Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury

May 19 is the Commemoration of Saint Dunstan, Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey.
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Dunstan (909 – 19 May 988) was an Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey (940-957), a Bishop of Worcester (957-960), a Bishop of London (958-960), and an Archbishop of Canterbury (960-978), later canonised as a saint. His work restored monastic life in England and reformed the English Church. He retired to Canterbury in 978.

“Dunstan’s retirement at Canterbury consisted of long hours, both day and night, spent in private prayer, as well as his regular attendance at Mass and the daily office.
He visited the shrines of St Augustine and St Æthelberht, and there are reports of a vision of angels who sang to him heavenly canticles. He worked to improve the spiritual and temporal well-being of his people, to build and restore churches, to establish schools, to judge suits, to defend widows and orphans, to promote peace, and to enforce respect for purity. He practised his crafts, made bells and organs and corrected the books in the cathedral library. He encouraged and protected European scholars who came to England, and was active as a teacher of boys in the cathedral school. On the vigil of Ascension Day 988, it is recorded that a vision of angels warned he would die in three days. On the feast day itself, Dunstan said Mass and preached three times to the people: at the Gospel, at the benediction, and after the Agnus Dei. In this last address, he announced his impending death and wished his congregation well. That afternoon he chose the spot for his tomb, then went to his bed. His strength failed rapidly, and on Saturday morning, 19 May, he caused the clergy to assemble. Mass was celebrated in his presence, then he received Extreme Unction and the Viaticum, and died. Dunstan’s final words are reported to have been, “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.”
The English people accepted him as a saint shortly thereafter. He was formally canonised in 1029. That year at the Synod of Winchester, St Dunstan’s feast was ordered to be kept solemnly throughout England.”
Dunstan icon
“St. Dunstan was born into a noble Wessex family whose property lay close by Glastonbury Abbey. Although monastic life was scarcely in evidence, Glastonbury’s tradition as Britain’s oldest Christian settlement still attracted numerous pilgrims, and its well-stocked library accounted for some Irish scholars in residence. There Dunstan received a good education before joining his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at the court of King Athelstan. Another relative, Aelfheah “the Bald,” who later became Bishop of Winchester, encouraged the youth to become a monk. Dunstan had his eyes on marriage, but he became afflicted with a skin disease which he feared was leprosy, and when he recovered he acted upon his relative’s suggestion and was tonsured.
Returning to Glastonbury, Dunstan built a small cell adjoining the “Old Church,” and there he occupied himself with prayer, study and manual labor, showing a talent for fine metal work in his crafting of bells and church vessels. (In the Roman Church tradition, he became the patron saint of goldsmiths and jewelers.) His musical ability was reflected in the hymns he composed. He also spent time in the scriptorium, copying and illuminating manuscripts. Among his peers, he was considered to be a mystic. Nurtured partly in the strictly ascetic Celtic tradition, he concentrated on the inner spiritual warfare and wrestled with visible demons and heard mysterious, heavenly voices. One of his contemporaries wrote that when he sang at the altar he seemed to be talking with the Lord face to face.

Athelstan’s successor, King Edmund, recalled Dunstan to the court as a priest, but jealousy soon conspired to disgrace the monk. He was about to leave the country when the King, in a narrow brush with death while out hunting, had a sudden revelation of Dunstan’s innocence. In making amends, he granted Dunstan some land and, in 943, appointed him abbot of Glastonbury, charging him with the renewal of its monastic life.

One of Dunstan’s first steps as abbot was to reintroduce monastic discipline using the Rule of St. Benedict (+ 547). He enlarged the church and other buildings and bolstered the abbey’s reputation as a center of learning. Students at the school were taught by professed monks and were expected to participate in the daily monastic observances. This preparation provided a good crop of candidates for monasticism. Soon Glastonbury became a spearhead for a widespread monastic revival.

The period of St. Dunstan’s reforms coincided providentially with a change in England’s political fortunes: the death of Eric “Bloodaxe” of Norway in the late 940’s opened the possibility for England’s unification, and the country entered a quarter century of peace. Dunstan continued to enjoy royal patronage under Edmund’s successor, Eadred (946-55) and, as one of his closest advisors, he helped to conciliate the Danes.

