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An African monk made Canterbury a center of learning for the British Isles. How he came to be there is a story in itself. 

Wessex in Anglo-Saxon England became Christian through the mission of Augustine (d. 604). He became Canterbury’s first archbishop. Individuals from his retinue and other non-natives served as archbishops after him. Not until 655 did a native-born Englishman become archbishop. Frithona (or Deusdedit as he called himself) held the see nine years, dying of plague. He was succeeded by Wigard, another Englishman, but Wigard also died of plague—before he could take office. 

Meanwhile, around the year 640 Arab invasions had driven many North Africans to flee their homelands. One of those families settled in Naples with their ten-year-old son. Adrian grew up to become Abbot of Hiridanum on an isle in the Bay of Naples. He was gifted, and came to the attention of Emperor Constans II who later employed him as an ambassador. Somehow Adrian came to the notice of Pope Vitalian and the two became friends. 

When Wigard died, Vitalian offered Adrian the see of Canterbury, but Adrian declined the honor. He suggested Theodore of Tarsus for the post. Vitalian agreed on condition that Adrian accompany Theodore. Some scholars think Vitalian was not sure that Theodore, an easterner, would adhere closely to Roman theology and wanted Adrian along, as G. F. MacLear puts it, “lest any shade of Greek heterodoxy should be introduced by the new primate into Britain.” However, Vitalian’s public explanation was that Adrian, having been to Gaul twice before, knew the region through which they had to travel. Adrian agreed to accompany Theodore.

As it turned out, the pair were separated in Gaul by suspicious Frankish authorities, who thought Adrian might be bearing secret messages from the “Roman” [i.e. Byzantine] emperor. Adrian did not arrive in England until two years after Theodore. He would assist Theodore in the pastoral care of the English, making tours with him of his see. Soon after his arrival, Theodore appointed him abbot of the monastery of Saints Peter and Paul (later known as St. Augustine’s)—the seventh abbot since its founding. The appointment was fortuitous.

Adrian founded a school and drew scholars from all across the British Isles, teaching them not only the Greek and Latin in which he was facile, but also music, medicine, Scripture, theology, Roman law, poetry, astronomy (for calculating dates such as Easter), and arithmetic. Centuries before the great universities of Oxford and Cambridge were conceived, Canterbury trained generations of Anglo-Saxon scholars. Among Adrian’s most notable pupils—significant educators and churchmen in their own right—were Albinus and Aldhelm.

Among those who profited directly or indirectly from the learning imparted by Theodore and Adrian was the Venerable Bede, author of the Ecclesiastical History of the English People. He spoke highly of the duo and said “Never had there been such happy times as these since the English settled in Britain.” He described Adrian as a man “in whom fortitude, vigor of mind, and prudence, were most signally united.”

Adrian served as England’s leading educator for thirty-five years, governing the monastery from 673 until 708, and founding satellite schools. He died on this day, 9 January 710, and was buried at the monastery’s church. Three hundred years later, during reconstruction of the church, Adrian’s body was discovered in a well-preserved condition. To the medieval imagination a holy person’s “incorrupt” corpse affirmed sanctity. People flocked to Adrian’s tomb in search of miracles and claimed many.

Dan Graves

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