A Scholarly Journey from Africa to England
Hadrian of Canterbury, a figure of immense historical significance in the development of the English church. Bede introduces Hadrian with the statement that he was born in Africa (uir natione Afir). Scholars make the case he was born in the region now known as Libya’s Cyrenaica sometime between 630 and 637. His early years were marked by a rich education.
Life took a dramatic turn for Hadrian when the threat of enslavement loomed over him. In a bid to escape this dire fate, he sought refuge among the Greek community in the Byzantine controlled Naples, Italy (possibly around 644-45.) It was there, near Campania, that he embraced the monastic life, becoming a dedicated monk and diligently delving into the study of Latin, biblical texts, and the patristic traditions.
During Hadrian’s time, a devastating epidemic swept through Europe, creating a significant leadership vacuum within the English church. Deusdedit, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, had passed away, and Wighard, a priest with administrative experience, was sent to Rome to be consecrated as the new Archbishop. Tragically, Wighard died (possibly of the plague) shortly after his arrival in Rome, leaving the position vacant.
Pope Vitalian, faced with the urgent need for a new Archbishop of Canterbury, turned to Hadrian. The Pope described Hadrian as a man of great learning, hailing not far from Naples, possibly from the monastery of Niridano (or Hiridano/Nisidanum) on the island of Nisida. Hadrian was known for his deep knowledge of scriptures, as well as his extensive experience in ecclesiastical and monastic administration.
Hadrian’s scholarship was unparalleled; he was fluent in both Greek and Latin, a testament to his dedication to learning. When Pope Vitalian initially asked Hadrian to assume the role of Archbishop, he excused himself, believing that he was not suited for such a high position. Instead, he recommended Andrew, who declined due to health reasons.
Pope Vitalian persisted in his quest for a suitable candidate and eventually was directed to Theodore, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, who resided in Rome. Theodore possessed an exceptional breadth of knowledge, encompassing sacred and secular literature, and was proficient in both Greek and Latin. At the age of 66, his proven integrity and scholarly background made him an ideal candidate.
The Pope agreed to appoint Theodore as Archbishop of Canterbury on the condition that Hadrian would accompany him. Hadrian’s knowledge of the road from his previous missions was valuable, ensuring a safe journey. Moreover, his presence was intended to prevent Theodore from introducing Greek customs into the English church.
The consecration took place on March 26, 668, and the following day, they set out for Britain. Their route took them by sea to Marseilles, followed by a road trip to Arles. There, they presented a papal letter to Archbishop John and awaited a travel permit from the local mayor. The winter was spent in the archdiocese of Sens, while Theodore stayed in Paris. Finally, Theodore were escorted to the port of Quentavic by Egbert, where he boarded a ship bound for Britain.
Hadrian’s journey was not without its challenges. He was detained in Gaul by Ebroin, under suspicion that he was conducting an embassy for the emperor. Eventually, he was released and joined Theodore in Britain, where he was appointed abbot of the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul.
Hadrian’s impact on the English church was profound. He traveled throughout the island, engaging with the local populace and imparting his vast knowledge. His teachings attracted numerous students, whom he instructed in sacred and secular literature, poetry, astronomy, and the calculation of the church calendar. Some of these students, as noted by Bede, remained proficient in both Latin and Greek, as well as their native English tongue.
Bede makes an interesting statement in the second chapter of his Ecclesiastical History: “From that time also the knowledge of sacred music, which had hitherto been known only in Kent, began to be taught in all the English churches.” Bede is clear that this knowledge of sacred music was transferred after Hadrian and Theodore were established. As result, it fair to say that the “fathers” of English sacred music were Hadrian and Theodore.
After an illustrious life, Hadrian passed away in 709, buried in the monastery church. His legacy lived on through his successor, Abbot Albinius, who was trained by Hadrian and possessed a deep understanding of Greek and Latin, along with his native English tongue. Hadrian’s influence on the English church and culture extended well beyond his lifetime, making him a true pioneer and foundational figure in the history of England.
Bede’s Ecclesiastical History (Books 4.1, 2; 5.20, 23).
Gower, Gillian L. Race-ing Plainchant: Theodore of Tarsus, Hadrian of Canterbury, and the Voices of Music History. Viator 51:1 (2020): 103-120.
Hudson, Alison. “An African Abbot in Anglo-Saxon England.” Medieval Manuscripts Blog. The British Library. October 27, 2016. https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/10/an-african-abbot-in-anglo-saxon-england.html.
Lapidge, Michael. “Abbot Hadrian.” In Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian, edited by Bernhard Bischoff and Michael Lapidge. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England 10. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.) 82–132
——— “The School of Theodore and Hadrian.” Anglo-Saxon England 15 (1986): 45–72.
Rambaran-Olm, Mary. “Anglo-Saxon Studies [Early English Studies], Academia and White Supremacy,” Medium (blog), June 27, 2018, https://mrambaranolm.medium.com/anglo-saxon-studies-academia-and-white-supremacy-17c87b360bf3;
This biography, received in February 2024, was written for the JACB by Dr. Michael Glerup, Executive Director of the Center for Early African Christianity, and General Editor of the Ancient Christian Texts series published by InterVarsity Press. The article was first published in the Journal of African Christian Biography, Vol. 9, issue 1 (Jan. 2024).