As a statesman, Dunstan’s zeal for moral reform and his promotion of monastic interests were resented by some of the West Saxon nobles, and they were only too glad when he was exiled by King Eadwig, although the king’s motive was hardly political: the 16 year-old monarch had slipped away from his coronation banquet and was severely chastised by Abbot Dunstan–no respecter of persons–when he found him sequestered in a room with two women, mother and daughter, both making overtures with an eye to marriage. Resentful of such a reproof, Eadwig deprived Dunstan of his property and forced him out of the country, casting uncertainty over the future of England’s monastic revival.

Dunstan found refuge in a monastery in Ghent, where he scarcely had time to observe the reformed type of continental monasticism before he was recalled to England by Eadwig’s half-brother Edgar (“the Peaceable”, 959-75), who had been elected ruler by the Mercians and Northumbrians. It was Edgar’s ambition to restore all the great monasteries of England, and the partnership of these two ardent reformers shifted the monastic revival into high gear. Dunstan became successively Bishop of Worcester and London, and, in 960, after Eadwig’s death, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Monarch and hierarch were assisted in their’ campaign by two very able and saintly men: Ethelwold and Oswald of York. It was Ethelwold who was primarily responsible for drawing up the Regularis Concordia (c. 970), a common rule for monasteries. The English reformers were not innovators; the rule followed closely that of St. Benedict. From it there emerges a picture of the rigorous daily life of a tenth-century English monk: in winter he was roused at 2:30 AM for the first service of the day; two hours each morning were occupied in manual labor, the rest of the day was devoted to the cycle of services; five hours a day were spent in prayer, psalms singing and scriptural reading; the day ended at 6:30 PM. In summer the day was extended by an hour at each end.

There were, however, some unique features in the English rule: prayers were offered daily for the king, and an attempt was made to integrate monasteries into the life of the people. It was Dunstan’s aim that the monastic reform should encourage personal piety among the laity as well, and he attached great importance to the monastic schools.

As Edgar’s advisor, Dunstan persuaded him to defer his coronation until he reached the age of thirty. Dunstan himself composed the rite, shifting the emphasis from the crowing to the anointing, which gave it a sacred character and suggested strong parallels to the consecration of a priest, forging a mystical link with the ancient Hebrews and cementing the relationship between Church and Crown. It is said that Dunstan attended to all the details of the service, down to making the crown, its four equal sides representing the City of God. The form of the rite is still used in the coronation of England’s kings.
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After Edgar’s untimely death, Dunstan continued as advisor to his teen-age son Edward. But resentment at the Crown’s extensive land grants to the Church inspired a certain anti-monastic faction of nobles to support Edward’s more malleable younger brother Ethelred. Edward was viciously murdered and Dunstan withdrew from the affairs of state to concentrate on his pastoral duties there at Canterbury and his personal service to God. Even as he grew old, it was his delight to teach the boys of the cathedral school. He was, it seems, a gentle master. and after his death the boys would invoke the aid of their “sweet Father Dunstan” to mitigate the corporal punishment which was so readily meted out in those days.

After celebrating the Divine Liturgy on the Feast of Ascension, 988, St. Dunstan preached a sermon in which he foretold that within the next three days he would die. He indicated the place he wished to be buried and, on the second day, May 19, after having communed of the Holy Mysteries, his soul departed to the Lord. His last words, according to tradition, were those of the Psalmist: The merciful and gracious Lord hath made a remembrance of His marvelous works; He hath given food to them that fear Him.
In the Chronicle, the entry for 988 says simply “In this year…the holy Archbishop Dunstan departed this life and attained the heavenly.””

