St Adrian of Canterbury (January 9) travelled across Britain, teaching Christianity, art, literature and astronomy as he went
One of the many exotic men who came in the wake of Augustine, Adrian (also called Hadrian) was a Berber from north Africa who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian twice (the first time he was too modest to accept).
Adrian was an abbot of Niridanum monastery, near Naples, who, after refusing the archbishopric, recommended a monk in the neighbouring monastery, who also turned it down. When Adrian was offered the job again he tried to get out of it by suggesting his friend Theodore of Tarsus. Vitalian insisted that Adrian accompany him to Britain, as he had experience of Gaul.
They left Rome on May 27 668, sailed to Marseille and then wintered in the north of France, before being sent for by the Kentish King Egbert, the great-grandson of the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king, Ethelbert of Kent, and his Frankish Christian wife Bertha. Most of the group finally arrived in England a full year after setting off, but Adrian had been detained by a paranoid local Frankish “Mayor of the House” who believed him to have been sent by the Byzantines.
Upon arrival in his strange new land Adrian became abbot of St Peter’s monastery, later renamed St Augustine’s Abbey, in Canterbury. What we know of him comes from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Skilled in Greek and Latin, he traversed the country alongside Theodore, gathering scholars and teaching not only Christianity but also art, literature, astronomy and arithmetic. In Bede’s time, half a century later, he recalls there were still some of their pupils who spoke Latin and Greek.
Although not one of the better-known saints, Adrian was influential in introducing a Church-led intelligentsia into England, which helped turn a very backward European region into one of the richest and most advanced by the 11th century.
King Alfred, the most learned of kings before the 17th century, alluded to Adrian in his translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s work, Liber Pastoralis Curae, saying that the clergy “in those happy times were diligent both to teach and to study, and how foreigners then came hither to acquire learning and wisdom; whereas now, in his own day, if any Englishman desired to make himself a scholar, he was obliged to go abroad for instruction”.
Adrian himself lived until old age, dying in 710, almost 40 years after arriving in the cold, barbaric lands. By the time of his death the seven kingdoms had been well and truly brought into the faith.