The History of Kent
Copyright Kent Past 2010
Dunstan was born in Baltonsborough circa. 909-
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.
The anonymous author of the earliest 'Life' places Dunstan's birth during the reign of Athelstan, while Osbern fixed it at the first year of the reign of King AEthelstan, 924 or 925. This date, however, cannot be reconciled with other known dates of Dunstan's life and creates many obvious anachronisms. Historians therefore assume that Dunstan was born c. 910 or earlier.
As a young boy, Dunstan studied under the Irish monks who then occupied the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Accounts tell of his youthful optimism and of his vision of the abbey being restored. While still a boy, Dunstan was stricken with a near-
Dunstan soon became a favourite of the king and was the envy of other members of the court. A plot was hatched to disgrace him and Dunstan was accused of being involved with witchcraft and black magic. The king ordered him to leave the court and as Dunstan was leaving the palace his enemies physically attacked him, beat him severely, bound him, and threw him into a cesspool. He managed to crawl out and make his way to the house of a friend. From there, he journeyed to Winchester and entered the service of his uncle, AElfheah, Bishop of Winchester.
The bishop tried to persuade him to become a monk, but Dunstan was doubtful whether he had a vocation to a celibate life. The answer came in the form of an attack of swelling tumours all over Dunstan's body. This ailment was so severe that it was thought to be leprosy. It was more probably some form of blood poisoning caused by being beaten and thrown in the cesspool. Whatever the cause, it changed Dunstan's mind. He took Holy Orders in 943, in the presence of Alfheah, and returned to live the life of a hermit at Glastonbury. Against the old church of St Mary he built a small cell five feet long and two and a half feet deep. It was there that Dunstan studied, worked at his handicrafts, and played on his harp. It is at this time, according to a late 11th Century legend, that the Devil is said to have tempted him, but St. Dunstan seized Satan's face with his smith's tongs.
Dunstan worked as a silversmith and in the scriptorium while he was living at Glastonbury. It is thought likely that he was the artist who drew the well-
Again, royal favour fostered jealousy among other courtiers and again Dunstan's enemies succeeded in their plots. The king was prepared to send Dunstan away. There were then at Cheddar certain envoys from the Eastern Kingdom, which probably meant East Anglia. Dunstan implored the envoys to take him with them when they returned to their homes. They agreed to do so, but it never happened. The story is recorded:
... 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 endeavoured 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.
Dunstan, now Abbot of Glastonbury, went to work at once on the task of reform. He had to re-
Dunstan's first care was to rebuild the Church of St. Peter, rebuild the cloister, and re-
Within two years of Dunstan's appointment, in 946, King Edmund was assassinated, and was succeeded by Eadred. The policy of the new government was supported by the Queen Mother, Eadgifu of Kent, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Oda, and by the East Anglian nobles, at whose head was the powerful ealdorman AEthelstan the Half-
In 955, Eadred died, and the situation was at once changed. Eadwig, the elder son of Edmund, who then came to the throne, was a headstrong youth wholly devoted to the reactionary nobles. According to one legend, the feud with Dunstan began on the day of Eadwig's coronation, when he failed to attend a meeting of nobles. When Dunstan eventually found the young monarch, he was cavorting with a noblewoman named Aelfgifu and her mother, and refused to return with the bishop. Infuriated by this, Dunstan dragged Eadwig back and forced him to renounce the girl as a strumpet. Later realizing that he had provoked the king, Dunstan fled to the apparent sanctuary of his cloister, but Eadwig, incited by AElfgifu, whom he married, followed him and plundered the monastery.
Although St Dunstan managed to escape, he saw that his life was in danger. He fled England and crossed the channel to Flanders, where he found himself ignorant of the language and of the customs of the locals. The count of Flanders, Arnulf I, received him with honour and lodged him in the Abbey of Mont Blandin, near Ghent. This was one of the centres of the Benedictine revival in that country, and Dunstan was able for the first time to observe the strict observance that had seen its rebirth at Cluny at the beginning of the century. His exile was not of long duration. Before the end of 957, the Mercians and Northumbrians revolted and drove out Eadwig, choosing his brother Edgar as king of the country north of the Thames. The south remained faithful to Eadwig. At once Edgar's advisers recalled Dunstan. On his return, the archbishop consecrated Dunstan a bishop and, on the death of Coenwald of Worcester at the end of 957, Oda appointed Dunstan to that see.
