Saint Dunstan

Archbishop and Confessor, and one of the greatest Saints of the Anglo-Saxon Church!

Image of St. Dunstan

Saint Dunstan was born of a noble family at Baltonnsborough, near Glastonbury, on the estate of his father, Heorstan, a West Saxon noble. His mother, Cynethryth, a woman of saintly life, was miraculously forewarned of the sanctity of the child within her. She was in the church of St. Mary on Candleday, when all the lights were suddenly extinguished.

Then the candle held by Cynethryth was as suddenly relighted, and all present lit their candles at this miraculous flame, thus foreshadowing that the boy “would be the minister of eternal light” to the Church of England. In what year St. Dunstan was born has been much disputed. Osbern, a writer of the late eleventh century, fixes it at “the first year of the reign of King Aethelstan”, i.e. 924-5. This date, however, cannot be reconciled with other known dates of St. Dunstan’s life and involves many obvious absurdities.

It was rejected, therefore, by Mobillon and Lingard; but on the strength of “two manuscripts of the Chronicle” and “an entry in an ancient Anglo-Saxon paschal table”, Dr. Stubbs argued in its favour, and his conclusions have been very generally accepted. Careful examination, however, of this new evidence reveals all three passages as interpolations of about the period when Osbern was writing, and there seem to be very good reasons for accepting the opinion of Mabillon that the saint was born long before 925. Probably his birth dates from about the earliest years of the tenth century.

In early youth Dunstan was brought by his father and committed to the care of the Irish scholars, who then frequented the desolate sanctuary of Glastonbury. We are told of his childish fervour, of his vision of the great abbey restored to splendour, of his nearly fatal illness and miraculous recovery, of the enthusiasm with which he absorbed every kind of human knowledge and of his manual skill. Indeed, througout his life he was noted for his devotion to learning and for his mastery of many kinds of artistic craftsmanship. With his parent’s consent he was tonsured, received minor orders and served in the ancient church of St. Mary. So well known did he become for devotion of learning that he is said to have have been summoned by his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, to enter his service.

By one of St. Dunstan’s earliest biographers we are informed that the young scholar was introduced by his uncle to King Aethelstan, but there must be some mistake here, for Athelm and probably died about 923, and Aethelstan did not come to the throne till the following year. Perhaps there is confusion between Athelm and his successor Wulfhelm. At any rate the young man soon became so great a favourite with the king as to excite the envy of his kingfolk court. They accused him of studying heathen literature and magic, and so wrought on the king that St. Dunstan was ordered to leave the court. As he quitted the palace his enemies attacked him, beat him severely, bound him, and threw him into a filthy pit (probably a cesspool), treading him down in the mire. He managed to crawl out and make his way to the house of a friend whence he journeyed to Winchester and entered the service of Bishop Aelfheah the Bald, who was his relative.

The bishop endeavoured to persuade him to become a monk, but St. Dunstan was at first doubtful whether he had a vocation to a celibate life. But an attack of swelling tumours all over his body, so severe that he thought it was leprosy, which was perhaps some form of blood-poisoning caused by the treatment to which he had been subjected, changed his mind. He made his profession at the hands of St. Aelfheah, and returned to live the life of a hermit at Glastonbury. Against the old church of St. Mary he built a little cell only five feet long and two and a half feet deep, where he studied and worked at his handicrafts and played on has harp. Here the devil is said (in a late eleventh legend) to have tempted him and to have been seized by the face with the saint’s tongs.

St. Dunstan at once set vigorously to work at these tasks. He had to re-create monastic life and to rebuild the abbey. That it was Benedictine monasticism which he established at Glastonbury seems certain. It is true that he had not yet had personal experience of the stricter Benedictinism which had been revived on the Continent at great centres like Cluny and Fleury. Probably, also, much of the Benedictine tradition introduced by St. Augustine had been lost in the pagan devastations of the ninth century.