St Dunstan was the son of Heorstan, Anglo-Saxon nobleman, born in the early 10th century near Glastonbury during the reign of King Athelstan. Northern Europe and the British Isles hade been under attack and conquest from the Danes and Vikings for several centuries and many coastal communities and monasteries had been destroyed the invaders.
As a young boy he was introduced to the Irish scholars who visited the sanctuary at Glastonbury. After recovering from a near fatal illness, belived to be leprosy, he pursued his studies with a zeal for knowledge and manual skills.
He became well known for his devotion and was summoned by his uncle Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury to enter his service. He soon became a favourite of King Aethelstan which aroused the envy of the King’s court. St. Dunstan was accused of studying magic and heathen literature and was attacked by his enemies who bound, gagged him and threw him into a filthy pit. He escaped to Winchester and entered the service of the Bishop, another uncle, St Alphege. Following an illness caused by his treatment at court he was persuaded by his uncle to become a monk.
Following his ordination by his uncle in 934 he returned to Glastonbury and built a cell alongside the church of St. Mary. His cell was tiny only 5 feet (150 cms) long by 2ft 6ins(75cms) wide. A legend says that at this time the devil tempted him, but St. Dunstan seized Satan’s face with his smith’s tongs.
In 940 following the death of King Aethelstan he was summoned by the new king, Eadmund and appointed a counsellor, but again he was driven from the court by jealous courtiers. After narrowly escaping death while hunting, the King remembered the harsh treatment that St Dunstan had received at court. At Glastonbury he took St Dunstan by the hand gave him a kiss of peace and led him to the abbot’s throne.
In his position as Abbot of Glastonbury St Dunstan set about recreating the monastic life and rebuilding the abbey. He rebuilt the church of St Peter, the cloister and reestablished the monastic enclosure. Only two years later King Eadmond was assasinated, and was succeeded by Eadred. As Abbot of Glastonbury Dunstan was appointed guardian of the royal treasure. The new king encouraged the spread of regular Christian observance and the expulsion of heathendom. Dunstan became deeply involved in secular politics and incurred the enmity of the West Saxon nobles for denouncing their immorality and for urging peace with the Danes.
In 955 Eadred died and was succeeded by Eadwig. Different from his predecessor he was under the influence of two unprincipled women. After the coronation Dunstan discovered the king with his two harlots and was again forced to flee from the court. This time he took refuge at a Benedictine monastery in Ghent. He stayed in Ghent for a year during which time he came into contact with the reformed continental monasticism which was to inspire his vision of Benedictine perfection.
In 957, the nobles, unable to endure the excesses of Eadwig, drove him out. His successor Eadgar asked St Dunstan to return and appointed him Archbishop of Winchester. He received the pallium from Pope John XII in Rome in 960.
With his power as Archbishop he pushed forward reforms of Church and State to maintain order and respect for the law, and rebuilt many of the monasteries destroyed by the Danish invaders. Priests were required to live chastely, teach their parishioners the Catholic faith and handicrafts. The kindgom prospered under a peace that few had experienced before.
King Eadgar died in 975 and was succeeded by his eldest son Eadward. His stepmother disputed the succession preferring her son Æthelred to take the throne ,and civil war almost sprung up in the kingdom. King Eadward was assasinated at Corfe Castle and his step brother Æthelred the Unready became king. Dunstan gave him a solemn warning at his coronation of the misfortunes which would befall his reign.
Saint Dunstan’s influence under the new monarch began to wane and he retired to Canterbury to teach at the cathedral school. He died on Sunday 19 May 988 three days after the Ascension Day Vigil.
He was a noted musician, played the harp, composed several hymns, notably Kyrie Rex splendens, was a skilled metal worker, and illuminated manuscripts. He is also the patron of armorers, goldsmiths, locksmiths, and jewellers. Like his statue in St Dustan’s Church he is most commonly depicted holding the smith’s tongs with which he attacked the devil. At the Synod of Winchester in 1029, St Dunstan’s Feast was ordered to be kept solemnly throughout England on 19 May.
Bibliography Catholic Encyclopedia,