The Life of Dunstan

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THE LIFE OF DUNSTAN

 

 (Glastonbury and Frome in Somerset; Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey; Corfe and Wareham in Dorset; Calne in Wiltshire, etc.).

 

In the year 921 A.D., three years before the death of Edward the Elder, there was born in Glastonbury in Somerset a child who ultimately became the greatest and strangest figure of his age, and who, after his death, was canonized as a saint: namely, Dunstan, son of a wealthy Wessex nobleman whose relatives held high office at court and in the Church.

Glastonbury, or the Isle of Avalon as it was formerly named, was in those days already a great religious centre, and was believed to be, as King Henry the Second later called it, “the source and origin of all religion in England.” Christian missionaries are said to have settled here in the early years of the Roman occupation, and a tradition, for which there is no very early authority, states that Joseph of Arimathea had come here with these missionaries, and had built a little church made of wattle.

 

In the Sixth Century King Arthur and Queen Guinivere was buried in this church or its successor; and in the year 708 A.D., King Ine of Wessex caused a more substantial building be erected on the site,to which were attached the dwellings of the monks. By the time of Alfred the monastery had become rich and famous, and that king made many presents to it, including a supposed fragment of the true cross which had been given to him by Pope Marinus.

 

The great abbey which still exists in ruins was not built till the Twelfth Century; and at that time of the birth of Dunstan we are to think of the place as consisting of a cluster of stone and wooden houses grouped around the King Ine`s church, set amidst the rich orchards of Avalon on rising ground beside the river Brue which, flowing down to the Bristol Channel, spread its waters through marsh-lands and navigable streams on all sides.

 

Dunstan`s youth was spent during the glorious reign of Aethelstan (924-940), victor over Danish Vikings and Scots, and acknowledged King of all Britain. From an early age he believed that he was destined for the church, like his Father`s two brothers who were both bishops; and once when he had fallen asleep in the sacred precincts at Glastonbury he dreamt that a celestial spirit came to him and told him that one day he would be the means of enriching the monastery – a vision which played an important part in the shaping o his career.

 

He was a handsome, fair-complexioned boy, with what is described as somewhat thin but beautiful hair; and though in temperament he was artistic and perhaps a little effeminate, his quick wit, fluency of speech, and light-hearted nature, made him a great favourite with women. His fellow students at school, however, regarded him with disfavour, partly because he worked so hard and so successfully at his lessons, and partly because he had ecstatic moments of intense piety, which English boys of all periods heartily resent.

Moreover, he was a born poet and musician, and was in the habit of singing old English folk-songs, grave and gay, and accompanying himself upon a small harp which he often carried about with him. Some of these ancient songs were of a mystic, pgan character; and at length his companions complained to the King, their patron, about him, declaring that the songs were like the chants of sorcerers, the result being that he was expelled.

 

At this time he was growing into manhood, and had fallen passionately in love with a certain girl whom he wanted to marry, which would have meant the abandoning of his ecclesiastical career; but his uncle, the Bishop of Wichester, was endeavouring to persuade him to give her up and thus the boy was thoroughly distracted when this blow of his expulsion fell upon him. Then one day when he was riding his horse along a lonely road, his former companions pounced out upon him, threw him out o the saddle, and pushed him into a muddy pond.

A serious illness ensued, the lady of his heart apparently jilted him, and, when at last he rose from his bed, he went to Glastonbury monastery, and took the vows of a monk. But the fever of his love was still upon him, and in order to curb it he built himself a cell no more than five feet/1.5m high and two and a half feet /.750m broad, wherein he could neither stand or lie, and there for days together he fought his battle with the flesh.

 

Dreadful dreams came to him, and his fevered mind beheld all manner of devils who approached him in the form of bears, foxes, and dogs, fawned upon him, and whispered evil thoughts in his ear. He was troubled, too, by psychic phenomena: things hurtled through the air, so he said, and stones were flung at him by unseen hands, one of which was kept in the monastery in after years as a relic and souvenir of the saint`s temptation.

 

When King Aethelstan died in 940 A.D., the throne oassed to his brother Edmund; and in 943 A.D., this monarch who had been much impressed by the young Dunstan`s almost fantastic piety, made him Abbot of Glastonbury although he was only 22 years of age.

 

Edmund, however, was stabbed to death in a brawl at Pucklechurch in 946 A.D., and Dunstan sadly buried his patron at Glastonbury; after which a younger brother, Eadred, was crowned king, who bestowed on the youthful abbot his warmest friendship. This Eadred used the abbey of Glastonbury as a sort of safe-deposit for his valuables, and whenever the court was travelling about the country, all the King`s private papers, jewellery, plate, and so forth were placed in Dunstan`s care.

 

Eadred, however, fell ill on 955 A.D., at Frome (where today you may see two carved stones of the Saxon age built into the interior of the tower of the church); and,  realizing that he was dying, he sent post-haste to Dunstan to bring the royal valuables si that he might distribute them fittingly. The abbot, however, did not reach him in time, and the long train og baggage-waggons was still on the highroad somewhere near Shepton Mallet when the news of the King`s death was received, whereat, so a quaint old tale relates, Dunstan`s horse was so shocked that it dropped dead beneath him.

