09 January 2019

Saints Hadrian and Beorhtwald of Canterbury

Venerable Hadrian the Abbot and Holy Hierarch Beorhtwald of Canterbury

Two saints, contemporaries and friends, one English and the other African, who nonetheless share the same town and the same feast day – Holy Hadrian the Abbot and Holy Beorhtwald the Bishop, we ask for your prayers today!

When Wigheard, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had been appointed in the wake of the Synod at Whitby, reposed in the Lord in 667, Vitalian, then the Pope of Rome, was tasked with finding a replacement bishop for the Church in England. He approached Hadrian, a humble and self-effacing monk then living in a monastery outside Naples, with an offer for the position – but Hadrian recommended Saint Theodore of Tarsus instead. Pope Vitalian agreed to appoint Saint Theodore to the office, but on the condition that Hadrian accompany him there as legate, given that Hadrian was a skilled seafarer and knew the routes from Africa to Gaul and from there to England. Hearing Pope Vitalian’s reasons, Hadrian accepted this charge.

Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian were already firm friends, steadfast and spiritually-supportive of one another, when they set out together for England. On their travels through France, they agreed to take separate lodgings for the winter – Saint Theodore would stay in Paris, while Saint Hadrian stayed in Sens and later Meaux. Saint Theodore was allowed to go on his way northward to Kent. However, Saint Hadrian was detained by Ebroin, the evil-minded and paranoid majordomo of Frankish Neustria. The wicked tyrant suspected the Berber monk of being an agent of Emperor Constans II of Eastern Rome (then living in Syracuse), sent to plot against his rule. Saint Hadrian was unjustly held prisoner, and was in peril of his life. However, God so arranged it that Ebroin softened in his paranoid delusions, and he eventually released Hadrian and permitted him to continue on his faring northward.

When Hadrian arrived in Kent, Saint Theodore of Tarsus gifted him the abbacy of St Peter’s in Canterbury, as Pope Vitalian had so arranged it. As Abbot of St Peter’s, Saint Hadrian used his great store of wisdom to make that house of God into a bright and luminous school of theological wisdom, and also of sæcular philosophy and learning in both Greek and Latin, a task in which he was gladly aided by his friend the learned Archbishop of Canterbury. Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian drew throngs of scholars to Kent. The Abbey of St Peter’s soon became a true school of the liberal arts: not only theology was taught there, but also grammar, rhetoric, logic, mathematics, astronomy and the metrical arts. It was boasted by students of St Peter’s that the pupils of Saint Theodore and Saint Hadrian could speak Greek and Latin both as fluently as they could English! In a later era, King Ælfrǽd the Great of Wessex would complain that though in former ages men of Saint Theodore’s and Saint Hadrian’s stature could be found in England, in his own day he had to send Englishmen of scholarly talents abroad.

Saint Theodore of Tarsus did many more good and holy deeds in England before he reposed in the Lord in September 690, but it would be nearly two years before the infighting among the royal family in Kent would permit another Archbishop to take his place. Another reason for the long delay may have been the ambitions of Saint Wilfrid for the position, which were thwarted by circumstances nearer home in Northumbria. In the end, it was settled to make another local Abbot, Beorhtwald of Saint Mary’s of Reculver, Archbishop of Canterbury. The meek, humble and scholarly Saint Hadrian was likely all too glad not to have been appointed to the position himself, and was content to continue as the Abbot of St Peter’s and headmaster of his flourishing monastic school there – which he did until his own blessed repose on 9 January 710.

For his part, Saint Beorhtwald proved to be a more-than-competent archpastor for the English flock. He oversaw at last the Christianisation of the stubborn South Saxons – the last holdout of heathenry in England; and he also managed to secure tax exemptions for the church from the king of Kent at the time, Wihtred. Beorhtwald also attempted to mediate and broker the old dispute left to him over church offices between Saint Theodore and Saint Wilfrid, while representing his own office and the charge left to him by the saintly Theodore as best he could. In addition, from his letters we can see that Saint Berhtwold encouraged the clergy to buy slaves and set them free, and sæcular owners of slaves to manumit them. Though his own stance against slavery was not as strident as later churchmen in his office, it is still worthy of note that the men of the Church were working against the heathen holdover. Although Beorhtwald reposed in the Lord on 13 January 731, he was commemorated by the Church in England on the same day as his contemporary Saint Hadrian: 9 January.

Venerable Hadrian and Holy Hierarch Beorhtwald of Canterbury, pray to God for us sinners!