "virtuous pagan" on a similar level to the Hebrew prophets of the Bible as one who had heralded Christianity. Dante Alighieri included Virgil as a main character in his Divine Comedy, and Michelangelo included the Sibyl on the ceiling painting of the Sistine Chapel. Virgil's legacy in medieval Wales was such that the Welsh version of his name, Fferyllt or Pheryllt, became a generic term for magic-worker, and survives in the modern Welsh word for pharmacist, fferyllydd. It is probable that the author of the Chester Mystery Plays had read Vergil and that the Christian interpretations of Virgil's Eclogue 4 would have been known to some if not many of those who made up the audience. If they didn't know then they have the Expositor to tell them "this is a true story". The Eclogue was written around 42 BC and it is thought that the collection was published around 39–38 BC, although there is debate over the exact dates.

A particular connection with Chester and North Wales is that Santa Maria in Ara Coeli is known for housing relics belonging to Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine - the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and one who has a distinct connection to Britain. Just which relics are there is uncertain: her alleged skull is displayed in the Cathedral of Trier, in Germany. The basilica of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli in Rome also claims her head and most of her body. The same is claimed by the Église Saint-Leu-Saint-Gilles in Paris, after translation from the Abbaye Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers. The church of Sant'Elena in Venice claims to have the complete body of the saint (including a head) enshrined under the main altar.

. A 5th-century portrait of Virgil from the Vergilius Romanus. Although Virgil was a pagan, the christians considered he was a "virtuous pagan", and put great store in his writings as a source of prophecy. He is used by Dante as the poets "guide to hell" in the "Inferno".

In Britain, a later legend, mentioned by Henry of Huntingdon (c1088 – c1157) but made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth (c1095 – c1155), claimed that Helena was a daughter of the King of Britain, Cole of Colchester (see "Old King Cole" below), who (according to Geoffrey of Monmouth) allied with "Constantius" to avoid more war between the Britons and Rome: all of that is without any historical foundation.

In summary so far, the church mentioned in the Chester mystery play has its name mangled even further: "The churche is called Saynte Marie - The sirname in a Racali". The links with Britain and eventually with Chester start with St Helen.

St Helen

Helena, or Saint Helena (Greek: Ἁγία Ἑλένη, Hagía Helénē, Latin: Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta; c. 246/248 – c. 330), was an Empress of the Roman Empire, and mother of Emperor Constantine the Great. Constantine was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, although he lived much of his life as a pagan, and possibly later as a catechumen (κατηχούμενος, "one being instructed"), Constantine is traditionally believed to have only joined the Christian faith on his deathbed, being baptised by Eusebius of Nicomedia. He played an influential role in the proclamation of the Edict of Milan in 313, which declared religious tolerance for Christianity in the Roman empire. Some have suggested that he was genuinely pious, others that he was overly superstitious or simply backed the christians out of political expediency and to distance himself from rivals. Another theory is that his leveling of the status of various religions meant that he could tax them equally.

Helena ranks as an important figure in the history of Christianity due to her influence on her son. She was out of favour after her split from her husband, but when her son became emperor she was given the resources to follow her hobby of collecting relics. In her final years, she made a religious tour of Syria Palaestina and Jerusalem, during which ancient tradition claims that she discovered the "True Cross" and an unbelievable list of other relics. If the myth is to be believed, her treasure-hunting abilities justify her role as patron saint of new discoveries.

Emperor Constantine, son of Helena, in the courtyard of the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The remains of his enormous statue are just a few paces from Santa Maria in Ara Coeli.

At least twenty-five holy wells currently exist in the United Kingdom dedicated to a "Saint Helen". She is also the patron saint of Abingdon and Colchester. St Helen's Chapel in Colchester was believed to have been founded by Helena herself, and since the 15th century, the town's coat of arms has shown a representation of the "True Cross" and three crowned nails in her honour. Colchester Town Hall has a Victorian statue of the saint on top of its 50-metre-high (160 ft) tower. The arms of Nottingham are almost identical because of the city's connection with King Cole, her supposed father. When Gibbon had his revelation in Santa Maria in Ara Coeli he was effectively standing in the very centre of a web of very confused historians and antiquarians.

Helen appears in perhaps her most garbled form the "Travels of Sir John Mandeville" a supposed travel memoir which first circulated between 1357 and 1371:

  • "This holy cross had the Jews hid in the earth, under a rock of the mount of Calvary; and it lay there two hundred year and more, into the time that St. Helen, that was mother to Constantine the Emperor of Rome. And she was daughter of King Coel, born in Colchester, that was King of England, that was clept then Britain the more; the which the Emperor Constance wedded to his wife, for her beauty, and gat upon her Constantine, that was after Emperor of Rome, and King of England."

The "Travels" is not considered an accurate historical document, but demonstrates that by the 14th Century Helen had become firmly associated with Britain.

Helen's links with Britain

Born outside of the noble classes, a Greek, possibly in the Greek city of Drepana (Δρέπανα), Bithynia in Asia Minor, Helena became the consort of the future Roman Emperor Constantius Chlorus and the mother of the future Emperor Constantine the Great. The precise legal nature of the relationship between Helena and Constantius is also unknown. The sources are equivocal on the point, sometimes calling Helena Constantius' "wife", and sometimes, following the dismissive propaganda of Constantine's rival Maxentius, calling her his "concubine". Jerome, perhaps confused by the vague terminology of his own sources, manages to do both. In order to obtain a wife more consonant with his rising status, Constantius divorced Helena some time before 289 AD, when he married Flavia Maximiana Theodora, Maximian's daughter. Note that this was before Constantine's father had ever set foot in Britain.

The Roman system at the time involved a system of four "emperors" known as the Tetrarchy. This was introduced by Diocletian in 293 to govern the ancient Roman Empire by dividing it between two senior emperors, the "augusti", and their juniors and designated successors, the "caesares". Initially Diocletian involved the designation of the general Maximian as co-emperor — firstly as caesar (junior emperor) in 285, followed by his promotion to augustus in 286. Diocletian took care of matters in the eastern regions of the empire while Maximian similarly took charge of the western regions. In 293, Diocletian thought that more focus was needed on both civic and military problems, so with Maximian's consent, he expanded the imperial college by appointing two caesares (one responsible to each augustus) — Galerius and Constantius Chlorus. It was as Caesar, Constantius Chlorus defeated the usurper Allectus in Britain in 296. Upon becoming Augustus in 305, Constantius launched a successful punitive campaign against the Picts beyond the Antonine Wall. As the co-emperor was now in Britain his part of the empire would have been run from the province, most probably mostly from York.

Constantius Chlorus died at Eboracum (York) on 25 July 306. As he was dying, Constantius recommended his son to the army as his successor; consequently Constantine was declared emperor by the legions at York: he was born around 272 and so became emperor at the age of around 34. Constantine emerged victorious in the civil wars against emperors Maxentius and Licinius to become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire by 324. Constantinian propaganda greatly confuses history at this point and as will be seen later historians made matters exceptionally confusing. One thread which may be relevant is that many of the auxilliary forces employed in Britain appear to have been of Balkan origin, as was Constantius Chlorus.

This period of Roman history in Britain is associated with rebuilding. There is some evidence for major repair work at Chester around 300, especially to the City Walls, at least half of which were rebuilt from the base up. Quite strangely, many tombstones of soldiers (Chester has a collection in the Grosvenor Museum) were used in the rebuilding of the walls and one explanation may be that Legio XX was not the unit stationed at Chester at the time. Another explanation is that the use of tombstones was something to do with the revolt by Carausius which had occurred in 286 and which was followed by the revolt of Allectus: Legio XX from Chester last appears on coinage of at least Carausius and therfore might be expected to have taken the side of the usurpers. Perhaps the use of tombstones was some form of punishment - but no one really knows why the tombstones were re-used in this way.

Constantius I (Marcus Flavius Valerius Constantius Herculius Augustus: 31 March c. 250 – 25 July 306) was Roman Emperor from 293 to 306, and is commonly known as Constantius Chlorus. As Caesar, he defeated the usurper Allectus in Britain - Allectus had himself defeated Carausius. Constantius was from the Balkans and it appears that a significant proportion of the troops associated with Legio XX were also from that region. Constantinus was the father of Constantine "the Great".

Works to Chester's City Walls on such a scale may be associated with the presence of the emperor. It is not known for certain whether either the older or younger Constantine ever visited Chester, but given their activities in the north of Britannia it is probable that they did - some secondary evidence being provided by Roman milestones found in North Wales. Examples of these milestones include RIB 2267 found about 6.4 km. west of Caerhun fort (Kanovium) and on the north side of the Roman road from Rowen (in the Conway Valley) towards Llanfairfechan, not far from Bwlch-y-Ddeufaen (‘Pass of the Two Stones’: the pass probably takes its Welsh name not from the two milestones originally standing there, but from the two menhirs which still stand there today).

Constantine's mother Helena came back into public life after Constantine became emperor - i.e. after his father had died. She was given full access to the Roman treasury to fund her search for holy relics. These she apparently found in profusion although most have now been dismissed as forgeries. They include: three "True Crosses", the sign off of the cross, a number of crucifiction nails, the crown of thorns, Christ's robe, a rope he was bound with, Pontius Pilate's stairs, the relics of all three wise men, and Christ's crib (with original hay). In many cases the association of the relics with Helena can only be dated to years after the particular relic was found. Helen of Constantinople has few links to Britain although the early English poet Cynewulf who may have been a Mercian living at the time of Plegmund, wrote his non-historical Elene of her.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Constantius Chlorus' activities in Britain were reported with all his usual inaccuracy by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136). According to Geoffrey, Constantius Chlorus is sent to Britain by the Senate after "Asclepiodotus", here a British king, is overthrown by Coel of Colchester. Geoffrey further mangles history by having Allectus appear as an officer sent with three legions by the Romans to depose Carausius. He does so, but his rule proves oppressive, and he is in turn deposed by Asclepiodotus, here the Duke of Cornwall. The last of Allectus's troops are besieged in London, and surrender on the condition they are granted safe passage out of Britain. Asclepiodotus agrees, but the surrendering soldiers are massacred, and their heads thrown into a river.

