Archbishop of Canterbury
Saint Dunstan.jpg
Term ended988
Personal details
Bornc. 909
Baltonsborough, Wessex
Died19 May 988 (aged about 79)
Canterbury, England
BuriedCanterbury Cathedral
Feast day19 May
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church[1]
Anglican Communion
Attributesman holding a pair of smith's tongs; with a dove hovering near him; with a troop of angels before him
Patronageblacksmiths; Charlottetown, Canada; goldsmiths; locksmiths; musicians; silversmiths; bellringers
ShrinesCanterbury Cathedral (but also claimed by Glastonbury Abbey), both destroyed

Dunstan[a] (909 – 19 May 988)[2] was an English bishop. He was successively Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury, later canonised as a saint.[3] His work restored monastic life in England and reformed the English Church. His 11th-century biographer, Osbern, himself an artist and scribe, states that Dunstan was skilled in "making a picture and forming letters", as were other clergy of his age who reached senior rank.[4]

Dunstan served as an important minister of state to several English kings. He was the most popular saint in England for nearly two centuries, having gained fame for the many stories of his greatness, not least among which were those concerning his famed cunning in defeating the devil.[5]

Early life (909–43)


Dunstan was born in Baltonsborough, Somerset, at the time part of the kingdom of Wessex.[6] He was the son of Heorstan, a noble of Wessex. Heorstan was the brother of Athelm, the bishop of Wells and Winchester.[7] It is recorded that his mother, Cynethryth, was a pious woman. Osbern's Life of Dunstan relates that a messenger miraculously told her of the saintly child she would give birth to:

She was in the church of St Mary on Candleday, when all the lights were suddenly extinguished. Then the candle held by Cynethryth was as suddenly relighted, and all present lit their candles at this miraculous flame, thus foreshadowing that the boy "would be the minister of eternal light" to the Church of England.[5]

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.[8]

School to the king's court

As a young boy, Dunstan studied under the Irish monks who then occupied the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey.[9] 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.[5] He was later appointed to the court of King Athelstan.[10]

Dunstan playing his harp as the Devil is paying a visit

Dunstan soon became a favourite of the king and was the envy of other members of the court.[5] A plot was hatched to disgrace him and Dunstan was accused of being involved with witchcraft and black magic.[3] 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.[11] 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.[5]

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 tumours all over Dunstan's body. This ailment was so severe that it was thought to be leprosy.[5] It was more probably some form of blood poisoning caused by being beaten and thrown in the cesspool.[11] 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.[5] 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.[5] 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.[11]