John Gayford assesses the life of Saint Theodore of Tarsus, an outstanding Archbishop of Canterbury


Theodore was a Syrian Greek-speaking monk who spoke no English, and was not even a priest when he was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and yet he went on to be one of the most successful holders of this office.

Like St Paul, Theodore was a native of Tarsus. In the first century, Tarsus was said to have academic teaching that was superior even to Athens and Alexandria but in the seventh century it was subject to Persian occupation. Theodore, born in 602, was to witness this but left Tarsus when he was 11 or 12. There is an assumption that he continued his education at Antioch or at least by a place influenced by the Antioch tradition of biblical interpretation. This is deduced from the Canterbury Biblical Commentaries (mainly produced by Theodore) which follow this tradition. By this we mean a literal style of interpretation as opposed to the allegorical style of Alexandria. In addition Theodore had a good knowledge of Syrian and patristic literature. Even Antioch was not safe, with the Persian King Choroses II invading Syria and Palestine, then conquering Antioch in 613 and Jerusalem in 614. There was a series of battles with the Byzantines defeating the Persians at Nineveh in 627 but Antioch was taken by the Arabs in 637. The result of these conflicts was that many Syrian monks fled to North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Constantinople. Thus the assumption is made that Theodore made for his next port of call, Constantinople, when he was 35. It is not sure how much he entered into the rich academic life there but again the Canterbury Biblical Commentaries give evidence of study of subjects like mathematics, astronomy, medicine and law which could have been gained in Constantinople.

Documentation is stronger for the next stage of Theodore’s life when he came to Rome. The reasons for him going to Rome are not clear. What is evident is that Theodore was living as an eastern monk in the 660s as a member of one of the oriental communities around Rome. These monks did not just pass their time in peaceful meditation but in the 640’s vigorous doctrinal controversies were debated, like the monotheletism (Greek = of one will) controversy (the question of the Nature of Christ: did he have one nature or was he was human and divine?) Christ, Lord, and only-begotten Son, is to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion. While in Rome Theodore had been part of a council to resolve this.

Theodore was an unlikely fourth choice as Archbishop of Canterbury. Winghard, a priest with local ecclesiastical approval in July 664 was sent, as politically a wise move, to Rome for papal approval and consecration. Unfortunately while in Rome he died of plague along with some of his retinue before consecration could take place. Pope Vitalian on the death of Winghard promised to find a replacement as soon as a suitable candidate was made known. Hadrian was nominated but he was unwilling to take the responsibility and suggested Andrew who was abbot of a monastic house in Rome. He too was unwilling on the grounds of his age and infirmity. Finally Vitalian nominated Theodore (who himself was 66 years old) but on the understanding that Hadrian went with him. Hadrian was a Greek-speaking North African who fled to Naples as teenager, a refugee from the Arab conqueSt At the time Naples was a settlement of the Byzantine Empire and provided a number of monasteries some of which supported high academic education. Hadrian was bilingual in Greek and Latin, became a monk and was eventually the Abbot of the monastery of Nisida on an island in the Bay of Naples. When Emperor Constans II visited Rome he used Hadrian as an interpreter in meetings with Pope Vitalian and through this became a confidant of the Pope. It is further implied that Hadrian was well acquainted with Theodore which allowed him to recommend him as a future Archbishop of Canterbury when he himself wanted to decline the position. This was not the end of the problems. Theodore was an eastern monk not even in clerical orders with a shaven head and he had to wait four months for his hair to grow so that he could receive the western tonsure before he could be ordained as sub-deacon, on the way eventually to being consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Vitalian on 26th March 668. There was a further problem: although Theodore was an educated man who had a mastery of Syrian, Greek and Latin, he had no knowledge of English. 

There was also the journey to England to be undertaken, so Theodore set off with Hadrian and with Benedict Biscop who had made one of his visits to Rome. This had its dangers, the journey over the Alps was subject to savage and fatal attacks so they went by sea to Marseilles and then on to Arles, from there they went to Paris where he stayed with Agilbert who had been formerly Bishop of Dorchester, from him he was able to learn more about the Church in England. Egbert, King of Kent, became impatient and sent a party to escort Theodore to England, with good reason as there had now been a vacancy for five years. Theodore finally arrived in England a year to the day after he left Rome. In fact they travelled separately with Hadrian taking two years to arrive in England. Theodore had travelled with Benedict of Biscop who was made abbot of the monastery of Sts Peter and Paul at Canterbury but Hadrian was to take over after two years and Benedict went back to his native Northumbria. 

