|St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury|
Celebrated: 19 May (England)
17 May (Portsmouth)
It has been said that St Dunstan was one of the three makers of England before the Norman Conquest: the others being King Alfred and King Athelstan. Dunstan himself was connected with the royal family of Wessex. Born in about the year 909, Dunstan received his schooling at Glastonbury, and as a youth was a member of King Athelstan’s court, which was itself a rich source of education, for there were many contacts there with the Continent, Wales and Scotland. Dunstan was a serious young man, avid for books and learning, but also fascinated by the arts, especially music and the illumination of manuscripts, and furthermore skilled in many kinds of handicraft. He is the patron of goldsmiths and workers in metals. Perhaps as a result of all these talents, he frequently aroused opposition among his peers. At the age of 26 he was dismissed the Court, and went to stay with the Bishop of Winchester, Ælfheah, who deserves the credit for starting Dunstan on his life’s work. Bishop Ælfheah dreamed of a revival of Benedictine monasticism in England, then at a very low ebb, and saw in Dunstan the man to do this. Dunstan however was not so sure. He preferred his life of reflection, study and artistic work – and was also considering getting married. But a severe illness brought him to a point of decision, and on his recovery he joined the monastery at Glastonbury. Bishop Ælfheah clothed him with the habit and later ordained him priest.
Three years later, in 939, King Athelstan died, and was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund, a youth of eighteen, who immediately recalled Dunstan to act as his special adviser. A second time he provoked jealousy, and the King was forced to dismiss him; but Edmund had a change of heart following a narrow escape from death while out hunting in Cheddar, and finding the courage of his convictions straightaway appointed Dunstan abbot of Glastonbury.
This has rightly been seen as a turning point in the religious history of England. Dunstan was about thirty, and he was abbot for at least thirteen years. He began by adding to and improving the Abbey buildings, and included the provision of workshops for arts and crafts. More vital, he set about reintroducing the Rule of St Benedict, with its disciplined way of life for monks, and its insistence on stability, prayer (especially in choir), study and manual work. He was seeking to restore the ancient English tradition of Bede, Cuthbert and Aldhelm.
While at Glastonbury, Dunstan was still in touch with public affairs. In 946 King Edmund was murdered; Dunstan went on to be counsellor to the next king, Eadred. But in 955 Eadred died, and his successor Eadwig, a mere youth, was indifferent to good advice, to say the least. He disgraced himself at his coronation feast by leaving his guests and going to amuse himself with the young lady whom he eventually married. Dunstan had to bring him back to the feast by main force. Once again he had made enemies, and for the third time he was banished from Court. This time he went to Flanders for a year or so, where he had first-hand experience of the work of monastic reform being achieved in Ghent.
Eadwig’s indifference to his responsibilities brought about his downfall. Mercia and Northumbria were in revolt, and elected his brother Edgar as King in the Midlands and North. Edgar immediately called Dunstan to his side, and there began a partnership between King and Bishop which was to be highly significant for the development of the Church in England. That same year (957) Dunstan became Bishop of Worcester, and two years later he was transferred to London. Then Eadwig died, and Edgar was undisputed King of the whole country. In 960 he appointed Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury.
The new archbishop was not only the King’s principal adviser; the work of monastic renewal could now go on apace. Dunstan was the controlling spirit, the King gave constant support, other bishops, particularly Oswald of Worcester and Æthelwold of Winchester, were active in reform. The most significant development was the drawing up of the Regularis Concordia, a document prescribing a uniform rule of observance of Benedictine life, to be adopted by all monasteries in England.
Dunstan still kept in touch with Glastonbury, which produced many pastors, abbots and bishops imbued with the ideals of renewal. One such was Æthelgar, successively Abbot of Winchester, Bishop of Selsey, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury on Dunstan’s death.
Throughout the reign of Edgar, known as “the Peaceful”, Dunstan was at the king’s side. Elements of Edgar’s Coronation Service, devised by Dunstan, have endured right down to the present day. Edgar died in 975, and again there were rival claimants to the throne, the half-brothers Edward and Ethelred. Dunstan supported the claim of the elder brother Edward, but in 978 the unfortunate young man was murdered at Corfe Castle, and Ethelred (“the Unready”) succeeded. From then on Dunstan withdrew more and more from affairs of state, and for the last ten years of his life he devoted himself to the care of his diocese. He died on 19th May 988, and was immediately acclaimed as a Saint. His last words were a quotation from Psalm 110, sung at Sunday Vespers: “The merciful and gracious Lord hath made remembrance of his wonderful works; he hath given food to them that fear him.”
Dunstan had made many of the wonderful works of God a reality for the English people. The quality of English life, religious, political, cultural and artistic, was the richer because of him. At Mayfield, where he had established a hospice for travellers, he built a wooden church. The story is told that when he came to dedicate it he found it incorrectly orientated; but a slight pressure of his shoulder brought the building into line. Be that as it may, one thing is very clear: amid all the activity of an immensely busy life, Dunstan was always first and foremost a man of prayer. “One thing at least of my own knowledge I can declare”, wrote his earliest biographer, “although he had spent his years here below under the veil of flesh, yet in spirit, whether awake or asleep, he lived always above this world, for ‘his homeland was in heaven’.”