“In Old English liturgical books, there was this blessing sung by the Bishop over the people during the Canon of the Mass on St. Dunstan’s feast day: “May God, the enlightener of all ages, Who made the illustrious and exalted hierarch Dunstan to shine brightly like one of the Apostles, make you to be filled with every heavenly blessing through his righteous prayers, that following in the footsteps of so radiant a forebear, ye may become people that ascend the ladder to heaven. People: Amen. And may He that granted him such noble standing with Himself that being reverenced and glorified by all the people he might blossom as an unsurpassed and angelic patron for all the English, Himself kindle the ardour of your hopes towards that place where this magnificent Saint flourisheth amidst a choir of Angels. People: Amen. And may ye that glory to be honoured with such a sublime patron, being filled with great joy by his miracles and illumined by his teachings, attain this from the Lord: that ye may be reunited with him in the kingdom of heaven. Amen. Which may He deign to grant, Whose kingdom & dominion abideth without end, unto the ages of ages. Amen. May the blessing of God almighty, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, come down upon you and remain forever. Amen.”

“Archbishop and confessor, and one of the greatest saints of the Anglo-Saxon Church; born 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 favor, 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 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.

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 favorite 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 endeavored 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 tumors 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.
dunstan tongs
While Dunstan was living thus at Glastonbury he became the trusted adviser of the Lady Aethelflaed, King Aethelstan’s niece, and at her death found himself in control of all her great wealth, which he used in later life to foster and encourage the monastic revival. About the same time his father Heorstan died, and St. Dunstan inherited his possessions also.
He was now become a person of much influence, and on the death of King Aethelstan in 940, the new King, Eadmund, summoned him to his court at Cheddar and numbered him among his councilors. Again the royal favor roused against him the jealousy of the courtiers, and they contrived so to enrage the king against him that he bade him depart from the court.

There were then at Cheddar certain envoys from the “Eastern Kingdom”, by which term may be meant either East Anglia or, as some have argued, the Kingdom of Saxony. To these St. Dunstan applied, imploring them to take him with them when they returned. They agreed to do so, but in the event their assistance was not needed. For, a few days later, the king rode out to hunt the stag in Mendip Forest. He became separated from his attendants and followed a stag at great speed in the direction of the Cheddar cliffs. The stag rushed blindly over the precipice and was followed by the hounds. Eadmund endeavored vainly to stop his horse; then, seeing death to be imminent, he remembered his harsh treatment of St. Dunstan and promised to make amends if his life was spared. At that moment his horse was stopped on the very edge of the cliff. Giving thanks to God, he returned forthwith to his palace, called for St. Dunstan and bade him follow, then rode straight to Glastonbury. Entering the church, the king first knelt in prayer before the altar, then, taking St. Dunstan by the hand, he gave him the kiss of peace, led him to the abbot’s throne and, seating him thereon, promised him all assistance in restoring Divine worship and regular observance.
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 centers 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. But that the Rule of St. Benedict was the basis of his restoration is not only definitely stated by his first biographer, who knew the saint well, but is also in accordance with the nature of his first measures as abbot, with the significance of his first buildings, and with the Benedictine prepossessions and enthusiasm of his most prominent disciples. And the presence of secular clerks as well as of monks at Glastonbury seems to be no solid argument against the monastic character of the revival.

St. Dunstan’s first care was to reerect the church of St. Peter, rebuild the cloister, and re-establish the monastic enclosure. The secular affairs of the house were committed to his brother Wulfric, “so that neither himself nor any of the professed monks might break enclosure”. A school for the local youth was founded and soon became the most famous of its time in England.

But St. Dunstan was not long left in peace. Within two years after the appointment King Eadmund was assassinated (946). His successor, Eadred, appointed the Abbot of Glastonbury guardian of the royal treasure of the realm to his hands. The policy of the government was supported by the queen-mother, Eadgifu, by the primate, Oda, and by the East Anglian party, at whose head was the great ealddorman, Aethelstan, the “Half-king”. It was a policy of unification, of conciliation of the Danish half of the nation, of firm establishment of the royal authority. In ecclesiastical matters it favored the spread of regular observance, the rebuilding of churches, the moral reform of the secular clergy and laity, the extirpation of heathendom. Against all this ardor of reform was the West-Saxon party, which included most of the saint’s own relations and the Saxon nobles, and which was not entirely disinterested in its preference for established customs.