According to Geoffrey, Coel submits to Constantius Chlorus and agrees to pay tribute to Rome, but dies only eight days later (the various chroniclers have him survive for days or weeks). Constantius Chlorus marries Coel's daughter Helena and becomes "king of Britain". He and Helena have a son, Constantine, who succeeds to the throne of Britain when his father dies eleven years later. Similarly, the "History of the Britons" traditionally ascribed to Nennius mentions the inscribed tomb of "Constantius the Emperor" was still present in the 9th century in Segontium (near present-day Caernarfon, Wales). Segontium was founded by Agricola in AD 77 or 78 after he had conquered the Ordovices in North Wales. It was the main Roman fort in the north of Roman Wales and was designed to hold about a thousand auxiliary infantry. It was connected by a Roman road to Roman Chester.

In reality, Constantius Chlorus had divorced Helena before he went to Britain and Julius Asclepiodotus was a Roman praetorian prefect who assisted the western Caesar Constantius Chlorus in re-establishing Imperial rule in Britain following the revolt by Carausius (a Roman Naval commander in Britain) and later Allectus, his finance minister and eventual assassin. Monmouth is possibly confusing Helena with Elen ("Elen of the Ways") a semi mythical figure in Welsh traditional literature. Geoffrey was born between about 1090 and 1100, in Wales or the Welsh Marches and so it might be supposed he would have been familiar with Welsh legends.

Constantius divorced Helena, in order to obtain a wife more consonant with his rising status, some time before 289, when he married Theodora, Maximian's daughter. Maximian (Latin: Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus Herculius Augustus c. 250 – c. July 310) was Roman Emperor from 286 to 305. He was Caesar from 285 to 286, then Augustus from 286 to 305. He shared the latter title with his co-emperor and superior, Diocletian, whose political brain complemented Maximian's military brawn.

Carausius copies Virgil

The round of trouble started around 286 with the man co-emperor Maximian appointed to police the Channel shores. This was Carausius, who turned out to be a bit of a pirate himself.

Carausius was almost at once suspected of allowing pirates to carry out raids and collect loot before attacking them, then keeping any captured treasure for himself. Maximian made a cursory appeal to Carausius's honour by requesting him to report to the Senate for court martial and, in all likelihood, execution. Left with only one real choice Carausius rebelled in 286, causing the secession of Britain and northwestern Gaul. His forces comprised not only his fleet, augmented by new ships he had built and the three legions stationed in Britain, but also a legion he had seized in Gaul, a number of foreign auxiliary units, a levy of Gaulish merchant ships, and barbarian mercenaries attracted by the prospect of booty. Throughout his reign Carausius posed relentlessly as a thoroughly conservative protagonist of Roman virtues and traditions, most conspicuously on his coinage. This may have been because these very qualities appealed to the Romano-British: the reign of Carausius coincided with a time when the wealthiest families in Roman Britain started to invest heavily in their rural villas.

Silver denarius of Carausius (BM 1900-11-5-10) bearing the words "EXPECTATE VENI" and "RSR" - almost a quote from Vergil and a clue to the interpretation of "RSR INPCDA" on other coins. Carausius was a usurper from Britain who minted coins for Legio XX, based at Chester. This provides a link all the way back to Octavian as in the Chester Mystery Play. Constantine, who also had British links, would refer to exactly the same myth system in his famous sermon.

Maximian failed to oust Carausius, his invasion fleet was destroyed by storms in 289 or 290. Carausius held power for seven years, fashioning the name "Emperor of the North" for himself, before being assassinated by his finance minister Allectus. Carausius appears to have appealed to native British dissatisfaction with the current state of Roman rule; he issued coins with legends such as "Restitutor Britanniae" (Restorer of Britain) and "Genius Britanniae" (Spirit of Britain). Some of these silver coins bear the legend "Expectate Veni", (Come long-awaited one), now recognised to allude to a supposedly messianic line by the Augustan poet Virgil "quibus Hector ab oris exspectate venis?" (From what shores do you come Hector, the long-awaited one?), written more than 300 years previously: note the variation between spellings. No other such apparent verbal reference to Virgil’s texts has hitherto been known on Roman coinage anywhere in the Empire. Of more interest are the letters "RSR" and "INPCDA" found on some coins - and which for many years were a mystery. The clue is the allusion to Virgil made by the legend "Expectate Veni", first spotted by Guy de la Bédoyère. Virgil’s messianic Eclogues iv, 6-7 reads:

  • "..Redeunt Saturnia Regna" ("The Saturnian kingdoms return" i.e. The Golden Age returns);
  • "Iam Nova Progenies Caelo Demittitur Alto" ("now a new generation is let down from heaven above");

The marks "RSR" and "INPCDA" on the coins correspond precisely to the sequence of initials, including the division between the phrases. This is unlikely to be merely coincidence. Even the change of wording from "exspectate venis" to "expectate veni" makes sense, given that it is Hector's ghost which appears to Aeneas in the original. Carausius intention can only be the subject of speculation, but he seems to have seen the poem of Virgil as at least the basis for a "portent" that his part of the empire would come under new and better rulership - by which he probably meant himself.

The last known reference to Legio XX (based at Chester) is on coins struck by the same usurper Carausius, and it seems likely that Legio XX joined his side in the revolt. Of all the evidence left there is only a single milestone which receords Carausius (and that was later re-used). The coins of Carausius are the only thing which links him to Legio XX, but may tell an interesting story. His silver coins are of a weight and a standard of purity which had been unknown for centuries - official "silver" coins were made up of no more than five percent silver. His early coins (c286-7) were minted with a set of eight dies very soon after he rebelled and two of these were found at Burton Hey, just north of Chester. The vast majority of this particular die-set of these early coins are found towards the west of the country which possibly indicates that his power-base originated in association with the legionary fortresses at Chester Legio XX and Caerleon Legio II. When Carausius rebelled he was serving on the continent and so it might be supposed that vexillations of both legions were serving with him - as he honours both these legions on later coins. In the case of the XXth this is a "aurelianus" from the London mint (RIC 275) with IMP CARAVSIVS PF AVG on the front and LEG XX AVG around the figure of a boar.

Incidentally, quoting Virgil on coins had later consequences: an older issue of the UK £1 coin bore the quote "DECUS ET TUTAMEN" - an ornament and protection (Aeneid v, 262) - as originally suggested by John Evelyn (1620-1706) to be engraved on the edge of the new struck silver coins of Charles II to discourage "this injurious Practice of Clippers".

We can now summarize what had happened. In the third century Rome was undergoing a crisis and Diocletian tried to solve this by splitting administration (286) between himself (in the east) and Maximian (in the west). Maximian's naval commander then rebelled and claimed to be emperor in Britain and parts of France, seemingly supported by Legio XX. Constantine Chlorus was then appointed (293) in a further split of the imperial role: he recaptured the territory taken by the rebels in France and moved on to Britain.

One Emperor Again

Under the Tetrarchy system Constantius Chlorus had been sub-emperor (Caesar) under Maximian (Augustus), and Galerius was sub-emperor under Diocletian. Diocletian and Maximian stepped down as co-emperors on 1 May 305. Before the assembled armies at Mediolanum, Maximian removed his purple cloak and handed it to Severus, the new Caesar, and proclaimed Constantius as Augustus. Galerius became the other co-emperor with his vacated role as Caeser being given to Maximinus Daza. Constantine got nothing.

The following year Constantius Chlorus died. Legally his place should have been taken by Severus, but rather than accepting the elevation of Severus from Caesar to Augustus, the troops at Eburacum elevated Constantius’ son, Constantine, to the position of Augustus. Galerius, the senior emperor, was sent a portrait of Constantine wearing a crown of laurels; by accepting this symbol, Galerius would be acknowledging Constantine as heir to his father's throne. Constantine passed off responsibility for his unlawful ascension on his army, claiming they had "forced it upon him". Galerius was put into a fury by the message; he almost set the portrait and the messenger on fire. Civil war followed. Shortly after his acclamation Constantine had left Britain to establish his new capital at Trier. There seems to have been peace in Britain for a while

The civil war would rage on and off for twenty years until Constantine was left as "last man standing" and sole emperor in 326. Constantinople was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine (272–337) in 324: he was well aware that Rome was an unsatisfactory capital. Rome was too far from the frontiers, and hence from the armies and the imperial courts, and it offered an undesirable playground for disaffected politicians.

Constantine copies Carausius

Constantine himself also believed the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil (one text is here) could be interpreted as a prophecy. He is often said to have interpreted this as being about Christ. Many copies of the Roman historian Eusebius's Vita Constantini (The Life of Constantine) contain a transcript of a speech ("Oratio ad coetum sanctorum") made by the emperor at a Good Friday sermon during the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325), in which the emperor re-imagines almost the entire poem line-by-line as a Christian portent (although a few lines are omitted because they overtly reference pagan characters and concepts). Some of Constantine’s interpretations are obvious: he argues that the "virgo" is a reference to the Blessed Virgin Mary (and not astrological), the "puer" in to Christ, and the "serpent" to the Serpent of Evil. However, Constantine has to stretch the wording in places to make it "fit", avoiding many astrological interpretations - and he omits to mention that the usurper Carausius had already done much the same thing to make a somewhat different point.

Some historians have debated the issue as to why it took so long for the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil to emerge in christian symbolism and have come up with complicated theories. The fact that the usurper Carausius had recently used it on coinage which Constantine may well have seen, and stolen the idea, does not seem to be considered.

