15 minutes of fame | Michael Wood chooses St Hadrian of Canterbury
As part of our series exploring lost or lesser-known figures from history who deserve their 15 minutes of fame, Professor Michael Wood explains why he chose St Hadrian
Who was St Hadrian?
St Hadrian was a seventh century scholar who helped turn early medieval England into a cultural powerhouse.
In 731, the English historian Venerable Bede introduced his readers to a “vir natione Afir”, “a man of African race”. This was Hadrian. His life was indissolubly bound up with another figure, Theodore of Tarsus, who was an Assyrian Greek.
“The two of them came together to England in c669,” explains Wood, “tasked by the pope to bring Mediterranean learning to the English people.”
St Hadrian’s life
Hadrian was born in the seventh century. “Although we don’t know for sure about Hadrian’s background and origin, we know that he came from North Africa,” says Wood. He was perhaps raised in the coastal town of Apollonia in today’s Libya, which had at least four Byzantine churches in his day. By the time of the Arab invasions across the Near East and the collapse of Byzantine rule c642, Wood explains that Hadrian was probably already a Christian priest.
Hadrian fled along with many others, and established himself in Naples, “a fantastic centre of Latin and Greek culture,” says Wood. “From the 500s onwards, many great writers had arrived there, and a huge amount of literature was produced.” Hadrian immersed himself in this world of multi-lingual learning and built up a reputation for his linguistic skills, possibly even serving as a translator when the Byzantine emperor visited Italy.
By the late 660s, Hadrian’s reputation was such that Pope Vitalian asked him to take over the vacant archbishopric in Britain, explains Wood. It was a very pagan land – “the land where sticks and stones were still worshipped, according to Pope Gregory the Great” – and the conversion mission of St Augustine in 597 was still recent history.
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“It’s an unbelievable idea,” explains Wood, “that this guy who calls himself a man of African nationality – maybe he was Berber or Amazigh or a kind of half Greek, half native Libyan – had been asked to become Archbishop of Canterbury.”
Initially, Hadrian twice refused the post, suggesting other candidates including Theodore instead. Despite initial doubts that probably stemmed from his advanced age, Theodore ultimately accepted – but on the condition that Hadrian came with him. “It’s absolutely incredible,” says Wood of their journey. “They went there to bring the learning of the whole eastern Mediterranean world to Britain.”
The school they later established in Canterbury became famous throughout Europe. “They went everywhere and did everything together,” wrote the Venerable Bede of Hadrian and Theodore in 731. “It was the happiest time since the English first came to Britain.”
Why does St Hadrian deserve his 15 minutes of fame?
“In terms of the people who deserve better mention in British history, I think he's one of the most important,” says Wood. The teachings of Hadrian and Theodore “lasted for centuries. In the tenth century there were people saying ‘we still drink from their springs’. They were such extraordinary and exceptional teachers.”
Wood explains how Hadrian “saw something in this whole project that was fantastic for future generations.” It was under their aegis, he says, that Benedict Biscop founded the monastery at Monkwearmouth, and then King Ecgfrith of Northumbria, a few years later, founded the monastery at Jarrow. “These are powerhouses of European culture, foundational moments in European culture.”
Michael Wood is a historian, broadcaster, and Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester. His bestselling book In Search of the Dark Ages has recently been revised and republished by BBC Books, and is available now