Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Theodore

THEODORE (602?–690), archbishop of Canterbury, a native of Tarsus in Cilicia, was born in or about 602 (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, iv. 1). He studied at Athens (Monumenta Moguntina, ed. Jaffé, p. 185), had a scholarly knowledge of Greek and Latin, and was well versed in sacred and profane literature and in philosophy, which caused him to receive the surname ‘Philosopher’ (Gesta Pontificum, p. 7). He was a monk, and had not taken subdeacon's orders when in 667 he was at Rome, having perhaps been led to come to Italy by the visit to that country of the Emperor Constans II in 663. When Theodore was in Rome, Pope Vitalian was anxious to find a primate for the English church in place of Wighard, who had died in Rome before consecration. He fixed on Hadrian, an African by birth and an abbot of a monastery not far from Naples, who was learned both in Greek and Latin, in the Scriptures, and in ecclesiastical discipline. Hadrian refused the pope's offer, and finally presented Theodore to him. Vitalian promised to consecrate him, provided that Hadrian, who had twice visited Gaul and would therefore be useful as a guide, would accompany him to England, and remain with him to assist him in doctrinal matters; for the pope seems to have feared that Theodore might be affected by the monothelite heresy. Theodore was ordained subdeacon in November, and as he was tonsured after the Eastern fashion—his whole head being shaved—he had to wait four months before receiving further orders, to allow his hair to grow sufficiently for him to be tonsured after the Roman fashion. At last, on Sunday, 26 March 668, he was consecrated by Vitalian. He set out from Rome on 27 May, in company with Hadrian and Benedict Biscop [q. v.] At Arles he and his party were detained by John, the archbishop of the city, in accordance with the command of Ebroin, mayor of the palace in Neustria and Burgundy, who suspected them of being political emissaries sent by the emperor Constans to the English king. When Ebroin gave them leave to proceed, Theodore went on to Paris, where he was received by Aligbert, the bishop, formerly bishop of the West-Saxons, and remained with him during the winter. At last Egbert, king of Kent, being informed that the archbishop was in the Frankish kingdom, sent his high reeve Raedfrith to conduct him to England. Ebroin gave Theodore leave to depart, but detained Hadrian, whom he still suspected of being an imperial envoy. Theodore was conducted by Raedfrith to Quentavic or Etaples, where he was delayed for some time by sickness. As soon as he began to get well he crossed the Channel, and was received at Canterbury on 27 May 669. Hadrian joined him soon afterwards.

At the time of Theodore's arrival the English church lacked order, administrative organisation, discipline, and culture. The work of the Celtic missionaries had been carried on rather by individual effort than through an ordered ecclesiastical system. The Roman party had gained a decisive victory in 664, but uniformity had not yet become universal, and the personal feelings aroused by the struggle were still strong. As diocesan arrangements followed the divisions of kingdoms, the dioceses were for the most part of unmanageable size, and varied in extent with the fortunes of war. Soon after his arrival Theodore made a tour throughout all parts of the island in which the English were settled, taking Hadrian with him. He found only two or at most three bishoprics not vacant. He expounded ‘the right rule of life,’ probably for clerks and monks, and the canonical mode of celebrating Easter, and began to consecrate bishops, where there were vacant sees (Hist. Eccles. iv. c. 2). While in the north he accused Ceadda or Chad [q. v.] of having been consecrated irregularly, and reconsecrated him in the catholic manner. Though Wilfrid [q. v.] took possession of the see of York, which was rightfully his, Theodore was able to provide Ceadda with a see; for Wulfhere [q. v.], the king of the Mercians, requested him to find a bishop for him, and he therefore appointed him bishop of Mercia and Lindsey. As Ceadda resisted the archbishop's kindly command that he should ride when taking long journeys, Theodore with his own hands lifted him on horseback (ib. c. 3). He also in 670, at the request of Cenwalh [q. v.], king of the West-Saxons, consecrated Lothere, the nephew of Bishop Agilbert, to the vacant bishopric of the West-Saxons. Everywhere he was welcomed, and everywhere he required and received an acknowledgment of his authority, which was invested with special weight by the fact that he had ‘been sent directly from Rome,’ though his own ability and character contributed largely to his success (Bright, Early English Church History, p. 258). He was, Bede says, the first archbishop to whom the whole English church agreed in submitting.