The English Church was in a very poor state when Theodore eventually arrived in England. They had been five years without an Archbishop and had only three bishops in the English church with a number of vacant sees. It was necessary for Theodore to travel the country with Hadrian to make an assessment for himself. He was well received by all except a few Irish clergy. 

Back in Canterbury, Theodore and Hadrian set up a school which was to have a high standard of Greek and Latin scholarship producing a compendium of Biblical studies in the style of Antioch. This tells us much about Theodore and Hadrian. Bede held the academic standard of Canterbury in very high esteem, commending them on the breadth of education in other subjects including mathematics and music. Bede was full of praise for Theodore’s opening years as archbishop claiming this was the first archbishop whom the whole English Church obeyed, saying from him and Hadrian flowed rivers of learning which watered the hearts of the hearers. Theodore and Hadrian had a long and fruitful working relationship. 

The Province of York was not created until 735 so the English Church acknowledged a single Archbishop. The Council of Hertford was the first occasion on which that unity found practical expression that took place 24th September 672. It was only attended by bishops Bisi of East Anglia, Putta of Rochester, Leuthere of the West Saxons and Winfrid of Mercia. Wilfred was not present but sent proctors. King Ecgfrith attended the Council but there is no account of him taking part in the proceedings. Theodore clearly ruled the council, dictating the chapters to be discussed as outlined in his introductory remarks. This included observance of the Roman dating of Easter, and that bishops should not interfere in each other’s dioceses. Other items included that monasteries should be free from episcopal interference and that monks should not wander from monastery to monastery and clergy from diocese to diocese but have permission to officiate by their own bishop. It was agreed that Synods should be held once, possibly twice, a year but this never happened. Finally divorce was confined to the rules laid down in the Scriptures. Later further ruling had to be made on this allowing remarriage for men whose wife went into a convent or where a spouse went missing for a defined length of time. 

Theodore’s second Synod at Hatfield was in September 679. It had to be careful to adhere to doctrinal matters as directed by the Lateran Council in Rome of March the same year. Rome also decreed the maximum number of bishops in England including the Archbishop should remain at twelve. When Theodore arrived in England Gregorian chant was only used in the South of England but he expanded it to the singing of the Offices in the rest of England.

The school Theodore founded in Canterbury with Hadrian was famous for the wealth of education it offered. It has been suggested that it was in the field of scholarship that Theodore had his most decisive impact. Large numbers of students were attracted to this school at Canterbury including those whose were to become future English bishops. Not only were Latin and Greek on the curriculum, but they were given instruction especially in Scripture. The Canterbury Biblical Commentaries are extraordinary by early medieval standards, they reveal the nature of the teaching which was in the style of Antioch. We have record of the notes taken by the pupils with question and answer recorded. The basis of the instruction gave word for word comparison of the Latin Vulgate Bible with the Greek Septuagint texts of the New Testament. This was supplemented with glosses of the opinions of various Greek Church Fathers, such as Basil of Caesarea, Clement of Alexandria, John Chrysostom and others, who are quoted (and translated into Latin) at length. Other evidence of their teachings are also seen such as astronomy, computes (the calculation of the dates of moveable feasts) and other sciences, particularly arithmetic. They also taught Roman law, biblical exegesis after the style of Antioch, the rules of metre, Latin verse composition, and music. Theodore in his travels had gained a wide experience of Canon Law in both the Eastern and Western Churches. His tour of England showed him the wide interpretation of Canon Law in this country. Thus, when settled with a school at Canterbury, he was concerned with the teaching of Canon Law. 

Theodore, a wise man, one of the greatest scholars to occupy the see of Canterbury, died 19 September 690, having lived for 88 years, and was buried next to St Augustine in Canterbury. When he arrived in England at the age of 67 he inherited a failing missionary church. Twenty-one years later, his legacy was a flourishing theological academy, well-organised liturgy and good governance of the church. 


Suggested Further Reading

Blair, J. The Church in Anglo-Saxon Society Oxford University Press 2006.

Lapidge, M. The Career of Archbishop Theodore. In Archbishop Theodore Cambridge University Press 1995. 

Thomas, S.F. Theodore in Butler’s lives of the Saints. Burns & Oates the Liturgical Press Collegeville Minnesota 1999