In the following year, the See of London became vacant and was conferred on Dunstan, who held it in conjunction with Worcester. In October 959, Eadwig died and his brother Edgar was readily accepted as ruler of Wessex. One of Eadwig's final acts 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 Byrhthelm, the Bishop of Wells. As soon as Edgar 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 then conferred on Dunstan.
Dunstan went to Rome in 960, and received the pallium from Pope John XII. On his journey there, St Dunstan's charities were so lavish as to leave nothing for himself and his attendants. His steward complained, but Dunstan seems to have suggested that they trust in Jesus Christ.
On his return from Rome, Dunstan at once regained his position as virtual prime minister of the kingdom. By his advice, AElfstan was appointed to the Bishopric of London, with Oswald to that of Worcester. In 963, AEthelwold, the Abbot of Abingdon, was appointed to the See of Winchester. With their aid and with the ready support of King Edgar, Dunstan pushed forward his reforms in the English Church. The monks in his communities were taught to live in a spirit of self-
In 973, Dunstan's statesmanship reached its zenith when he officiated at the coronation of King Edgar. Edgar was crowned at Bath in an imperial ceremony planned not as the initiation, but as the culmination of his reign (a move that must have taken a great deal of preliminary diplomacy). This service devised by St Dunstan himself and celebrated with a poem in the Anglo-
Edgar died two years after his coronation, and was succeeded by his eldest son Edward (II) 'the Martyr'. His accession was disputed by his stepmother, AElfthryth , who wished her own son AEthelred to reign. Through the influence of Dunstan, Eadward was chosen and crowned at Winchester.
Edgar's death had encouraged the reactionary nobles, and at once, there was a determined attack upon the monks, the protagonists of reform. Throughout Mercia, they were persecuted and deprived of their possessions. 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 of them, the floor of the hall where the Witan was sitting gave way, and all except Dunstan, who clung to a beam, fell into the room below, several men were killed.
In March 978, King Eadweard was assassinated at Corfe Castle, possibly at the instigation of his stepmother, and AEthelred the Unready became king. His coronation on Low Sunday 31 March 978 was the last state event in which Dunstan took part. When the young king took the usual oath to govern well, Dunstan addressed him in solemn warning. He criticised the violent act whereby he became king and prophesied the misfortunes that were shortly to fall on the kingdom, but St Dunstan's influence at court was ended. Dunstan retired to Canterbury, to teach at the cathedral school.
In 980, Dunstan joined AElfhere of Mercia in the solemn translation of the relics of King Eadward II, soon to be known as St Edward the Martyr, from their grave at Wareham to a shrine at Shaftesbury Abbey. In 984, in obedience to a vision of St Andrew, he persuaded King AEthelred to appoint AElfheah as Bishop of Winchester in succession to AEthelwold. In 986, Dunstan induced the king, by a donation of 100 pounds of silver, to stop his persecution of the See of Rochester.
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
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.
The monks of Glastonbury used to claim that during the sack of Canterbury by the Danes in 1012, Dunstan's body had been carried for safety to their abbey. This story was disproved by Archbishop William Warham, who opened the tomb at Canterbury in 1508. They found St Dunstan's relics still to be there.
Within a century, his shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation.
He functions as the patron saint of goldsmiths and silversmiths, as he worked as a blacksmith, painter, and jeweller. His Feast Day is 19 May, which is why the date year on hallmarks runs from 19 May to 18 May, not the calendar year.
St Dunstan's -
English literature contains many references to him, for example in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and in this folk rhyme:
St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull'd the devil by the nose
That he was heard three miles or more.
From this, the tongs have become a symbol of St Dunstan and are featured in the arms of Tower Hamlets.
Another story relates how Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devil's hoof when he was asked to re-
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