Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, Confessor

[Saint Dunstan of Canterbury]Article

He was a native of the town of Glastenbury, of noble birth, and received his education under certain Irish monks who were excellent masters of the sciences, and at that time resided at Glastenbury, which, the wars had left in a most ruinous condition. Dunstan outstripped his companions in every branch of literature which he thought worth his attention, and through the recommendation of Athelmus, archbishop of Canterbury, his uncle, with whom he had lived some time, was called to the court of the great king Athelstan, a lover of virtue and learned men. He enjoyed the favour of that prince above all the rest who had the honour to approach his person, till envy made him feel the usual instability of the fortune of courtiers. Dunstan had in his youth received the clerical tonsure and the lesser orders, and from his cradle been fervent in practising every means of virtue, especially of modesty, purity, and humility. After he left the court he took the monastic habit, being advised thereto by Elphegus the Bald, bishop of Winchester, also his uncle, who not long after ordained him priest. When he was well grounded in the knowledge and practice of the duties of his profession, the bishop, on giving him proper instructions for his conduct, sent him to Glastenbury, with the view of serving that church. Here he built for himself a small cell, five feet long, and two and a half broad, with an oratory adjoining to the wall of the great church which was dedicated under the invocation of the Mother of God. In this hermitage he spent his time in prayer and fasting. He had also his hours for manual labour, which is a part of penance, and necessary to shun idleness. His labour consisted in making crosses, vials, censers, and sacred vestments; he likewise painted and copied good books. King Athelstan dying after a glorious reign of sixteen years, the throne was filled by his brother Edmund, who succeeded to the crown in 900. His palace of Chedder was but nine miles from Glastenbury, to which church he often resorted with singular devotion, and having been long acquainted with the sanctity of Saint Dunstan, he installed him the nineteenth abbot of that house from Saint Brithwald, who was the first Englishman who had governed it, two hundred and seventy years before. King Edmund had reigned only six years and a half, when he was treacherously murdered, and buried at Glastenbury. His sons Edwi and Edgar being too young to govern, his brother Edred was called to the crown, who did nothing but by the advice of Saint Dunstan. He ended his pious life in 955, and was succeeded by his nephew Edwi, a most debauched and profligate youth, who, on the very day on which he was anointed king, left his nobles at the royal banquet to go to see his harlot and impious flatterers. Saint Dunstan followed him, and endeavoured by a severe check to put him in mind of the duty which he owed to God and men. In requital, the tyrant banished him, persecuted all the monks in his kingdom, and ruined all the abbeys which had escaped the devastation of the Danes, except Glastenbury and Abingdon.

Saint Dunstan spent one year in exile in Flanders, and, according to Osbern, at Saint Peter’s at Ghent, where his vestment is still shown; but, according to John of Glastenbury, at Saint Amand’s; the tradition and monuments of both places show, that he divided the year between them. He filled all Flanders with the odour of his sanctity, and the example of his virtues; but the Mercians and northern provinces shaking off the yoke of the tyrant Edwi, placed the crown on Edgar, who immediately recalled Saint Dunstan, made him his principal counsellor, and in 957 preferred him to the bishopric of Worcester, to which he was consecrated by Saint Odo, archbishop of Canterbury. The see of London becoming vacant shortly after, he was compelled at the same time also to govern that diocese, notwithstanding his opposition, the public disorders requiring so strenuous a reformer of discipline and manners. King Edwi having reigned over all England one year, and over the southern part four years, ended a wicked life by an unhappy death in 959, when Edgar became sole monarch of the English nation, which he governed with the greatest courage, prudence, and glory. In 961, Saint Dunstan was raised to the metropolitan see of Canterbury, though he used every device possible to decline that dignity. He was moreover appointed by Pope John XII, legate, of the holy see. Being vested with this authority, he set himself about re-establishing every where ecclesiastical discipline, which had been much impaired by the confusion of the Danish invasions, and the tyranny of king Edwi; in which he was powerfully protected by king Edgar, and assisted by his two disciples, Saint Ethelwold, bishop of Winchester, and Saint Oswald, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York. These three prelates restored most of the great monasteries in England. To establish in them a uniform and perfect regular discipline, Saint Dunstan compiled the Concord of Rules, extant in Reyner and Spelman, in which he incorporates several old monastic customs with the rule of Saint Bennet. The reformation of the clergy was no less the object of his zeal. For their use he drew up excellent regulations, which may be seen in Spelman 2 under this title: Canons published under King Edgar. Several among the secular clergy had, through the disorder of the times, fallen into so open a violation of the canons as to presume to marry. These Saint Dunstan expelled from the churches and monasteries into which they had intruded themselves, and brought in monks in their place, who had been in possession of divers of them before the Danish devastations. At Winchester, when Saint Ethelwold had ejected the secular canons for incontinency, and placed monks in his cathedral, the former appealed from his proceedings. A synod therefore was held at Winchester, in 968. In this venerable assembly was heard a voice as coming from a crucifix in the place, which said distinctly, “God forbid it should be so. You have judged well: to change your decree is not good.” Upon which the synod confirmed what Saint Ethelwold had done, and king Edward the martyr made this decree a law of the state.

