Prior to Thomas Becket’s rise to fame, Dunstan was the most celebrated saint in England. Dunstan was born in Baltonsborough, Somerset. He was the son of Heorstan, a noble of Wessex. Heorstan was the brother of Athelm, the bishop of Wells and Winchester. The anonymous author of the earliest Life places Dunstan’s birth during the reign of Athelstan, while Osbern fixed it at “the first year of the reign of King Æthelstan”, 924 or 925. This date, however, cannot be reconciled with other known dates of Dunstan’s life and creates many obvious anachronisms. Historians therefore assume that Dunstan was born around 910 or earlier. As a young boy, Dunstan studied under the Irish monks who then occupied the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Accounts tell of his youthful optimism and of his vision of the abbey being restored. While still a boy, Dunstan was stricken with a near-fatal illness and effected a seemingly miraculous recovery. Even as a child, he was noted for his devotion to learning and for his mastery of many kinds of artistic craftsmanship. With his parents’ consent he was tonsured, received minor orders and served in the ancient church of St Mary. He became so well known for his devotion to learning that he is said to have been summoned by his uncle Athelm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to enter his service. He was later appointed to the court of King Athelstan.
Dunstan soon became a favorite of the king and was the envy of other members of the court. A plot was hatched to disgrace him and Dunstan was accused of being involved with witchcraft and black magic. The king ordered him to leave the court and as Dunstan was leaving the palace his enemies physically attacked him, beat him severely, bound him, and threw him into a cesspool. He managed to crawl out and make his way to the house of a friend. From there, he journeyed to Winchester and entered the service of his uncle, Ælfheah, Bishop of Winchester.
The bishop tried to persuade him to become a monk, but Dunstan was doubtful whether he had a vocation to a celibate life. The answer came in the form of an attack of swelling tumors all over Dunstan’s body. This ailment was so severe that it was thought to be leprosy. It was more probably some form of blood poisoning caused by being beaten and thrown in the cesspool. Whatever the cause, it changed Dunstan’s mind. He took Holy Orders in 943, in the presence of Ælfheah, and returned to live the life of a hermit at Glastonbury. Against the old church of St Mary he built a small cell five feet long and two and a half feet deep. It was there that Dunstan studied, worked at his handicrafts, and played on his harp. It is at this time, according to a late 11th-century legend, that the Devil is said to have tempted Dunstan and to have been held by the face with Dunstan’s tongs. Legend also says that the Devil asked Dunstan to make new shoes for his hooves, but when they were attached they pained the Devil so much that he begged for them to be removed. Subsequently the Devil is said to avoid houses where horseshoes hang over the door.
Dunstan worked as a silversmith and in the scriptorium while he was living at Glastonbury. It is thought likely that he was the artist who drew the well-known image of Christ with a small kneeling monk beside him in the Glastonbury Classbook, “one of the first of a series of outline drawings which were to become a special feature of Anglo-Saxon art of this period.” Dunstan became famous as a musician, illuminator, and metalworker. Lady Æthelflaed, King Æthelstan’s niece, made Dunstan a trusted adviser and on her death she left a considerable fortune to him. He used this money later in life to foster and encourage a monastic revival in England. About the same time, his father Heorstan died and Dunstan inherited his fortune as well. He became influential, and on the death of King Æthelstan in 940, the new king, Edmund, summoned him to his court at Cheddar and made him a minister.
Again, royal favor fostered jealousy among other courtiers and again Dunstan’s enemies succeeded in their plots with the king was preparing to send Dunstan away. But following a death scare whilst hunting Edmund recanted his treatment of Dunstan and instead made him abbot of Glastonbury. He went to work at once on the task of reform and began by establishing Benedictine monasticism at Glastonbury. Nevertheless, not all the members of Dunstan’s community at Glastonbury were monks who followed the Benedictine Rule.
