St Dunstan (written 1988)

This is a year of anniversaries, what with the Armada and the Glorious Revolution, 400 and 300 years ago respectively. Idly thumbing through the Anglo-Saxon chronicle late one night wondering what was happening here exactly a thousand years ago, I looked up the year 988. “988 her forðferede sanct Dunstan arcebisop”. “In this year Archbishop Dunstan died”. Anglo-Saxon history is little noticed these days. St Dunstan was a vitally important figure in the early history of England, and deserves to be remembered on this millennium of his death. There were two City of London churches dedicated to him, St Dunstan in the East and St Dunstan the West. St Dunstan in the East was gutted in 1941, leaving only the fine Wren tower. St Dunstan in the West is a much used church in Fleet Street last rebuilt in 1831 in a late gothic style, by John Shaw.

Born in about 910, of royal blood, Dunstan was educated in the monastery of Glastonbury, inhabited mostly by Irish monks, then the most learned class in Europe. From childhood he was prone to sleepwalking and visions, which modern historians have seen as symptoms of partial insanity. An accomplished sculptor, musician, painter, metal worker, calligraphist and scholar, well versed in the old Celtic legends, Dunstan was introduced to the court of King Athelstan, where he soon became a favourite, but he made enemies who accused him of sorcery and felt obliged to depart. His uncle, Archbishop of Canterbury, pressured him to become a monk, but Dunstan was reluctant, being attached to a very beautiful maiden whom he wanted to marry. However, he soon contracted a near fatal illness, and seeing his recovery as a heavenly warning, gave way to his uncle. He went to extremes, shutting himself up like an Indian fakir in a tiny cell outside a church, too small to lie down in, and there, assailed by religious hallucinations, and much visited by a curious public, he acquired such a holy reputation that when King Edmund succeeded to the throne he was invited to take charge of the government. He used his position to introduce the Benedictine order into England and to promote the power of the papacy. These were contentious issues, not least because of the principle of celibacy which Dunstan was determined to enforce. He continued in favour in the reign of King Edred, who bequeathed all his property and treasures to him. The next king, Edwy, outraged by Dunstan's outrageous and offensive treatment of him and his beautiful queen Elgiva, regarded by Dunstan as some kind of harlot, banished him the kingdom, together with his monks. Dunstan fled to Ghent, pursued by emissaries of Ethelgiva, the Queen Mother, who wanted to put out his eyes.

Following this a general uprising of the people took place, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, installing Edwy’s sixteen year old brother Edgar as king. Elgiva was branded on the face, and later brutally tortured and mangled to death. Dunstan returned in triumph and was given virtually absolute power in the state. Under his wise administration England rose to a new peak of power, peace and prosperity. He was simultaneously Bishop of London, Worcester and Rochester, as well as Archbishop of Canterbury. Forty eight opulent Benedictine monasteries had been founded by the end of this reign; they lasted till Henry VIII’s dissolution. Edgar has come down to history as Edgar the Peaceable. He circumnavigated Britain with a fleet of five thousand vessels, and at the close of the journey many kings, including Kenneth of Scotland took oaths of feudal loyalty at a great ceremony in Chester.

After Edgar’s death, events took a nastier turn. Young Edward was made king. At a conference called to settle theological differences, Dunstan made a disdainful speech, threatening his opponents with divine vengeance. Part of the building then collapsed, killing only his enemies. Suspicion grew that Dunstan had plotted a massacre. Then the king, Edward, was murdered by his and Dunstan’s enemies. He became known as Edward the Martyr. The new king was his half bother, Ethelred. At the coronation speech Dunstan did not conceal his fury at the manner of the accession. He uttered prophecies which could easily be interpreted as a curse upon the new reign. This, it has been said, lost the king the essential popular support needed to deal with the threat of Danish invasion. Dunstan, by now tired and embittered, gave up politics and retired to Canterbury, where he died ten years into the reign of king Ethelred the Unready.

John S Moore 1988

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