The African who transformed Anglo-Saxon England

When a Libyan cleric called Hadrian arrived in Canterbury in AD 670, Anglo-Saxon England was a wild and semi-pagan land. Within a matter of years, it was the driving force behind a remarkable renaissance in learning. Michael Wood reveals how this little-known “man of Africa” helped lay the foundations of English culture

Michael Wood reveals how Hadrian, a little-known “man of Africa”, helped lay the foundations of English culture

In recent years our eyes have been opened to black histories in Britain before the Windrush generation, stretching back through the world wars, on to the Victorian era and beyond. The numbers were small, but the presence was significant, as the black characters in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays show.

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Much further back, there were Africans in Roman Britain, from Mauretania, today’s Morocco and Algeria. Among them was Victor, the former slave of a cavalry soldier called Numerianus, who is described as “natione Maurum” (“of the Moorish nation”) on a second-century AD tombstone from modern-day South Shields.

Then there’s near silence. In the thousand years between the end of Roman Britain and the first British overseas explorations under the Tudors, people of colour are far less visible. Their stories cause barely a ripple in the waters of British history. One such story exists just below that surface – rarely impacting on public consciousness. But it is immeasurably important all the same.

Hadrian was a leading light in one of the most significant cultural movements of British history

Writing in 731, the English historian Bede introduces his readers to a “vir natione Afir”, “a man of African race”. Perhaps a Berber (or Amazigh), this man was a leading light in one of the most significant cultural movements of the past 1,400 years – a teacher of extraordinary influence on English history. This man was born in north Africa and spent the last 40 years of his life in England. He is buried here. But he had a good old Roman name: we know him as Abbot Hadrian the African.

A page from Bede's 'Ecclesiastical History of the English People'
The page from Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ in which he describes the arrival in England of a “man of African race”: Hadrian. (Image by Bridgeman)

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Early church fathers

So how did a north African, born in the early seventh century, end up changing the course of English history? The story begins in the land of Hadrian’s birth, Libya, where for many generations people of Greek descent had mixed with locals, and from where some of the early church fathers hailed. Bishop Quodvultdeus (died c450) was another north African man of the church to journey to Europe (albeit two centuries earlier). Quodvultdeus’s haunting face may be preserved in a beautiful mosaic from the catacombs of San Gennaro in Naples.

Hadrian was perhaps raised in the coastal town of Apollonia, which had at least four Byzantine churches in his day, and a great Roman palace whose dramatic seashore remains have been excavated by archaeologists. Years later, he reminisced with his students in England about the beautiful bird that he called ‘porphyrion’, the African purple gallinule, which roamed the courtyard gardens of a north African ruler’s palace. Perhaps he had seen this place as a young man.

How did a north African, born in the early seventh century, end up changing the course of English history?

Apollonia had been rebuilt in the sixth century under the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, but the Arab invasions of the seventh century brought that world to an abrupt end. The nearby city of Benghazi fell to Arab armies in 642. Maybe the collapse of Byzantine rule forced Hadrian into flight. Whatever the reason, he soon made his way to southern Italy.

After crossing the Mediterranean, Hadrian became an abbot on Nisida, a picturesque island in the Bay of Naples (now joined to the shore by a causeway). Evidently he was a man of some standing and high reputation. He went on diplomatic trips to Gaul and may have acted as a Greek-speaking interpreter for Emperor Constans on his visit to Italy in 663. At any rate, by the late 660s Hadrian’s reputation was such that Pope Vitalian asked him to take over the vacant archbishopric in Britain. It’s an amazing idea when you think about it: a north African abbot and scholar being sent to “the outermost edge of the world”, where as Pope Gregory had said, the tribes till recently “worshipped sticks and stones”.

The ruins of the Roman palace in the Libyan town of Apollonia
The ruins of the Roman palace in the Libyan town of Apollonia, possibly Hadrian’s birthplace. Hadrian may have fled to Europe as Arab armies swept through Byzantine north Africa. (Image by Getty Images)

At first Hadrian refused to take the job, and he suggested Andrew, the abbot of a nunnery in Naples. But then he proposed a more senior man, a friend with whom his name would be forever linked: Theodore of Tarsus. Theodore was a Greek originally educated in Syria at Antioch and Edessa, from which he had fled during the Arab invasion of Syria. Now in Italy, he was living in semi-retirement with the Syrian exile community at Tre Fontane, a still idyllic cluster of churches south of Rome’s walls.

Theodore agreed to go. He arrived on 27 May 669, serving as archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 690. Hadrian joined him the next year, and whatever his initial doubts, stayed for the rest of his life. Together the two men would go about putting into effect one of the most significant teaching programmes in British history.

England’s happiest time

The nearly 70-year-old Syrian and 40-something Libyan made a formidable teaching partnership. And, soon, the school they established in Canterbury became famous Europe-wide. “They went everywhere and did everything together,” says Bede, writing in 731. “It was the happiest time since the English first came to Britain.”

