1902 Encyclopedia > St Dunstan

St Dunstan
English prelate and statesman
(c. 924 - 988)

ST DUNSTAN, (924 or 925-988), was born at Glastonbury in 924 or 925. His father, Heorstan, was brother of zElfheah the Bold, bishop of Winchester; and the tradition that he was connected with the royal house seems not improbable. As a child he was placed under the care of certain Irish teachers who had settled at Glastonbury; and he devoted his boyhood to study with a fervour so intense that he at length brought on himself a severe attack of brain fever, the effects of which are apparent in the fantastic visions which troubled his after life. He was still a boy when he entered the household of Athelstan, and h6 was only fifteen or sixteen at the acces-sion of Edmund; but he had not been long at court before his ambitious and lofty temper had surrounded him with bitter enemies. In all the accomplishments of his time, except those of the warrior, he stood pre-eminent. His memory was stored with the ancient Irish ballads and legends, and he excelled in music, in painting, and even in the mechanical arts. But he soon found that his talents, while making him a favourite in the ladies' bowers, only inflamed the jealousy of his rough, ignorant soldier rivals. He was accused of dealing in witchcraft, was driven with rude force from the court, and, perhaps under the pretext of testing whether he was really wizard or no, was flung into a muddy pond, whence he was glad to escape to the protection of his uncle ^Elfheah. The result of this outrage was a second attack of fever, from which he rose to yield to his uncle's persuasions, and take the vows as a monk. It was with great reluctance that he took this step, for he was deeply in love with a lady at court; but the feeling, natural in that age, that his illness was a direct indication of the will of providence, was likely to impress itself with peculiar force upon an imagination such as his, and he was also, doubtless, conscious that the only protection for his physical weakness lay in the power of the church After his recovery, he spent some time quietly studying and teaching, and practising the austeri-ties which gained him the reputation of a saint; but it was not long before he returned to court. Again his enemies seemed likely to prove too powerful for him. He, however, gained the favour of King Edmund, who created him abbot of Glastonbury when he was about twenty-two years of age. He became principal treasurer of the king-dom, and we find him a few years later (953), on account of his tenure of that office, refusing an offer of the see cf Crediton.

From 946 to 955 the throne was occupied by Edred, whose constant ill health threw the chief power into Dunstan's hands. In 955 Edwy came to the throne; and the party of Edgiva, to which Dunstan belonged, lost its influence. Of the details of the party struggles which ensued we have no trustworthy information; but one incident of the quarrel between the king and the minister has become famous. Edwy, though then pro-bably a mere boy, was deeply in love with his kinswoman Elgiva, whose mother Ethelgiva, a lady of the highest rank, is accused, with what degree of truth cannot now be determined, of having used the most shameful means to gain power over the young king. What relationship really existed between Edwy and Elgiva is unknown, but it was such as to be considered by the churchmen as an insuperable bar to marriage. Edwy, however, defied their opposition. On the evening of his coronation he withdrew from the banquet to the society of Elgiva. Dunstan was sent by the Witan to recall him, and exhibited a violence which may be excused, when we consider that Edwy had both grievously insulted the Witan and openly sought, upon so solemn an occasion, the dangerous society of a girl whom the church forbade him to marry.
A year or so after Ethelgiva and her party triumphed, and Dunstan being outlawed, was obliged to flee to Ghent. In 957, however, a revolt placed Edwy's brother Edgar on the throne of Mercia and Northumbria, and at his court Dunstan resumed his old position of chief minister. He was created bishop (perhaps at first without a see); and, in defiance of strict ecclesiastical law, he obtained and held at once the sees of Worcester and London. By the death of Edwy in 959, Edgar gained the sovereignty of Wessex ; and a few months after Dunstan was appointed archbishop of Canterbury. On the death of Edgar (955), Dunstan's influence secured the crown for Edward. But a fierce struggle ensued between Dunstan and his enemies. In 977 the Witan met three times; and the last meeting, that at Calne, was signalized by an accident, which the friends of Dunstan called a miracle. Half the floor of the room in which the Witan was assembled gave way at the moment that Dunstan was making a solemn appeal to God, so that the enemies of Dunstan fell, and Dunstan and his friends remained unhurt. This accident has been ex-plained by reference to the archbishop's well-known skill in mechanics. During the first few years of the unhappy reign of Ethelred the Unready, Dunstan probably retained some influence in the government; and it is noteworthy that the year of his death (which took place on the 19th May 988) marks the commencement of the most disastrous invasions of the Danes. Towards the close of his life Dunstan is said to have retired from the court, and his last years were devoted to religious observances and the com-position of sacred music, his favourite amusement being, as of old, the manufacture of bells and musical instruments.

