DUNSTAN, SAINT: Archbishop of Canterbury; b. near Glastonbury (5 in. s. of Wells, Somerset) probably in 925; d. at Canterbury May 19, 988. He was of noble family and related to Elphege of Winchester and other bishops. His early education was received from Irish scholars in the abbey of Glastonbury, but his distinguished birth and rich personal endowments led to his being summoned to the court by King Athelstan while still a lad. Stories of his visions and dreams point to some morbid or abnormal nervous condition. His fondness for heathen poetry and study of incantations was made a ground of accusation against him, and, as a consequence, he suffered physical ill treatment and was driven from the court. His kinsman, Bishop Elphege, received him at Winchester and, after a period of reluctance on Dunstan's part, made him a monk.
He now returned to Glastonbury (942?) and devoted himself to the study of the Bible and the Fathers, finding also occupation and amusement in painting, music, and working in metals. Bells, crosses, and many small articles were long shown in Glastonbury as his workmanship. He is said to have adopted an ascetic life and to have built with his own hands a small cell "more like a grave than a human dwelling-place," which served him as living-room, oratory, and workshop. He was again summoned to the court by King Edmund, only to be again expelled; but the almost miraculous escape of the king from great danger while hunting softened his mind and led to Dunstan's being recalled and made abbot of Glastonbury (c. 946, at the age of twenty-one). The buildings were in a ruinous condition, the true monastic life had died out, lay brothers had taken the place of monks, and the crown had seized upon the rights of patronage and the estates. Dunstan's innovations were rather a new foundation than a reformation. With generous support from the king he built up an institution which was more of a school than a Benedictine community, though his companions wore monk's garb. From it went forth archbishops and clergy of all sorts, who founded and ruled monasteries, disseminated Dunstan's teaching, and instructed the young. Glastonbury became the center of a monastic reform in Britain which culminated in the complete establishment of the Benedictine rule (though not till after Dunstan's return from Blandigny; see below), carried through by Dunstan himself in milder form, by his followers with more rigor.
After Edmund's murder (946) Dunstan became chief advisor and treasurer of King Edred, who had probably been his playmate at Athelstan's court. The young and physically weak king owed much to Dunstan's wise counsel, and the final suppression of a revolt in Northumbria was largely the work of the energetic minister. Edred promoted Dunstan’s plans for monastic reform and wished to make him bishop of Crediton in Devonshire (953), but Dunstan declined because he had not attained the canonical age and wished to remain by the king. A divine revelation is said to have foretold him of the impending sudden death of his royal friend (955), and he interred the body at Winchester with great honor. Dunstan’s enemies prevailed with the new king, Edwy, and he fled to Flanders to the monastery of Blandigny, near Ghent. It was here that he gained his full knowledge of the Benedictine rule. A revolt against Edwy followed in England, Dunstan’s friends gained the upper hand, and in 957 he was recalled. The young king, Edgar, made him bishop of Worcester the same year, in 959 also bishop of London, and finally archbishop of Canterbury. He was consecrated Oct. 21, 959, and in 960 received the pallium from Pope John XII. in Rome, where his liberality and piety were much praised. As archbishop he filled his suffragan sees with his adherents, pushed on the monastic reform, and substituted monks for secular clergy, having in all these measures the support of the king and an influential party. It is said that he founded forty new monasteries and filled them in part with French monks. With other bishops he crowned Edgar at Bath in 973, and with wise statecraft he acted as chief minister during Edgar’s successful and orderly reign. In the disorders which followed Edgar’s death (975), during which the archbishop crowned more than one king, Dunstan’s party finally prevailed. In the last years of his life he returned to his early artistic avocations, and took much interest in church building and in education; his old zeal for religion and charity continued unabated. On the whole he presents the picture of a man of piety, himself eager to learn and anxious to teach others, also of an able statesman. Laws of his time, particularly under Edgar, show a strong sense of justice, and church ordinances bear marks of his mild hand. No genuine literary works of Dunstan’s are preserved. He was buried in his church, not at Glastonbury, as asserted later. A cycle of legends and wonders soon grew up about his memory.
Bibliography: Sources for biography are the Vitæ, including one by a contemporary priest (signed B), that by Adelard of Ghent (1006–11 A.D.), and one by Osbern (a contemporary of Lanfranc), are collected in ASB, May, iv. 346-384, in MPL, cxxxvii., cxxxix., clix., and with other documents, ed. W. Stubbs, in Memorials of St Dunstan, Rolls Series, No. 63, London, 1874. These are supplemented by the Dunstan Saga, ed. G. Vigfusson, Eng. transl. by G. W. Dasent, Rolls Series, London, 1887-94. Further sources are indicated in T. D. Hardy, Descriptive Catalogue of Materials relating to the Hist. of Great Britain, Rolls Series, No. 26, i. 2, pp. 594-609, ib. 1862. As sources consult also: D. Wilkins, Concilia Magnæ Britannicæ . . . 446-1717, 4 vols., London, 1737; Codex diplomaticus ævi Saxonici, ed. J. M. Kemble, 6 vols., ib. 1839. For more modern treatment consult: Engelhardt, Dissertatio de Dunstano, Erlangen, 1834; W. Robinson, Life of St. Dunstan, London, 1844; W. F. Hook. Lives of the Archbishops of Canterbury, vol. i. ib. 1860; DNB, xvi. 221-230.