The first English astrologers were Greek – Byzantines (and oddly enough Saints)!


The story I am going to tell you is true, but it might very well have been just another Canterbury tale. It is a story that connects in strange ways England and Byzantium. It started in medieval England, in the year 667 CE. The city of Canterbury was then one of the most prominent Anglo – Saxon cities in Britain. Its people had been converted from pagans to Christians just 2 generations before (in 597 CE, by Saint Augustine). The Episcopal See of the city though – founded by St. Augustine – was left vacant in that specific year. And that was serious, because the Canterbury See was (and still is) considered England’s primary See.

To fill the gap, the king of Kent sent emissaries to the Pope in Rome, asking him to appoint a new Archbishop to Canterbury. Back then not very many people were eligible for such a place – most of the people could not even read, let alone debate on religious matters. Not to mention that to the high ranked priests in Rome the idea of moving to a distant, misty and (still) barbaric land was not promising at all. With limited choices available Pope Vitalian’s mind went to certain monasteries in Italy run by Byzantine monks – the Byzantines considered then the most erudite scholars in Europe (by the way, Pope Vitalian himself was Greek-Byzantine, as several other Popes of the 7th century CE were – but not very many people know that).

Actually, the Byzantines were no strangers to Italy. A century ago they owned almost all the land, from Milan to Sicily. And even in the 7th century Greek was the language most spoken in Sicily and in some other coastal parts of Italy. Byzantine monasteries (brimming with precious Greek manuscripts, religious and secular) were scattered all over Sicily, southern Italy and even Rome itself [1]. Byzantines and Italians were mutually feeling each other as a sort of “cousins”. So, it was no exception for the Pope to appoint a Byzantine scholar to some particular task.

Pope’s first choice was Hadrian the “African”, abbot of a Greek monastery situated on a picturesque island just off the bay of Naples. But Hadrian was hesitant, so he introduced to the Pope one of his close friends, the monk Theodore (from Tarsus in Asia Minor –  in modern Turkey now), who was residing then in Rome. Vitalian didn’t think twice (a whole year had already passed from the day the Canterbury See was left vacant) and immediately consecrated Theodore (already 66, too old for those times) as the new Canterbury Archbishop. Theodore undertook the long and adventurous journey to England through France. And indeed it was a long journey because Theodore arrived at Canterbury on May 669 CE! Shortly after Hadrian arrived too, sent by the Pope – probably in order to oversee the aged Theodore.

The fact is that nobody had great expectations out of this mission – and reasonably so. A northern misty land of ex “savages”, an aged archbishop and an indifferent Afro -Byzantine abbot did not seem the right ingredients for a successful outcome. But against all odds, it turned to be a brilliant mission!

We might have never heard anything about Theodore’s great achievements in England unless they were recorded by the “venerable” Bede himself, in his major work “Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum”. According to Bede, the first thing Theodore did when he set foot in England was to travel all around the island, to every single corner English people resided in (“Theodorus…moxque peragrata insula tota, quaquauersum Anglorum gentes morabantur” [2] ). He established contacts with all the churches, which he mapped in detail, appointed bishops to the sees that were vacant and rearranged the English dioceses. Moreover he called forth a Synod, in order to reform various matters ranging from the proper celebration of Easter to certain English marriage customs. In these actions we discover a surprisingly alert, energetic and effective Theodore, who displays remarkable administrative skills and courage. And although he was a total foreigner, he acted as if he were England’s indisputable religious leader.

It seems that Bede never met Theodore in person. But the two (and Byzantium again) are connected. There is no doubt, for example, that Theodore influenced Bede [3]. Moreover, one of the scholars that trained Bede was the abbot Benedict Biscop (the other being Ceolfrid – Biscop’s intimate friend). Biscop was visiting Rome the very days Theodore was consecrated Archbishop. So, the Pope met Biscop and ordered him to escort Theodore in England. As we explained before, it was a very long voyage that lasted a whole year and 2 months (Theodore was consecrated in Rome on 26 March 668 and arrived in Kent on 27 May 669) [4]. Theodore and Biscop definitely spent endless hours conversing together in that long dull voyage. The Byzantine was obviously taught English during that voyage and Biscop Greek. When they arrived at Canterbury Theodore appointed Biscop as abbot of the SS. Peter and Paul convent. Biscop stayed in Canterbury for two years [5], so all in all he spent three years beside Theodore and Hadrian.

My point is that Theodore (and the Byzantine civilization) impacted enormously Benedict Biscop in those three years . Certainly it is not a coincidence that Biscop founded just a few years ahead the most prominent library in Anglo-Saxon England, in his Wearmouth-Jarrow twin monasteries (where Bede studied, lived, wrote his works and learned Greek)! Biscop returned again to Rome in 679 CE in order to acquire books for his newly founded library and privileges for his monasteries granted by the Pope, who apparently liked him and assisted him in many ways. Guess who was Pope then in Rome: the Byzantine Agatho ! And it is a fact that during this “Byzantine Papal dynasty” (590 – 752 AD) a large number of the Papal courtiers were Greeks [6] . So, Biscop dealt in Rome mainly with Greek – Byzantines.