On his return to Canterbury Theodore carried on the work, which he had perhaps already begun, of making that city a place whence learning might be spread throughout his province, and personally taught a crowd of scholars. In this work he was largely assisted by Hadrian, to whom Theodore gave the abbacy of St. Augustine's, in succession to Benedict Biscop, that he might remain near him. Equally well versed in both sacred and secular learning, the archbishop and abbot instructed their scholars in Latin and Greek, in the mode of computing the ecclesiastical seasons, music, astronomy, theology, and ecclesiastical matters. Theodore also seems to have given instruction in medicine (Hist. Eccles. v. c. 3; Penitential, ii. c. 11, sect. 5). Among his scholars were several future bishops, and men afterwards distinguished by their learning, together with others from all parts of England, and some Irish scholars (Aldhelm, Opp. p. 94). Bede says that in his time there were many disciples of Theodore and Hadrian who knew Latin and Greek as well as their mother-tongue, and that religious learning was so widely diffused that any one who desired instruction in it found no lack of masters.

Theodore in 673 took an important step in church organisation by holding a synod of his province at Hertford on 24 Sept. Of his six suffragans four were present in person, and Wilfrid sent representatives. Along with the bishops many church teachers learned in canonical matters attended the synod, not, however, as constituent members of it, for it consisted of bishops only (Hist. Eccles. iv. 5). Theodore propounded ten points based on a book of canons drawn up by Dionysius Exiguus as specially necessary for the English church. These were considered, and articles founded upon them were agreed upon. Among these it was decreed that a synod should be held every year on 1 Aug. at a place called Clovesho; and it was proposed that the number of bishops should be increased. This proposal gave rise to much debate. Theodore was unable to obtain the consent of the synod to a subdivision of dioceses, and the point was deferred. In this synod the English church for the first time acted as a single body; and it has also rightly been regarded as the first of all national assemblies, the forerunner of the witenagemotes and parliaments of an indivisible realm (Bright, p. 284). In spite of the adjournment of the proposal relating to the subdivision of dioceses, Theodore was soon enabled, by the resignation of Bisi, bishop of the East-Angles, to take a step in that direction. While consecrating a successor to him at Dunwich, Theodore formed the northern part of the kingdom into a new diocese, with its see at Elmham. Not long after this, about 675, he deposed Winfrith, the bishop of the Mercians, for some disobedience, and consecrated to his see Saxulf [q. v.] Winfrith's offence was probably resistance to a plan formed by Theodore for the division of his diocese, which was carried out later. The archbishop seems to have acted simply on his own authority (ib. p. 256; Gesta Pontificum, p. 6). About that time, too, he consecrated Erkenwald [q. v.] to the see of London, and in 676 Hæddi to the West-Saxon see of Winchester. In that year Ethelred of Mercia invaded Kent and burnt Rochester [see under Putta]. Canterbury, however, escaped invasion. The whole country north of the Humber was under a single bishop, Wilfrid. The Northumbrian king Egfrid, who was displeased with him, invited Theodore to come to his court, and the archbishop took advantage of the king's dislike of the bishop to carry out his scheme for dividing the Northumbrian bishopric. The allegation that he received a bribe from the king (Eddius, c. 24) is absurd; for, apart from Theodore's character, no bribe was needed to induce him to do that which he desired. Having summoned some bishops to consult with him, Theodore, without any reference to Wilfrid himself, declared the division of his diocese into four bishoprics, including one for Lindsey, lately conquered by Egfrid, and leaving Wilfrid the see of York (ib. and c. 30). Wilfrid appealed to Rome and left the country, and Theodore, without the assistance of any other bishops, consecrated two bishops for Deira and Bernicia, and a third for Lindsey. He then probably went to Lindisfarne and dedicated in honour of St. Peter the church that Finan [q. v.] had built there (Hist. Eccles. iii. 25). In 679, when Egfrid and Ethelred of Mercia were at war, he acted as an arbiter between the contending kings, and by his exhortations put an end to a war that seemed likely to be long and bitter (ib. iv. 21). At this time he carried out a division of the Mercian diocese made at the request of Ethelred, with whom he henceforth was on terms of affection. A bishop was settled at Worcester for the Hwiccians; another at Leicester for the Middle-Angles; Saxulf retained the see of Lichfield; a fourth Mercian diocese was formed with its see at Dorchester (in Oxfordshire); and a fifth bishop was sent to Lindsey, with his see at Sidnacester or Stow, for Lindsey had become Mercian again. Florence of Worcester places the fivefold subdivision of the Mercian see under the one year, 679. No doubt the whole scheme was sanctioned at one time; but the actual changes may have been effected by degrees, though at dates near together (Flor. Wig. App. i. 240; Eccles. Doc. iii. 128–30; Bright, Early English Church History, pp. 349–52; and Plummer, Bede, ii. 245–7). As the bishopric of Hereford appears soon after this, it may also be reckoned as forming part of Theodore's arrangements, though it was not perhaps formally instituted [see under Putta]. A decree purporting to have been made by Theodore, that the West-Saxon diocese was not to be divided during the lifetime of Haeddi, is almost certainly spurious. His regard for the bishop shows that he would probably have met with no opposition from him if he had proposed to divide his diocese. The reason why he did not do so may be found in the political condition of Wessex for some years after the death of Cenwalh (Eccles. Doc. iii. 126–7, 203; Stubbs; Hist. Eccles. iv. 12, see Mr. Plummer's note).