Within two years of Dunstan’s appointment, in 946, Edmund was assassinated. His successor was Eadred. The policy of the new government was supported by the queen mother, Eadgifu of Kent, by the archbishop of Canterbury, Oda, and by the East Anglian nobles, at whose head was the powerful ealdorman Æthelstan the “Half-king”. It was a policy of unification and conciliation with the Danish half of the kingdom. The goal was a firm establishment of royal authority. In ecclesiastical matters it favored the spread of Catholic observance, the rebuilding of churches, the moral reform of the clergy and laity, and the end of the religion of the Danes in England. Against all these reforms were the nobles of Wessex, who included most of Dunstan’s own relatives, and who had an interest in maintaining established customs. For nine years Dunstan’s influence was dominant, during which time he twice refused the office of bishop (that of Winchester in 951 and Crediton in 953), affirming that he would not leave the king’s side so long as the king lived and needed him.
In 955, Eadred died, and the situation was at once changed. Eadwig, the elder son of Edmund, who then came to the throne, was a headstrong youth devoted to the reactionary nobles. According to one legend, the feud with Dunstan began on the day of Eadwig’s coronation, when he failed to attend a meeting of nobles. When Dunstan eventually found the young monarch, he was cavorting with a noblewoman named Ælfgifu and her mother, and refused to return with the bishop. Infuriated by this, Dunstan dragged Eadwig back and forced him to renounce the girl as a “strumpet”. Later realising that he had provoked the king, Dunstan fled to the apparent sanctuary of his cloister, but Eadwig, incited by Ælfgifu, whom he married, followed him and plundered the monastery.
Although Dunstan managed to escape, he saw that his life was in danger. He fled England and crossed the channel to Flanders, where he was unable to speak the language and ignorant of the customs of the locals. The count of Flanders, Arnulf I, received him with honor and lodged him in the abbey of Mont Blandin, near Ghent. This was one of the centers of the Benedictine revival in that country, and Dunstan felt at home. His exile was not long. Before the end of 957, the Mercians and Northumbrians revolted and drove out Eadwig, choosing his brother Edgar as king of the country north of the Thames. The south remained faithful to Eadwig. At once Edgar’s advisers recalled Dunstan.
On Dunstan’s return, Archbishop Oda consecrated him a bishop and, on the death of Coenwald of Worcester at the end of 957, Oda appointed Dunstan to the see. In the following year the see of London became vacant and was conferred on Dunstan, who held it simultaneously with Worcester. In October 959, Eadwig died and his brother Edgar was readily accepted as ruler of Wessex. One of Eadwig’s final acts had been to appoint a successor to archbishop Oda, who died on 2nd June 958. The chosen candidate was Ælfsige of Winchester, but he died of cold in the Alps as he journeyed to Rome for the pallium. In his place Eadwig then nominated the bishop of Wells, Byrhthelm. As soon as Edgar became king, he reversed this second choice on the ground that Byrhthelm had not been able to govern even his first diocese properly. The archbishopric was then conferred on Dunstan.
Dunstan went to Rome in 960, and received the pallium from Pope John XII. On his journey there, Dunstan’s acts of charity were so lavish as to leave nothing for himself and his attendants. On his return from Rome, Dunstan at once regained his position as virtual prime minister of the kingdom. By his advice Ælfstan was appointed to the bishopric of London, and Oswald to that of Worcester. In 963, Æthelwold, the abbot of Abingdon, was appointed to the see of Winchester. With their aid and with the ready support of king Edgar, Dunstan pushed forward his reforms in the English Church. The monks in his communities were taught to live in a spirit of self-sacrifice, and Dunstan actively enforced the law of celibacy whenever possible. He forbade the practices of simony (selling ecclesiastical offices for money) and ended the custom of clerics appointing relatives to offices under their jurisdiction. Good order was maintained throughout the realm and there was respect for the law. Trained bands policed the north, and a navy guarded the shores from Viking raids. There was a level of peace in the kingdom unknown in living memory.