But what has all this to do with astrology, you will say? Well, a lot! Theodore and Hadrian were knowledgeable not only about religious matters but secular as well (as most of the Middle Ages scholars). Thus, they established a school in Canterbury (which became legendary in a short time) where apart the religious subjects they taught to their many and quenched students metrical art (poetry and probably music too), astronomy and ecclesiastic calculus, as Bede recounts (“ita ut etiam metricae artis, astronomiae, et arithimeticae ecclesiasticae disciplinam inter sacrorum apicum uolumina suis auditoribus contraderent”) [7]. What Bede does not specify is that the subject “astronomy” comprised astrology as well. So Theodore and Hadrian were teaching the much advanced by then Byzantine astrology! And what Bede omits Aldhelm is clearly stating.

Aldhelm was the other major English cultural figure of the period. He lived for 2 years in Canterbury and studied mostly with Hadrian, as he personally attests in his writings, calling Hadrian “the venerable preceptor of my rude childhood”. His studies included Roman law, arithmetic, astronomy, the ecclesiastic calculus, astrology and probably Greek (the typical Theodore’s school curriculum). Aldhelm himself attests the fact that he learned astrology in Theodore’s school. Some modern scholars tried to “twist” the fact he was an astrologer but he is very explicit about it, saying that he studied “the zodiac, the skillful art of astrology and the horoscope’s elaborated reckoning” (“de zodiaco… astrologicae artis peritia et perplexa oroscopi computatio”) [8] . In another letter to his friend Heahfrith Aldhelm describes Theodore himself “like an old boar surrounded by hounds” (the hounds being in this case the many Irish Theodore’s disciples, which apparently Aldhelm disliked) [9]. The paradox is that Aldhelm is revered by the church as a Saint and by the astrologers as the first English astrologer ever!

To realize the importance of the Theodore’s Canterbury school it would suffice to quote Cambridge’s Anglo-Saxon expert Michael Lapidge. In a symposium he organized back in 1990, on the occasion of the thirteen hundredth anniversary of Theodore’s death, he states: “It very quickly became clear from the discussion at the symposium that wholly new-indeed revolutionary-awareness was emerging of the role which Theodore had played in transmitting Greek learning to the Latin West and the establishment of higher education in Anglo-Saxon England. [10]

All the more so, Lapidge suggests that Theodore was taught astrology in Constantinople, by none else than the illustrious astrologer Stephen of Alexandria (who in turn studied in the famous Olympiodorus astrology school in Alexandria)! The time-frame is right (Stephen was indeed teaching in Constantinople when Theodore was young). Additionally, in Theodore’s biblical comments we encounter certain particular medical terms that bear a striking similarity to those used by Stephen of Alexandria (who was teaching medicine too) [11] . If that is the case, then Theodore and Hadrian introduced a highly advanced astrology in the Middle Ages England! And as Bede himself states, in a reference of his to the Theodore’s mini-university: “Neque umquam prorsus, ex quo Brittaniam petierunt Angli, feliciora fuere tempora” [12]: “There have never been happier times than these, since the English captured Britain”!

Thus, we have here the case of two Byzantine scholars that influenced enormously the culture of early England. And the paradox stands for them too. As we are sure by now, Theodore and Hadrian were (among others) astrologers. But at the same time they are both revered as Saints by the Christian church [13]!

1) “The Laterculus Malalianus and the school of Archbishop Theodore”, Jane Stevenson, p. 16, (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 14)
2) “Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum”, Bede, Book IV, 2, 2
3) “The Laterculus Malalianus” and the school of Archbishop Theodore” , Jane Stevenson, p. 2 (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 14)
4) “Archbishop Theodore”, edited by Michael Lapidge, p. 1 (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 11)
5) “The Laterculus Malalianus and the school of Archbishop Theodore” , Jane Stevenson, p.3 (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 14)
6) “The Laterculus Malalianus and the school of Archbishop Theodore” , Jane Stevenson, p. 16 (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 14)
7) “Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum”, Bede, IV, 2, 7
8) “Aldhelmi Opera” (translated by Lapidge and Herren) p. 476 (Ehwald ed.)
9) “The Laterculus Malalianus and the school of Archbishop Theodore” , Jane Stevenson, p. 11 (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 14)
10) “Archbishop Theodore”, edited by Michael Lapidge, p. viii (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 11)
11) “Archbishop Theodore”, edited by Michael Lapidge, p.18 (Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England n. 11)
12) “Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum”, Bede, IV, 2, 10
13) “The Oxford dictionary of Saints of the Catholic church”

This is an original article, written by Thomas Gazis. Copyright: Thomas D. Gazis. If you wish to re-publish parts or all of it please contact the author at:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s