Dunstan: statesman, prelate, monk, patriot – and saint

St Dunstan kneels at the feet of ChristToday is the feast of St Dunstan (909-988), a figure who perhaps ought to be better known than he is. Today’s Universalis has a good essay on him, in which it describes him as:

one of the three makers of England before the Norman Conquest: the others being King Alfred and King Athelstan.

The image illustrating this post is reputed to feature a self-portrait of Dunstan – namely, the figure in the bottom-right corner, kneeling at the feet of Christ. Clerk of Oxford explains that the text written alongside him says:

Dunstanum memet clemens rogo, Christe, tuere
Tenarias me non sinas sorbsisse procellas

(I ask, merciful Christ, that you protect me, Dunstan;
do not permit the Taenarian storms to swallow me).

Dunstan was clearly a remarkable figure. He was highly skilled in the arts of music, manuscript illumination and metalwork, to the extent that he seems have been dismissed from Athelstan’s court at the age of 26 after arousing his peers’ jealousy. He was restored to royal favour under King Edmund, who appointed him abbot of Glastonbury, from where he proceeded to rebuild English Benedictinism, cornerstone of the tradition of “English spirituality”.

In AD 960, Dunstan was appointed archbishop of Canterbury by King Edgar, and devised the coronation service for Edgar, which remains the basis of the British coronation service to this day. He also drew up the Regularis Concordia, which set out a version of the Rule of St Benedict for use by all monasteries in England – as well as, perhaps, having another lasting impact on English Christianity:

Remembering St Dunstan’s skill and delight in bell-making, we might note with gratitude his enduring influence the next time we hear the bells ringing from the parish church in some pretty English village, for, according to Peter Blair, there is “a sentence which recurs in the Regularis Concordia almost as a refrain,” and we might imagine that St Dunstan’s hand wrote it: “‘then all the bells shall peal.’”

When Ethelred (“the Unready”) became king in 978, Dunstan – who had backed Ethelred’s elder brother, Edward, for the throne – spent the next ten years concentrating on the affairs of his diocese, before dying in AD 988. He was immediately acclaimed as a saint, for reasons described by Edmund Bishop in an article quoted as the second reading for today’s Office of Readings:

It was neither the statesman, the prelate, the monk, the patriot – though he was all these – who was thus honoured and venerated, but the man in whom those who had conversed and acted with him, seen and known him, had recognized the features of unworldliness, humbleness of heart, and love of God, which in their minds were associated with the idea of a saint.

As can be seen from just the brief sketch above, St Dunstan led a busy life, one which involved him for many years in the demanding politics of Anglo-Saxon court life. Not ideal circumstances, one might think, to impress people with your sanctity, yet (by the grace of God) Dunstan managed it. What was his secret? Edmund Bishop continues:

Thrown more than any other in the midst of the world and its cares, Dunstan walked in a sense alone; he felt the responsibilities imposed on him both by his position and his commanding character which necessarily made him a leader: others might rely upon him, he could lean on God alone. Recollection in God became thus the constant habit of his mind, so that when seemingly immersed in the tumult of secular affairs he could without break or effort pass on at once and enter face to face into the Divine Presence.

Maybe he should be the patron saint of busy people, or of politicians (to add to his existing patronage of metalworkers). In any case, that last quotation suggests that he provides a model for how Christians today can learn, when “immersed in the tumult of secular affairs”, to pass on “without break or effort … and enter face to face into the Divine Presence.”

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