As Bede’s words suggest, in the course of their work, Hadrian and Theodore travelled all over England, “visiting every part of the land”. One of their councils in 684 was held at Twyford beyond Hadrian’s Wall (today a picturesque village by the East Coast mainline stop at Alnmouth). But they lived and worked in Canterbury – building a library, devising courses, giving lectures, and training the next generation of priests, administrators, artists and writers. One of these, Aldhelm, could proudly announce himself as “the first among the Germanic peoples to master the intricacies of Latin verse”.

Bede says Hadrian spoke both Greek and Latin, and his exceptional language skills come out in surviving glossaries and teaching notes where we can see him riffing between those two languages and Old English. Bede also tells us that some of his pupils got to know Greek as well as their own language.

England was a wild and semi-pagan land, and in their baggage Hadrian and Theodore carried manuscripts and teaching aids to try to revive learning, which had stalled since St Augustine’s conversion mission of 597. North Africa was a powerhouse of early Christianity, home to great authors like Tertullian and Cyprian. Hadrian may well have brought with him to England copies of many key African texts: manuscripts such as the Commentary on the Apocalypse by the sixth-century north African writer Primasius, which survives today in Oxford’s Bodleian Library. It’s possible that Hadrian’s baggage also contained the British Library’s unique fragment of a collection of the letters of St Cyprian of Carthage, who was martyred in 258.

Bawdy riddles

Hadrian’s influence on his adopted country may explain why the saints of Naples and Campania feature so strongly in Anglo-Saxon England. Even the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of our most famous manuscripts, contains Neapolitan feasts, like St Januarius and the anniversary of the dedication of the famous church of St Stephen in Naples in c500. Hadrian was surely responsible, too, for Anglo-Saxon knowledge of African saints, like the murdered Restituta, whose body, legend said, had miraculously floated across the sea from north Africa.

Fragments of Hadrian’s teaching notes have been found in later medieval libraries across Europe

Hadrian also introduced his classes in Canterbury to the elegant Latin riddles of the the late Roman writer Symphosius, who was probably also African. Simple games of deductive reasoning, the riddles are terrific teaching aids. Hadrian’s student Aldhelm was inspired to devise longer versions, and from that moment riddles really took off in English culture; Bede, Tatwine, Boniface and Alcuin tried their hand.

Later, a tradition of riddling in the vernacular developed, which became more risqué as time went on: an early testimony to the bawdy humour of the English. Some have wonderful vignettes of the natural world, others have the saucy observations of Donald McGill’s seaside postcards. Through this mix of vigorous colloquialism, earthy views of sex and excruciating puns, you can trace a line all the way through English culture. And it all began with Hadrian.

Recent discoveries are adding to our knowledge of Hadrian and Theodore’s teaching. Their Latin and Greek glossaries, translations and biblical commentaries are still being identified in later manuscripts. Others include medicine, metrology, philosophy, history, Roman civil law, poetry and the art of rhetoric. Parts of a major unknown commentary on Latin grammar were recently identified in Reims. A manuscript in Milan contains a copy of a student’s lecture notes, taken while sitting in Theodore and Hadrian’s classes in Canterbury, explaining the meaning of biblical texts, and the placenames, landscapes, customs, flora and fauna of the near east. “Melons?” says Theodore at one point, “They are like cucumbers, only bigger: in Edessa some come so big that you can hardly load two on one camel!”


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In notes in Berlin and St Gallen in Switzerland, Hadrian is quoted explaining the Latin word larum (wrongly translated in an earlier teaching text) with the Old English word for seagull, meaw (a word still used in some northern dialects). So he could and did teach in the vernacular.

Copied and anthologised, carried abroad by missionaries and itinerant scholars, fragments of these teaching notes are found in later medieval libraries all over Europe. Through them we can hear the voices of perhaps the most influential teachers in the medieval western tradition.

In later times, Theodore and Hadrian were seen as the founders of the educational system of the west. A medieval writer traces the scholarly pedigree of Europe from them through the Carolingian Renaissance of the eighth and ninth centuries down to “modern times”, transmitting the knowledge of the Latin and Greek worlds to the far west – and of course, on to us. In the 21st century we have seen the tragic refugee traffic across the sea from Libya to Italy, and from Syria through Turkey to Greece: the very routes Hadrian and Theodore took more than 1300 years ago. Their tale shows how refugees from Syria and Libya helped lay the foundations of the culture of Britain and Ireland.

As archbishop of Canterbury, it was Theodore who got most of the credit. But Hadrian, his brilliant, loyal, self-effacing partner, was every bit as influential – and was maybe even greater in scholarship. As the poet and teacher Alcuin put it in York a century later, our English culture’s roots came from four great strands: the wisdom of Greece and Rome, the Hebrew tradition –“and the light that came out of Africa”.

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series, and his books include The Story of England (Viking, 2010)

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This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine