On this day we celebrate the feast of St. Helena.
"The story of St. Helena was popular in England, since she was said to have been the daughter of King Coel of Colchester ('Old King Cole'), although her renown derived from being the mother of Constantine and, more significantly, the discoverer of the true cross. There are a number of variants, but the story basically recounts how St. Helena travels to Jerusalem and, with the forced aid of a Jewish man, finds where the cross has been concealed. . . . she is asked to adjudicate the case between a Christian goldsmith and a Jewish usurer. Since the Christian is unable to pay back his debt, the Jew demands that 'he solde yield of his awen flesse' and carries a 'sharp grundin knife in hande' in order to exact the penalty. Of course, Helena points out that the Jew is allowed only 'flesse' and informs him that if he takes 'a drope of blode' the 'wrange is [th]ine.'"
--"Rubbing at Whitewash: Intolerance in The Merchant of Venice, by Marion Wynne-Davies in A Companion to Shakespeare's Works: Volume III: The Comedies, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, Blackwell, 2004, pages 359-360.
The essay and its footnotes offer details about how Shakespeare knew of St. Helena and based Portia on her. Two of the pages not included in the sample at Google Books may be found on the Amazon page. Search term: merchant. Page 355.
Flavia Julia Helena was not really the daughter of Old King Cole, although that claim is found in many versions of her story. As recently as 1943, in Miniature Stories of the Saints: Book Two, Daniel A. Lord, S.J., does not mention Helena's father's name, but says she was "a British princess." (Imprimatur by Cardinal Spellman.)
Fr. Lord also says, "She became Empress of Rome." That is unlikely, too. She may have been the married consort of the Emperor Constantius, or she may have been his common-law wife. Their son Constantine was born about 272. Some time after that, Constantius divorced Helena or put her aside to marry Theodora.
After the death of Constantius, Constantine, the new emperor, brought his mother back to court and gave her the title Augusta. "Her son's influence caused her to embrace Christianity after his victory over Maxentius . . . . It was in Palestine, as we learn from Eusebius, that she had resolved to bring to God, the King of kings, the homage and tribute of her devotion. She lavished on that land her bounties and good deeds, she 'explored it with remarkable discernment', and 'visited it with the care and solicitude of the emperor himself'. Then, when she 'had shown due veneration to the footsteps of the Saviour', she had two churches erected for the worship of God: one was raised in Bethlehem near the Grotto of the Nativity, the other on the Mount of the Ascension, near Jerusalem. She also embellished the sacred grotto with rich ornaments. This sojourn in Jerusalem proved the starting-point of the legend first recorded by Rufinus as to the discovery of the Cross of Christ."
--"St. Helena," in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
Click here for the Wikipedia article on Helena.
"The Discovery of the True Cross" was published in the April 27, 1948, issue of Treasure Chest.
Click here to see relics of the true cross for sale on eBay. Some come with certificates of authenticity. In the description of the one in the "angel reliquary" it says: "As per Ebay's new rules, this item is allowed as it contains no human remains but objects of devotion; the relic is of wood."