Saint Dunstan

Feast Day: May 19th

St Dunstan
Timeline
10th Century

LIFE

Archbishop and confessor, and one of the greatest saints of the Anglo-Saxon Church; born near Glastonbury on the estate of his father, Heorstan, a West Saxon noble. His mother, Cynethryth, a woman of saintly life, was miraculously forewarned of the sanctity of the child within her. She was in the church of St. Mary on Candleday, when all the lights were suddenly extinguished. Then the candle held by Cynethryth was as suddenly relighted, and all present lit their candles at this miraculous flame.

Throughout his life he was noted for his devotion to learning and for his mastery of many kinds of artistic craftsmanship. Dunstan’s uncle introduced him to the king, who he seemed to be favored, and those around became envious. They accused him of studying heathen literature and magic, and so wrought on the king that St. Dunstan was ordered to leave the court. As he left the palace his enemies attacked him, beat him severely, bound him, and threw him into a filthy pit (probably a cesspool), treading him down in the mire. He managed to crawl out and make his way to the house of a friend whence he journeyed to Winchester and entered the service of Bishop Aelfheah the Bald, who was his relative. The bishop endeavoured to persuade him to become a monk, but St. Dunstan was at first doubtful whether he had a vocation to a celibate life. But an attack of swelling tumours all over his body, so severe that he thought it was leprosy, which was perhaps some form of blood-poisoning caused by the treatment to which he had been subjected, changed his mind. He made his profession at the hands of St. Aelfheah, and returned to live the life of a hermit at Glastonbury. Against the old church of St. Mary he built a little cell only five feet long and two and a half feet deep, where he studied and worked at his handicrafts and played on has harp. Here the devil is said (in a late eleventh legend) to have tempted him and to have been seized by the face with the saint’s tongs.

While Dunstan was living thus at Glastonbury he became the trusted adviser of the Lady Aethelflaed, King Aethelstan’s niece, and at her death found himself in control of all her great wealth, which he used in later life to foster and encourage the monastic revival. About the same time his father Heorstan died, and St. Dunstan inherited his possessions also.

St. Dunstan pushed forward his reforms in Church and State. There was peace in the kingdom such as had not been known within memory of living man. Monasteries were built, in some of the great cathedrals ranks took the place of the secular canons; in the rest the canons were obliged to live according to rule. In 957, he was made Bishop of Worcester. Later on, he became Bishop of London and in 961, Bishop of Canterbury. 

St. Dunstan’s life at Canterbury is characteristic; long hours, both day and night, were spent in private prayer, besides his regular attendance at Mass and the Office. He worked ever for the spiritual and temporal improvement of his people, building and restoring churches, establishing schools, judging suits, defending the widow and the orphan, promoting peace, enforcing respect for purity. He practised, also, his handicrafts, making bells and organs and correcting the books in the cathedral library. He encouraged and protected scholars of all lands who came to England, and was unwearied as a teacher of the boys in the cathedral school.

On the vigil of Ascension Day, 988 he was warned by a vision of angels that he had but three days to live. His strength failed rapidly, and on May 19th, Mass was celebrated in his presence, then he received Extreme Unction and the Holy Viaticum, and expired as he uttered the words of thanksgiving: “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.” They buried him in his cathedral; and when that was burnt down in 1074, his relics were translated with great honour by Lanfranc to a tomb on the south side of the high altar in the new church.

Patronage

Bell Ringers - Blacksmiths

SETTING

Birthplace

Born

AD 909
Baltonsborough, Wessex

Death

19 May 988 (Age 79)
Canterbury, England

Canonized

1029 (Pope John XIX)

Shrine/Relics/Tomb

Canterbury, Kent, England

Info

Saint Dunstan was an English monk from the town of Glastonbury. After serving the king, he joined the monastery of Glastonbury, where he became Abbot around 943. He carried out a thorough reform of the monastery, and provided a great place for learning. He was made Bishop of Worcester in 957 and a few years after he moved on to being the Bishop of Canterbury. He died on May 19, 988, after 27 years as bishop.