Signage at the Amphitheatre in Chester suggests that Gildas (who could not have written left handed as shown) worked at Bangor on Dee - it is almost certainly wrong. It also refers to the myth of Saint Aaron and Saint Julius. One theory put forward by Archaeologists is that the Amphitheatre was used for the ritual execution of members of Legio XX who had sided with Carausius.

This association between Virgil and Christianity reached a fever pitch in the fourteenth century, when the Divine Comedy was published. The work, by Dante Alighieri, prominently features the "virtuous pagan" Virgil as the main character's guide through Hell. In the fifteenth century, a popular story concerning Secundian, Marcellian and Verian — who started out as persecutors of Christians during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius — emerged. The story claims that the trio were alarmed by the calm manner in which their Christian victims died, and so they turned to literature and chanced upon Eclogue 4, which eventually caused their conversions and martyrdom. The story seems possibly related to the myth of Saint Aaron and Saint Julius (or Julian): two Romano-British Christian saints who were martyred around the third century. These saints have been associated with the Amphitheatre at Chester, but there seems little basis for that link.

It has also been proposed that the Amphitheatre was the site of possibly mass executions of the officers of Legio XX following the re-establishment of imperial rule following the overthrow of the usurper Carausius. There are certainly issues with how secure in his position Carausius was and how he obtained backing. What little documentation there is suggests his power was sea based, so it seems strange that could maintain control over land armies. However, Carausius was defeated not by an emperor but by a further usurper, Allectus, who lasted three years before the empire finally struck back.

Old King Cole

One thing that the spectators of the Chester Mystery Plays would not have heard is "Old King Cole", although the plays would have been accompanied by pipes and strings.

"Old King Cole" is a British nursery rhyme first attested in 1708 by William King (1663–1712) in his "Useful Transactions in Philosophy". There is much speculation about the identity of King Cole, and some consider it is unlikely that he can be identified reliably given the centuries between the attestation of the rhyme and the putative identities. It is often noted that the name of the legendary Welsh king Coel Hen can be translated 'Old Cole' or 'Old King Cole'. This sometimes leads to speculation that he, or some other Coel in Roman Britain, is the model for Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme. However, there is no documentation of a firm connection between the fourth-century figures (real or imaginary) and the eighteenth-century nursery rhyme.

Further speculation connects Old King Cole and thus Coel Hen to Colchester. The "Colchester legend", claimed he was a ruler of Colchester in Essex and the father of Saint Helena, and therefore the grandfather of Constantine the Great. The 12th century legend originated from a folk etymology indicating that Colchester was named for Coel (supposedly from "Coel" and "castrum", producing "fortress of Coel"). However, the city was actually known as Colneceaster until the "n" was dropped in around the 10th century; its name likely comes from the local River Colne.

The legend of "Old King Coel" is a mish-mash several myths. These mix up the story of the rulers of Britain from Carausius to Constantine and parts of this legendary history was used by Geoffrey of Monmouth to construct his Arthur legend. This was possibly a way of defending the Norman conquest of Wales, but may have backfired badly.

In Monmouth's Historia, Coel grows upset with Asclepiodotus's handling of the Diocletianic Persecution and begins a rebellion in his duchy of Caer Colun (Colchester). He meets Asclepiodotus in battle and kills him, thus taking the kingship of Britain upon himself. Rome, apparently, is pleased that Britain has a new king, and sends senator Constantius Chlorus to negotiate with him. Afraid of the Romans, Coel meets Constantius and agrees to pay tribute and submit to Roman laws as long as he is allowed to retain the kingship. Constantius agrees to these terms, but Coel dies shortly after. Constantius marries Coel's daughter, Helena, and crowns himself as Coel's successor. Helena subsequently gives birth to a son who becomes the Emperor Constantine the Great, giving a British pedigree to the Roman imperial line and, in particular, a native British first cause for the adoption of christianity by the Romans.

The prophecy of the Tiburtine Sibyl

To complicate matters further there is a legendary apocalyptic pseudo-prophecy which was attributed to the Tiburtine Sibyl. This appears in the Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius which shares many elements with the Chester Mystery Plays and was a popular work in the middle ages - being filled with doom and gloom. The manuscript also notes the rise of an Emperor-Saviour figure, echoing the fourth century AD prophecy contributed by the legendary Tiburtine Sibyl. In common with the Chester cycle it starts with the Garden of Eden and relates that Antichrist would be opposed by the "Two Witnesses" from the Book of Revelation, identified with Elijah and Enoch (the same as in the Chester plays and in the Sistine Chapel); after having killed the witnesses and started a final persecution of the Christians the Antichrist is slain by the power of God through Michael the Archangel (again exactly as in the Chester Plays). Things then move towards a spectacular close in an apocalyptic end of the world heralded by various signs and portents: nine suns appear in the sky, each one more ugly and bloodstained than the last, representing the nine generations of mankind and ending with Judgment Day. The medieval audiences could not get enough of this kind of "end of history"/"last days" eschatology.

The story of the Tiburtine Sibyl has many parallels with that of Constantine's interpretation of the Fourth Eclogue of Virgil and the use of the Fourth Eclogue by the usurper Carausius. These apocalyptic prophecy texts had an enormous impact on medieval culture - the very fact that over a hundred manuscripts survive illustates their popularity.

Glyph used in the summoning of the "spirit" Vasago (spelling varies) - useful for the finding of treasure, the first operation mentioned as proscribed in the Witchcraft Act of 1542. The Act was also concerned with the supression and control of prophecy which had by that time become a political weapon.

Attitudes towards prophetic writings were soon to change. In Tudor times the government's view on prophecy developed, especially in the early Reformation. More "esoteric" activities such as prophecy in the form of astrology became a crime rather than an acceptable academic pursuit. By the time of Elizabeth I even casting a royal horoscope was considered to be "constructive treason" (as in the case of Ferdinando Stanley's mother: Margaret Clifford). It was the state rather than the church which made "magic" more dangerous. One example is magical treasure hunting - which might be thought a relatively innocent pursuit, even if it did involve the conjuring and binding of demons such as Vassago. However, treasure was the property of the monarch and contempt for the monarch's property was akin to contempt for the monarch's person: an act of treason. In 1542 Parliament passed Henry VIII's Witchcraft Act (33 Hen. VIII c. 8) which defined witchcraft as a crime punishable by death. It was repealed five years later, but restored by a new Act in 1562, which transferred trial for witchcraft from the church to the ordinary courts. Under the Act it was illegal to:

  • "... use devise practise or exercise, or cause to be devysed practised or exercised, any Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries to the intent to fynde money or treasure or to waste consume or destroy any persone in his bodie membres, or to pvoke [provoke] any persone to unlawfull love, or for any other unlawfull intente or purpose ... or for dispite of Cryste, or for lucre of money, dygge up or pull downe any Crosse or Crosses or by such Invovacons or cojuracons of Sprites witchecraftes enchauntementes or sorceries or any of them take upon them to tell or declare where goodes stollen or lost shall become ..." (note that finding treasure comes first!)

After being deployed against mostly female ‘witches’ a legal precedent was set in the 1566 Chelmsford Witch trial for interpretation outside of the bill’s original drafting which de-politicised the act as it directed the attention of magistrates to the socially marginalised rather than couturiers and clergy. The general tendency to condemn "superstitious practices" co-incides in time with the end of the Chester Mystery Cycle performance, which came about in the 1560's and 70's. The Puritans moreover wanted all the sins, rituals, and superstitions that "smacked of Roman Catholic idolatry" thoroughly abolished from the realm and from the churches, including; the mass, the surplice, kneeling at the Lord's Supper, vestments, graven images, profane and sexually immoral stage plays, and the widespread profanation of the Sabbath.

Summary so far

The prophetic legend of Octavian and the Sybil as portrayed in the Chester Mystery Plays has its roots in the still extant church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, which is garbled in the Mystery Cycle as: "The churche is called Saynte Marie - The sirname in a Racali". This legend of Octavian was, when the Chester plays were originally performed, a well known interpretation of the Roman poet Virgil's Eclogue 4: despite the fact that it was composed about 42 BCE. None in the audience would have known that this same Eclogue had been used during the Roman empire by the usurper Carausius shortly after the year 286, previously a Roman Naval commander in Britain. That is unsurprising given that the Carausius/Vergil link was only spotted in 2005. However some may have been aware that it was used (very shortly thereafter) by Emperor Constantine the Great (in the year 325).

Constantius Chlorus' activities in Britain were reported with all his usual inaccuracy by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136). According to Geoffrey, Constantius Chlorus is sent to Britain by the Senate after "Asclepiodotus", here a British king, is overthrown by Coel of Colchester. Coel submits to Constantius Chlorus and agrees to pay tribute to Rome, but dies only eight days later. Constantius Chlorus marries Coel's daughter Helena and becomes king of Britain. He and Helena have a son, Constantine, who succeeds to the throne of Britain when his father dies eleven years later. In reality, Constantius Chlorus' wife Helena almost certainly never set foot in England: Monmouth is not an accurate historian.

The Octavian/Virgil myth from the Chester Nativity, Constantine's recognition of Virgil as a prophet and the confusion of Geoffrey of Monmouth over Constantine's family start to link these elements together into a single myth landscape. The second half of this article develops that further through other related "saviour/king" myths and their associated prophecies. The Chester Mystery Plays are filled with portents and prophecy. These follow a standard religious pattern: a prophecy is made, which later comes "true" and this is then used to justify the "truth" of as-yet unfulfilled prophecies relating to the future. "Prophecy" in the form of "plays" was possibly already falling into disfavour at about the time that the Mystery Plays were banned - it was eventually made effectively illegal.

The Constantinian dynasty would represent a major turning point in the Roman Empire. After Constantine died in 337, his sons had many of their relatives executed to prevent rival claims to the throne. Some of them seem to have had paranoia bordering on insanity. Revolts associated with Britain continued and later historians such as Geoffrey of Monmouth would take characters from these revolts and mangle them into unreliable history.

Following the banning of the Chester Plays 1575 the theatre became intensely regulated under the Master of the Revels. Control over theatre gradually became extended, particularly under Edmund Tylney and the Office acquired the legal power to censor and control playing across the entire country. This political increase in theatrical control coincided with the appearance of permanent adult theaters in London - media which the government sought to control. Every company and traveling troupe had to submit a play manuscript to the Office of the Revels. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were forbidden (by official injunction) from staging religious or Biblical content explicitly.

Macsen Wledig and Saint Elen

Magnus Maximus (Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (ca. 335 – August 28, 388), was Western Roman Emperor from 383 to 388. In 383 as commander of Britain, he usurped the throne against emperor Gratian; and through negotiation with emperor Theodosius I the following year he was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul.

Anyone in Chester who actually knew anything about Santa Maria in Ara Coeli might be aware of the links between Octavian, Constantine, Helena and Virgil and the various prophecies associated with them as well as the myths associated with Constantine's father and Helena. As noted above, the complication introduced by Geofrey of Monmouth may arise from the similarly named Welsh princess Saint Elen (alleged to have married Magnus Maximus and to have borne a son named Constantine). There is a related Welsh legend which might have also been known to those present at the Chester Mystery Plays. The "Dream of Macsen Wledig" from the Mabinogion tells the story of how the Emperor of Rome experienced a prophetic dream in which he travelled to Wales, then met and became obsessed with a beautiful maiden named Elen who was unknown to him (a classic myth element). It is worth giving the dates of the main players again so that the actual order and spacing can be understood before the myths start to confuse matters:

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote at a very early date (around 1134-36) while many of the other sources are later and may have been influenced by Geoffrey's work. Geoffrey's work was also noted as suspect at an early date. Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223) recounts (in 1197) the experience of a man possessed by demons when exposed to Geoffrey's book:

  • "If the evil spirits oppressed him too much, the Gospel of St John was placed on his bosom, when, like birds, they immediately vanished; but when the book was removed, and the History of the Britons by 'Geoffrey Arthur' [as Geoffrey named himself] was substituted in its place, they instantly reappeared in greater numbers, and remained a longer time than usual on his body and on the book." (The Itinerary of Archbishop Baldwin through Wales)

This devastating rhetorical attack on a compatriot and fellow writer (especially one long dead) is not now considered to posit a valid way of determining the veracity of historic documents. It is particularly ironic that it comes from the hand of Gerald of Wales, as he apparently tends to believe any local legend he hears.

Geoffrey of Monmouth's souces appear to be the Historia Britonum, a 9th-century Welsh-Latin historical generally referred to as "Nennius", which is possibly a compilation, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People, and Gildas' 6th-century polemic De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, expanded with material from bardic oral tradition and genealogical tracts, and (as is often said) embellished by Geoffrey's own imagination. One possible explanation for the confusion which Geoffrey has caused is that in an exchange of manuscript material for their own histories, Robert of Torigny gave Henry of Huntingdon a copy of the History, which both Robert and Henry used uncritically as authentic history and subsequently used in their own works, by which means some of Geoffrey's fictions became embedded in popular history.

Geoffrey's fictions were perhaps to have unintended consequences. We can dimly see where they came from by looking at the events in Britain from after the time of Constantine.

Macsen Wledig

Magnus Maximus (Latin: Flavius Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (c. 335–28 August 388) was Roman Emperor in the western portion of the Empire from 383 to 388. "Macsen" was born in Gallaecia approximately present-day Galicia, northern Portugal, Asturias and Leon, on the estates of Theodosius (the Elder), to whom he claimed to be related. Interestingly, some parts of Gallaecia came to be settled with Britons from Britain during the poorly documented period of the 5th–7th centuries. The more important part of this migration was possibly the settlement of Armorica (Brittany) - these settlers, whether refugees or not, made the presence felt in the naming of the westernmost, Atlantic-facing provinces of Armorica, Cornouaille (Breton: "Kerne", cognate with "Cornwall") and Domnonée (Breton: "Domnonea", cognate with "Devon"). These settlements are associated with leaders like Saints Samson of Dol and Pol Aurelian, among the "seven founder saints" of Brittany.

Magnentius (Flavius Magnus Magnentius Augustus 303 – August 11, 353) was a usurper of the Roman Empire from 350 to 353. He attracted the loyalty of the provinces in Britannia, Gaul, and Hispania, possibly because he proved to be far more tolerant towards both Christians and Pagans than the paranoid Constantius II.

Between the time of Constantine and that of Macsen there had been another revolt in Britain. In 350-353 there was a failed power-grab by Magnentius (303-353), followed by a bloody and arbitrary purge conducted by Paulus Catena on behalf of Constantius II Roman Emperor from 337 to 361, and son to Constantine the Great. This purge was conducted in an attempt to root out potential sympathisers of Magnentius in Britain. The said Paulus was an extremely zealous inquisitor, who eventually went too far. According to Ammianus Marcellinus, Paulus was condemned to death by Arbitio at the Chalcedon tribunal under Constantius' successor, Julian the Apostate, in late 361, or early 362. Paulus was burned alive as a demonstration that the state no-longer supported him, but undoubtedly damage had been done to the loyalty of the troops: Magnentius' revolt and the heavy-handed response to it would have done little to improve morale in Britain.

It is likely that "Macsen" was a junior officer in Britain in 368, during the quelling of the Great Conspiracy - a year-long state of war and disorder that occurred in Roman Britain near the end of the Roman occupation of the island. In the winter of 367, at least a part of the Roman garrison on Hadrian's Wall had rebelled, and allowed Picts from Caledonia to enter Britannia (it is not known whether this included elements of Legio XX). At the same time, Attacotti, the Scotti from Hibernia, and Saxons from Germania landed in what might have been coordinated and pre-arranged waves on the island's mid-western and southeastern borders, respectively. Franks and Saxons also landed in northern Gaul. These warbands managed to overwhelm nearly all of the loyal Roman outposts and settlements. The entire western and northern areas of Britannia were overwhelmed, the cities sacked and the civilian Romano-British murdered, raped, or enslaved.

Before returning to Britain, the historical "Macsen" was a distinguished general; he served under Count Theodosius in Africa in 373, and on the Danube in 376, where his behavior was however described as greedy and reckless. Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330, died c. 391–400) does not give him a good press:

  • "it was, as if at the choice of some adverse deity, that men were gathered together and given command of armies who bore stained reputations. At their head were two rivals in recklessness: one was Lupicinus, commanding general in Thrace, the other Maximus, a pernicious leader. Their treacherous greed was the source of all our evils" (Rerum Gestarum Libri Qui Supersunt XXXI.4.9)

Orosius (born c. 375, died after 418 AD) is slightly more positive:

  • "Maximus, an energetic man, indeed, and honourable and worthy of the throne had he not arrived at it by usurpation contrary to his oath of allegiance, was made emperor almost against his will…" (Historium adversum paganos VII.34)

Assigned to Britain in 380, "Macsen" defeated an incursion of the Picts and Scots in 381. In 383, as commander of Britain, he usurped the throne against emperor Gratian, who had not made himself popular by taking a band of Alan bodyguards and dressing in a similar fashion, alienating his Roman troops. By negotiation with emperor Theodosius I, "Macsen" was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul the next year while Gratian's brother Valentinian II retained Italy, Pannonia, Hispania, and Africa. In 387, "Macsen"'s ambitions led him to invade Italy, resulting in his defeat by Theodosius I at the Battle of the Save in 388. In the view of some historians, his death marked the end of direct imperial presence in Northern Gaul and Britain.

By 400 the provinces of Britain were now isolated, lacking support from the Empire, and the setting up and pulling down a series of emperors as the soldiers supported a series of revolts by:

  • Marcus (406 - 407), a soldier in Roman Britain who was proclaimed emperor by the army there some time in 406. All that is known of his rule is that he did not please the army, and was soon killed by them;
  • Gratianus (407), acclaimed as emperor by the army in Britain in early 407. His army wanted to cross to Gaul and stop the barbarians who were attacking the empire but Gratianus ordered them to remain (he should have known better). Unhappy with this, the troops killed him - and finally
  • Constantine "III" (who actually listened to the troops);

In 409 Constantine III's control of his empire fell apart. Part of his military forces were in Spain, making them unavailable for action in Gaul, and some of those in Gaul were swayed against him by loyalist Roman generals. The Germans living west of the Rhine River rose against him, perhaps encouraged by Roman loyalists, and those living east of the river crossed into Gaul. Britain, now without any troops for protection and having suffered particularly severe Saxon raids in 408 and 409, viewed the situation in Gaul with renewed alarm. Perhaps feeling they had no hope of relief under Constantine, both the Romano-Britons and some of the Gauls expelled Constantine III's magistrates in 409 or 410. Roman Emperor Honorius replied to a request for assistance with the "Rescript of Honorius", telling the Roman cities to see to their own defence, a tacit acceptance of temporary British self-government. Honorius was fighting a large-scale war in Italy against the Visigoths under their leader Alaric, with Rome itself under siege. No forces could be spared to protect distant Britain. Though it is likely that Honorius expected to regain control over the provinces soon, by the mid-6th century Procopius recognised that Roman control of Britannia was entirely lost.

Macsen and Gildas

While the above gives the probable historical events by combining a consensus of sources, accounts of "Macsen"/Magnus Maximus vary wildly depending on the "British" historian read.

It might be thought likely that the first stage of Macsen's "invasion" of Europe was to cross to north-western France. It is likely that the Celtic language spoken by the native Armoricans was not dissimilar from that spoken in southern and western Britain, so it makes sense to use Armorica as a staging area. Macsen's bid for imperial power in 383 coincides with the last date for any evidence of a Roman military presence in Wales, the western Pennines, and the fortress of Deva. Coins dated later than 383 have been found in excavations along Hadrian's Wall, suggesting that troops were not entirely stripped from it, as was once thought.

Gildas is a bit of a mystery himself. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the British Monk and the French monastery founder are the same person, when and where he was born and where he worked. Gildas provides a part of the basis for Geoffrey of Monmouths Arthur legend with the various Roman usurpers being transformed into the ancestors of Arthur and other characters in the legend.

Gildas has none of this. In the De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae written c. 540, Gildas says (in his usual ranting style) of Macsen/Maximus:

  • "At length also, as thickets of tyrants were growing up and bursting forth soon into an immense forest, the island retained the Roman name, but not the morals and law; nay rather, casting forth a shoot of its own planting, it sends out Maximus to the two Gauls, accompanied by a great crowd of followers, with an emperor's ensigns in addition, which he never worthily bore nor legitimately, but as one elected after the manner of a tyrant and amid a turbulent soldiery. This man, through cunning art rather than by valour, first attaches to his guilty rule certain neighbouring countries or provinces against the Roman power, by nets of perjury and falsehood. He then extends one wing to Spain, the other to Italy, fixing the throne of his iniquitous empire at Trier, and raged with such madness against his lords that he drove two legitimate emperors, the one from Rome, the other from a most pious life. Though fortified by hazardous deeds of so dangerous a character, it was not long ere he lost his accursed head at Aquileia: he who had in a way cut off the crowned heads of the empire of the whole world."

Gildas also notes the consequences:

  • "Britain is left deprived of all her soldiery and armed bands, of her cruel governors, and of the flower of her youth, who went with Maximus, but never again returned."

There is some archaeological evidence to support this, and it does accord with certain later Breton traditions. Macsen is associated with the legendary British leader Conan Meriadoc, said to be the founder of Brittany. Conan Meriadoc is said to have been ordered by Macsen to settle his people in Brittany. Conan's story is recounted in a number of Breton sources such as the Life of Saint Gurthiern (c1118) and the Life of Saint Goeznovius (once thought to be written c.1019, but now dated later). The stories surrounding the lives of these Breton saints deal with the arrival of British peoples on the Continent, however some care is needed as "Goeznovius" may be influenced by Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (1136).

Having left with the troops and senior administrators, and planning to continue as the ruler of Britain in the future, Maximus' likely practical course was to transfer local authority to local rulers. Welsh legend supports that this happened, with stories such as Breuddwyd Macsen Wledig (English: The Dream of Emperor Maximus), where he not only marries a "wondrous" British woman (thus making British descendants probable), but also gives her father sovereignty over Britain (thus formally transferring authority from Rome back to the Britons themselves). The earliest Welsh genealogies give Maximus (referred to as Macsen/Maxen Wledig, or Emperor Maximus) the role of founding father of the dynasties of several medieval Welsh kingdoms, including those of Powys and Gwent. He is given as the ancestor of a Welsh king on the Pillar of Eliseg, erected nearly 500 years after he left Britain, and he figures in lists of the Fifteen Tribes of Wales.

Macsen and Bede

Bede (672/3 – 26 May 735) clearly uses Gildas as a source and in many places quotes directly from him. He mentions Constantine only in passing (Chapter VIII) and makes little reference to his connection with the church:

  • "At this time Constantius, who, whilst Diocletian was alive, governed Gaul and Spain, a man of great clemency and urbanity, died in Britain. This man left his son Constantine, born of Helena, his concubine, emperor of the Gauls. Eutropius writes that Constantine, being created emperor in Britain, succeeded his father in the sovereignty. In his time the Arian heresy broke out, and although it was exposed and condemned in the Council of Nicaea, nevertheless, the deadly poison of its evil spread, as has been said, to the Churches in the islands, as well as to those of the rest of the world."

Bede then skips forward to Maximus (Macsen) and Gratian, where he follows Orosius.

  • "At that time, Maximus, a man of energy and probity, and worthy of the title of Augustus, if he had not broken his oath of allegiance, was made emperor by the army somewhat against his will, passed over into Gaul, and there by treachery slew the Emperor Gratian, who in consternation at his sudden invasion, was attempting to escape into Italy. His brother, the Emperor Valentinian, expelled from Italy, fled into the East, where he was entertained by Theodosius with fatherly affection, and soon restored to the empire, for Maximus the tyrant, being shut up in Aquileia, was there taken by them and put to death."

Bede then goes on to introduce another Constantine (III) as "a common soldier" in Britain at the time of Honorius:

  • "..Constantine, one of the meanest soldiers, only for the hope afforded by his name, and without any worth to recommend him, was chosen emperor. As soon as he had taken upon him the command, he crossed over into Gaul, where being often imposed upon by the barbarians with untrustworthy treaties, he did more harm than good to the Commonwealth. Whereupon Count Constantius, by the command of Honorius, marching into Gaul with an army, besieged him in the city of Arles, took him prisoner, and put him to death. His son Constans, a monk, whom he had created Caesar, was also put to death by his own follower Count Gerontius, at Vienne."

This Constantine III rose to power during a bloody struggle in Roman Britain and was acclaimed emperor by the local legions in 407. It would appear that one reason he was chosen was his name. He promptly moved to Gaul, taking all of the mobile troops from Britain (although Gildas would have it that they had already left with Macsen), to confront the various Germanic invaders who had crossed the Rhine the previous winter. Constantine gained the upper hand after several battles with the forces of the Western Roman Emperor Honorius. As a result, Honorius recognised Constantine as co-emperor in 409. The activities of the invading tribes, raids by Saxons on the near-defenseless Britain and desertions by some of his top commanders led to a collapse of support. After further military setbacks he abdicated in 411. Constantine III was captured and executed shortly afterwards by Constantius III.

To complicate matters Constantine III is stated by Bede to have a son, Constans, who does not appear to be a relative at all. What is peculiar but explanable is that the cast of characters around 407 have the same names as those who occur in the Constantinian dynasty founded a century before, but are different people and in many cases have quite different roles. The most likely explanations are that the names were popular and associaated with success. As noted, it may be that Constantine III was only chosen as Emperor because of his name. It is easy to see how later historians could get utterly confused between these similarly named people.

What is notably absent from Bede is any mention of the Donation of Constantine. This appears to have only been forged during the pontificate of Pope Stephen II (752–757), in which the freshly converted Constantine gave "the city of Rome and all the provinces, districts, and cities of Italy and the Western regions" to Sylvester and his successors.

Macsen and Nennius

In the parts relevant for present purposes Nennius (c.830) is all but identical to the later Monmouth. One problem with Nennius is that it exists in several versions, no two of which are alike. He gives a list of the Roman emperors who visited Britain, of whom he says:

  • "The fifth was Constantius the father of Constantine the Great. He died in Britain; his sepulchre, as it appears by the inscription on his tomb, is still seen near the city named Cair segont (near Carnarvon). Upon the pavement of the above-mentioned city he sowed three seeds of gold, silver and brass, that no poor person might ever be found in it. It is also called Minmanton."

There is here a mention of Segontium (Caernarfon), while the historical Constantius is known to have died at York. This connection between Constantius/Constantine and Caernarfon will turn up again and is further discussed below.

Macsen and Monmouth

Geoffrey of Monmouth (Latin: Galfridus Monemutensis, Galfridus Arturus, Welsh: Gruffudd ap Arthur, Sieffre o Fynwy; c. 1095 – c. 1155) gives a slightly inacurate account of Macsen/Maxiumus and mentions how he withdrew troops from Britain:

  • The seventh emperor was Maximianus (sic). He withdrew from Britain with all its military force, slew Gratianus the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, families, and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts from the lake on the summit of Mons lovis, to the city called Cant Guic, and to the western Tumulus, that is Cruc Occident. These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day. In consequence of their absence, Britain being overcome by foreign nations, the lawful heirs were cast out, till God interposed with his assistance.

Geoffrey's is often simply dismissed as a mendacious liar, but sub-text here may be fairly obvious. Armorica or Aremorica is the name given in ancient times to the part of Gaul between the Seine and the Loire that includes the Brittany Peninsula - close enough for Geoffrey to Normandy. Earlier scholars assumed that Geoffrey was Welsh or at least spoke Welsh: however, his knowledge of this language appears to have been slight. There is some suggestion that he spoke Breton and his parents may have taken part in William I's conquest of south Wales. The county/city of Monmouth had been in the hands of Breton lords since 1075 or 1086 (under Guihenoc de La Boussac), and the names Galfridus and Arthur were more common among the Bretons than the Welsh. When Geoffrey writes of "God's assistance" he may well be referring to the Norman/Breton conquest of Wales as the "lawful heirs". This fits very well with Geoffrey's claim that he was given a source for this period by Archdeacon Walter of Oxford, who presented him with a "certain very ancient book written in the British language" (it is not clear just which one - for example Breton or Welsh) from which he has translated his history into Latin. Viewing Geoffery as a Norman propagandist (even if he is an inept one) casts his work in a different light.

A stereotypically evil-looking King John visits Arthur of Brittany. Arthur is the step-son of Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester as well as having a very good claim to being the rightful heir to King Richard. Unfortunately, Arthur fits exactly into the myth system created by Monmouth. According to tradition, he is murdered by John.

Monmouth's best known contribution is his writing on the legendary Arthur. The historian Francis Pryor famously remarked that this gap between the "historical" Arthur and Geoffrey was like Simon Schama being the first historian to mention Oliver Cromwell. The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful and imaginative 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain. In some Welsh and Breton tales and poems that potentially date from before this work, Arthur appears either as a great warrior defending Britain from human and supernatural enemies or as a magical figure of folklore, sometimes associated with the Welsh otherworld Annwn. How much of Geoffrey's Historia (completed in 1138) was adapted from such earlier sources (such as Nennius), rather than invented by Geoffrey himself, is unknown. Arthur is of course the "once-and-future-king" - and becomes the prototypical "Emperor/Savior", harking back to tales similar to that involving Octavian.