For nine years St. Dunstan’s influence was dominant, during which period he twice refused an bishopric (that of Winchester in 951 and Credition in 953), affirming that he would not leave the king’s side so long as he lived and needed him.

In 955 Eadred died, and the situation was at once changed. Eadwig, the elder son of Eadmund, who then came to the throne, was a dissolute and headstrong youth, wholly devoted to the reactionary party and entirely under the influence of two unprincipled women. These were Aethelgifu, a lady of high rank, who was perhaps the king’s foster-mother, and her daughter Aelfgifu, whom she desired to marry to Eadwig.
On the day of his coronation, in 956, the king abruptly quit the royal feast, in order to enjoy the company of these two women. The indignation of the assembled nobles was voiced by Archbishop Oda, who suggested that he should be brought back. None, however, were found bold enough to make the attempt save St. Dunstan and his kinsman Cynesige, Bishop of Lichfield. Entering the royal chamber they found Eadwig with the two harlots, the royal crown thrown carelessly on the ground. They delivered their message, and as the king took no notice, St. Dunstan compelled him to rise and replace his crown on his head, then, sharply rebuking the two women, he led him back to the banquet-hall.

Aethelgifu determined to be revenged, and left no stone unturned to procure the overthrow of St. Dunstan. Conspiring with the leaders of the West-Saxon party she was soon able to turn his scholars against the abbot and before long induced Eadwig to confiscate all Dunstan’s property in her favor.

At first Dunstan took refuge with his friends, but they too felt the weight of the king’s anger. Then seeing his life was threatened he fled the realm and crossed over to Flanders, where he found himself ignorant alike of the language and of the customs of the inhabitants. But the ruler of Flanders, Count Arnulf I, received him with honour and lodged him in the Abbey of Mont Blandin, near Ghent.
This was one of the centers of the Benedictine revival in that country, and St. Dunstan was able for the first time to observe the strict observance that had had its renascence at Cluny at the beginning of the century. But his exile was not of long duration. Before the end of 957 the Mercians and Northumbrians unable no longer to endure the excesses of Eadwig, revolted and drove him out, choosing his brother Eadzar as king of all the country north of the Thames. The south remained faithful to Eadwig.

At once Eadgar’s advisers recalled St. Dunstan, caused Archbishop Oda to consecrate him a bishop, and on the death of Cynewold of Worcester at the end of 957 appointed the saint to that see. In the following year the See of London also became vacant and was conferred on St. Dunstan, who held it in conjunction with Worcester.

In October, 959, Eadwig died and his brother was readily accepted as ruler of the West-Saxon kingdom. One of the last acts of Eadwig had been to appoint a successor to Archbishop Oda, who died on 2 June, 958. First he appointed Aelfsige of Winchester, but he perished of cold in the Alps as he journeyed to Rome for the pallium. In his place Eadwig nominated Brithelm, Bishop of Wells. As soon as Eadgar became king he reversed this act on the ground that Brithelm had not been able to govern even his former diocese properly. The archbishopric was conferred on St. Dunstan, who went to Rome 960 and received the pallium from Pope John XII. We are told that, on his journey thither, the saint’s charities were so lavish as to leave nothing for himself and his attendants. The steward remonstrated, but St. Dunstan merely suggested trust in Jesus Christ. That same evening he was offered the hospitality of a neighboring abbot.

On his return from Rome Dunstan at once regained his position as virtual ruler of the kingdom. By his advice Aelfstan was appointed to the Bishopric of London, and St. Oswald to that of Worcester. In 963 St. Aethelwold, the Abbot of Abingdon, was appointed to the See of Winchester.

