The Emperor Constantine is proclaimed

Posted on 13 June 2012 | Narrative

Carolyn Doughtery is a History graduate who has delivered papers on various aspects of railway engineering. She has kindly shared with us her story, written in 2006, on that year’s commemoration of a landmark event in York’s history.

carolyn dougherty

“Yesterday was the 1700th anniversary of the proclamation of Constantine as emperor of Rome, an event which happened right here in York. I left work early to go to the commemorative service at the Minster, passing a rather intimidating contubernium of Roman soldiers on the way in.

This was my first time seeing Archbishop Sentamu since he took up the post last year. The archbishop is a beautiful man – beautiful in the way of someone who knows what’s important. But, as another bystander said to me before the service, he wasn’t at his best at this service, which was heavily scripted – I’d hoped he would speak, but he didn’t really have any unprepared lines.

His prayer, though, was lovely and a bit surprising– for the church, ‘where it is weak, strengthen it; where it is wrong, correct it; where it is corrupt, reform it; where it is divided, reunite it.’ He blessed the garlands to be laid on the Praetorium, the Roman pillar, and Constantine’s statue with a complex two-handed gesture I’d never seen before.

The service, in honour of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, was to pray for the reunification of the Christian church, and several Greek Orthodox prelates participated in the ceremony. One gave the Nicene Creed in Greek–I don’t think I’ve ever heard ecclesiastical Greek before. And I never realised that these gentlemen wear their long hair pinned up in elaborate braided buns.

Carolyn Docherty

Meanwhile, there was more fun going on outside, where the Romans were amassing; I heard bugle calls and shouted orders in Latin as I left the Minster and walked a bit down the street to wait by a chariot pulled by an enormous iron goose (I didn’t remember until later that it was modelled on the one in the Constantine exhibit). Soon, preceded by the ecclesiastical party, escorted by the soldiers, and accompanied by weird, spooky, percussive music, Constantine mounted the chariot. He was a somber young man who, I recalled, had just lost his father, and had been invested with enormous responsibility.

Following the chariot was an empty chair with a laurel wreath resting on it; I’d read this as the same symbolism as the riderless horse in JFK’s funeral procession, and may or may not have been correct, as young Constantine later sat in this chair.

And so I spent the afternoon following the new emperor through the streets of Eboracum as was, to the steps of the Yorkshire Museum in the Museum Gardens – first, the high priestess, in white t-shirt and jeans, a gold sash and staff, and a gold ribbon in her French-braided hair, accompanied by a street sweeper in white overalls; then the ecclesiastical and civic dignitaries (the Lord Mayor in her Ascot hat) surrounded by Roman soldiers; then banners; then Constantine in his chariot; then kids in crepe paper streamers carrying homemade Roman tubas; then the York samba school; then the cat dancers and their two cat effigies; then more banners; then two huge Roman soldier puppets.

Carolyn Docherty

When we got to the Gardens, I tucked myself into a space to watch the festivities. The whole procession and party had been designed, written, staged, acted and produced by local high school kids, and it was fantastic.

The cat dancers performed (and were, in my opinion, extremely good), the street sweeper and his workers clowned around, threw water on each other (when they aimed buckets at the cringing audience they threw confetti) and got in the way (speaking in fake Italian accents), Marcus and Tiberius fought ‘Mr. and Mrs. Christian’ until Constantine descended from his throne to stop the fight and protect the Christians, and then Constantine sung his proclamation, which everyone sung back to him. Then several people, including the archbishop, stepped up to the microphone to say what they would do to change the world if they could.

And the whole thing ended in a huge group dance, participants and spectators; I laughed to see Constantine and the Archbishop boogieing away with the cat dancers and the clowns. But after only a few minutes, and just as I was getting ready to join them, the whole group stopped at the sound of three blasts on the horn as a golden eagle soared overhead.

And then it was over.”

The photographs illustrating this story have been provided by the author. You can visit Carolyn’s website here.