 

Eadred was succeeded by yet another brother, Eadwig, a boy of 15, who, in the following year, 956 A.D., was crowned at Kingston-on-Thames; but as unfortunate incident marred the coronation festivities. There was an attractive widow at court, a royal lady of the name of Aethelgifu, whose daughter was a pretty girl of about the nwe King`s own age; and the precocious Eadwig was devoted to these two, often flirting with the mother and showing an inclination to marry the daughter.

At the coronation feast, he was bored with the ceremonies, and slipped away, joining these ladies at their house; but presently the assembled nobles, extremely insulted, asked Dunstan to go and fetch him back. This the abbot did, and found the king sitting alone with Aethelgifu and her daughter, while the crown of England lay on the floor in the corner. There was a stormy scene, at the end of which Dunstan picked up the crown, banged it onto the boy`s head, and dragged him back to the feast.

Eadwig never forgave him. He married Aethelgifu`s daughter, fell entirely into the hands of his mother-in-law, and banished Dunstan, who fled to Flanders.

Today in Kingston-upon-Thames there lies the Coronation Stone, which is outside the Guildhall, six Anglo-Saxon kings were crowned here including Eadwig, there are few traces of the church in which the ceremonies took place, but traces of this church has been found.

In the following year, 957 A.D., the clerical party in the midlands crowned Eadwig, son of the late King Edmund, as their sovereign , declared Eadwig`s marriage annulled on some pretext or other, drove the young queen and her mother from court,  and recalling Dunstan, offered him the bishopric of Worcester. At first he wished to decline the offer on the grounds of his unworthiness, but one night so he declared, he dreamed that the three apostles, Peter, Paul and Andrew, came to him to persuade him, and that Andrew gave him a smack with is stick, exclaiming angrily “Take that for your refusal!” – after which of course he was obliged, he said, to accept the honour.

Eadwig survived as what was called ‘”half-king” for less than three years, and died at the age of 19 in 959 A.D., whereupon Eadger made Dunstan Bishop of London, and, in the following year, Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Primate`s character was extraordinary. When the wild artistic mood was not upon him, he was astern disciplinarian, and was ruthless in routing out ill-living monks from their monasteries, ans in imposing the strictest rules of life upon the clergy. Yet at other times he was the mildest and most tender-hearted of men, and it is said that he was very easily moved to tears. He was a great patriot, and insisted that the clergy should teach the Creed and the Lord`s Prayer in English, not in Latin; and in other ways he maintained a certain English independence. A powerful nobleman contracted a marriage which was uncanonical: Dunstan angrily excommunicated him. The astonished man sent his agent to Rome, who returned with a letter from the Pope, advising the reconsideration of the case; but Dunstan refused to accept this ruling, declaring that he obeyed the dictates of God, not those of the Pope.

High-handed actions of this kind obtained him many bitter enemies, but he fought his way through, so successfully influencing state-policy and so greatly raising the prestige of his sovereign that, madman though he must have sometimes seemed to be in the eyes of his opponents, hi is spoken of as “the mainstay of the safety and glory of the English.” #there were times when he was very unpopular, and once during a procession at Galstonbury somebody threw a stone at him which knocked off his hat; but, lckily for the thrower, Dunstan thought that the stone had been flung by the unseen hands of Satan, and he gave little attention to the incident.

 

He worked so hard that there certainly were times when he was nearly off his head, seeing delirious visions, and having many more encounters with the Devil himself, in one of which he said that he had tweaked the Satanic nose with a pair of tongs. At other times he was more artist than statesman or mystical cleric. Some of his drawings are still preserved in a book now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford; and we read that he made the designs for the church embroidery, and even that great ladies sent for him to design their dresses.

He was a skilled worker in metal, some beautiful objects of his making being afterwards kept at Glastonbury as relics; and he was an expert bookbinder. Moreover, he sang with passion the wild old songs of the English, and the funeral chants of forgotten kings, and often would sit playing his harp for hours together, while his clergy listened in awe.

King Eadgar with Dunstan`s help, raised the prestige of the English throne to even greater heights than it had attained under Aethelstan; and in 973 A.D., he had the satisfaction of being rowed in a state barge on the Dee at Chester by eight vassal sovereigns of British, Scandinavian and Scotch nationality, this royal crew including Kings of Wales, the Isle of Man, Strathclyde and Scotland. Eadgar died in 975 A.D., and Dunstan buried him at Glastonbury, afterwards crowning his 13-year-old son Edward, later known as Edward the Martyr, though he ought really be called Edward the Second. Eadgar had married twice, and this Edward was the child of his first marriage; but the second wife, Aelfrith, who was still living, also had a son, Aethelred, and of course she schemed and plotted to place her own child on the throne, she was helped in this scheme by the magnates, who had lost land by King Edward` father who under insistence of Dunstan in which the Church claimed that there would be a second coming of Christ when New Millenian came in 1000 A.D., so new monasteries were constructed or brought back into use, the new King Edward said he would continue his father`s policy and thus his fate was set.