In 973, Dunstan’s statesmanship reached its zenith when he officiated at the coronation of king Edgar. Edgar was crowned at Bath in an imperial ceremony planned not as the initiation, but as the culmination of his reign. This service, devised by Dunstan himself and celebrated with a poem in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle forms the basis of the present-day British coronation ceremony.
Edgar ruled as a strong and popular king for 16 years. In 975 he was succeeded by his eldest son Edward “the Martyr”. His accession was disputed by his stepmother, Ælfthryth, who wished her own son Æthelred to reign. Through the influence of Dunstan, Edward was chosen and crowned at Winchester. Edgar’s death had encouraged the reactionary nobles, and at once there was a determined attack upon the monks, the protagonists of reform. Throughout Mercia they were persecuted and deprived of their possessions. Their cause, however, was supported by Æthelwine, the ealdorman of East Anglia, and the realm was in serious danger of civil war. Three meetings of the Witan were held to settle these disputes, at Kyrtlington, at Calne, and at Amesbury. At the second of them the floor of the hall where the Witan was sitting gave way, and all except Dunstan, who clung to a beam, fell into the room below; several men were killed.
In March 978, king Edward was assassinated at Corfe Castle, possibly at the instigation of his stepmother, and Æthelred (the Unready) became king. His coronation on Low Sunday 31 March 978, was the last state event in which Dunstan took part. When the young king took the usual oath to govern well, Dunstan addressed him in solemn warning. He criticized the violent act whereby he became king and prophesied the misfortunes that were shortly to fall on the kingdom, but Dunstan’s influence at court was ended. Dunstan retired to Canterbury, to teach at the cathedral school. Dunstan’s retirement at Canterbury consisted of long hours, both day and night, spent in private prayer, as well as his regular attendance at Mass and the daily office. He encouraged and protected European scholars who came to England, and was active as a teacher of boys in the cathedral school. On the vigil of Ascension Day 988, it is recorded that a vision of angels warned he would die in three days. On the feast day itself, Dunstan said Mass and preached three times to the people: at the Gospel, at the benediction, and after the Agnus Dei. In this last address, he announced his impending death and wished his congregation well. That afternoon he chose the spot for his tomb, then went to his bed. His strength failed rapidly, and on Saturday morning, 19 May, he caused the clergy to assemble. Mass was celebrated in his presence, then he received Extreme Unction and the Viaticum, and died. Dunstan’s final words are reported to have been, “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him.”
St Dunstan’s is a charity that provides support, rehabilitation, and respite care to blind ex-service personnel of the British Armed Forces. Periodically they have a recipe competition and bake sale to raise money — https://www.50connect.co.uk/food-drink/articles/phil-vickery-whips-up-support-for-st-dunstan%E2%80%99s-g Here is one of the winning recipes:
Sticky Lemon & Poppy Seed Cake
175 gm/6 oz unsalted butter
175 gm/6 oz caster sugar
2 whole eggs, beaten
175 gm/6 oz self-raising flour
1 tbsp shredded fresh basil
finely grated zest of 2 lemons
4 tbsp water
25 gm/1 oz poppy seeds
Sticky lemon topping:
3 tbsp caster sugar
3 tbsp water
zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp lime juice
3 tbsp icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F.
Grease and line a 900 gm/2 lb loaf tin with baking parchment paper.
Cream the butter and caster sugar together until pale, light and fluffy, then gradually beat in the eggs, a little at a time. Fold the flour into the mixture, then stir in the basil, lemon zest, water and poppy seeds. Pour the mixture into the loaf tin and bake for about 30-40 minutes.
Meanwhile, make the sticky topping. Heat the caster sugar and 3 tbsp water in a pan until the sugar dissolves. Add the lemon zest, increase the heat and bring to a simmer and cook for about 3-5 minutes.
Place the lime juice and icing sugar in another small pan and heat gently until the sugar dissolves. Drain the lemon zest, add it to the lime syrup then bring to a simmer. Prick the hot, cooked cake using a skewer, then pour over the hot lime syrup and lemon zest. Leave the cake in the tin until cool, then carefully lift out using the lining paper.