Michael Wood on Anglo-Saxon Christianity

"English culture was transformed by a Syrian and Libyan refugee," writes BBC History Magazine columnist Michael Wood...

Illustation by Femke de Jong.

There are so many historical anniversaries and events to look forward to next year – not least, next autumn, the British Library’s great exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons. In this 600-year period, many of the key features of English culture took shape, from kingship and assembly politics (the root of our parliamentary system) to English poetry, literature and art. And many aspects of the story are international. Think of the charismatic Emma, Norman queen of England; Boniface and the missionaries who converted Germany; and Alcuin, the star of the first European renaissance under Charlemagne. England has always been shaped by ‘abroad’; by Ireland and the rest of Britain; by Europe – and even further afield. One story that has long fascinated me is that of Theodore and Hadrian, which forces us to look at our roots in a different way, for incredibly, they were refugees from Syria and Libya.

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After the fall of Rome, there was no certainty that the legacy of the classical world and Christian late antiquity would be passed on to form Europe’s medieval Latin civilisation. The lands of the western empire were settled by barbarian tribes. In the early to mid-600s, the eastern Mediterranean heartland of Christianity fell to the Arabs, a fall that soon began to look irreversible.

The future of the faith lay in the west and north, not in the land of its birth. But it was from the old Christian heartland that Theodore and Hadrian came to England: the one a Syrian Greek, the other a Libyan, both refugees from the wars in the near east. Theodore of Tarsus had been educated at Edessa and Antioch in Syria. As a young man he had been driven out of his homeland by the Arab invasions of the 630s and had fled west to Constantinople, then on to Rome. Hadrian, Bede says, was “a man of African race” and there is a lively debate over whether he was of Berber origin, or even a black African. If so, he would be much the most important black Briton in our history! Hadrian had sailed to Italy from Libya at the time of the Arab conquests and found refuge in a small monastery in the Bay of Naples. Then in 668 the two were headhunted by Pope Vitalian for a mission to the British Isles, to revive the flagging progress of Christianity, which Pope Gregory the Great had begun in 597 when he sent a Christian mission to convert the pagan ‘barbarian’ Angles and Saxons who had settled in the ruins of Roman Britain.

Theodore brought with him not only Latin culture but the more ancient Greek Christian traditions of the near east, Syria and Palestine – early Christianity from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Among the books he brought was a Greek Acts of the Apostles and an Antiochene litany of saints including Saint George. Hadrian came from the powerhouse of the late Roman Christian world, north Africa – the home of St Augustine, Tertullian and Cyprian.

The two men travelled all over England, living and working in Canterbury – building a library, giving lectures and training the next generation of priests, artists, writers and administrators. As we now know from the discovery of lecture notes from Theodore’s Bible seminars, they even explained to students out in the wilds of Britain the meaning of biblical texts, and the place-names, flora and fauna, the landscapes and customs contained within them. Together they transformed English culture.

So these two former refugees, one from Syria, one from Libya, left an imperishable legacy. Bringing the learning of the eastern heartland of Christianity to Britain, theirs is the first stage of the fascinating story of the birth of English civilisation, and the revival of Europe after the Dark Ages, in which the English played a key but little-known part. Over the next 200 years, the knowledge and culture of the Roman world was painstakingly retrieved, and relearned. This in turn laid the foundations for Europe’s first renaissance, under Charlemagne, as Anglo-Saxon England became the ‘culture bank’ that was used to reseed Europe.

This little-known tale of the influence of the Greek culture of the eastern Mediterranean on our roots is another example of the endless surprises of history. They even gave us our patron saint, George! Happy Christmas to all our readers.

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 December 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine