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Saint Dunstan

Photograph of a stained glass window depicting St Dunstan

St Dunstan was born c909 and died at Canterbury in 988. His feast day is the 19th May.

St Dunstan, the son of a West Saxon noble was born ten years after the death of King Alfred. He, as well as the king, both deserve the epithet “great”. Little is known of his early years. He received a good education at Glastonbury, and spent some time at the court of King Athelstan, but was banished for ‘practising unlawful arts”. He would perhaps have followed a secular career had not a dangerous illness turned his eyes to more direct service of God as monk and priest.

He retired to Glastonbury where he devoted himself to studying. About 943-945, Athelstan’s brother King Edmund I, commissioned him to restore monastic life at Glastonbury where he was appointed abbot, and from that moment dates the revival of organised monasticism in England, which had ceased to exist since the Scandinavian invasions. St Ethelwold and St Oswald of Worcester were associated with St Dunstan in this work. As abbot he implemented great reforms, turning Glastonbury into a centre of religious teaching. At the same time he became Sty Edmund’s treasurer and adviser, but on the king’s death in 955 and the accession of Edwy, he lost his influence. He then fled to Flanders and Ghent where he first saw the strict Benedictine discipline which he was later to introduce into England.

In 957 St Dunstan was recalled by King Edgar, who was now king of Worcester and London. In that year, 959, on Edwy’s death Edgar became king of the entire country. One of his first acts was to appoint Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury, and Dunstan’s wise counsel greatly contributed to the peace and prosperity of his reign. After Edgar came to power Dunstan founded or re-founded many abbeys, at Malmesbury, Westminster, Bath and Exeter, to name but a few, and c970 a conference of bishops, abbots and abbesses drew up a national code of monastic observance, the Regularis Concordia. It was in line with continental custom and the Rule of St Benedict, but with its own features. The monasteries were to be integrated into the life of the people, and their influence was not to be contained within their own walls.

With Oswald archbishop of York, Dunstan crowned Edgar at Bath in 973, a formal declaration of the unity of the kingdom. Dunstan strove to elevate the lives of the clergy and make them real teachers of the people in secular as well as religious matters. He made the payment of tithes by landowners obligatory, but did not entirely surrender the liberties of the church to Rome. On Edgar’s death he declared for Edward ’the Martyr, Edgar’s elder son, and crowned him. On Edward’s murder in 978, the two archbishops crowned Æthelred, whose hostility ended St Dunstan’s political career.

St Dunstan was a principal adviser to all the Wessex kings of his time. The present coronation rite of the English sovereign derives from that compiled and used by Dunstan for the sacring of Edgar as king of all England in 973, yet the scared ministry, monastic organization, reform of church life, and secular statesmanship do not exhaust the aspects of this many-sided man. He was credited with dexterity as a metal-worker and bell-founder. He seems also to have been a skilful scribe and draughtsman, and he played the harp and loved the music of the human voice. When he sang st the altar, wrote a contemporary, ’he seemed to be talking with the Lord face to face’.

As an old man at Canterbury it was his delight to teach the boys of the cathedral school - a gentle master, it would appear, whose memory was cherished by his pupils. His emblem in art is a pair of tongs.

Material supplied by Judith Shore, 07 April 2002, original sources not known.