Dunstan has been frequently painted by historians as one of the most complete types of the bigoted ecclesiastic. If, however, we critically examine the best sources, he will appear to have been statesman much more than ecclesiastic; and the circumstances which caused him to be honoured by the monks as one of their greatest patrons will become manifest. Even in his lifetime he was believed to be endowed with supernatural power, as is shown by the charge of witchcraft brought against him in his youth, and by the story of the miracle at Calne. His earliest biography, written by a contemporary, represents him as a man of vivid imagination, a seer of visions and dreamer of dreams, a man of unusually sensitive nervous organization, as is indicated by the strange "gift of tears " with which he is said to have been endowed; and in this biography we find the first of the tales which became so common of his interviews with the devil, who is said to have tormented him in the form of a bear and in other frightful shapes. By a very common process, there came to be connected with his name a large number of marvellous legends, of which the best known is the story of how the devil appeared to him with impure suggestions while he was working at his forge, and how the saint retaliated by seizing the nose of the great enemy with a pair of red-hot tongs. It is not sur-prising that the monkish writers should exaggerate any services rendered to their order by an archbishop possessed of so wonderful a reputation. But in fact there is good reason to believe that Dunstan always treated church affairs as subordinate to political considerations. While Ethelwald, the bishop of Winchester, and Oswald, bishop of Worcester, and afterwards archbishop of York, were introducing monks of the strict Benedictine order into their sees in place of the seculars, and doing their utmost to enforce celibacy among the clergy, he allowed the married priests to retain their places in his diocese without interfer-ence. On the other hand, no doubt all Dunstan's influence in church affairs was given to the monastic party, though that influence was exerted with a statesman-like moderation for which he has not received credif,and it is likely that he did not attain his canonization without performing substantial service to the church. The political services which Dunstan rendered to England were certainly of the first importance. He guided the state successfully during the nine years reign of the invalid Edred. And there is good

reason to believe that he deserves at least as much credit as the king himself for the settlement of Northumbria and the Danes which was effected, for the peace which prevailed, and the glory which was gained, in Edgar's famous reign.

Several works have been attributed to Dunstan, including a commentary on the Benedictine rule, and a Eegularis Concordia (published in Reyner's Apostolatus Benedictinorum and in the New Monasticon); but the real authorship of both of these is doubtful. His reputation as a miracle-worker so long outlasted his life, that a tract on the philosopher's stone was published in his name at Cassel in 1649.

The earliest and the most trustworthy of the biographers of Dunstan was "the priest B.," whom some authorities have supposed,, though not upon conclusive grounds, to be the scholar Bridferth of Ramsey. The date of his work is fixed by Prof. Stubbs at abouf 1000 ; it is dedicated to archbishop Elfric who died in 1006. Tht later lives,—those of Adelard (which consists ot lessons intended to be used in the monasteries), of Osbern, Eadmer, and William of Malmesbury,—are of far less value, being distorted by prejudice and filled with extravagant legends. The Memorials of Saint Dunstan have been published by Mabillon, and also in the Master of the Rolls' series, edited, with an introduction, by Prof. Stubbs. A scholarly essay on Dunstan and his Policy is contained in Mr E. W. Robertson's Historical Essays ; and the life of Dunstan is included in Dean Hook's Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury. (T. M. W.)


In connection with the coronation of Edgar, Osbern of Canterbury tells a story intended to exalt the archbishop. Ths king having taken the nun afterwards called St Wulfrith as his mistress, Dunstan is said to have vindicated the independence of the church by forbidding him, among other penances, to "wear the crown for seven years; but there are several reasons for doubting this story. The question is elaborately discussed in the article on the "Coronation of Edgar," in Mr E. W. Robertson's Historical Essays.

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