The possible propaganda message here is that the occupying Bretons are actually the heirs of Maxiumus and the descendants of people just like the Welsh (he can rely on Nennius for this). They are just like the hero Arthur (a good Breton name), salvation out of the past. In the long run, it may be that Geoffrey of Monmouth's attempt at what may have been Norman propaganda was to backfire. Shortly after Geoffrey of Monmouth's death in c1155 William of Newburgh (1136-1198) launched an attack on Monmouth with a noted broadside of invective:

  • "..no one but a person ignorant of ancient history, when he meets with that book which he calls the History of the Britons, can for a moment doubt how impertinently and impudently he falsifies in every respect. For he only who has not learnt the truth of history indiscreetly believes the absurdity of fable. I omit this man's inventions concerning the exploits of the Britons previous to the government of Julius Caesar, as well as the fictions of others which he has recorded, as if they were authentic. I make no mention of his fulsome praise of the Britons, in defiance of the truth of history, from the time of Julius Caesar, when they came under the dominion of the Romans, to that of Honorius, when the Romans voluntarily retired from Britain, on account of the more urgent necessities of their own state" (William of Newburgh: from his "preface")

William then goes on, with little criticism, to recite stories of medieval revenants, animated corpses that returned from their graves, and close parallels to vampire beliefs. Perhaps Newburgh has his sub-text too, arguments had raged about the relative priority of the metropolitan of Wales, but he also is writing at a time of threatened Celtic resurgence and the last thing Angevin England and the unstable King John needs is a "Celtic" Arthur. Unfortunately, that was exactly what he got.

Indeed, at the time of Newburgh's death it might have already been clear that Arthur of Britanny (29 March 1187 – probably 1203), who had been designated heir in 1190, could seriously threaten the English succession. Worse still for William of Newburgh, Arthur of Brittany is the posthumous son of his father, a "Widow's Son" who might be symbolic of all those yawning graves and unquiet dead. King Richard was one of four sons of Henry II. in 1186, Geoffrey Plantagenet, fourth son of King Henry II younger brother of Richard (later I), and older brother of John (later King) wss trampled to death in a jousting tournament. In 1187, Arthur of Brittany, later stepson of Ranulf de Blondeville was born (many months after the death of his father). Henry (eldest son of Henry II) had revolted and died in 1183. Therefore Arthur was the son of the next brother in line to the crown (had he lived).

Drawing on even more legend, Richard I had given Tancred of Sicily a sword he claimed was Excalibur in order to secure their friendship and confirmed his nephew Arthur of Brittany as his heir presumptive. Taking matters to an extreme, Tancred promised to marry one of his daughters to Arthur when he came of age (known daughters were: Elvira of Sicily (which is actually almost cognate with "Guinevere"), Constance and Valdrada - all of whom were to lead interesting lives). William of Newburgh (and others) possibly had good reason to want to rubbish Geoffrey of Monmouth and the "Arthur" legends. On the other side of the argument the "historic" Arthur's bones were "discovered" at Glastonbury in 1191: something which might be seen in a different light given that Arthur of Brittany had just been born (1187) - perhaps even seen as "myth engineering".

By the Middle Ages the legend of Arthur had possibly been woven out of a series of Myths which went all the way back to Octavian and included elements taken from a number of sources including Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. Many of these myths may have been "engineered" with a series of quite different political motives in mind.

Charlotte Mary Yonge wrote:

  • The son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, and Constance, Duchess of Brittany, was born at Nantes, on Easter Day, 1187, six months after the death of his father. He was the first grandson of Henry II., for the graceless young King Henry had died childless. Richard was still unmarried, and the elder child of Geoffrey was a daughter named Eleanor; his birth was therefore the subject of universal joy. There was a prophecy of Merlin, that King Arthur should re-appear from the realm of the fairy Morgana, who had borne him away in his death-like trance after the battle of Camelford, and returning in the form of a child, should conquer England from the Saxon race, and restore the splendours of the British Pendragons. The Bretons, resolved to see in their infant duke this champion of their glories, overlooked the hated Angevin and Norman blood that flowed in his veins, and insisted on his receiving their beloved name of Arthur. Thanksgivings were poured forth in all the churches in Brittany, and the altars and shrines at the sacred fountains were adorned with wreaths of flowers. At the same time a Welsh bard directed King Henry to cause search to be made at Glastonbury, the true Avalon, for the ancient hero's corpse, which, as old traditions declared, had been buried between two-pyramids within the Abbey. There, in fact, at some distance beneath the surface, was found a leaden cross inscribed with the words, "Here lies Arthur, Once and Future King"

If there is a message here it can be taken several ways.

Macsen and his Dream

The Dream of Macsen Wledig tells a different tale to Geoffrey of Monmouth. The story tracks his search for a fair maiden he sees in a dream, eventually bringing him to Britain, where he finds the lady he seeks. Learning that he has been replaced as emperor, he rushes back to Rome with his newly-wedded wife.

In brief, Macsen, Emperor of Rome, is out hunting (conveniently alone in the woods?) and feels tired and:

  • "..he experienced a dream that had an incredible effect on him. In that dream, he travelled across mountains and along rivers, and undertook a sea voyage which brought him to a fair island. He crossed that island and found a magnificent castle and in that castle, seated in a golden hall, was a beautiful woman and he fell in love with her. Macsen had found the woman of his dreams within his dream and, typical of a dream, he never gets his kiss. When he moves to kiss and embrace her, he awakens, and in the waking world there is no Elen. But Macsen wants his kiss badly and now the world has changed for him. He is obsessed with her to the point that he can think of nothing and no one else. His health fails and he begins to waste away and pines for her, telling his counsellors “and now I am in love with someone who I know not. She may be real and she may be unreal, but I am mortally stricken, so tell, what am I to do?"

Traditionally, the messengers of Macsen scour the known world and find the woman of the dream: she is Elen daughter of Eudav, the son of Caradawc and he is also known as Eudaf Hen, (Eudaf “the Old”), or Octavius, a King of the Britons. She lives at Segontium (Caernarfon). When the messengers tell her about the great love their emperor holds for her and request she accompany them back to Rome, she flatly refuses. Instead she tells them to return to Rome and tell the emperor that he must travel to her if he truly loved her as he claimed. Macsen obeys the demand and she agrees to marry him. The traditional tale continues:

  • "After her marriage, Elen was entitled to ask for a wedding gift from her husband, and the gifts she asks for and received again indicate how powerful she was. She requested that Britain and its two islands be ruled by her father on behalf of her. This, in a magnificent twist, gave sovereignty to her father and returned it to the Britons. She also requested three castles be built in strategic places around the realm to protect it from invaders. These were built at Arfon (now Caernarfon), Caer Llion (now Caerleon) and Caer Fyrddin (now Carmarthen). Then she asked that these strongholds be linked together by roads so that the army could quickly deploy around the kingdom. This was also given and the men of Britain built the roads for Elen and these became known as the Roads of Elen. Famously, it is said that the men of Briton would have built these roads for none other than Elen."

Then, according to tradition he has to rush back to Rome, but only retakes the City with the help of men from Britain led by Elen's brother Conanus (Welsh: Kynan Meriadec, French: Conan Meriadoc), Macsen marches across Gaul and Italy and recaptures Rome. In gratitude to his British allies, Macsen rewards them with a portion of Gaul that becomes known as Brittany.

This account is so different from Geoffrey of Monmouth's account of Maximian (as Geoffrey calls him) in Historia regum Britanniae that scholars agree that the Dream cannot be based purely on Geoffrey's version. Even stretching incredulity it is not a good fit to the historical facts as the historic "Macsen"/Maximian only became Emperor after he had been in Britain for some years. He then has a dream in which he fails to recognise one of his major naval stations, and he never took Rome. The church tradition is even more sparse and reads;

  • "Elen was mother of five, including a boy named Custennin or Cystennin (Constantine). She lived about sixty years later than Helena of Constantinople, the mother of Constantine the Great, whom she has been confused with in times past. She is patron of Llanelan in West Gower and of the church at Penisa'r-waun near Caernarfon, where her feast day is 22 May. Together with her sons, Cystennin and Peblig (Publicus, named in the calendar of the Church in Wales), she is said to have introduced into Wales the Celtic form of monasticism from Gaul. Saint Gregory of Tours and Sulpicius Severus record that Maximus and his wife met Saint Martin of Tours while they were in Gaul."

Saint Martin of Tours (Latin: Sanctus Martinus Turonensis; 316 or 336 – 8 November 397) was the third bishop of Tours. He served in the Roman cavalry in Gaul, but left military service at some point prior to 361, when he became a disciple of Hilary of Poitiers, establishing the monastery at Ligugé. He was consecrated as Bishop of Caesarodunum (Tours) in 371. As bishop, he was active in the suppression of the remnants of Gallo-Roman religion, but he opposed the violent persecution of the Priscillianist sect of ascetics. His life was recorded by a contemporary hagiographer, Sulpicius Severus (c363–c425).

Christianity certainly arrived in Wales sometime in the Roman occupation, but it was initially suppressed. The first Christian martyrs in Wales, Julius and Aaron, were killed at Isca Augusta (Caerleon) in south Wales in about AD 304. Curiously, the signage at the Amphitheatre in Chester appears to have them die there, possibly confusing one "City of the Legions" with another. The earliest Christian object found in Wales is a late 3rd century vessel with a Chi-Rho symbol found at the nearby town of Venta Silurum (Caerwent - Monmouthshire): see Gwent County History Vol.1, 2004.

The probable Roman Roads of North Wales are shown as red lines. Sites where there is something to see are shown in red. The ring of forts around Snowdonia at Kanovium, Bryn-y-Gefeiliau, Tomen-y-Mur, Pen Llystyn and Caer Gybi, the major fortress ad Segontium (Caernarvon) and the string of forts along the North Welsh coast closely parallel the later military strategies of the Normans and of Edward I.

Elen/Helen has other associations in Welsh tradition. "Sarn Helen" refers to several stretches of Roman road in Wales. The 160 mi (260 km) route, is said to follow a meandering course through central Wales, connecting Aberconwy in the north with Carmarthen in the west. Despite its length, academic debate continues as to the precise course of the Roman road and whether it was actually a single road. Many sections are now used by the modern road network while other parts are still traceable. Some say there are sizeable stretches that have been lost and are unidentifiable. This is the route traditionally believed to be named after Saint Elen of Caernarfon, but Roman roads in Wales date from much earlier than the period in which Elen would have lived. Sarn Elen could be a mutation of "Sarn y leng" (The Legions Road).

Segontium was founded by Agricola in AD 77 or 78 after he had conquered the Ordovices in North Wales. Good roads would have been established early, especially to Roman Chester. It was the main Roman fort in the north of Roman Wales and was designed to hold about a thousand auxiliary infantry. The original timber defences were rebuilt in stone in the first half of the 2nd century. In the same period, a large courtyard house (with its own small bathhouse) was built within the fort. The high-status building may have been the residence of an important official who was possibly in charge of regional mineral extraction. Archaeological research shows that, by the year 120, there had been a reduction in the military numbers at the fort. An inscription on an aqueduct from the time of the Emperor Septimius Severus indicates that, by the 3rd century, Segontium was garrisoned by 500 men from the Cohors I Sunicorum, which would have originally been levied among the Sunici of Gallia Belgica. The size of the fort continued to reduce through the 3rd and 4th centuries. At this time Segontium's main role was the defence of the north Wales coast against Irish raiders and pirates. Coins found at Segontium show the fort was still occupied until at least 394.

Segontium importance as a Roman port, strategic fortress and location for the placement of myths did not fade over the years. In 1283, King Edward I completed his conquest of Wales which he secured by a chain of castles and walled towns. Edward's architect, James of St. George, may well have modelled the castle at Caernarfon on the walls of Constantinople, possibly being aware of the town's legendary associations. Edward's fourth son, Edward of Caernarfon, later Edward II of England, was born at the castle in April 1284 and made Prince of Wales in 1301.

The myths in the context of the Chester Cycle

The somewhat garbled reference to the "prophecy" of Octavian/Augustus as an "emperor saviour" in the Chester Nativity Play leads on to some interesting connections with local myths and legends, especially as regards Constantine and Maximus and their relations to the mythical and historical Arthur's. How much of this would have passed through the mind of a well-read specator in Elizabethan England is impossible to say.

  • In Gildas, Maximus (Macsen) is an evil tyrant who, strips troops from Britain and is deservedly killed. There is no mention of (H)elen, Arthur or any other emperor than Maximus. There is no mention of the Bretons. Hadrian's Wall is a last-ditch effort (Gildas even gets the emperor wrong) and then the Saxons arrive. Gildas makes Ambrosius Aurelianus a "war leader" of the Romano-British who won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century.
  • In Bede (around 731) there is no mention of Arthur. Bede follows Gildas' account of Ambrosius in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, but in his Chronica Majora he dates Ambrosius' victory to the reign of the Emperor Zeno (474–491).
  • In Nennius (possibly around 829), the story is much the same as in Monmouth, but Ambrosius Aurelianus is now described as "king among all the kings of the British nation". Arthur gets his first mention as a "dux bellorum" (war leader) rather than king.
  • In Malmesbury (1125) is found the first mention of Arthur's "return". As Malmesbury writes: "But Arthur's grave is nowhere seen, whence antiquity of fables still claims that he will return".
  • Henry of Huntingdon c.1129 included a passage in his Historia Anglorum that the Emperor Constantine's mother was a Briton, making her the daughter of King Cole of Colchester.
  • In the "Dream" "Macsen"/Maximus is already Emperor in Rome and returns victorious after marrying a Welsh "Elen" and uses British troops to recapture Rome (the "return of the king" myth again). He rewards the Briton's with Brittany. "Elen" is also found in legends which purport to explain the origins of Roman Roads in Wales. She is at times confused with Constantine's mother Helena.
  • In Monmouth (1136), Maximus retires from Britain a touch more gracefully, but leaves troops in Brittany. There is no mention of (H)elen for him but there is a British Helen for Constantine Chlorus some years before, who produces the half-British Emperor Constantine who converts Rome. Ambrosius appears briefly in the Gesta Regum Anglorum ("Deeds of the Kings of the English") as "Aurelius Ambrosius", but Monmouth moves on to Arthur who was first styled as a king of the Britons by Geoffrey. Geoffrey's Aurelius Ambrosius rises to the throne but dies early, passing the throne to a previously unknown brother called Uther Pendragon. The role of warrior king is shared by Uther and his son Arthur. Monmouth's Constantine bears a garbled resemblance to the historic Constantine and is also self-contradicting. Geoffrey, in the last chapters featuring Vortigern, has the king served by magicians. This detail derives from Nennius, though Nennius was talking about Vortigern's "wise men".

Even the least educated were probably aware of Arthur, others might have some idea that there was a Constantine and/or a Macsen in there somewhere. Many with Welsh connections would be aware that there was a conflict between the Normans and the Welsh that the Welsh, for a while won.

Shakesspeares three witches may be just another thread in a web of legends that start with "the Fates", continue through the Roman sybils, and get a spin put on them by a whole series of authors and story-tellers before being used to justify how James VI/I was the rightful King.

Other Constantines turn up in the literature, there is a Constantine in Gildas whom he refers to as the "tyrannical whelp of the unclean lioness of Damnonia", and accuses him of the murder of two princes while disguised as an abbot. Scholars generally identify Gildas' Constantine with the figure Custennin Gorneu or Custennin Corneu (Constantine of Cornwall) who appears in the genealogies of the kings of Dumnonia (with Gildas substituting "Damnonia"). The historical Constantine of Dumnonia may have influenced later traditions, known in Southwestern Britain as well as in Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, about a Saint Constantine who is usually said to have been a king who gave up his crown to become a monk. The Cornish and Welsh traditions especially may have been influenced by Gildas, in particular his adjuration for Constantine to repent; the belief may have been that the reproach eventually worked. A number of other traditions attested across Britain describe saints or kings named Constantine, suggesting a confusion and conflation of various figures.

As for the historical Constantine, during the Middle Ages, European and Near-East Byzantine writers presented Constantine as an ideal ruler, the standard against which any king or emperor could be measured. This may well have been due to propogands dating from Constantines own times, and also to provide validity to the claim by the church to the ownership of the Papal States. Later writers saw Constantine as a scheming secularist, a politician who manipulated all parties in a quest to secure his own power.

What Monmouth appears to have done is to combine elements from various historical events and legends and try to combine them into a single history. He takes Constantinius Chlorus and his son from around 300, Constantine's mother Helen and the Elen from Macsen, and possibly the Constantine from Gildas. Onto this he bolts the legend of Arthur (his own name). His "history" is full of prophecies. Monmouth even introduces the Cornish Constantine: Arthur passes his crown to his relative Constantine after being mortally wounded by the traitor Mordred in the Battle of Camlann. Geoffrey identifies Gildas' "royal youths" with Mordred's two sons, who, along with their Saxon allies, continue their father's insurrection after his death. After "many battles" Constantine routs the rebels, and Mordred's sons flee to London and Winchester, where they hide in a church and a friary, respectively. Constantine hunts them down and executes them before the altars of their sanctuaries. Divine retribution for this transgression comes three years later when Constantine is killed by his nephew Aurelius Conanus (Gildas' Aurelius Caninus), precipitating a civil war.

Adding up the myths

The belief that foreknowledge of events could be attained through means such as the practice of astrology, revelation from God, or the interpretation of supposedly prophetic texts (including Vergil or Merlin) was widespread in British society during the early modern period. There are two parallel mythologies which appear to be invoked by the prophecies alluded to in the Chester Mystery Plays and in the Nativity in particular before they were discontinued in the 1560's and 70's:

  • The boy Emperor/Savior myth from Octavian and Santa Maria in Ara Coeli. The Chester Mystery Plays makes a special point of referring to this event, even though it is a "Mary Myth" which could be politicaly sensitive (Mary Queen of Scots is still alive and there is another Virgin on the English throne);
  • The Arthur as "Once and future King" myth, essentially developed from Geoffrey of Monmouth. This had potentially disasterous consequences for King John when faced with the young Arthur of Brittany, a historical event which might well have been commonly known in Chester given that Arthur's step-father was Ranulf de Blondeville (1172-1232), Earl of Chester (another "boy ruler") and that John was succeeded by yet another "boy ruler": Henry III. The final set of "boy rulers" possibly associated with Chester and the Mystery Plays include Henry VI (who visited Chester just before a Corpus Christi riot in 1424), another Arthur - the Prince Arthur (who visted Chester from August 1498 and may have been associated with the start of the plays) who never got to be king, and Edward VI who possibly has only weak associations with Chester, although he was involved (in 1553) in the stripping the Cathedral of its lands. Edward became king at the age of nine in 1547 and died in 1553, aged 15.

Both these myth systems share the concept of the prophecy of a "returning king", often portrayed as a child. Such myths were especially common in Wales. The Anglo-Norman text "Description of England" (c1140 - given a reference to the Bishop of Carlisle) recounts of the Welsh that:

  • "openly they go about saying,... / that in the end they will have it all; / by means of Arthur, they will have it back... / They will call it Britain again."

