Dunstan was born in Glastonbury around 910 when King Athelstan was the ruler of Wessex which at the time comprised most of the South West of England. An auspicious event took place just before his birth when all the candles held by the congregation during a service at Candlemas went out, but then the one held by his mother was miraculously re-lit by a tongue of fire descending from heaven. The story, even if apocryphal, is charming. What better way could there be to announce the coming of a saintly child?
Dunstan's parents were noble and he was given a good education by the Irish monks of the local monastery. He studied the Bible, of course, but also the Latin poets and historians, and English ones too such as Caedmon, the 7th century Northumbrian poet. He learnt music, becoming an excellent harpist, arithmetic and geometry and also something of the stars. Practical matters were not neglected and he was taught how to design vestments for the priests and metalwork, making crosses and other items for church use. As late as the 13th century there still existed bells made by Dunstan in the church at Abingdon. All in all, he had the best and most rounded education you could at that time and I dare say it wouldn't be too bad nowadays either, though naturally a little limited as regards the sciences. Eventually Dunstan was taken to live with the King at his palace but his talents and intelligence aroused jealousy amongst the courtiers and he found himself accused of witchcraft and condemned to a test of innocence known as the ordeal of cold water. This was one of the milder tests of the time but even so the victim was thrown into a pond (or cesspool some accounts say) to see if he would sink or swim. Dunstan survived the ordeal and his life was spared but he was exiled from the court anyway so went to Winchester where he sought refuge with the Bishop who was his uncle.
After some time the bishop had him ordained priest and he was sent abroad to a Benedictine monastery to study. When he returned to England he had clearly become something of a fanatic for he built himself a tiny cell too small even to stand up in and resolved to spend the rest of his life there contemplating God. He fasted to excess and it may be this that gave him visions of the devil who mocked and tempted him so much while he was at his devotions that eventually an exasperated Dunstan seized the devil by the nose with a pair of tongs and sent him on his way. This may sound like another apocryphal story but it is a fact that those who seriously set their feet on the spiritual path are the subject of attack by dark forces who seek to derail their attempts to come closer to God. Nowadays this may not take such an obvious form, so no need to buy a set of tongs just yet, but nonetheless it still exists.
Though Dunstan's intentions were undoubtedly sincere this was not a healthy way of life to sustain for very long. It is not untypical for a spiritual neophyte who is trying to take the Kingdom of Heaven by storm to become a little fanatical but growing experience should bring one to the realisation that a more balanced approach brings better results in the long term. Luckily for Dunstan, in a story reminiscent of one from the life of the Buddha, who was similarly saved from excess by a young girl who gave him some milk when he had fasted almost to death, a lady of the court persuaded him that it was his spiritual duty to help others rather than concentrate entirely on himself.
|The sensible woman gets Dunstan to leave his cell.
Note the tongs and fleeing devil!
Dunstan was now held in such high regard that when the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury died he was made Primate of England. He used his power and influence with the king to bring about many reforms, both spiritual and temporal. Monks were encouraged to dedicate themselves properly to the holy life, something that had not always been the case at a time when becoming a monk was often used as an excuse for an easy life of indolence, simony (buying and selling of ecclesiastical privilege) was outlawed and so was the nepotism that had been rife amongst the clerical community. Dunstan also ensured that the poor were able to seek justice before the king, and that copies of the Bible were written and placed in the churches so that priests could more properly teach their congregations the facts of the Christian religion. He even required the king, as an act of penance, not to wear his crown for seven years and the king actually submitted to this, such was his respect for the archbishop. At the end of this time Dunstan devised a new coronation for the king and the form this took is still the basic pattern for the coronation of British monarchs today.
|The monk at bottom right has been identified from the inscription as Dunstan and the whole drawing may be by him too.