Above: Ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, 1890
Image Source = Library of Congress
Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ppmsc-08401
SAINT DUNSTAN OF CANTERBURY (909-MAY 19, 988)
Abbot of Glastonbury and Archbishop of Canterbury
St. Dunstan of Canterbury lived and worked in a political context different from that of the modern Western world. Ideas such as constitutional government and the separation of church and state were foreign to the England of the 900s. The Magna Carta, hardly the most democratic of documents, was centuries away, as was the concept that the monarch should not play an active role in ecclesiastical affairs. Indeed, the United Kingdom has adopted religious toleration yet not the separation of church and state in contemporary times.
St. Dunstan, born in Baltonsborough in 909, came from a West Saxon noble family. He studied at Glastonbury Abbey, where he learned music composition, painting, and mechanical arts, in which he was proficient. Our saint, as a young man, entered the service of Athelstan, King of the Anglo-Saxons from 924 to 927 then King of the English from 927 to 939. Petty jealousies in the royal court led to our saint’s exile from it. False allegations of practicing the black arts constituted the pretext for the exile; violent intimidation enforced it.
At this point St. Dunstan’s life took a crucial turn. He found refuge with a relative, Alphege, who served as the Bishop of Winchester from 934/935 to 951. Our saint, recovering from an attack of brain fever, became a monk and began to live as a hermit.
In time St. Dunstan’s life intersected with royalty again. King Edmund I (reigned 939-946) appointed him the royal treasurer. During the reign (946-955) of Edred our saint was the de facto ruler of the kingdom, governing ably and well. These duties overlapped with St. Dunstan’s job as the Abbot of Glastonbury (starting in 943). In that capacity our saint made the abbey school famous and renewed monastic life. Edred’s successor was Edwy (reigned 955-959), whose incestuous marriage St. Dunstan denounced. Our saint spent his exile (955-957) in Flanders. A rebellion among the Mercians and the Northumbrians made Edgar a rival monarch in 957-959 before he ruled as sole King of the English (959-975). Edgar recalled St. Dunstan and appointed him Bishop of Worcester (957-959), Bishop of London (958-960), and Archbishop of Canterbury (960-978), as well as a royal advisor.
St. Dunstan made his mark as Archbishop of Canterbury. He replaced married and other non-celibate priests with monks when possible. Our saint also reformed monasticism strictly according to the Rule of St. Benedict, rebuilt churches, and promoted education. His time as archbishop overlapped with the reign of King Edward the Martyr (reigned 975-978), the cause of death was murder. St. Dunstan retired shortly after participating in the coronation of Ethelred II the Unready (reigned 978-1013 and 1014-1016). England descended into political chaos despite St. Dunstan’s best efforts during the preceding decades to improve the kingdom.
St. Dunstan enjoyed a quiet and productive retirement. He lived in Canterbury, where he taught at the cathedral school, painted, composed music, made musical instruments, founded bells, and practiced calligraphy. He died on May 19, 988.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
FEBRUARY 15, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF THE NEW MARTYRS OF LIBYA, 2015
THE FEAST OF ALEXANDER VIETS GRISWOLD, PRESIDING BISHOP OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
THE FEAST OF FRANCIS HAROLD ROWLEY, NORTHERN BAPTIST MINISTER, HUMANITARIAN, AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF THOMAS BRAY, ANGLICAN PRIEST
O God of truth and beauty, you richly endowed your bishop Dunstan
with skill in music and the working of metals,
and with gifts of administration and reforming zeal:
Teach us, we pray, to see you in the source of all our talents,
and move us to offer them for the adornment of worship
and the advancement of true religion,
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
—Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 377