Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 988

Under King Alfred the Great, England in the ninth century made considerable military, political, cultural, and some ecclesiastical recovery from the Danish invasions. But it was not until the following century that there was a revival of monasticism. In that revival, the leading figure was Dunstan.

Born near Glastonbury of a noble West Saxon family with royal connections, Dunstan received his education from Irish monks at Glastonbury and joined the household of his uncle Athelm, archbishop of Canterbury, and then the court of King Athelstan. In 935, accused of “studying the vain poems and futile stories of the pagans and of being a magician”, he was expelled from court. In 936 he made a private monastic profession to Alphege, bishop of Winchester, and was ordained to the presbyterate. He returned to Glastonbury, where he lived as a hermit and practiced the crafts of painting, embroidery, and metalwork. In 939 Edmund became king of Wessex, recalled Dunstan to court, and installed him as Abbot of Glastonbury in 943, endowing the monastery generously. The Danish invasions and the hostility of local magnates had in the previous century nearly extinguished monasticism in England, and the restoration begun under Dunstan, following the Rule of St Benedict, was to be one of his principal achievements. Dunstan attracted disciples to Glastonbury, enlarged the buildings, and gave new life to a monastic establishment of already great antiquity.

With the accession of Edwy to the crown of Wessex in 955, Dunstan’s enemies at court contrived his exile. He went to Mont Blandin in Ghent (now Belgium), where he saw for the first time a monastery typical of the Benedictine revival. King Edgar recalled Dunstan to England in 957, appointing him bishop of Worcester, then of London. In 960, Edgar named Dunstan archbishop of Canterbury. Thus began the fruitful collaboration between king and archbishop which reformed the Church in England largely through the monastic order, such that this period was regarded after the Norman Conquest as a “golden age”. Together with his former pupils, Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Oswald, bishop of Worcester (later of York), Dunstan led the monastic revival. The three have been described as “contemplatives in action”, bringing the fruits of their monastic prayer life to the wider concerns of Church and State. The revival brought better education and discipline among the clergy, the end of landed family interest in the Church, the restoration of former monasteries and the establishment of new houses, a revival of monastic life for women, and a more elaborate and carefully ordered liturgical worship.

This revived and reformed monasticism was set forth in the “Monastic Agreement”, a common code for English monasteries drawn up by Aethelwold c. 970, primarily under Dunstan’s inspiration. Important features of this monasticism were its close tie between the monasteries and the Crown (not least for protection against local lay lords); its liturgical additions, including prayers for the royal family; and its insistence on the importance of the scriptorium and the workshops of the monastery. This close tie between the Church in England and the Crown was expressed liturgically in the coronation rite, the earliest extant text of which was compiled for King Edgar by Dunstan and his colleagues.

Dunstan was a zealous diocesan bishop. He insisted on the observance of marriage laws and on fasting. He built and repaired churches and often acted as judge. He inspired some of Edgar’s laws, particularly the codes of Whitbordecctan and of Andover (the code of Andover enjoins the practice of some handicraft on every priest). On Edgar’s death his elder son Edward, Dunstan’s protégé, succeeded to the throne. His assassination in 978 was connected with the anti-monastic reaction that followed Edgar’s death. Dunstan presided at the translation of Edward’s body to Shaftesbury in 980.

With increasing age Dunstan spent more of his time at Canterbury with the monks in his household, occupying himself with teaching, the correction of manuscripts, and the administration of justice. He remained active until his death, preaching three times on Ascension Day in 988. He died two days later, May 19, aged nearly eighty. It has been said that the tenth century gave shape to English history, and Dunstan gave shape to the tenth century.

Hagiographical tradition makes Dunstan a painter, musician, and metalworker, and these claims have some foundation. Bells and organs were attributed to him. Some metalworker’s tools of the tenth century survive at Mayfield convent and are claimed to be his. Artists sometimes depicted Dunsant holding the devil by the nose with a pair of tongs. A surviving tenth century relic of him is a Glastonbury book containing scriptural extracts in Latin and Greek, an Old English homily on the Cross, and some ancient Welsh glosses, as well as a portrait of Dunstan prostrate at the feet of Christ. A thirteenth century inscription claims that the work is Dunstan’s, and it could well be his own work.

adapted from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints,
Lesser Feasts and Fasts, and The New Book of Festivals and Commemorations

The Collect

O God of truth and beauty, you richly endowed your bishop Dunstan with skill in music and the working of metals, and with gifts of administration and reforming zeal: Teach us, we pray, to see in you the source of all our talents, and move us to offer them for the adornment of worship and the advancement of true religion; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


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