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27 October 2016

An African Abbot in Anglo-Saxon England

To commemorate Black History Month in the United Kingdom, today we remember one of the Africans to live in Anglo-Saxon England. The man in question was Hadrian (d. 709), the abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Canterbury, who played a pivotal role in the development of church structures in what is now England.

A page from the Tiberius Bede, showing a large decorated initial.
Bede’s description of Hadrian, beginning column 2 line 18, from his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, England (Canterbury?), c. 825: Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 94r.

According to Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People (completed in 731), Hadrian was ‘vir natione Afir’ (translated as 'a man of African race' by Bertram Colgrave and R.A.B. Mynors), who spoke both Greek and Latin. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian was Amazigh, and that he came from the area that is now Libya. There are a series of Biblical commentaries (surviving in a manuscript in Milan) that were derived from notes on Hadrian’s teaching at his school at Canterbury, and these include references and vocabulary that were specific to north Africa. For example, there are notes on a beautiful bird called a porphyrio, 'said to be found in Libya' ('in Libia sit'). 

A detail of North Africa from an 11th-century map of the world.
Detail of North Africa, from a world map in a scientific collection, England, mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 56v.

Hadrian may have been forced to flee the Arab invasions of North Africa. At any rate he arrived in Italy as young man. In Europe, he had a remarkable career as the emperor’s translator, diplomat and abbot of a monastery near Naples. He was then sent by Pope Vitalian to accompany Theodore of Tarsus, the newly-appointed archbishop of Canterbury, to Kent. They arrived in 668. The two men immediately set about touring the archdiocese, restructuring the Church in what is now England by dividing large dioceses into smaller ones, and legislating through regular synods. They also created an internationally renowned school at Canterbury where they may have introduced the study of Greek to Anglo-Saxons.

Among the students of that school was Aldhelm, later bishop of Sherborne, who was considered a pre-eminent scholar by many of his contemporaries. Aldhelm praised the school in his letters, including one to Hadrian himself, in which he described Hadrian as his 'revered father and respected teacher' and himself as a 'humble pupil of your holiness'. In another letter, Aldhelm scolded his young correspondent for going to study in Ireland when Hadrian and Theodore offered better educational opportunities in Kent. Manuscripts of Aldhelm’s letters have recently been digitised by the British Library and are now available online (Royal MS 6 A VI and Cotton MS Domitian A IX).

  A detail from an 11th-century manuscript, showing part of Aldhelm's letter to Hadrian.
Passage from Aldhelm's letter to Heahfrith where he praises Hadrian as 'endowed with ineffably pure urbanity', the moon to Archbishop Theodore's sun, England (Canterbury?), 1st half of the 11th century: Royal MS 6 A VI, f. 8v.

Judging from commentaries from his school and his students' writings, Hadrian can be credited with introducing Anglo-Saxons to a whole range of ideas, from astronomical thought inherited from Plato and Aristotle to the commemoration of Neapolitan saints venerated at his old monastery in Italy. He may even have influenced Anglo-Saxon literature through types of riddles: Aldhelm also wrote a book of riddles explicitly inspired by the North African writer Symphosius, whose enigmas may have been brought by Hadrian to England.

A page from an early 11th-century collection of Aldhelm's Riddles, showing his prologue to the work.
Aldhelm's prologue invoking Symphosius, from Aldhelm's Riddles, England (Canterbury?), c. 1000: Royal MS 12 C XXIII, f. 79v.

One of the earliest books known to have been owned in post-Roman Britain also came from Africa, perhaps from Carthage. This book contains a 4th-century copy of letters by another North African, Cyprian. Although this manuscript is now fragmentary, it was once an impressive codex, in fine uncial script and with the Biblical passages picked out in red. This book had come to England by the 8th century, because someone writing in early English script annotated, expanded and added to some of the words. These letters undoubtedly influenced 8th-century Anglo-Saxon writers, including Bede, who quoted from them. Some scholars have suggested that Hadrian himself may have brought this African manuscript to the British Isles.

A detail from a 4th-century manuscript of the letters of Cyprian.

Detail of one of the earliest books known to have been owned in Anglo-Saxon England, containing the letters of Cyprian, North Africa, 4th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2r.

A detail from a 4th-century manuscript of the letters of Cyprian, showing an 8th-century annotation to the text.
Details of the letters ‘vr’ added to the manuscript in England by the 8th century: Add MS 40165 A, f. 2v.

According to Bede, Hadrian had been reluctant to come to Kent, so much so that he turned down an offer to be made archbishop of Canterbury and instead nominated several others for that office, including his eventual companion, Theodore. Nevertheless, Hadrian stayed in England for 41 years, and his influence has lasted much longer. He was remembered in saints' Lives at Canterbury later in the Middle Ages, and he helped to shape religious structures and literary traditions which remain in England today.

The opening of Goscelin's Life of Hadrian, showing a large decorated initial.
Beginning of Goscelin's Life of Hadrian, England (Canterbury), 1st quarter of the 12th century: Cotton MS Vespasian B XX, f. 233r.

Alison Hudson



Why is he part of Black African History Month? Unless there is a description of him that I have not seen, I believe that he is suspected (very likely) to be North African, not sub-Saharan.


Thank you for taking the time to comment on this blogpost. As mentioned in the post, it’s difficult to be certain about Hadrian’s ethnicity – while some scholars speculate he may have been of Berber origin, Bede describes him as ‘vir natione Afir’ (translated as 'a man of African race'). The story of a high-status person of colour in 7th- and 8th-century England did therefore seem like one worth sharing during Black History Month UK.
Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts, The British Library

Fascinating! It's so easy to imagine early England as a place too remote for such cultural contacts.

I agree with the first post. All the available evidence is that Hadrian was a North African, not Black. The BL archives must have data on plenty of genuine distinguished Black Britons worthy of commemoration without stretching the facts to include Hadrian.

I think it is very problematic to attempt to narrowly define Hadrian's ethnicity by focusing on what he looked like from a 21st-century perspective, a perspective which appears to be behind the comments about whether he was Black or North African/'Berber'. To illustrate: should we wish to pigeon-hole him as 'non-black' because he was North African or 'Berber', then we meet up with the problem of what people in North Africa looked like in the 7th century. We should note this observation from the New World Encyclopaedia: 'The genetically predominant ancestors of the Berbers appear to have come from East Africa, the Middle East, or both—but the details of this remain unclear.' So, to discount out of hand Hadrian being Black (as if Black is some sort of uncomplex categorisation) because he was from North Africa is to ignore the potential ethnic mix and variety of the peoples back then. I think, based on Bede's description of Hadrian as 'a man from the African nation', it was appropriately inclusive to look at him in the context of Black History.

It's not surprising to see comments attempting to linguistically split Africa into two racially-homogenized zones; the North being Arab and the South black. It's an archaic attempt at isolating Africans from the histories of globally significant civilizations in an attempt to justify the 'backwards race' image that serves to facilitate black inferiority in a race heirarchy. Thank you for including Hadrian in the rightful place of Black History :D

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