'Elen of the Hosts': Part II of St. Alban and the End of Roman Britain

By Thornhill, Philip | Mankind Quarterly, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

'Elen of the Hosts': Part II of St. Alban and the End of Roman Britain


Thornhill, Philip, Mankind Quarterly


In a continuation of his investigation into the origins of the legend of St. Alban of Romano-British tradition, begun in the article entitled the "St. Alban and the End of Roman Britain", the author here investigates further the Brittonic, Cornish and Breton roots of the Saint's name, suggesting a link with pre-Christian divinities.

KeyWords: St. Alban, Elven, Elen, Christian Martyrs, Celtic paganism, Roman Britain, Breton and Cornish mythology.

In an attempt to verify that the British 'martyr' St. Albans name does represent a continuation of the long tradition of divine names in albh- that we identified in Part I of this series, we can look at the problem from the other end again and try to see whether we can see any sign of Albans tradition emerging into medieval Celtic sources: we can resume our search for likely derivatives of 'Alban/Albios' in the later cult evidence, returning, this time, to a Brittonic context. There are other Brittonic saints' names that look very close to the one we have already examined: 'Elven'. There is the Breton 'Elouan' and the Cornish 'Elwen' (Loth: 37-8, 131; Gould: II, 449-50), for instance. It is worth bearing in mind the many centuries between the Alban of our 5/6th century records and the late date that these cult names emerge into our records. We might consider whether these might not represent corruptions of an original 'Elven', or of a name that contained 'Elv-' < alb(i)o), or names that might easily have been confused with such forms, and so, being more familiar to contemporaries, have come to supplant them in the tradition?

A different, but similar name might have been arrived at, in other words, by a process of assimilation. Thus the -wen of 'Elwen' might have been from -ven, by sound assimilation and under the influence of the appropriate meaning of wen, 'blessed'.2 The assumption would have to be that the legend of the saint became distorted along with the form of the name and that any association with a Roman era martyr of Verulamium, was forgotten. Of course if we are dealing with an original Celtic cult figure 'Albio-', then the associations of such a figure might have been quite diverse, while the legends attached to many Celtic saints have every appearance of being rather late and artificial, anyway. We might note, though, that Saint 'Elwen' was associated with a tradition of martyrdom since she was said to be one of the companions of saints Germochus and Breaca, emigrants from Ireland, part of whose company were martyred by the cruel king 'Teudar', according to Leland's notes on a lost 'Life of Breaca' (Doble 1960: I, 106-7 with note 8; Gould: II, 449-8).

A likely corruption of 'Elven', meanwhile, or a form easily reachable by assimilation, might seem to be the name 'Elen'. This form is in fact found ('Elenn') as early as the 10th century probably associated with 'Egloshellings' ('Eglosellans' in 1297) at St. Stephen in Brannel, Cornwall.3 There is also a Llanelen in Gwent (Ecclesia de sancta Elena' in 1284: Lunt: 317), another in Gower, a 'Tref Elen' in Pembrokeshire and quite a number of 'wells of Elen' (Padel 1986: 57-8; Loth: 37; Gould: II, 259-60; F. Jones: 1954: 32, 48, 149, 151, 164, 183, 190, 207). In Brittany, near Dol, was a 'parochia Sancti Eleni' in 1267. This became 'Saint-Helen' (there is a Lan-helen in the same diocese (Padel: 58; Loth: 37) and it seems likely that 'Elen' frequently became assimilated to 'Helen'. This was a well known name and one of some prestige in a context of religious myth, being appropriate to the mother of Constantine, who figures prominently in religious legend. Assimilation to this figure might offer an explanation for the female sex of figures like the 'Elena', mentioned above, on the assumption that our original figure, like Alban, was male (although an original pagan cult-figure in 'Albio-/Alb-' might have been female, see further Part III forthcoming). The 'Helenus' depicted in a fifteenth century window at the Breton Saint-Helen would then represent a persistence of the original tradition, in this respect, while the 'Helena virgo' of the Dol calendar might suggest how easily the tradition could be confused (Loth: 134; Gould: II, 260). …

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