Saint Dunstan was no less vigorous in maintaining discipline among the laity, in which no motives of human respect were ever able to daunt him, or to damp his zeal. King Edgar had the misfortune to fall into a scandalous crime, by deflowering a virgin who had been educated in the monastery of Wilton, and who, to elude his pursuits, had put on a religious veil, but had not made any profession or vows. Saint Dunstan being informed of this scandal, went in haste to the court, and like another Nathan reproved the king in a zealous, but respectful manner. The prince, struck with remorse, begged with many tears that a suitable penance might be enjoined him, and became a faithful imitator of the perfect royal penitent David. The archbishop enjoined him a penance for seven years; during which term he was never to wear his crown, was ordered to fast twice a week, and to give large alms. Another part of his penance was to found a nunnery, in which many holy virgins might consecrate themselves chaste spouses to Christ, in satisfaction for his crime in having violated a virgin. These conditions the king faithfully performed, and founded a rich monastery of nuns at Shaftsbury. The term of his penance being elapsed in 973, Saint Dunstan, in a public assembly of the lords and prelates, set the crown again upon his head. This great king ruled sixteen years, and dying in the thirty-second year of his age, left the kingdom to his eldest son, Edward the martyr. The death of that pious young prince was a grievous affliction to Saint Dunstan, who, when he crowned his younger brother, in 979, foretold the weakness and the dreadful calamities of his reign. The Welsh bishops had always been governed by the archbishop of Saint David’s till about the year 983, when we find Gacon consecrated bishop of Landaff by Saint Dunstan; from which time the see of Saint David’s lost its metropolitical jurisdiction.

Saint Dunstan frequently visited the churches over the whole kingdom, everywhere preaching and instructing the faithful with great zeal. Such were the dignity and the eloquence with which he delivered the word of God, that few were so hardened as to withstand the power of his exhortations. He employed his revenues in relieving the poor, he reconciled differences, refuted errors, and laboured incessantly in extirpating vices and abuses. But neither the care of his church, nor the attendance he was obliged often to give to the state, made him ever forget to find time for holy prayer and retirement; and after the occupations of the day, he watched late at night in the private communications of his soul with God. Glastenbury was his dearest solitude, and thither he would often retire from the world to devote himself entirely to heavenly contemplation. At Canterbury it was always his custom to visit in the night, even in the coldest weather, the church of Saint Austin without the walls, and that of the Blessed Virgin adjoining to it. Finding himself taken ill in that city, he prepared himself for his last hour by redoubling his fervour in all his practices of penance and devotion. On the feast of the ascension of our Lord, he preached thrice on that triumphant mystery, exhorting all to follow our Redeemer and Head in spirit and desire. Whilst he spoke, his countenance, like that of Moses coming down from the mount, seemed to shine and dart forth rays of light. In the close of his last discourse, he begged the prayers of his audience, and told his flock that God called him from them. At which words all that heard him were filled with inexpressible grief. In the afternoon he went again to the church, and appointed a place for his burial; then he took to his bed, and on the Saturday following, the 19th of May, having received the viaticum, he calmly expired; closing his corporal eyes to the world, and at the same instant opening those of his soul to behold God with his angels in glory. His death happened the 19th of May, 988, the sixty-fourth year of his age, and the twenty-seventh of his archiepiscopal dignity. He was buried in his own cathedral in the place he had appointed. John of Glastenbury relates that his bones were translated to Glastenbury in 1012, two years after the martyrdom of Saint Elphege; but this at most could only be true of some portion thereof; for in 1508, archbishop Warham found his relics remaining under his monument, which was then on the south side of the high altar.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 12 May 2013. Web. 23 December 2014. <>