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The Oxford Dictionary of Saints

David Hugh Farmer



Benedictine monk and reformer, archbishop of Canterbury. Born at Baltonsborough, near Glastonbury, of a noble family with royal connections, he was educated at Glastonbury, joined the household of his uncle Athelm, archbishop of Canterbury, and then the court of King Athelstan. In 935, accused of ‘studying the vain poems and futile stories of the pagans and of being a magician’, he was expelled from court. He now nearly got married, but instead made private monastic vows and was ordained priest by Elphege, bishop of Winchester, on the same day as his friend Ethelwold. He then returned to Glastonbury, living as a hermit and practising the crafts of painting, embroidery, and metalwork. In 939 Edmund became king of Wessex, recalled Dunstan to court, and after a narrow escape from death while hunting near Cheddar Gorge, installed him as abbot of Glastonbury, endowing the monastery generously. The Danish invasions and the hostility of the local magnates had previously extinguished monastic life in England. This restoration, under the Rule of St Benedict, was to be one of Dunstan's principal achievements: it began in 940; from that date until 1539 Benedictine life in England continued without interruption. Dunstan attracted disciples, enlarged the buildings, and gave new life to an establishment of great antiquity.

Under King Edred (946–55) Dunstan was entrusted with part of the royal treasure, which he kept at Glastonbury, and was left £200 in the king's will for the people of Somerset and Devon. Edred, like Edmund, was buried at Glastonbury. With the accession of Edwy in 955 Dunstan's fortunes changed again. His enemies at court contrived his exile: he went to Mont Blandin (Ghent) and there saw for the first time a monastery of the reformed continental type, of which he had heard at Athelstan's court. He was recalled by King Edgar, who made him in 957 bishop of Worcester, in 959 bishop of London, and in 960 archbishop of Canterbury. Thus began the fruitful collaboration between king and archbishop which reformed the Church in England largely through the monastic Order, and was regarded after the Conquest as a ‘golden age’. Dunstan was personally responsible for the reform of Glastonbury, Malmesbury, Bath, Athelney, Muchelney, and Westminster; his friends Ethelwold and Oswald were made bishops; and the promulgation of the Regularis Concordia in c.970 marked the success of the movement he had started at Glastonbury years before. Important features of this monasticism were its close dependence on the royal power for protection, not least against the local lay lords, its liturgical additions, including prayers for the royal family, and its insistence on the importance of the scriptorium and the workshops.

Dunstan's influence spread far wider than the monastic Order. He was a zealous diocesan bishop; he insisted on the observance of marriage laws and on fasting; he built and repaired churches and often acted as judge; he also inspired some of Edgar's laws, especially the codes of Wihtbordecctan and of Andover. The former contains a passage in which the archbishop and the king together command the payment of tithes. The laws of Andover command Peter-pence and other church taxes to be paid with heavy fines for neglecting them, and enjoin the practice of some handicraft on every priest. Dunstan had a considerable personal influence on Edgar, deferred his coronation for fourteen years (possibly for scandalous conduct, see Wulfhilda) and modified the coronation rite, some of which survives to the present day.

On Edgar's death his elder son Edward, Dunstan's protégé, succeeded to the throne. His assassination in 978 was connected with the anti-monastic reaction which followed Edgar's death. Dunstan presided at the translation of Edward's body to Shaftesbury in 980. During Ethelred's reign Dunstan's name still appeared on charters, but with increasing age he spent more of his time at Canterbury with the monks in his household, occupied with teaching, correcting manuscripts, and administering justice. Both now and earlier, visions, prophecies, and miracles were attributed to him; he was also specially devoted to the Canterbury saints, whose tombs he would visit at night. Dunstan remained active until his death: he preached three times on Ascension Day 988; two days later, on 19 May, he died, aged nearly eighty. It has been well said that the 10th century gave shape to English history, and Dunstan gave shape to the 10th century.

After his death his cult sprang up spontaneously and increased rapidly. Already before 999 Ethelred's confirmation of Æthelric's will, drawn up by a monk of Canterbury, recognized him as the ‘chief of all the saints who rest at Christ Church’. His feast appears in several pre-Conquest calendars. During Lanfranc's pontificate, however, he was in eclipse: in the Monastic Constitutions there is no mention of Dunstan's feast even in the third rank, whereas Gregory and Alphege are in the second. But under Anselm's rule his cult increased: his feast was celebrated with an octave; the altars of Dunstan and Alphege stood on either side of the high altar, on a beam over it the figure of Christ in majesty was flanked by statues of these two saints. By then his cult had become nationwide. Canterbury possessed his body, though Glastonbury too claimed it: the controversy was only finally settled when the Canterbury tomb was opened in 1508.

Hagiographical tradition made Dunstan a painter, musician, and metalworker; these claims have some foundation. Bells and organs were attributed to him. Some metalworker's tools of the 10th century survive at Mayfield convent (East Sussex) and are claimed to be his. Artists sometimes depicted him holding the devil by the nose with a pair of tongs. The most interesting surviving relic of him is MS. Auct. F. IV. 32 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. This Glastonbury book contains scriptural extracts in Latin and Greek, an Anglo-Saxon homily on the Cross, and some extremely ancient Welsh glosses, besides a portrait of Dunstan prostrate at the feet of Christ. This could well be Dunstan's own work, as a 13th-century inscription claims. Two other MSS. at Oxford probably once belonged to him. The tradition which attributes to him Kyrie rex splendens (Kyrie VII in Vatican Gradual) is a later development of a statement of his first biographer, and must be considered doubtful. None of the literary works attributed to him are genuine: a Penitential, a commentary on St Benedict's Rule, a treatise on alchemy called On the philosopher's stone. But contemporary letters, such as Abbo of Fleury's, are witness to the esteem in which he was held.

Goldsmiths, jewellers, and locksmiths claim him as their special patron. Feast: 19 May; ordination feast at Canterbury, 21 October.


The ancient Lives are in W. Stubbs, Memorials of St Dunstan (R.S., 1874), which also contains letters and documents on the saint and his cult. See also William of Malmesbury Saints' Lives (ed.), M. Winterbottom and R.M. Thomson (2000): D. Whitelock (ed.), E.H.D., i (1968), 43–51, 94–100, 200–12, etc.;Find this resource:

    T. Symons, The Regularis Concordia (1953). For his portrait see F. Wormald, English Drawings of the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries (1952) and M. T. D'Alverny, ‘Le symbolisme de la Sagesse et le Christ de Saint Dunstan’, Bodleian Library Record, v (1956), 232–44;Find this resource:

      R. W. Hunt, St Dunstan's Classbook from Glastonbury (1963). D. Dales, Dunstan: Saint and Statesman (1988);Find this resource:

        N. Ramsay (ed.), St Dunstan His Life, Times and Cult (1992);Find this resource:

          M.O., pp. 31–82, 695–701 and D. Parsons (ed.), Tenth-Century Studies (1975). Cf. also E. John, Orbis Britanniae (1966), pp. 154–264;Find this resource:

            R. Sharpe (ed.), Canterbury and the Norman Conquest (1995).Find this resource: