Hadrian the African – Early British Theologian and Scholar

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North Africa, the place thar Hadrian once called home

Hadrian the African left North Africa as an infant refugee. He had an exalted destiny, however, and rose to eminence in the Christian Church. Image by Adisa.

Sometime shortly after 635 AD, a frightened Berber woman and her baby boarded a ship that would take the family into permanent exile from their home in Cyrenaica, North Africa. They were refugees from the apparently unstoppable Arab invasions that were sweeping over the Middle East.

The ship took the escapees to the safety of Christian Rome. The woman is one of history’s anonymous tide of dispossession, but the baby would be known as Hadrian [or Adrian] the African, one of the greatest scholars of the first millennium, who made a significant contribution to English Christianity.

Hadrian the African

Hadrian seems to have combined high intelligence with a great deal of modesty. Though he did not seek ecclesiastical power, it seemed to seek him. By 668, at barely 30 years of age, he had already been elected an abbot. This was either at Niridianum, near Naples, or at Nisidianum, which is not far from there. To achieve the rank of abbot at any time is a mark of high spiritual and intellectual quality. To achieve it at such a young age is an indication that one is special.

By 668 Pope Vitallian had decided to appoint a new archbishop of Canterbury. The story goes that the archbishop-elect Wigheard had gone to Rome to seek confirmation and died there. The best person for the job was Hadrian, but he refused and suggested a replacement, Theodore of Tarsus, who also refused. The pope offered the job to Theodore a second time. Theodore agreed, but the pope insisted that Hadrian accompany him, on the grounds that, as Hadrian had visited Gaul, through which the two would pass, he knew the country.

Hadrian Becomes Abbot of Canterbury

The two journeyed to Massilia (Marseilles), the short sea route from Rome which offered the minimum exposure to Arab pirates, then to Paris, where they wintered with local bishops. At the end of winter, Theodore continued on his way, but Hadrian ran into difficulties.

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Looking out on the world from St Peter's Basilica

High above Vatican City, Popes and pilgrims look out on the world from St Peter’s Basilica. Image courtesy of Maureen Beswick.

Ebroin, the mayor of the palace, who was regent for the underage King of the Franks, suspected that Hadrian was an agent of the Greek emperor, sent to stir up trouble for the Franks. Hadrian, therefore, had to remain in Paris until he received a passport from Ebroin. This was eventually forthcoming, and Hadrian reached Britain a few months late. At this point he was immediately appointed Abbot of Canterbury.

Hadrian would later accept the role of Abbot of Wearmouth, a role which he combined with running Canterbury, then called St. Peter’s but later renamed as St. Augustine’s. This seems to have taken place after St. Benet Biscop, who had accompanied Theodore and taken up the abbacy of Wearmouth, had died. The historical records for this time are somewhat confused and there is uncertainty about when the abbacy of Wearmouth became Hadrian’s.

Hadrian’s Contributions to English Christianity

Hadrian was more interested in ideas than in power, yet he was no dreamy intellectual. He proved a strong administrator, which the church in the fractured political situation of England, with its seven conflicting kingdoms known as the heptarchy, greatly needed. During the forty years that he resided in England, Hadrian managed to turn the school at Canterbury into an internationally renowned seat of learning which, according to King Alfred, writing at a later date, drew scholars from across Europe. King Alfred made this claim in the scholarly preface to the translation of Pope Gregory’s Liber Pastoralis Curae (Book of Pastoral Care).

Theodore and Hadrian are said to have toured the island, gathering learned men around them as they went and disseminating learning as they traveled. This demonstrates that by the 670s Anglo-Saxon England was not a place inhabited by crude barbarians, but rather a place where scholarship and literacy were highly valued, where a genuine scholar would have been welcomed and accepted. It was a place where there were people keen to share in the learning and culture that Hadrian brought.

This ancient see owes much to Hadrian

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the grandest and most famous cathedrals. This ancient see still owes much to Hadrian today. Image from Pawelkowalczyk.

Hadrian’s Influence on Scholarship

Hadrian and Theodore brought not only religious learning, but secular as well. Bede mentions that they brought education in metrical arts, astronomy and rhetoric. In modern terms these would be belles lettres, physical science and mathematics. Belles lettres is the art if fine writing and speech.

Though Hadrian, who is also known as Hadrian of Canterbury, had been dead for some time when Bede wrote his works, there were still pupils of Hadrian alive and these spoke Greek and Latin as fluently as they did their native language. It seems that this quiet and unassuming refugee formed a generation of English churchmen, both spiritually and educationally.

It is quite possible that Bede, England’s great religious writer, owes something to the influence of Hadrian. The Leiden Glossary is a book found in Germany detailing specialist terms used by Hadrian in his lectures, indicating that his influence spread across northwest Europe as well.

Hadrian survived his friend Theodore by thirty-nine years, dying in 710, and it is notable that he did not seek to become Theodore’s successor, even though he was well settled at Canterbury. He seems to have been content to be an abbot, a teacher, and a theological scholar.

African Refugee to Church Leader

Beginning as a refugee child with an uncertain future, Hadrian rose to fame without seeking it and had a profound impact on church and English history. When people seek to highlight the role of black Britons in the country’s history, they normally forget the man who was not black (Berbers are brown or fair) but was African none the less, who made a quiet but significant contribution to his adopted land. A man who could have power and status but refuses it in favour of scholarship is a rarity (even among churchmen). The ancients believed that we should learn from the lives of great people in the past. Hadrian’s life can inspire us all.


Attwater, D., John, C. Penguin Dictionary of Saints. (1973). New York: Penguin.

Bede. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Accessed Apr 24, 2013.

Bede. Vita Abbatum Wirmuth (Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth).

Bellenger, D., Fletcher, S. The Mitre and the Crown: A History of the Archbishops of Canterbury. (2005). Sutton Publishing.

Willinsky John. Early Middle Ages. In: Intellectual Properties of Learning (Chapter Three). (In Press). Accessed April 24, 2013.

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