Thursday, April 19, 2018

Who Was the Real Elen of the Hosts?

By Kim Rendfeld


I would love to believe “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” in The Mabinogion. Elen of Caernarfon and her husband, Magnus Maximus (Macsen Wledig), have a happy ending, ruling the Roman Empire.

In the legend, our hero, the emperor of Rome, marries the woman of his dreams—literally. He sends messengers all the way to Britain to find her, and when they do, Elen tells them if Macsen is really in love with her so much he will make her his empress, he can come to Britain himself and tell her to her face. Macsen does, and they marry. He loses the throne after being absent for too long but regains it with help from Elen and her brothers. Elen (also known as Helen Luyddawc, or Elen of the Hosts) had roads built throughout Britain—the men would not have constructed them for anyone but her.

From a 15th century Welsh language version of
Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The reality for this fourth century power couple is sadder. Is “The Dream of Macsen Wledig” a story of a sovereignty goddess common in Celtic lore? A tale with based in history? A bit of both?

If we are to believe Lives of the Queens of England before the Norman Conquest by Mrs. Matthew Hall—my instinct tells me to take what it says with that proverbial grain of salt—Elen was the only child of Eudda (also Eudaf or Octavius) and his wife, Gula, and they were seeking a husband for her. She was quite the eligible bride and heiress. Gula’s dowry was the kingdom of North Wales, and Eudda was the duke of the Wisseans and son of the duke of Cornwall.

Eudda wanted to make sure his daughter was settled before he died and called a council. After some debate, Magnus Maximus, a Spaniard and kinsman of Roman general Flavius Theodosius, was chosen. At the time, he was likely a commander of a Roman garrison in Britain and had already seen battle in Britain and Mauritania.

Marriage at the time was a political arrangement rather than a love match. If husband and wife happened to like each other, great, but the alliances forged by the marriage took precedence over sentiment.

From a political vantage point, Elen’s marriage to Maximus made sense. Another element that boded well for the couple was that both Elen and Maximus were pious. Elen would become a patroness of Welsh churches. Maximus was Orthodox, following the Nicene Creed.

Maximus was not content to remain in Britain. He apparently did not like Emperor Gratian. It could be that Maximus thought he deserved a better rank. Perhaps he resented the execution of Flavius Theodosius, done in Gratian’s name when the emperor was an infant. Or perhaps his army goaded him into seeking the throne for himself (a rather popular and remarkably convenient reason).

In 383, apparently after many years of marriage, Maximus was proclaimed emperor of Britain and traveled to Gaul with an army to confront Gratian. After a few battles, Gratian’s soldiers deserted him. Gratian was killed at Lyons. Maximus claimed not to have ordered it. Still he ruled part of the empire, Britain, Gaul, and Hispania. Gratian’s 12-year-old brother Valentinian ruled Italy and Africa (in name), and Theodosius rule the East, recognizing Maximus on the condition he not bother Valentinian.

Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., cngcoins.com,
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Unported license via Wikimedia Commons

Elen accompanied her husband on his conquest. They settled in Trier, which had served as the capital for Gratian’s father. The couple had five children. Their son Victor accompanied his father on his campaigns. Another son, Publicius, became a cleric, and a church at Segontium was dedicated to him. Their third son, Cunetha, apparently remained in Wales.

Apparently all was not well between Maximum and Valentinian. In 387, Maximus decided to cross the Alps and invade Italy. Maybe he wanted to make Valentinian a puppet, or he simply thought war was inevitable and decided to strike while he had an advantage. Italy fell, but Valentinian and his mother escaped and fled to Theodosius. In 388, Theodosius struck back. His generals trapped Maximus in Aquileia. Maximus surrendered, but the generals executed him. Victor was captured in Gaul and killed.

Elen and her daughters were in Trier at the time and taken prisoner. I wonder what Elen said to her captors or what people said about Elen. Theodosius showed some mercy. He released them to the care of a kinsman and provided a pension. Cunetha would inherit his mother’s lands in Wales, and his children would go on to rule.

Perhaps, the emperor believed Elen and her surviving children weren’t a threat. Maybe he thought harming the widowed empress and her family would cause him to lose support. Another speculation: Elen was still popular in her homeland and hurting her would cause a lot more trouble among those troublesome Britons than it was worth.

Sources

The Dream of Macsen Wledig,” The Mabinogion
The Oxford Dictionary of Saints by David Hugh Farmer
Lives of the Queens of England before the Norman Conquest, by Mrs. Matthew Hall
"Magnus Maximus," by R.S.O. Tomlin, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Elen of the Ways” by Judith Shaw, Feminism & Religion
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Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in 8th century Europe, and a third, Queen of the Darkest Hour, will be published August 7. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon). Her short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on AmazonQueen of the Darkest Hour is available for preorder on iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo.

Connect with Kim at on her website kimrendfeld.com, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at kimrendfeld.wordpress.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/authorkimrendfeld, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.


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