Dunstan, (c. 909 – 988) English cleric and scholar, later abbot, bishop and archbishop, was England’s most revered saint until the canonisation of Thomas Becket in the twelfth century. There has been some discussion on the year of his birth, however the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states baldly at the end of its entry for 909: “St. Dunstan was born.”
He was related to the Wessex royal family. He was born near Glastonbury and received his early education at the abbey there before taking up duties at the court of king Athelstan. Following Athelstan’s death in 939 he became a friend and advisor to the young king Edmund I. An unexpected recovery from a serious illness turned him to God; he was ordained in 943. He was made abbot at Glastonbury abbey - at that time, like most abbeys in England, badly run down after decades of Viking incursions - and began rebuilding a monastic community.
He also served Edmund’s brother, Edred, for the nine years of his reign but was driven into exile by king Edwy in 957 after Dunstan and Archbishop Odo had forced the dissolution of the king’s marriage to a lady “too closely related”.
His time away from home served him well and its effects are still evident today. While at the Blendinium monastery in Ghent, Flanders, he came into contact with the Benedictine monastic reforms begun at Cluny Abbey in France earlier in the century. With the death of Edwy in 959 Dunston was able to begin reforms in England under the friendly support of king Edgar, one of the greatest of Anglo-Saxon kings. In quick order he was appointed Bishop of Worcester then London, then, on Odo’s death, Archbishop of Canterbury.
With the aid of two unjustly neglected churchmen, Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester and Oswald, bishop of Worcester, the unstinting support of his monarch and making use of 25 years of relative peace in the realm, he began what has been called the Benedictine Reformation. The religious institutions of England had suffered sad neglect because of generations of attacks by the Northmen. – to the point where many of the monks now were illiterate. Realising that to teach so many to read and write (and speak)Latin - what had become a foreign tongue over the years - in any sort of short time was an almost insurmountable problem he decided to teach the reading and writing of the vernacular English of the day – the Anglo-Saxon tongue that we now know as “Old English”. Whilst the liturgy was still intoned in the ancient language, monks now spoke and wrote in English. Any well-born child, taught to read and write, was taught in the language spoken at home. England began to have a body of works written in the vernacular that are still read today, albeit in a hugely updated form. The only new Latin terms were specialist - medical, scientific, clerical.
After the Normans swamped the English, 80 or so years after Dunstan’s death, the language of England was able to withstand the attack by Norman French and its accompanying clerical Latin, hold its own, absorb and finally conquer. (We say “God” – not “Deus” or some form of “Dieu”.)
In 973, King Edgar, now thirty years of age and after 14 years on the throne, considered himself “ready” for his kingship to be sanctified. He had himself crowned in a great ceremony in the western city of Bath. Dunstan organised the form of the ceremony, and much of this ritual still exists in the modern coronation ceremony. Edgar’s coronation – Dunstan’s ritual - gave the sovereign God’s blessing.
He died in 988. He was canonised in 1029. All his life he loved music and mucking about in a workshop, making things with metal. He is the patron saint of gold- and silversmiths. His emblem in art is a pair of smith’s tongs. His feast day is 19 May, which is the beginning of the “hallmark year”, the year stamped on fine artefacts made from gold, silver and some other precious metals that indicate their origin and prove their authenticity.
- “Oxford Companion to British History”
- “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” trans. Anne Savage