St. Dunstan of Canterbury, Abbot of Glastonbury, Twenty-Sixth Archbishop of Canterbury
Born at Baltonsborough near Glastonbury, England, (Latin: Dunstanus; 909 – 19 May 988 AD)
Dunstan, born of a noble Anglo-Saxon family with connections to the ruling house of Wessex, was one of the great figures in English history. He received his early education from the Irish monks at Glastonbury. While still young, he was sent as a page to the court of Athelstan.
He had already received the tonsure, and his uncle, Bishop Saint Alphege the Bald (f.d. March 12) of Winchester, encouraged him to join the religious life. Dunstan hesitated for some time and nearly got married, but after recovering from a skin condition he believed to be leprosy, he received the habit (in 934) and holy orders from his uncle the same day as Saint Ethelwold (f.d. August 1) circa 939.
He returned to Glastonbury and is thought to have built a small cell next to the old church, where he engaged in prayer, study, and manual labour that included making bells and sacred vessels for the church and copying or illuminating books. He is said to have excelled as a painter, embroiderer, harpist, bell-founder, and metal worker. As Dunstan would play the harp and sing to the nuns of the abbey as they embroidered his designs. Once, it is said, when he hung up his harp on the wall and left the room for a while, the harp continued to play of its own accord. The residents of the abbey took it to be an omen of Dunstan’s future greatness.
Dunstan also loved the music of the human voice: when he sang at the altar, wrote a contemporary,
he seemed to be talking with the Lord face to face. As one skilled in the arts, Dunstan stimulated the revival of church art.
Athelstan’s successor, Edmund, called him to court to act as a royal counsellor and treasurer. In 943, King Edmund I narrowly escaped death while hunting, he appointed Dunstan abbot of Glastonbury with the commission to restore monastic life there and richly endowed the monastery. According to the old Saxon chronicle, Dunstan was only 18 when he became abbot of Glastonbury.
Dunstan restored the monastery buildings and the Church of Saint Peter. By introducing monks among the priests already in residence, he enforced regular discipline without any ill feelings. He made the abbey into a great centre of learning. Dunstan also revitalised other monasteries in Glastonbury.
The murder of King Edmund was followed by the accession of his brother Edred, who made Dunstan one of his top advisors. Dunstan became deeply embroiled in secular politics and incurred the wrath of the West Saxon nobles for denouncing their immorality and for urging peace with the Danes.
In 955, Edred died and was succeeded by his 16-year-old nephew Edwy. On the day of his coronation, Edwy left the royal banquet to see a girl named Elgiva and her mother. For this he was sternly rebuked by Dunstan, and the prince deeply resented the chastisement. With the support of the opposing party, Dunstan was disgraced, his property confiscated, and he was exiled.
He spent a year then in Ghent, Flanders, and there he came into contact with reformed continental monasticism. This experience fuelled his vision of monastic Benedictine perfection that would inspire his work from then on.
A rebellion broke out in England; the north and east deposed Edwy and put his brother Edgar the Peaceful (f.d. July 8) on the throne. Edgar recalled Dunstan and appointed him chief adviser, in 957 bishop of Worcester, and bishop of London in 958. On Edwy’s death in 959, the kingdom was reunited under Edgar, who appointed Dunstan archbishop of Canterbury in 961. Together the two initiated a policy of reform to solidify both the Church and the country. At Canterbury, Dunstan founded an abbey east of the city and three churches: Saint Mary, SS. Peter and Paul, and Saint Pancras.
In 961, Dunstan went to Rome to receive the pallium and was appointed by Pope John XII a legate of the Holy See. With this authority, he set about re-establishing ecclesiastical discipline, under the protection of King Edgar and assisted by Saint Ethelwold, the bishop of Winchester, and Saint Oswald (f.d. February 28), the bishop of Worcester and the archbishop of York. In those days, English monastic life had almost vanished as a result of the Danish invasions. They restored most of the great monasteries, such as Abingdon, that had been destroyed during the Danish incursions and founded new ones.
Dunstan founded monasteries at Bath, Exeter, Westminster, Malmesbury, and other places. He drew up rules for each to instil good order. Recalcitrant secular priests were ejected and replaced by monks in Winchester, Chertsey, Surrey, and Dorset. About 970 a conference of bishops, abbots, and abbesses drew up a national code of monastic observance, the Regularis Concordia. It was in line with continental custom and the Rule of Saint Benedict but had its own features: the monasteries were to be integrated into the life of the people, and their influence was not to be confined within the monastery walls.