The "Description of England" exists in only a few copies, consisting of a relatively faithful translation into the Anglo-Norman vernacular of a passage from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, with additions. It was likely written in the aftermath of the revolt of Gruffudd ap Rhys (c. 1081 – 1137). In 1136 he joined Owain Gwynedd and Cadwaladr, the sons of Gruffudd ap Cynan of Gwynedd, in a rebellion against Norman rule. At the time civil war ("The Anarchy") was raging in England between Stephen of Blois and his cousin Empress Matilda. While Gruffydd was away from home, his wife Gwenllian led her husband's troops against a counter-attack by Maurice of London, but was betrayed, defeated, captured, and beheaded (at Maes Gwenllian - with associated "magical spring" and headless ghost). In this battle Gruffudd ap Rhys' son Morgan was also slain, and his son Maelgwn was captured. In revenge for his wife's execution Gruffydd attacked the English and the Fleming residents of South Wales, causing great destruction of property, crops, and livestock. Gruffydd himself with Owain and Cadwaladr gained a crushing victory over the Normans at the Battle of Crug Mawr near Cardigan the same year: a significant setback to Norman expansion in Wales. Gruffydd ap Rhys died in uncertain circumstances in 1137, and the resulting disruption allowed the Normans to partially recover their position in the south.

Political prophecies were even more prolific in Elizabethan England. During his trial in 1572 Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk admitted that he had seen "above sixty". Even after the Plays were discontinued Merlin remained the most popular figure to whom such prophecies were ascribed. Edward Topsell complained in a sermon published in 1599 that

  • "aboue all the simple and vulgar people imagine that there is no Scripture like to Merlins prophesie,”

..and in 1600 Lodovic Lloyd, Welshman, wrote to Sir Robert Cecil that:

  • "the old Romanes were not so addicted unto their Sybills, the Egyptians unto the priests of Memphis, nor the Frenchmen unto their superstitious Druides, as many in my country ar geaven to the prophecies of Merlin."

In a letter to King Philip II written 29 December 1558 the Spanish ambassador in London, the Count de Feria, remarked that:

  • "they are so full of prophecies in this country that nothing happens but they immediately come out with some prophecy that foretold it so many years ago, and it is a fact that serious people and good catholics even take notice of these things and attach more importance to them than they usually merit."

From the above it can be seen that at times there was only a thin line between history and prophecy.

The State's Response

Even after the Mystery Plays were banned, Chester was still putting on theatre that "foretold" the coming of a "saviour". The text of Chester's Triumph in Honour of her Prince can be found on-line.

In 1566 Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to her only son James VI and I (James Charles Stuart; 19 June 1566 – 27 March 1625) who was King of Scotland as James VI from 24 July 1567 and King of England and Ireland as James I from the union of the Scottish and English crowns on 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625. James succeeded to the Scottish throne at the age of thirteen months, after his mother was compelled to abdicate in his favour - he was yet another "crowned child". Rumour about James started even before his birth: even in the 1500s, rumours were rife that the baby which Mary was carrying belonged to her assassinated private secretary, David Rizzio and not Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (who was to be dead soon under mysterious circumstance). James was not left out of prophecy, even re-workings of older prophecy relating variously to Henry Tudor and Robert the Bruce, and the works of Thomas the Rhymer. These earlier prophecies were so well known that it was easy for Shakespeare to include them in his Scottish play, with considerable re-working. Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotlande and Irelande, published in 1577, even has an illustration of MacBeth and Banquo meeting the witches.

A bill against "Sorceries, Witchcrafts, and Prophecies, of Badges and Arms" which would have granted the civil authorities power against the same, was introduced privately into the parliament of 1559, but failed to pass before the prorogation of parliament in May of that year. Even Nostradamus was dragged into it: his forecast for 1559 (he had died in 1556) was translated into English and warned of great troubles, including "the death, ruyne, affliction and banishement of the enemies" of the Catholic Church, "destruction and ruyne of Sectes, mutations and alterations of kingdoms," and "commotions of warre" (with France, of course, the supreme victor). Even while England is never mentioned specifically, these were dire predictions for the kingdom currently at war with France and under the rule of the Protestant Elizabeth. When defending his hesitance in accepting the Archbishopric of Canterbury to Sir Nicholas Bacon, Matthew Parker felt it necessary to assure him "that the prognostication of Mr Michael Nostre Dame" did not "reigneth in my head.". After John Coxe was apprehended on 14 April 1561, Endmund Grindal who would later be involved in the demise of the Mystery Plays, urged: "for this magic and conjurations your honours of the (Privy) Council must appoint some extraordinary punishment. My Lord Chief Justice saith the corporal law will not meddle with them".

Prophecies relating to the prospective union of Mary and Norfolk were circulating as early as May 1569. That month the leaders of an enclosure riot in Chinley, Derbyshire were questioned as to whether they did:

  • "confederate, consulte, practice, or otherwise confer and talk with one Master Bircles of the countye of Chester... touching or concerning prophesies by noblemen, or otherwise, and what books of prophesie have you or the said Bircles seen or heard, and what is the effect thereof...?"

Master Bircles appears to be John Birtles of Birtles Hall, Cheshire.

The commotion over prophecy continued even after the plays were banned. In February 1580, a "yong mayden" of Flint, Elizabeth Acton of "Orton Maddock" in Maelor Saesneg (she was thirteen or fourteen), claimed that she had received visions which were "put into writing & scattered abroad amongst the papists & ignorant people of Chester, where popery was still strong". When the authorities became involved Orton was forced to confess (at Chester Cathedral on 4th March 1582) that the visions were invented, saying that she had been "seduced by a vile runnagate Papist" (last spotted in Chester).


There are probably many reasons why the medieval Mystery Plays were banned, with the Chester Mystery Plays possibly having the most complex reasons. Among these may be the impact of prophecy on the politics of the Elizabethan state, and on earlier administrations. Starting with the Octavian/Augustus prophecy depicted in the Chester Nativity a whole string of prophetic utterences and writings can be interlinked down to the time of Elizabeth Tudor. Many of these are so vague that just about any interpretation can be placed on them. Some relate to "savior kings", "returning kings" or "boy kings" and would have been familiar to the audience for the plays. A few instances stand out, such as Monmouth's unfortunate creation of a Celtic Arthur myth prior to both Welsh revolt and the birth of a "new" Arthur of Brittany. Garbled history which made Constantine half-English and mixed-in the tale of Macsen Wledig, together with a confusion of Helen of Constantinople and Elen of Caernarfon added more source-material for myth-mongers. Anyone who wanted to create a particular interpretation of the existing myths had a very broad pallet to work with. The Tudors themselves had manipulated myth from the landing of Henry Tudor and his march through Wales flying an "Arthurian" flag, but later sought to bring all prophetic and potentially sorcerous activity under state control with new laws. In the end, Elizabeth the last of the Tudors herself became mythologised by Edmund Spenser in 1590 as The Faerie Queene, although even that has in Book I Lucifera, the "mayden Queene, that shone as Titan’s ray" whose brightly lit "House of Pride" masks a dungeon full of prisoners.

The mention of "Santa Maria in Ara Coeli" in the Chester Nativity was clearly recognised as a potentially sensitive issue, as both the comments in the Banns and the words of the Expositor show. Under the reign of Elizabeth, native Cestrians inevitably faced a conflict between loyalty to their Roman-founded heritage and their English monarchy. In some ways the plays can be seen as a scripted exercise in which doubt is first exposed and then removed, and that made them particularly open to attacks by the likes of Protestant zealot Christopher Goodman, who appears to have a distinct blindness for nuance. For reasons that can now only be speculated upon the custodians of the Chester scripts chose to retain the reference to the church of Santa Maria while attempting to explain it away. Similarly, the response of the audience (both Welsh and English) to this mention of prophecy can only be guessed at. It is possible to speculate about plots and propaganda, but the truth will probably always be lost. Prior to the Enlightenment people inhabited a world in which myth and religion largely replaced the supposed historical and scientific truth of today. However, seen in one light, these were and remain for the majority just recieved knowledge.

Examining even a few lines of the Mystery Plays shows how rich a background myth/history landscape the plays hint at and how that landscape could be interpreted, re-interpreted and even manipulated for political ends. The banning of the Mystery Plays can therfore be seen as one step in the process of ensuring that all "revelations" are strictly controlled by one or both of the church and the state: where doubt and dissention are removed not by convincing argument, but by the supression and deletion of any mechanism which could bring about an alternative state of mind, especially a mechanism under essentially local control.

Related Pages

  • Dark Ages: some general historical background;
  • Battle of Chester: how history may be told with a political interest in mind;
  • Chester Mystery Plays: just what is the connection between the subject matter of the plays and the guilds which performed them?
  • Shakespeare and Chester: was he influenced by the portent and prophecy aspects of the mystery plays?
  • Chamber's Book of days: of particular interest is Chambers' discussion of "Chester's Triumph in Honour of her Prince", which Chambers seems to consider is possibly the worst play ever performed in Chester, but which in fact is a far more complex work than he percieves it to be;
  • Queen Dido: another example of a play in Chester having a hidden political message?
  • Cholmondeley: more "fake news" from Chester;
  • Bruen: even St Werburgh gets dragged into propaganda;
  • Plegmund: manipulation of myth for gain was still happening in Chester in 1908. When Plegmunds Well was restored, things were not entirely as they seemed;

Chronicles etc.

As usual, the sources and links range from solid academic stuff to the occasional older and more dubious source. Just because it is available on the internet does not mean it is objective, unbiased and true.

Sources and Links



Tudor Politics and Religion

Coins of Carausius


Elen of the Hosts

History of Brittany

Arthur of Britanny

  • CAMEOS FROM HISTORY: "The endeavor has not been to chronicle facts, but to put together a series of pictures of persons and events," from Rollo to Edward II. Originally released in 1873 by Charlotte Mary Yonge;