 

Then in 978 A.D., when the young King was but 16 years of age, he was stabbed by one of his step-mother`s men at the gates of her house at Corfe in Dorset, where now stands Corfe Castle.

He had been hunting on horseback in the neighbourhood, the heathland of the Isle of Purbeck, and, having lost touch with his attendants, had called at Aelfrith`s house to enquire whether they had been seen. He had not dismounted from his horse, but had asked for something to drink; and it was while he reached down to take the cup, a blow was struck, now doubt his half-brother Aethelred saw what happened which now doubt affected him for the rest of his life, the same thing happened with King Edward the Confessor when his brother Alfred was invited over to England, only to be murdered with his entourage, the finger of guilt on this crime was pointing at earl Godwinson, and why Edward had an estranged relationship with earl Godwinson, even though he married his daughter, but never consummated the marriage, and his son became virtually king with his conduct, in a way Edward  it would seem was not interested in the crown or carrying on his own lineage.

 

`This was the beginning of what was to be `The Loving Cup`. It was customary for our farefathers in drinking parties to pass round a large cup, from which each drink in turn to some of the company. He who thus drunk stood up and as he lifted the cup with both hands, his body was exposed without defence to a blow. An enemy with the intention of murdering him often seized upon the occasion. Consequently when one of the company stood up to drink he required the companion who sat next to him to be his pledge. If the pledge consented he stood up and raised his drawn sword in his hand to defend the drinker whilst consuming the drink.`

Wounded he managed to gallop away, no doubt his horse would have been spooked as well, unfortunately the young King soon fell from his saddle, with his foot trapped in the stirrip, he was dragged through the woods and heath, to be found later battered to death. His body was carried to Wareham where it was buried in a marble coffin which is still to be seen there in St. Edward`s Chapel, there was no mourning or action on this outrage, to the utter shame of the English and the point in which England changed forever, never to be ruled by the English properly again, and in the end with the Norman Conquest itself never legal, but it happened caused by this murder. Later King Aethelred the Unready with the help of Dunstan had Edward`s body reburied at Shaftsbury Abbey and was taken there under great ceremony.

Dunstan then had no choice but to crown the young Aethelred, who proved to be England`s most stupid King, nicknamed the “Redeless,” which means the “ill-advised.” The next chapter will deal with his reign.

In the same year Dunstan had a narrow escape from death. An important conference was being held in the upper room of a house at Calne, in Wiltshire, at which the Primate was urging the British clergy of the West to adopt the Roman rule of celibacy, and the proceedings had become heated when suddenly the floor gave way. Dunstan clutched at a joist which did not collapse, and, as though by a miracle, he remained unharmed; but the others were precipitated onto the ground below, some being killed and some injured.

The Archbishop was now but 57 years old, and his life was still marked by extraordinary austerities bringing in their train wild visions and estatic dreams. Now he was deep in affairs of state; now he was lost in his music, his arts, or his wide studies; and now he was cleric and saint again storming at the vanities and lusts of the flesh. But during his later years his days must have been clouded by the dangers which beset his beloved country. In 980 A.D., the Vikings once more attacked the English shores, descending on Thanet, Southampton, and Chester. In the next years they raided the coasts of Devon and Cornwall, and South Wales; and in 988 A.D., they devastated the lands of North Devon and Somerset.

It was during this latter visitation that Dunstan, still at the height of his powers, and preaching impassioned sermons said to have been the best he ever delivered, suddenlt died at the age of 67, and was buried at Canterbury; but in 1012 the monks dug up some bones which they believed to be his and carried them back to Glastonbury, but it appears that the remains were not really those of the saint.

 

The monastery of Glastonbury possessed at this time a most extraordinary collection of relices. King Aethelstan had presented the remains of two English saints and those of the Pope; and King Edmund had given relics of Aidan of Lindisfarne, the venerable Bede, Biscop, and the Abbess Hild of Whitby, as also the arm and shoulder of St. Oswald, the king of Northumbria whose hand was preserved at Bamburgh and whose head was first at Lindisfarne and afterwards at Durham, where it still rests, which has been related before.

Other benefactors had presented relics which purported to be a piece of Isaiah`s tomb,  a fragment of the floor of the temple of Jerusalem, a bit of the column at which Christ was scourged, some pieces of the sponges used at the crucifixion, some hairs from our Lord`s head, a thorn from the crown of thorns, a thread from the Virgin Mary`s dress, two bones of St. John the Baptist, and various relics of the apostles and saints.

 

The supposed bones of Dunstan were now added to this odd collection, and many were the miracles or “faith-cures” wrought by them, spurious though they were. Unfortunately no traces of the buildings carried out by this extraordinary man at Glastonbury have come down to us; but the visitor to the ruins of the later abbey there may know at least that he stands where the astonishing Dunstan so often stood during the reigns of those eight kings under whose sovereignty his strange life was passed.