Clergy who had been living scandalous lives and in irregular situations were reformed. Dunstan remained firm in his moral standards, even to deferring Edgar’s coronation for 14 years–likely due to a disapproval of Edgar’s scandalous behaviour. He modified the coronation rite, and some of his modifications devised for Edgar’s coronation in Bath in 973 survive to this day.
Through 16 years of Edgar’s reign, Dunstan acted as his chief adviser, criticizing him freely. One on occasion when the king had been guilty of immorality, Dunstan withstood him to his face, refusing to take his outstretched hand and turned abruptly from him with the words:
I am no friend of the enemy of Christ. Later he imposed a penance that for seven years the king was not to wear his crown.
Dunstan continued to direct the state during the short reign of the succeeding king, Edward the Martyr (f.d. March 18), Dunstan’s protege. The death of the young king, connected with the anti-monastic reaction following Edgar’s death, grieved Dunstan terribly. His political career now over, he returned to Canterbury to teach at the cathedral school, where visions, prophecies, and miracles were attributed to him. He was especially devoted to the Canterbury saints, whose tombs he visited at night.
On the feast of the Ascension in 988 the archbishop was ill but offered Mass and preached three times to his people, to whom he declared that he would soon die. Two days later he died peacefully in his Cathedral of Christ Church, where he is buried. He is considered the reviver of monasticism in England. It has been said that the 10th century gave shape to English history, and that Dunstan gave shape to the 10th century. He composed several hymns, notably
Kyrie Rex spendens (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Delaney, Duckett, Fisher, Gill, White).
In art, he is shown as a bishop holding the devil (or his nose) with a pair of pincers; or with a crucifix speaking to him (White). He might also be shown (1) holding the tongs; (2) working as a goldsmith; (3) playing a harp; (4) with a host of angels near him; (5) with a dove; or (6) as a monk prostrate at the feet of Christ (in a drawing said to be his own) (Roeder).
Service to our Holy Father Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury Verpers & Matins
Through the prayers of St Dunstan and of all the Saints of England, Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us.
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Western Rite Liturgy for St. Dunstan:
Archbishop’s Blessing Sung Over the People
May God, the enlightener of all ages, Who made the illustrious and exalted hierarch Dunstan to shine brightly like one of the Apostles, make you to be filled with every heavenly blessing through his righteous prayers, that following in the footsteps of so radiant a forebear, ye may become people that ascend the ladder to heaven. People: Amen.
And may He that granted him such noble standing with Himself that being reverenced and glorified by all the people he might blossom as an unsurpassed and angelic patron for all the English, Himself kindle the ardour of your hopes towards that place where this magnificent Saint flourisheth amidst a choir of Angels. People: Amen.
And may ye that glory to be honoured with such a sublime patron, being filled with great joy by his miracles and illumined by his teachings, attain this from the Lord: that ye may be reunited with him in the kingdom of heaven. Amen.
Which may He deign to grant, Whose kingdom & dominion abideth, etc. … May the blessing, etc. …
The Preface of the Mass, May 19:
It is truly meet and just, right and availing to salvation, that we should always and in all places give thanks to Thee, pay our vows to Thee, and consecrate our gifts to Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God: Who didst beforehand elect Thy blessed confessor Dunstan for Thyself, a Bishop of sanctified confession, a man shining brightly with the ncircumscribable light, prevailing by the gentleness of his ways, afire with the fervour of the Faith, and flowing over with the brook of eloquence. And in what his glory lay, the multitudes at his sepulchre reveal, and their purification from demonic assaults, their healing from diseases, and the miracles of his power, of which we stand in awe. For even if he made an end here by his passing, according to nature, the hierarch’s righteous deeds live on after the grave, in that place where there is the presence of the Saviour, Jesus Christ our Lord. By Whom Angels praise Thy majesty, Dominions worship, the Powers tremble. The heavens, and the heavenly Virtues, and the blessed Seraphim, concelebrate in one exultation:- with whom command our voices also to have entrance, we beseech Thee, humbly confessing Thee and saying: Holy, Holy, Holy, …etc.
(The blessing, sequence, and preface are given in full in the complete Old Sarum Rite Missal, (c) 1998 St. Hilarion Press 1998)
Celtic and Old English Saints – 19 May . 2016. Celtic and Old English Saints – 19 May . [ONLINE] Available at: http://celticsaints.org/2016/0519a.html. [Accessed 19 May 2016