St Theodore of Canterbury, the first archbishop whom all the English Church consented to obey

Today is the Feast day of St Theodore of Canterbury (602-690, consecrated 668).

St Theodore of Canterbury (+690)

St Theodore of Canterbury (+690)

Originally from Tarsus in Cilicia (now part of Turkey, close to Cyprus), famous as the birthplace of St Paul, St Theodore was a native Greek and Byzantine in both culture and language.

For Archbishop Theodore – and presumably Pope St Gregory I, who sent him to England, knew this quite well – “Roman” essentially meant “Byzantine”.

By this time, the capital of the Roman Empire had been Constantinople (the former city of Byzantium) for more than three centuries. Roman culture had been Greek in language and spirit since long before that, indeed from before the time of Jesus.


THEODORE came to his Church in the second year after his consecration, on Sunday, the 27th of May, and spent in it twenty-one years, three months, and twenty-six days.

Soon after, he visited all the island, wherever the tribes of the English dwelt, for he was gladly received and heard by all persons; and everywhere attended and assisted by Hadrian, he taught the right rule of life, and the canonical custom of celebrating Easter.

St Peter's Church, Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. © John Salmon, Geograph. Used under licence.

St Peter's Church (7th century), Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex. © John Salmon, Geograph. Used under licence. Click for original.

Bede makes a point of showing that the English Church acquired the linguistic skills to study the Church Fathers in both Latin and Greek, and the mathematical knowledge to harmonise with the ecclesiastical use of the Julian calendar across the Byzantine world.

THIS was the first archbishop whom all the English Church consented to obey.

And forasmuch as both of them were, as has been said before, fully instructed both in sacred and in secular letters, they gathered a crowd of disciples, and rivers of wholesome knowledge daily flowed from them to water the hearts of their hearers; and, together with the books of Holy Scripture, they also taught them the metrical art, astronomy, and ecclesiastical arithmetic.

A testimony whereof is, that there are still living at this day some of their scholars, who are as well versed in the Greek and Latin tongues as in their own, in which they were born.

Nor were there ever happier times since the English came into Britain; for having brave Christian kings, they were a terror to all barbarous nations, and the minds of all men were bent upon the joys of the heavenly kingdom of which they had but lately heard; and all who desired to be instructed in sacred studies had masters at hand to teach them.

Part of a page from the Book of Durrow, a 7th century Gospel book probably from Northumbria.

Part of a page from the Book of Durrow, a 7th century Gospel book in Latin, probably from Northumbria, or perhaps Iona.

St Bede goes on to explain that Theodore strongly encouraged sacred music, once again after the “Roman” manner.

FROM that time also they began in all the churches of the English to learn Church music, which till then had been only known in Kent.

And, excepting James, of whom we have spoken above, the first teacher of singing in the churches of the Northumbrians was Eddi, surnamed Stephen, invited from Kent by the most reverend Wilfrid, who was the first of the bishops of the English nation that learned to deliver to the churches of the English the Catholic manner of life. […]

WHEN Theodore came to the city of Rochester, where the bishopric had been long vacant by the death of Damian, he ordained a man named Putta, trained rather in the teaching of the Church and more addicted to simplicity of life than active in worldly affairs, but specially skilful in Church music, after the Roman use, which he had learned from the disciples of the blessed Pope Gregory.

St Bede (+735), Ecclesiastical History IV.2 (Source).


On the Book of Durrow, see Wikipedia. There’s also a page on St Theodore.

Note: The “Roman use” of singing in the 7th century is much disputed, due to the policies of cultural suppression and reordering carried out by the Franks from the 8th century onwards. For the histories of different kinds of chant, see the Liturgica website on e.g. Byzantine chant, Gregorian chant, and the Carolingian reforms.


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