A council is said to have been held at Rome by Pope Agatho in October 679 to remove dissension between Theodore and the bishops of his province. No mention is made of Wilfrid in the report of it, which ‘suits neither the time before nor after Wilfrid's arrival;’ the documentary evidence is unsatisfactory, and it seems safe to consider it spurious (Bright, p. 330, n. 3; Eccles. Doc. iii. 131–6, where it is not so decisively condemned). In that year the pope held a council to decide on Wilfrid's appeal. Theodore had sent a monk named Coenwald with letters to the pope to set forth his own side of the case. The decree of the council was that Wilfrid should be restored to his bishopric, that the irregularly intruded bishops should be turned out, and that he should with the help of a council himself select bishops to be his coadjutors who were to be consecrated by the archbishop (Eddius, cc. 29–32). While then this decision implicitly condemned the irregular action of Theodore, it provided that his desire for the increase of the episcopate in Northumbria should be carried out in a regular manner. At another council held at Rome by Agatho on 27 March 680 against the monothelite heresy Theodore was expected, but did not attend (Gesta Pontificum, p. 7). When in that year Wilfrid returned to England, carrying with him the Roman decree for his restoration, and was imprisoned by Egfrid, Theodore seems to have made no effort on his behalf, and to have paid no attention to the decree, of which he could scarcely have been ignorant. Meanwhile Benedict Biscop, during a visit to Rome, requested Agatho to send John the precentor to England with him. Agatho seized the opportunity of eliciting from the English church a declaration of its orthodoxy, specially with reference to the monothelite question; he sent John to Theodore for that purpose, bidding him carry with him the decrees of the Lateran council of 649. In obedience to the pope's desire, Theodore held a synod of the bishops of the English church, which was attended by other learned men, at Hatfield in Hertfordshire on 17 Sept. 680, and John was given a copy of the profession of the council to carry back to the pope (Hist. Eccles. iv. cc. 17, 18).

Theodore still further increased the Northumbrian episcopate in 681 by dividing the Bernician diocese, adding a see at Hexham to that of Lindisfarne. He also founded a new diocese in the country of the Picts north of the Forth, then under English rule, and placed the see in the monastery of Abercorn (ib. cc. 12, 26). Three years later, in 684, he deposed Tunbert, it is said for disobedience (ib. c. 28; Miscellanea Biographica, Surtees Soc. p. 123), and journeyed to the north to preside over an assembly gathered by Egfrid at Twyford in Northumberland, at which Cuthbert [q. v.] was elected bishop. On the following Easter day, 26 March 685, Theodore consecrated Cuthbert at York to the see of Lindisfarne [see under Cuthbert]. In 686 Theodore, who felt the infirmity of age increasing upon him, desired to be reconciled to Wilfrid; he invited him to meet him in London and bade Bishop Erkenwald also come to him. According to Wilfrid's biographer, he humbly acknowledged that he had done Wilfrid wrong, and expressed an earnest hope that he would succeed him as archbishop (Eddius, c. 43). However this may be, it is evident that he felt sorrow for Wilfrid's sufferings, highly esteemed him for his work among the heathen, and was anxious to take advantage of the accession of Aldfrith [q. v.] to the Northumbrian throne to procure his restoration. He wrote to Aldfrith and to Ælflæd, abbess of Whitby, urging them to be reconciled to Wilfrid, and to his friend Ethelred of Mercia, that he would take Wilfrid under his protection; and speaking of his own age and weakness begged the king to come to him, that ‘my eyes may behold thy pleasant face and my soul bless thee before I die’ (ib.) His injunctions were obeyed, and in a short time Wilfrid was restored to his see at York, though Theodore's subdivision of the diocese was not set aside. Theodore died at the age of eighty-eight on 19 Sept. 690. He was buried in the church of St. Peter's monastery (St. Augustine's) at Canterbury, and an epitaph, of which Bede has preserved the first and last four lines, was placed upon his tomb. When his body was translated in 1091, it was found complete with his cowl and pall (Gocelin, Hist. Translationis S. Augustini, vol. i. c. 24, vol. ii. c. 27, ap. Migne, Patrologia Lat. vol. clv.).

