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The Urchin Empress

The book is a fictional tale of a real woman who brought Christianity to the Roman Empire. She was an ordinary girl who ended up becoming the mother of a great Emperor who stopped feeding Christians to lions (and far worse as you will read) and himself was baptised. This affectionate biography by a slave of her mistress Elena over a turbulent period of the Roman Empire deals with problems still troubling the world today: religious persecution, martyrs, repression of women, illegal immigrants, slavery, rape as a weapon of war, rival superpowers, mental illness, and the corrupting effect of power.

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My Urchin Empress by Roger Shrubb

Elena was a village girl, daughter of an immigrant tavern keeper, who was befriended by a soldier’s son. They grew up together and eventually made an informal marriage. Elena bore a son, Constantine. While attending games, they were obliged to watch as one of Elena’s friends was martyred in the arena, defiantly holding up sticks in the form of a cross and declaring that this sign would conquer. Elena was much affected by this, but was obliged under the law to bring up Constantine in his father’s pagan tradition. The household slaves were Christians, so Constantine often heard tales of the heroic martyrdom. As a boy, he even used a stick cross to chase off a pack of dogs. Constantine’s father rose to become Caesar of the western empire under Diocletian’s tetrarchy, but divorced Elena to make a formal marriage to his superior’s daughter. Elena, was then able to be baptised. Restyled Helena by Diocletian, she continued to bring up Constantine, until Diocletian took him under his wing. Meanwhile, she developed a network of Christians as the great persecution took hold. Constantine was kept in the eastern empire as a hostage for cooperation of the western Caesar. When his father became ill, Helena planned the escape of her son to his father in Britain. He arrived in time to be proclaimed emperor by the army on his father’s death. Constantine was a ruthless wielder of power, believing he was guided by a Supreme Deity, his father’s Sol Invictus. Helena became an important member of his court, moderating his military decisions where she could. She was subject to deep depressions and was not always successful in her efforts. Having fought his way to the gates of Rome against his brother-in-law’s army, Constantine was facing a superior force in an almost impregnable fortification. Helena plotted to encourage the garrison to sortie. One dawn before the battle, she rode with her son and pointed out a cloud formation with the sun shining through in a cross. It was a sign from the Christian god. The army adopted various crosses for the battle, and achieved total victory. Religious persecution was officially banned throughout the empire, although it continued in the East. The Empress Helena could start construction of basilicas in Rome and around the western empire. Meanwhile, Constantine was gradually persuaded that Christianity (“a religion for women, slaves and other low sorts”) was the best religion for unifying the people of the empire. With Helena’s help, and in his role as Supreme Pontiff of Rome, he dealt with a series of religious disputes, culminating in the Council of Nicaea. He also attacked and defeated the emperor of the East, achieving supreme power and being corrupted by it, with devastating effects. Saints George, Mauritius, Alban are part of the story and are widely honoured. Saint Helena’s role in the conversion of the empire has been submerged by her son’s patriarchistic hagiography, but she is regarded as equal to the apostles in the orthodox church.


For me the main story is the tension that occurs because of the dual citizenship Christians have living in an earthly world of families, work, politics, governments, conflict, war etc. while at the same time belonging to the Kingdom of God. In My Urchin Empress, the story is played out in pre-Christian Roman times and brings into conflict the mighty Roman empire of Constantine and Gods kingdom as being lived out by a small, underground Christian community. In less dramatic circumstances, but in some equally challenging ways, it is also the tensions Christians continue to live under today. The moving reality in your story as well in our lives today is that Christ wins. I thought it a great read. Congratulations - it deserves to be a best seller. I wish you every success with it. Peter

I did enjoy your book so much and became very involved with Helena. What a woman and I had not heard of her before. I imagine that would be true of a lot of people. Congratulations on a very well written and amazingly researched book. It made one want to know more about Constantine - which you conveyed convincingly and enticingly. Much love, Trish

Bringing history alive and creating characters, which both tell inspiring stories and get one involved in true life dramas, you have given us all a refreshing gift, a new source of faith. I had moments in laughter, excited anticipation, fear and worry, horror and in tears of joy as true images of the reflections and resonance of faith were surprisingly painted for my inner eye. Scenes in your book, which I will never ever forget, became imprinted in my faithful heart and left me staring into the room in front of me for almost an hour, taking it all in and praying with gratitude for God’s wonders and signs of how God loves us. With gratitude, Elizabeth

