Helena had humble origins, and although no contemporary account mentions her birthplace most modern historians think that she was born about 250 in Bithynia, an area in present day Turkey, where her son later named a city in her honour.
Helena seems to have been a barmaid or stable girl when she met Constantius Chlorus, an officer in the Roman army. She had a son by him, Constantine, in about 272. Constantius had high political ambitions, and in around 288 he left Helena to marry the emperor's daughter. Constantius became joint emperor in turn in 305, and was in York when he died in 306 and his son Constantine was proclaimed emperor by the troops. Constantine honoured his mother by proclaiming her Augusta, or empress, in 324.
The family life of Roman emperors seems always to have been stormy, and the family quarrels which led to the violent deaths of her grandson and daughter-in-law may have strengthened a desire to leave Rome and journey to the Holy Land when she was aged about 78. Journeying to Jerusalem, even with the privileges of an empress, would have been no small undertaking and she probably went overland. She is said to have visited the Holy Places associated with Christ's life and to have founded churches in Bethlehem and on the Mount of Olives. The positions of the Holy Sites were already well known, as the Emperor Hadrian had erected pagan temples over them in his attempt to stamp out the Christian religion. St Jerome reported that a statue of Jupiter stood at the site of the resurrection and one of Venus at Golgotha; these landmarks quickly showed where to dig, as the local Christians were well aware of their true significance. Helena died around 330 at the age of eighty, soon after her return to Rome.
The most important claim made about Helena's pilgrimage, that she found fragments of the True Cross on which Christ was crucified, seems to be legend. The first account we have of Helen's life is in the Life of the Emperor Constantine by Eusebius of Caesarea written just a few years after her death. Even though Eusebius had every reason to please the emperor by emphasising his mother's qualities and acheivements, he makes no mention of such finds. The claims arose many years later.
Our connections with Helena's life and times
The obsurities of Helen's origins probably fed the stories and legends about her and many cities, including York, claimed her as their own. There is no evidence that she visited Britain but if she did so she almost certainly passed very close to the site of the church.
Just a few hundred yards to the north of the church, under the south transept of the present Minster, stood the Roman headquarters where her son Constantine was proclaimed emperor by his troops. The main road through the Roman fortress down to the river ran approximately along the line of Stonegate close to the church, just inside the line of the Roman fortress walls and near the site of the Roman gateway (where Harkers now stands), on what has always been one of the principal thoroughfares within the city. Although it is unlikely that there was a church here in Roman times, Christianity was certainly well established here during her lifetime. The year after Constantine the Great legalized Christianity within the Roman Empire in 313, York was one of only two cities from Britain to send a bishop to the Council of Arles - the first evidence for an organised church hierarchy in this country. It is quite possible that the bishop knew Helena. The existence of a church dedicated to St Helen within the ancient Roman fortress is a potent reminder of this pivotal era in the history of the church in York and, it is no exaggeration to say, in Europe as a whole. Significant remains of Roman buildings almost certainly lie beneath the church.