The English monk and archbishop St. Dunstan (ca. 909-988) was a counselor of kings and a respected churchman. He made the English monasteries into centers of religion and culture.

Dunstan was born into an important family near Glastonbury in Somerset. As a young man, he lived for a time in the household of King Athelstan but incurred the displeasure of some of the officials by his love of singing and reading. Accused of black magic and pressured into leaving the court, Dunstan lived for a short time with the bishop of Winchester, who persuaded him to become a monk.

As a hermit near Glastonbury, Dunstan disciplined himself through prayer and penance. He worked as a silversmith and copied manuscripts. The next king, Edmund, called Dunstan back to court as one of his counselors and eventually made him abbot of Glastonbury. Under Edmund's successor, Edred, Dunstan practically ran the kingdom. But his luck changed when Edwy succeeded to the throne in 955. Dunstan's outspoken criticism of the king's loose conduct earned him a sentence of exile. For 2 years Dunstan lived on the Continent, near Ghent in Flanders, with a group of monks guided by the strict rule of St. Benedict. In 957 some of King Edwy's subjects rebelled and set up a separate kingdom. Their leader, Edgar, called Dunstan back from Flanders and appointed him bishop first of Worcester and then of London. When Edwy died 2 years later, Edgar became sole king of England. He made Dunstan archbishop of Canterbury, head of the entire Church in England.

For almost 30 years, seen by some as a golden age, Dunstan and King Edgar cooperated closely, Dunstan preaching respect for the King's law and the King giving money to help build churches and monasteries. Dunstan was as strict with his clergy as he was with himself. His experiences in Flanders taught him that monks should live in an atmosphere of self-sacrifice. He enforced the law of celibacy wherever possible. He forbade the selling of Church offices (simony) and the appointing of relatives to positions of authority (nepotism). He encouraged his people to fast and preached the ideal of justice for all. Once he refused to say Mass until some counterfeiters had paid the penalty decreed by the magistrate. Their hands were chopped off.

By his forceful preaching and administrative ability, his friendship with the King, and his personal example, Dunstan succeeded in reforming the Church in England. The monasteries he influenced became sources of genuine religious spirit for the people and provided many bishops for England as well as missionaries for northern Europe. He was accepted as a saint by the English people soon after his death on May 19, 988.

Further Reading on St. Dunstan

Eleanor S. Duckett, Saint Dunstan of Canterbury (1955), is a clearly written historical sketch of St. Dunstan. David Knowles, The Monastic Orders in England (1940; 2d ed. 1963), details St. Dunstan's important contributions. For his place in the perspective of English history see G. O. Sayles, The Medieval Foundations of England (1948; 2d ed. 1950).

Additional Biography Sources

Dales, Douglas, Dunstan: saint and statesman, Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1988.

St. Dunstan: his life, times, and cult, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK; Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 1992.