When a Libyan cleric called Hadrian arrived in Canterbury in AD 670, Anglo-Saxon England was a wild and semi-pagan land. Within a matter of years, it was the driving force behind a remarkable renaissance in learning. Michael Wood reveals how this little-known “man of Africa” helped lay the foundations of English culture
In recent years our eyes have been opened to black histories in Britain before the Windrush generation, stretching back through the world wars, on to the Victorian era and beyond. The numbers were small, but the presence was significant, as the black characters in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays show.
Much further back, there were Africans in Roman Britain, from Mauretania, today’s Morocco and Algeria. Among them was Victor, the former slave of a cavalry soldier called Numerianus, who is described as “natione Maurum” (“of the Moorish nation”) on a second-century AD tombstone from modern-day South Shields.
Then there’s near silence. In the thousand years between the end of Roman Britain and the first British overseas explorations under the Tudors, people of colour are far less visible. Their stories cause barely a ripple in the waters of British history. One such story exists just below that surface – rarely impacting on public consciousness. But it is immeasurably important all the same.
Writing in 731, the English historian Bede introduces his readers to a “vir natione Afir”, “a man of African race”. Perhaps a Berber (or Amazigh), this man was a leading light in one of the most significant cultural movements of the past 1,400 years – a teacher of extraordinary influence on English history. This man was born in north Africa and spent the last 40 years of his life in England. He is buried here. But he had a good old Roman name: we know him as Abbot Hadrian the African.