How two monks – one Byzantine, one Libyan – remade the English church

Five of the first six archbishops of Canterbury to be consecrated were not native to this country. None came from as far afield as the seventh: Theodore, born in 602, was a Greek-speaking monk from Tarsus – the modern Turkish city of Gözlü Kule – in what was then a Byzantine province. Educated in Antioch and Edessa, he spent some time in Constantinople before arriving in Rome.

He wasn’t the pope’s first choice for the archbishopric: that was a Libyan monk named Hadrian, then in Naples, who demurred, recommending Theodore. Both men were already in exile, driven from their homelands by the Arab invasions of the 630s and 640s. Theodore insisted Hadrian accompany him to become abbot of the great monastery of St Augustine’s in Canterbury. They left Rome together on 27 May 668.

The two men visited every diocese in England, breaking the largest, Northumbria, into three. That enabled Theodore to establish Canterbury’s hegemony over the English church – and Roman orthodoxy – for the first time. He was the first archbishop the whole English church consented to obey, Bede said.

You can still hear Theodore’s influence in churches and concert halls around the Christian world. He introduced the Greek phrase Kyrie eleison, prefacing a prayer of petition, into the liturgy – first in England and subsequently across the entire Latin West.

This piece first appeared in the May 2020 Months Past column in History Today.

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