Born shortly before 910AD, Dunstan was the son of a Wessex noble, Heorstan, and nephew of the bishops of Winchester and Wells. Taught by Irish monks amidst the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, from an early age he developed a love of learning and of artistic craftsmanship.
Having entered the service of his uncle Athelm (now Archbishop of Canterbury) he was soon appointed to the court of King Athelstan, where he became a favourite of the king. Envious courtiers successfully discredited him by accusing him of witchcraft, and he was banished from the court.
Not content with thus disgracing him, his adversaries assaulted him as he left, and cast him, beaten and bound, into a cesspool. Dunstan recovered from his ordeal sufficiently to travel to Winchester where he entered the service of the bishop, his uncle Ælfheah, who encouraged him to become a monk.
At this point Dunstan developed severe blood-poisoning (wrongly diagnosed as leprosy) as a result of having been plunged, covered in open wounds, into the cesspool, and he interpreted this as a sign from God that he did indeed have a religious vocation.
Having first been ordained, he retired to live the life of a hermit at Glastonbury, constructing a minuscule cell no more than five feet long and two and a half feet deep against the wall of the ancient church of St Mary. Here he practised the harp and developed the skills of a craftsman while fighting off repeated demonic attacks (on one occasion he restrained the devil by holding his face with his craftsman’s tongs).
According to another story, Dunstan (a skilled blacksmith) was asked to shoe a horse whose owner he perceived to be the devil, and he duly nailed the shoe to the hoof not of the horse but of the devil. In return for removing the nails (which were the cause of considerable pain) Dunstan made the devil promise that he would never enter a house where a horseshoe was displayed above the door, and this appears to be the origin of the idea of the “lucky horseshoe”.
While at Glastonbury, Dunstan extended his reputation as a silversmith, musician and illuminator of manuscripts. He also inherited a substantial amount of money from his father and from King Æthelstan’s niece, Lady Æthelflaed (in gratitude for his trusted advice), and resolved to use the money for the good of the Church.
His new-found fortune made him a man of wealth and status, and in 940 he was invited to King Edmund’s court at Cheddar. However, history repeated itself, and jealous courtiers contrived to turn Edmund against Dunstan.
Happily, a miraculous event prompted Edmund to a change of heart. Pursued by Edmund in the Mendip Forest, a stage hurtled over the edge of the Cheddar cliffs, closely followed by the hounds. Unable to stop his horse as it careered towards certain death, Edmund was suddenly inspired to repent of his treatment of Dunstan and to promise to make amends. His horse pulled up right at the edge of the precipice, and Edmund was true to his promise, taking Dunstan to Glastonbury and set him on the abbot’s throne with a remit to restore divine worship and regular monastic observance.
Blessed with copious financial resources and with the support of the king, Dunstan set about rebuilding Glastonbury – both in the sense of physically reconstructing the abbey, and in the sense of establishing authentic Benedictine monasticism there. Dunstan ruled the abbey in strict fidelity to the Rule of St Benedict,
The assassination in 946 of King Edmund and his replacement by King Edred resulted in a new determination to work for reconciliation and unification between the Anglo-Saxon and Danish halves of England. Edred, together with the Kentish and East Anglian nobles, was keen to promote true Catholic observance (including the rebuilding of churches and the reform of monasticism) as a part of this campaign, but was opposed by the nobles of Wessex (many of whom were Dunstan’s relations) who wished to uphold existing customs.
Dunstan was very much on the side of the king in opposition to the Wessex nobles, but Edwy, who succeeded Edred in 955, reversed the policy, and was soon in open conflict with Dunstan, who went too far in his criticism of the youthful king when he upbraided him for cavorting on his coronation day with a noblewoman called Ælfgifu and her mother. Dunstan fled to his cloister, but Edwy pursued him and looted the monastery.
Dunstan now went into exile in Flanders (in modern Belgium) where he spent time in the Abbey of Mont Blandin near Ghent – one of the centers of the Clunicac reform which had led to a Benedictine revival in that part of Europe – and here he encountered a model for the reform of monasticism in England which was to be his major undertaking upon his return, underpinning as it did his vision for a renewed church.
Meanwhile, a revolt by Mercian and Northumbrian nobles meant that Edgar became king north of the Thames (Edwy remained in power south of the river), and Dunstan was recalled to England and consecrated Bishop of Worcester in 957, and, Archbishop of Canterbury in 959 (Edwy having died).
Dunstan was now, in effect, both Archbishop of Canterbury and Prime Minister. Having appointed like-minded reformers to key bishoprics, he was soon able to begin his reform of the English church, rooting out abuses, building monasteries, replacing the secular canons in many of the great cathedrals with monks, and raising the standard of the parish clergy (who were now expected to teach their parishioners trades in addition to ministering to them spiritually).
Secular reforms included the creation of a navy to protect England from Viking attacks, and the establishment of some measure of law and order where previously there had been lawlessness. He also devised an imperial-style coronation ceremony for Edgar in 973 (which became the basis for coronation ceremonies up to the present day), and persuaded six other British kings (including the king of Scotland) to pledge allegiance to Edgar.
Edgar died in 975, and was succeeded by Edweard II (his son), but Edweard was opposed by Ælfthryth (Edgar’s second or third wife) who wished to see her own son Ethelred reign as king. Supported by Dunstan, Edweard was crowned at Winchester, but the opponents of Dunstan’s reforms felt empowered, and parts of the country witnessed a sustained attack on the monasteries which were seen as driving the reform-movement in both church and state.
The assassination of King Edweard in 978 (he was later venerated as St Edward the Martyr) and the subsequent accession of Ethelred the Unready marked the end of Dunstan’s career in the service of the king (his coronation of Ethelred being his final act of participation in the life of the state), and he went into retirement at Canterbury where he devoted himself to long hours of prayer and to teaching at the cathedral.
While at Canterbury he fostered devotion to the saints of the city, especially St Augustine and St Æthelberht, whose shrines he used to visit by night (sometimes to the accompaniment of angelic song). He continued to establish schools and to build and restore churches, to offer patronage to visiting scholars from Europe, and to promote – and practise – the crafts that he had learned both in his youth and in his later years (including organ-building and bell-making).
Having been forewarned by angels of his impending death, he bade farewell to his flock on the Feast of the Ascension in 988 and retried to his bed to prepare for death, his final words (reportedly) being “He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord: He hath given food to them that fear Him”.
Dunstan soon became one of England’s favourite saints – perhaps the premier saint until he was eclipsed by Thomas Becket. His relics were rescued from the old Canterbury Cathedral (destroyed by fire in 1074) and transferred to the new Cathedral, but his shrine was destroyed at the time of the Reformation.