I thoroughly enjoyed the book found it made a welcome break. I was impressed by the amount of research involved. I am assuming that the basic facts, campaigns and places involved are correct and that you have skilfully woven your imagination in between these to make an engaging story. I wonder whether your inspiration was a deep love of Roman history, of Christianity or your god-daughter – perhaps all three. I do hope she enjoys it. Looking forward to the next book! Love Sheelagh

Respect. What a lot of historical research and knowledge! I tend to avoid the historical novel, but this story kept me gripped, have had all afternoon reading! Wyn x

Roger Shrubb

Dear reader
My name is Roger Shrubb (nickname Bushey) and my book came to be written due to a confluence of experiences in my own life. During my naval career, I worked for some years in public relations for NATO. I saw from that experience how the requirements of public relations can distort the telling of history. Also, as a sailor of my generation, I was a male chauvinist, but then met and married a wing commander doctor in the Falkland Islands, and found myself fighting against the glass ceiling she faced in her career. I became a magistrate and developed a strong sense of justice.

In… I became godfather to Elena whose family had been turned against the church in Spain as a result of the church’s role in the Spanish civil war. This led me to study the remarkable historic figure ‘Elena’ and to write my first book about her as a gift to my goddaughter.

In the course of writing, I became impressed with the way the problems of the Roman Empire of the 4th century, when ‘Elena’ lived, were so similar to today’s concerns.

A list includes: rival superpowers; religious persecution; martyrs; subjugation of women; the rich/poor wealth ratio; rape as a weapon of war; mass migrations; military mind-sets; over-powerful executives; corruption and mental health.

My gift to my goddaughter inspired me to write the full story that had formed in my heart. To be honest, at the time, I did not know who really wrote the full story. It was a divine experience and felt like a completely natural outcome of my life experiences and my maturing faith in the God of Christians.

The full story about the urchin empress, Elena, took shape as narrated by 4th century Elena’s slave girl, Linia. I have called the slaves “servants”, since they were as much a normal part of life in the empire as immigrant workers are today.

Analysed with the jaundiced eye of the public relations man, the hagiography of Constantine the Great, and other histories of the period, as well as evidence of coins and monuments, is revealing.

The emperor, regarded as a saint for converting the Roman empire to worship of the Prince of Peace, was, in reality, a ruthless killer who murdered in turn his father-in-law, his second wife’s brother, his sister’s husband (after offering him safe conduct), and her son. Towards the end of Elena’s life, Constantine murdered his first-born son Crispus and his own wife Fausta. He was not baptised until his death-bed. Although claimed surfaced, at a later time, that he had been converted by a vision before the battle against the usurper Maxentius, his victory monument in Rome and celebratory coins give the Unvanquished Sun as his special deity. Constantine demonstrated throughout his reign a clear understanding of the power of public relations and a readiness to manage it.

His mother, the empress Elena, meanwhile, was building churches and doing good works as far apart as Trier and Jerusalem. There is a strong probability that it was she who was the driving force in the conversion of the empire. Her last pilgrimage, which took place when she was 80 years old, was to the Holy Land, where she “discovered” the true cross. Elena is venerated today for that act alone. The “true cross” became one of the greatest scams of the Middle Ages, when enough pieces of the true cross were sold to build several houses. Her reputation has suffered from that fact. Her son named a town for her and promoted her to Augusta (empress) but was happy to co-opt her achievements for his own.

The book tells Elena’s story from the village in the Balkans where she was born and worked in her father’s tavern, through her encounter with a young man destined to become emperor, to her final pilgrimage as Empress Helena. It includes the martyrdoms of Saints George and Mauritius, and the fictional one of Elena’s friend Sophia. It explains the mystery of the young Constantine’s escape from hostage in the Eastern empire and his mother’s part in it. It covers the creation of the Nicaean Creed and the structure of the Roman catholic church, both of which are in use to this day.

Bushey (Roger Shrubb)
The Bell House, 4 Bellever Court, Poundbury. Dorchester DT1 3ST
Phone: 01305 753478

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