St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury

Douglas Dales

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online February 2018 | | DOI:
St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
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  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology


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Dunstan (b. c. 909–d. 988) was a person of central importance in the life of church and state in 10th-century England. He grew up near the ancient shrine of Glastonbury in Somerset and may have been related to the royal family. He was educated at Glastonbury, spent time at the court of King Aethelstan, and after some initial reluctance was persuaded to become a monk by his kinsman Aelfeah, who became bishop of Winchester in 934. This was a symptom of the concerted effort by some of the bishops, led by archbishop Oda of Canterbury, to begin to restore active monastic life in England after its widespread destruction for various reasons during the Viking invasions of the 9th century. Sometime after 940, during the reign of King Edmund, Dunstan was appointed as abbot of Glastonbury to create the core of a genuine monastic community following the Rule of St Benedict, though not all its members were formally monks. This Dunstan achieved during the next fifteen years, with the support of King Eadred and his family, until he was forced into exile in Flanders after an altercation with the new young king, Eadwig. This enabled Dunstan to experience at first hand reformed monastic life on the Continent at a monastery in Ghent. Eadwig’s rule provoked division in the kingdom, however, and his younger brother, Edgar, assumed the rule of England north of the Thames. He recalled Dunstan to become bishop of Worcester and then bishop of London before appointing him late in 959 as archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan presided at Canterbury for twenty-eight years, during which time numerous monasteries for both men and women were either created or restored with his support and guidance but under the active leadership of bishops Aethelwold of Winchester and Oswald of Worcester, who also became the archbishop of York. The manifesto of this process was the Regularis Concordia, agreed at a synod in Winchester in either 966 or 970, which established how the Benedictine Rule would be observed, in conjunction with existing English church traditions, including daily intercession for the king and his family. King Edgar proved amenable to this widespread program of ecclesiastical reform and development, and in 973 he was solemnly crowned by Dunstan at Bath as emperor of the British Isles. The coronation rite used on that occasion continues to underpin the English coronation order and it had a wide influence on the Continent. The murder in 978 of Edgar’s successor, Edward, whom Dunstan had supported, caused a major scandal that was mitigated subsequently by Dunstan promoting him as a royal martyr. His relations with his successor and half-brother, Aethelred the Unready, were not close, partly as a result. Dunstan’s great age kept him largely in Canterbury thereafter, where he died on 19 May 988. His burial place rapidly became a shrine of healing, and early in the 11th century his cult as a saint was formally authorized by synodical law and by his hagiographies; it was later restored by St Anselm after its apparent suppression by Lanfranc, the first Norman archbishop. There are, however, few tangible cultural remains now of Dunstan’s life and work in terms of buildings, works of art, or manuscripts. His legacy was expressed, however, in the singular relationship between church, state, and monastic life, which persisted in England for centuries long after his death despite the Norman Conquest in 1066.

Article.  7910 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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