St Theodore of Tarsus (September 19) probably never gave England a thought before the age of 66. But English civilisation owes him a great debt

Theodore of Tarsus (602-690) was the most important Archbishop of Canterbury between St Augustine and Lanfranc.

His achievement was largely, though not exclusively, administrative. It was also timely. His archiepiscopate began in 669, five years after a great plague had carried off many of the English clergy, so that in places the countryside reverted to heathenism.

Yet Theodore probably never gave England a thought before the age of 66. He had been born, like St Paul, in Tarsus, at the north-eastern end of the Mediterranean; and his native tongue (again like St Paul) was Greek.

Scholars have speculated that he may have studied 140 miles east of Tarsus at Antioch, where the teachings of St John Chrysostom (d 407) still carried authority.

Later, Theodore applied himself to philosophy, medicine, rhetoric, astronomy and astrology in Constantinople. Later still he became a monk in Rome, probably at the Greek-speaking monastery outside Porto San Paolo, one of the southern gates in the Aurelian walls.

This house dared to oppose the Emperor in controversies about the nature of Christ. Theodore, however, seems to have made a name for himself in these disputes.

In 664, a certain Wighard arrived in Rome from England to be confirmed as Archbishop of Canterbury. In fact, he died in the Holy City. 

Evidently there was no enthusiasm among the Roman clergy for taking Wighard’s place at Canterbury, for neither Hadrian, a learned monk from Naples, nor Andrew, the chaplain of a convent, could be persuaded to accept the honour.

Finally the Pope appointed Theodore, and instructed Hadrian to accompany him to England. After a year’s journey, they arrived in Canterbury in May 669. 

Notwithstanding his age Theodore seems to have mastered the Anglo-Saxon tongue; at least he soon embarked upon a visitation of the whole of Britain, teaching the Christian way of life and the canonical method of keeping Easter.

Coming from an eastern tradition which favoured small dioceses, Theodore determined to split up the existing boundaries. 

To the outrage of Bishop Wilfrid of York, whose diocese had stretched from the Firth of Forth to the river Trent, Theodore divided it into four separate parts. Wilfrid appealed to the Pope and won, but Theodore shrewdly allayed his fury by appointing him Bishop of Lichfield.

Similar divisions were made in Mercia and Wessex. Meanwhile, at Canterbury, Hadrian and Theodore created a school which was soon acknowledged as the apogee of biblical scholarship in the West.

“Never had there been such happy times since the English first came to Britain,” observed the Venerable Bede. “It is difficult if not impossible,” wrote the great 19th-century historian Bishop Stubbs, “to overstate he debt which England, Europe and Christian civilisation owe to the work of Archbishop Theodore.”