With their aid and with the ready support of King Eadgar, St. Dunstan pushed forward his reforms in Church and State. Throughout the realm there was good order maintained and respect for law. Trained bands policed the north, a navy guarded the shores from Danish pirates. There was peace in the kingdom such as had not been known within memory of living man. Monasteries were built, in some of the great cathedrals ranks took the place of the secular canons; in the rest the canons were obliged to live according to rule. The parish priests were compelled to live chastely and to fit themselves for their office; they were urged to teach parishioners not only the truths of the Catholic Faith, but also such handicrafts as would improve their position. So for sixteen years the land prospered.
In 973 the seal was put on St. Dunstan’s statesmanship by the solemn coronation of King Eadgar at Bath by the two Archbishops of Canterbury and York. It is said that for seven years the king had been forbidden to wear his crown, in penance for violating a virgin living in the care of the nunnery of Wilton. That some severe penance had been laid on him for this act by St. Dunstan is undoubted, but it took place in 961 and Eadgar wore no crown till the great day at Bath in 973.

Two years after his crowning Eadgar died, and was succeeded by his eldest son Eadward. His accession was disputed by his step-mother, Aelfthryth, who wished her own son Aethelred to reign. But, by the influence of St. Dunstan, Eadward was chosen and crowned at Winchester. But the death of Eadgar had given courage to the reactionary party. At once there was an determined attack upon the monks, the protagonists of reform. Throughout Mercia they were persecuted and deprived of their possessions by Aelfhere, the ealdorman. Their cause, however, was supported by Aethelwine, the ealdorman of East Anglia, and the realm was in serious danger of civil war.

Three meetings of the Witan were held to settle these disputes, at Kyrtlington, at Calne, and at Amesbury. At the second place the floor of the hall (solarium) where the Witan was sitting gave way, and all except St. Dunstan, who clung to a beam, fell into the room below, not a few being killed. In March, 978, King Eadward was assassinated at Corfe Castle, possibly at the instigation of his step-mother, and Aetheled the Redeless became king. His coronation on Low Sunday, 978, was the last action of the state in which St. Dunstsn took part. When the young king took the usual oath to govern well, the primate addressed him in solemn warning, rebuking the bloody act whereby he became king and prophesying the misfortunes that were shortly to fall on the realm.

But Dunstan’s influence at court was ended. He retired to Canterbury, where he spent the remainder of his life. Thrice only did he emerge from this retreat: once in 980 when he joined Aelfhere of Mercia in the solemn translation of the relics of King Eadward from their mean grave at Wareham to a splendid tomb at Shaftesbury Abbey; again in 984 when, in obedience to a vision of St. Andrew, he persuaded Aethelred to appoint St. Aelfheah to Winchester in succession to St. Aethelwold; once more in 986, when he induced the king, by a donation of 100 pounds of silver, to desist from his persecution of the See of Rochester.
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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.
dunstan book
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. And long after his death we are told of children who prayed to him for protection against harsher teachers, and whose prayers were answered.

On the vigil of Ascension Day, 988 he was warned by a vision of angels that he had but three days to live. On the feast itself he pontificated at Mass and preached three times to the people: once at the Gospel, a second time at the benediction (then given after the Pater Noster), and a third time after the Agnus Dei. In this last address he announced his impending death and bade them farewell. That afternoon he chose the spot for his tomb, then took to his bed. His strength failed rapidly, and on Saturday morning (19 May), after the hymn at Matins, he caused the clergy to assemble. Mass was celebrated in his presence, then he received Extreme Unction and the Holy Viaticum, and expired as he uttered the words of thanksgiving: “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.”

They buried him in his cathedral; and when that was burnt down in 1074, his relics were translated with great honor by Lanfranc to a tomb on the south side of the high altar in the new church. The monks of Glastonbury used to claim that during the sack of Canterbury by the Danes in 1012, the saint’s body had been carried for safety to their abbey; but this claim was disproved by Archbishop Warham, by whom the tomb at Canterbury was opened in 1508 and the holy relics found.
At the Synod of Winchester in 1029, St. Dunstan’s feast was ordered to be kept solemnly throughout England on 19 May. Until his fame was overshadowed by that of St. Thomas the Martyr, he was the favorite saint of the English people. His shrine was destroyed at the Reformation.
dunstan print
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.”
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For the Relics of St Dunstan, see:


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