Folk memory and hagiographical excess survive better than the careful sifting of evidence by historians. Dunstan’s temptation by the Devil in human disguise was thwarted when Dunstan twisted his nose with red-hot pincers. On another occasion Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to the Devils hoof instead of to his horse. In pain, the Devil was released only after Dunstan had extracted a promise that he would not enter a house which displayed a horseshoe above its door: hence the lucky horseshoe. Until the martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, Dunstan was the most revered of English saints.
Most attractive man
He was the most attractive of people. Some of the contemporary evidence was written by those who clearly knew him. He was slender, good-looking, refined and gentle. He had a developed and gifted aesthetic and artistic sense. He was learned, wrote, drew, was musical, played the harp; he worked as a silversmith and worked on illuminated manuscripts in the monastic scriptorium. There is a charming marginal drawing which he made of himself as a monk kneeling at the feet of Christ. His career moved between the cloister and the court, Church and state.
He was born to wealthy parents in 910 at Baltonsborough, near Glastonbury, and they were well connected to the Saxon nobility and powerful ecclesiastics. An uncle Athelm (Bishop of Bath and Wells, later Archbishop of Canterbury) secured him a position at the court of King Athelstan, where his intellectual ability and personable disposition made him a favourite. However, he also attracted enemies, jealous at his early influence and potential, and was the victim of a plot that led to his exile from the court.
While recovering, he resisted the persuasion of relatives to become a monk. He was unconvinced that he was called to the celibate life and seems to have been close to marrying. However, he changed his mind and became a hermit monk at Glastonbury He built a reputation as an illustrator of manuscripts and a musician and craftsman. He inherited land and property on the death of his parents and became powerful and influential with the new King Edmund.
Edmund made him Abbot of Glastonbury and granted the abbey lands and relics. Here was his first great work. As Abbot, he re-created the monastic life by introducing the Rule of St Benedict, the greatest of monastic reformers, and began a scheme of rebuilding the abbey. He also founded a school for the local young and was known for his gentleness as a teacher. None of this was enough when, having gained the abbacy as a result of royal patronage, he lost it when that patronage was withdrawn by Edmunds son Eadwig.
Recalled by the new King, Edgar, he was the recipient of substantial royal favour and was appointed Bishop of Worcester in 957, Bishop of London in 958 (without relinquishing Worcester) and Archbishop of Canterbury in 959 when he entered the final phase of his career. He began a major reformation of the monastic life, based on what he had witnessed during his exile. He championed a significant re-ordering of liturgical life and ensured the Offices and the Mass were at the centre of community life. Working life was to centre on teaching, writing, illuminating and craftwork
Difficulty and conflict
There was opposition, as there had been earlier in his career: Dunstan’s life was not without difficulty and conflict. Not all the reforms had universal assent, but Dunstan was supported by the King and relied on his political support. This relationship between crown and mitre was articulated in the prologue to the Rule: ‘We seek only to establish brotherly unity, with the advice of our king, and trusting in the commandments of those who have gone before us in this way of life.’
As the King had given his support to Dunstan’s monastic and ecclesiastic reforms, so Dunstan gave the support of the Church and its authority to enforce laws seeking to curb theft and violence, as well as to standardize the currency and introduce a consistent system of weights and measures. We can see Dunstan’s political theory and the relationship between the Church and the State, between the King and his people in the Coronation Rite where Dunstan’s revisions have survived.
Underpinning this theory was the image of Christ as servant and shepherd of souls. The King was to respect the liberty, rights, privileges and integrity of the Church and was to act consistently against violence and to rule with justice and mercy.
Hagiographical stories usually arouse amused scepticism, but the stories about Dunstan’s encounters with the Devil in several guises suggest that his life of prayer and spiritual intensity made him sensitive to manifestations of the malign. With the gift of second sight, where he foresaw the death of kings and monastic brethren, he showed a deep and resonant sympathy with his fellow men. Such was that sensitive engagement with the sufferings of others that his monastic vocation was a martyrdom. He died on 19 May, shortly after preaching sermons on Ascension Day 988 when he appeared ‘as if he were an angel of the Lord.’ A popular cult quickly developed and he was canonized in 1029.
His struggle with a monastic vocation and a celibate life; the twists and turns of fortune in the complicated and disputatious politics of the age; and the opposition, some of it vehement and sustained, against his reforms did not make Dunstan’s life tranquil.
He was a man of his time and no plaster saint. That humanity formed the basis of his popularity.
Alleluia, come, beloved Dunstan, and pray for your humble servants before the throne of Christ in Heaven. Alleluia.