Saint Dunstan of Canterbury, Confessor

May 19

Today is the feast day of Saint Dunstan.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Dunstan was a native of the town of Glastenbury, of noble birth.  His father, Heorstan,  was 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 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 fervor, of his vision of the great abbey restored to splendor, 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, throughout his life he was noted for his devotion to learning and for his mastery of many kinds of artistic craftsmanship.

He received his education under certain Irish monks who were excellent masters of the sciences, and at that time resided at Glastenbury, which, the wars had left in a most ruinous condition. Dunstan outstripped his companions in every branch of literature which he thought worth his attention, and through the recommendation of Athelmus, archbishop of Canterbury, his uncle, with whom he had lived some time, was called to the court of the great king Athelstan, a lover of virtue and learned men. He enjoyed the favour of that prince above all the rest who had the honour to approach his person, till envy made him feel the usual instability of the fortune of courtiers.

After he left the court he took the monastic habit, being advised thereto by Elphegus the Bald, bishop of Winchester, also his uncle, who not long after ordained him priest. When he was well grounded in the knowledge and practice of the duties of his profession, the bishop, on giving him proper instructions for his conduct, sent him to Glastenbury, with the view of serving that church.

He became well known for his devotion and was summoned by his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury to enter his service. He soon became a favourite of King Aethelstan which aroused the envy of the King’s court. St. Dunstan was accused of studying magic and heathen literature and was attacked by his enemies who bound, gagged him and threw him into a filthy pit. He escaped to Winchester and entered the service of the Bishop, another uncle, St Alphege. Following an illness caused by his treatment at court he was persuaded by his uncle to become a monk.

Following his ordination by his uncle in 934 he returned to Glastonbury and built a cell alongside the church of St. Mary. His cell was tiny only 5 feet (150 cms) long by 2ft 6ins(75cms) wide. A legend says that at this time the devil tempted him, but St. Dunstan seized Satan’s face with his smith’s tongs.

In 940 following the death of King Aethelstan he was summoned by the new king, Eadmund and appointed a counsellor, but again he was driven from the court by jealous courtiers. After narrowly escaping death while hunting, the King remembered the harsh treatment that St Dunstan had received at court. At Glastonbury he took St Dunstan by the hand gave him a kiss of peace and led him to the abbot’s throne.

In his position as Abbot of Glastonbury St Dunstan set about recreating the monastic life and rebuilding the abbey. He rebuilt the church of St Peter, the cloister and reestablished the monastic enclosure. Only two years later King Eadmond was assasinated, and was succeeded by Eadred. As Abbot of Glastonbury Dunstan was appointed guardian of the royal treasure. The new king encouraged the spread of regular Christian observance and the expulsion of heathendom. Dunstan became deeply involved in secular politics and incurred the enmity of the West Saxon nobles for denouncing their immorality and for urging peace with the Danes.

In 955 Eadred died and was succeeded by Eadwig. Different from his predecessor he was under the influence of two unprincipled women. After the coronation Dunstan discovered the king with his two harlots and was again forced to flee from the court. This time he took refuge at a Benedictine monastery in Ghent. He stayed in Ghent for a year during which time he came into contact with the reformed continental monasticism which was to inspire his vision of Benedictine perfection.

In 957, the nobles, unable to endure the excesses of Eadwig, drove him out. His successor Eadgar asked St Dunstan to return and appointed him Archbishop of Winchester. He received the pallium from Pope John XII in Rome in 960.

With his power as Archbishop he pushed forward reforms of Church and State to maintain order and respect for the law, and rebuilt many of the monasteries destroyed by the Danish invaders. Priests were required to live chastely, teach their parishioners the Catholic faith and handicrafts. The kindgom prospered under a peace that few had experienced before.

King Eadgar died in 975 and was succeeded by his eldest son Eadward. His stepmother disputed the succession preferring her son Æthelred to take the throne ,and civil war almost sprung up in the kingdom. King Eadward was assasinated at Corfe Castle and his step brother Æthelred the Unready became king. Dunstan gave him a solemn warning at his coronation of the misfortunes which would befall his reign. Saint Dunstan’s influence under the new monarch began to wane and he retired to Canterbury to teach at the cathedral school. He died on Sunday 19 May 988 three days after the Ascension Day Vigil. 

St. Dunstan’s life at Canterbury is characteristic; long hours, both day and night, were spent in private prayer, besides his regular attendance at Mass and the Office. Often he would visit the shrines of St. Augustine and St. Ethelbert, and we are told of a vision of angels who sang to him heavenly canticles. He worked ever for the spiritual and temporal improvement of his people, building and restoring churches, establishing schools, judging suits, defending the widow and the orphan, promoting peace, enforcing respect for purity. He practiced, also, his handicrafts, making bells and organs and correcting the books in the cathedral library. He encouraged and protected scholars of all lands who came to England, and was unwearied as a teacher of the boys in the cathedral school. There is a sentence in the earliest biography, written by his friend, that shows us the old man sitting among the lads, whom he treated so gently, and telling them stories of his early days and of his forebears.

St. Dunstan frequently visited the churches over the whole kingdom, everywhere preaching and instructing the faithful with great zeal. Such were the dignity and the eloquence with which he delivered the word of God, that few were so hardened as to withstand the power of his exhortations. He employed his revenues in relieving the poor, he reconciled differences, refuted errors, and laboured incessantly in extirpating vices and abuses. But neither the care of his church, nor the attendance he was obliged often to give to the state, made him ever forget to find time for holy prayer and retirement; and after the occupations of the day, he watched late at night in the private communications of his soul with God. Glastenbury was his dearest solitude, and thither he would often retire from the world to devote himself entirely to heavenly contemplation.

At Canterbury it was always his custom to visit in the night, even in the coldest weather, the church of St. Austin without the walls, and that of the Blessed Virgin adjoining to it. Finding himself taken ill in that city, he prepared himself for his last hour by redoubling his fervour in all his practices of penance and devotion. On the feast of the ascension of our Lord, he preached thrice on that triumphant mystery, exhorting all to follow our Redeemer and Head in spirit and desire. Whilst he spoke, his countenance, like that of Moses coming down from the mount, seemed to shine and dart forth rays of light. In the close of his last discourse, he begged the prayers of his audience, and told his flock that God called him from them. At which words all that heard him were filled with inexpressible grief. In the afternoon he went again to the church, and appointed a place for his burial; then he took to his bed, and on the Saturday following, the 19th of May, having received the viaticum, he calmly expired; closing his corporal eyes to the world, and at the same instant opening those of his soul to behold God with his angels in glory. His death happened the 19th of May, 988, the sixty-fourth year of his age, and the twenty-seventh of his archiepiscopal dignity.

A story relates how Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil’s hoof when he was asked to re-shoe the Devil’s horse. This caused the Devil great pain, and Dunstan only agreed to remove the shoe and release the Devil after he promised never to enter a place where a horseshoe is over the door. This is claimed as the origin of the lucky horseshoe.  Throughout the Middle Ages he was the patron of the goldsmiths’ guild. He is most often represented holding a pair of smith’s tongs; sometimes, in reference to his visions, he is shown with a dove hovering near him, or with a troop of angels before him. 

Image:  Dunstan and the Devil (6)


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