The Anglican Cathedral of Second Life

Saint Dunstan

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On Thursday we remembered Dunstan who became Archbishop of Canterbury and a very influential adviser to kings of England. He worked to restore monastic life in England after it had suffered as a result of Viking attacks on the monasteries. The readings were Psalm 57, Ephesians 5:15-20 and Matthew 24:42-47. Dunstan’s story follows:

Today we remember Dunstan who became a great saint in the Anglo-Saxon Church, revered for two centuries until displaced by Thomas a Becket in the nation’s affections.

Dunstan was born on the estate of his father Heorstan, a Wessex nobleman, at Baltonsborough in Somerset. The estate is just a few miles from Glastonbury. Heorstan was brother of the Bishop of Wells and the Bishop of Winchester. He was also of royal blood. Dunstan’s mother, Cynethryth, was known as a saintly woman. There is a legend that she was told about the future saintliness of the child she was carrying. She was in St Mary’s Church on Candlemas. The candles held by the congregation were suddenly all blown out and then Cynethryth’s candle relit. Everyone there then lit their candle from this miraculous flame. The message was conveyed that the child would be a minister of eternal light in the church.

There is considerable debate about when Dunstan was born but the best estimates put the date at 909 or 910 AD, around 10 years after King Alfred died. Glastonbury was a place of pilgrimage in this period, being traditionally associated with Joseph of Arimathea and being thought of as the first place in which Christians settled in Britain. However, as with other abbeys, it had been affected by Viking invasions and monasticism had died out. Irish monks continued to live in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey and it was there that Dunstan was taken by his father to be educated. Dunstan was an enthusiastic student who learnt quickly in all areas of knowledge. He also showed proficiency in craftsmanship. He is said to have had a vision of the abbey restored to its former glory. During this time Dunstan suffered a severe illness but made a miraculous recovery.
Dunstan’s enthusiasm for learning resulted in his going to enter the service of Athelm his uncle, Archbishop of Canterbury. Later he was appointed to the court of King Athelstan. Dunstan became a favourite of the king and this attracted the envy of others at court. They arranged to get rid of him by claiming he studied magic. He was eventually ordered to leave the court. As he left, his accusers captured him, beat him and threw him into a pit which may have been a cesspool. Once he had escaped he went to Winchester and entered the service of Bishop Aelfheah, his uncle. The bishop wanted Dunstan to become a monk but he was not sure if this was his vocation. He changed his mind after suffering from swelling tumours all over his body, thought to possibly be leprosy, which may have been the result of his time in the cesspit.

Dunstan made his profession as a monk to Aelfheah and then returned to Glastonbury. He built a hut beside St Mary’s church and lived a simple life as a hermit. There he studied, played his harp and worked on his handicrafts, particularly casting church bells and painting. He is also said to have been skilled in lettering. A manuscript which Dunstan illuminated still exists in the British Museum. A legend tells of the devil coming to tempt Dunstan in his cell. In response Dunstan seized the devil’s face with his metal working tongs. A folk poem recalls this:

St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more

Dunstan’s fame spread and when King Athelstan died, King Edmund summoned him to court as a priest. Jealousy in others once again was the response. Edmund had made arrangements to send Dunstan away from court but then a miracle changed his mind. While out hunting his horse hurtled towards the edge of a cliff in pursuit of a stag and hounds. Edmund anticipated death and promised God that he would change his treatment of Dunstan. The horse stopped, and Edmund gave thanks to God. He returned to his palace and asked Dunstan to follow him. They went to Glastonbury where the king went into the church and prayed in front of the altar. He then took Dunstan to the abbot’s throne and seated him there. Edmund promised to help Dunstan to restore the abbey and its worshipping life.

Dunstan established Benedictine monasticism at Glastonbury. He set about rebuilding St Peter’s Church and the cloister and monastic enclosure. His brother Wulfric looked after the secular affairs of the abbey. A school was begun for the local boys and soon became famous. Glastonbury became a leading centre of learning, resulting in well educated priests being available to travel throughout Britain and re-establish monasteries. For this work Dunstan was able to use the fortune he inherited from his father and also that of Lady Athelflaed, the niece of King Athelstan, to whom Dunstan had been adviser.

After two years King Edmund was assassinated. His successor, Eadred, was very supportive of Dunstan’s ideas for reform in the church, particularly the moral reform of the clergy and the rebuilding of churches. Dunstan negotiated with the Danes and helped establish peace. Dunstan’s own family were not supportive of his ideas, preferring the status quo which favoured them. Dunstan’s fortunes changed yet again when King Eadwig, a 16 year old, succeeded to the throne. At the urging of Archbishop Oda, Dunstan found and rebuked him for cavorting with noblewoman, Aelfgifu, on the day of his coronation when he should have been at a feast with his nobles. Dunstan’s rebuke resulted in his property being confiscated and his exile from Britain. He was received by Arnulf I, count of Flanders, who gave him lodging in the Abbey of Mont Blandin near Ghent. This gave Dunstan an opportunity to see the strict application of the Rule of Benedict.

A revolt by the nobles of Mercia and Northumbria ensured that Eadwig was deposed and his brother Edgar made king north of the River Thames, although the south of the country remained loyal to Eadwig. Dunstan was recalled and made a bishop, becoming Bishop of Worcester in 957. A year later he became Bishop of London also. Edgar and Dunstan worked together to reform and expand the monasteries of Britain including Malmesbury, Westminster, Bath, Exeter. When Eadwig died in 960, Edgar ruled the whole country and made Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury, a position which allowed him to continue to develop the monastic life of the country and the level of scholarship in the church.

Dunstan’s position was one of great influence, equivalent to that of a Prime Minister. He advised on who should be bishop in the most influential sees and then with the support of these bishops was able to continue to reform the church. Monks were taught to live a sacrificial, celibate life. In 970 Dunstan hosted a meeting of bishops, abbots and abbesses to draw up a code of conduct for monasteries which caused them to be active in their local communities. Church appointments could no longer be sold and nor could those in clerical office appoint members of their family to important positions. Parish priests had to be well versed in scripture to qualify them for office and were required to teach the faith and also trades so that their parishioners could progress in life. There was a time of unprecedented peace in the land with bands of police watching over the north of the country and a navy guarding against invasion.

Dunstan was given responsibility for Edgar’s coronation in 973. He designed the coronation crown. He also wrote the coronation liturgy to bring it in line with the ordination of priests. This emphasised the link between the king and the church. This liturgy is the basis of coronations to this day. Edgar died two years later, to be succeeded by his son Edward who also benefited from Dunstan’s advice. Edward was murdered in 978 and his brother Ethelred became king. Ethelred’s coronation was Dunstan’s last state event.

Dunstan spent his time at Canterbury, praying privately and attending mass and the daily office. He continued to work for the good of the people, building churches and establishing schools, supporting widows and orphans and promoting peace. He continued to practise his crafts, making bells and organs and correcting the books in the cathedral library. He taught in the cathedral school and encouraged European scholars to visit England. The earliest biography of Dunstan tells of him sitting with the boys of the school telling them stories of his early life and previous Archbishops. Children are said to have prayed to him for protection from harsh teachers for many years after his death and to have found their prayer answered.

On the eve of Ascension Day 988 he received an angelic vision which told him he would die in three days. On the day he preached three times in the cathedral and told his congregation of his impending death. In the afternoon he chose where his tomb should be and then went to bed. On the morning of Saturday 19 May his clergy assembled and Mass was celebrated. He was given the last rites. His last words were: “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.” Having said this he died.

Dunstan’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage with the people soon considering him to be a saint. He was actually canonised in 1029. He is the patron saint of goldsmiths, silversmiths, locksmiths, musicians, blacksmiths, armourers and gunsmiths. For us, he is a wonderful example of someone who focused on bringing about reform in a church which had lost its way, helping the Christians of his day, both lay and ordained, to live an authentic Christian life.


Author: Helene Milena

Teacher, retired counsellor, wife, mother and grandmother.

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