May 19 – Dunstan of Canterbury

Dunstan of Canterbury (909–988)’s mum was in church on Candlemas when all the candles blew out. Suddenly hers and hers alone burst into flame. This foretold that her future son would bring eternal light to the Church in England. Eternity hasn’t happened yet, but we’re still reading about him 1000 years later, and that’s a pretty good start.

Dunstan was schooled by Irish monks at Glastonbury, served under his Uncle Anselm (Apr 21) at Canterbury, and finally joined the court of King Æthelstan. He quickly became a favorite, which aroused jealousy, which resulted in a charge of witchcraft, which resulted in being ejected from the court, which was closely followed by being beaten and thrown into a cesspool. He was nursed back to health by a friend, and removed to Winchester to serve his other uncle, Bishop Ælfheah.

Uncle Ælf (as Dunstan assuredly never called him) suggested the monastic life, but Dunstan doubted he had the celibacy gene. A terrible attack of tumours (possibly a result of the beating) changed his mind (not sure why—it is perhaps best we don’t try to reconstruct his reasoning). He was monkified and returned to Glastonbury, where he lived in a tiny cell, played his harp, and worked in the smithy. It was there that he had a close encounter with the devil’s nose—Dunstan was attacked with temptation, and fought back with tongs.

When Æthelstan died, his successor Edmund summoned Dunstan and made him a minister. Again jealousies arose, and Dunstan was dismissed. Soon thereafter, Edmund was hunting stag and found himself careening headlong toward a precipice. His entire treatment of Dunstan flashed before his eyes, and he promised he would make amends if his life were spared. The horse stopped at the very cliff edge. Edmund was as good as his word, and appointed Dunstan abbot of Glastonbury. As abbot, Dunstan established the Rule of Benedict, rebuilt ruins, and put his brother in charge of preventing monks from escaping (don’t ask).

When, some years later, then-King Eadwig was late for a meeting, Dunstan went to find him and walked in on the king, um, entertaining a young noblewoman and her mother. When the king refused to, um, break it off, Dunstan physically dragged him to the meeting and forced him to denounce the girl (but, curiously, not the mother) as a “strumpet.” Eadwig, enraged, sacked and plundered the monastery. That day, Dunstan saw a brochure extolling the wonders of Flanders, and caught the next boat train. Not long after, Eadwig was deposed by his brother Edgar. Dunstan was recalled to England and made bishop of first London and then Worcester. When word came that the appointed Archbishop of Canterbury had died crossing the Alps (going to procure the pallium from the Pope), Dunstan was conferred the honor. Fortunately, he survived his pallium-procurement peregrination.

Upon his return, he became de facto Prime Minister, and effectively ruled both church and state. He ended the practices of simony and clerical nepotism, enforced monastic celibacy, and implemented many other reforms. Interestingly, the coronation service he wrote for Edgar has been used for every crowned head of England/Britain since.

When, a few kings later, Æthelred the Unready took the throne under questionable circumstances, Dunstan spoke up, and (was) “retired” to Canterbury, whence he continued to strengthen and reform the Church. When he knew his end was near, he shopped for a tomb, then went to bed for the last time. He was buried at Canterbury, and although the monks at Glastonbury claimed his body had been moved there in 1012, they were proved wrong when Canterbury produced the bones. Sady, these were destroyed in the Reformation.

Dunstan is the patron of every kind of metalsmith, as well as lighthouse keepers.