Theodore's piety was not of the sort to excite the admiration of monastic writers; for no miracles are attributed to him, and he was not regarded as a saint (Stubbs); this was probably due, in part at least, to his quarrel with Wilfrid, whose claim on monastic reverence was fully recognised. He was a man of grand conceptions, strong will, and an autocratic spirit, which led him, at least in his dealings with Wilfrid, into harsh and unfair action. Yet an excuse may be found for him in the earnestness of his desire to do what he knew to be necessary to the well-being of the church, and the difficulties which he doubtless had to encounter. Apart from his public functions his character seems to have been gentle and affectionate. He had great power of organisation, his personal influence was strong, and he was a skilful manager of men. His genius was versatile; for he was excellent alike as a scholar, a teacher, and in the administration of affairs. During his primacy English monasticism rapidly advanced; though the charters to monasteries to which his name is appended are of doubtful value, he protected the monasteries from episcopal invasion, laid down the duties of bishops with regard to them, and legislated wisely for them (Penitential, ii. c. 6). The debt which the English church owes to him cannot easily be overestimated. He secured its unity and gave it organisation, subdividing the vast bishoprics, coterminous with kingdoms, and basing its episcopate on tribal lines, on the means of legislating for itself, and on the idea of obedience to lawfully constituted ecclesiastical authority. The belief that he was the founder of the parochial system (Elmham, pp. 285–6; Hook) is mistaken (Stubbs, Constitutional History, i. c. 8); but his legislation aided its development (Bright, pp. 406–7). His educational work gave the church a culture that was not wholly lost until the period of the Danish invasions, and had far-reaching effects. Bede says that during his episcopate the churches of the English derived more spiritual profit than they could ever gain before (Hist. Eccles. v. c. 8). His work did not die with him: its fruits are to be discerned in the character and constitution of the church of England at all times to the present day.

The only written work besides a few lines addressed to Hæddi and the letter to Ethelred that can with any certainty be ascribed to Theodore is a ‘Penitential.’ Although Bede does not mention this work, there is abundant evidence that a ‘Penitential’ of Theodore was known in very early times. (Eccles. Doc. iii. 173–4). Various attempts were made from Spelman's time onwards to identify and publish Theodore's ‘Penitential,’ but that which is now accepted as the original work was first edited by Dr. Wasserschleben in 1851, and has since been re-edited by the editors of ‘Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents’ (ib. pp. 173–213), their text being taken from a manuscript probably of the eighth century at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Only in a certain sense can this ‘Penitential’ be described as the work of Theodore. It consists of a number of answers given by him to various inquirers, and chiefly to a priest named Eoda, and it was compiled by some one who calls himself ‘Discipulus Umbrensium,’ that is, probably a man born in the south of England who had studied under northern scholars (ib.) One manuscript states that it was written with Theodore's advice, but this may merely mean that he approved of such a compilation being made, for certainly on two points it differs from what Theodore thought (Bright, p. 406). In more than twenty places reference is made to the customs of the Greek church. The character of the sentences is austere. More than once amid the dry enumeration of penances there appears some evidence of a lofty soul and of spirituality of mind (i. c. 8 sec. 5, c. 12 sec. 7, ii. c. 12 secs. 16–21), and once a sentence full of poetic feeling (ii. c. 1 sec. 9). Certain other compilations erroneously edited as the ‘Penitential’ of Theodore may contain some of those judgments of his which the compiler of the genuine work says in his epilogue were widely known and existed in a confused form. Theodore's ‘Penitential,’ though, in common with other works of same kind, not binding on the church, gave it a standard and rule of discipline much needed at the time, and holds an important place among the materials on which was based the later canon law (Stubbs, Lectures, No. xiii). He established in the English church the observance of the twelve days before Christmas as a period of repentance and good works in preparation for the holy communion on Christmas day (Egbert's Dialogue ap. Eccles. Doc. iii. 413).

[All information concerning Archbishop Theodore may be found in Canon Bright's Early English Church History, passim, 3rd edit. 1897; Haddan and Stubbs's Eccles. Docs. iii. 114–213, which see for the Penitential, and Bishop Stubbs's art. ‘Theodorus’ (7) in Dict. Chr. Biogr. here referred to as ‘Stubbs,’ to all of which this art. is largely indebted. Little can be added except by way of comment to the account in Bede's Eccles. Hist. (see Plummer's edition of Bedæ Opera Hist. with valuable notes in tom. ii.), and Eddi's Vita Wilfridi in Hist. of York, vol. i. (Rolls Ser.), for Theodore's dealings with Wilfrid, which must be used with caution as the work of a strong partisan; see also Anglo-Saxon Chron. ann. 668–90; Flor. Wig. vol. i. App. (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Will. Malmesbury's Gesta Pontificum, Gervase of Cant. i. 69, ii. 30, 338–43; Elmham's Hist. Mon. S. Augustini, passim (all three in Rolls Ser.); Green's Making of England, pp. 330–6, 375, 380; Hook's Archbishops of Canterbury, i. 145–75.]

W. H.