Archbishop of Canterbury and Reformer, 988


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Archbishop of Canterbury and Reformer, 988

Picture courtesy of Brian Whirledge,

Dunstan came from a family with royal connections and received his education from Irish monks at Glastonbury. In 923, when his Uncle Athelm became archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan joined his household. The following year Athelm commended him to the new king, Athelstan, and he served at court during a period marked by strong European contact. However, his impressive scholarship and considerable influence created jealousy and he had to leave. While still a young nobleman, he took monks vows and returned to Glastonbury.

In 939 Edmund became king of Wessex, and Dunstan returned to court as his chaplain. Shortly afterwards, the king, convinced that Dunstan’s prayers had saved him from death, appointed him abbot of Glastonbury. In the wake of the Danish invasions, religious life in England was at a low ebb. From his time as abbot of Glastonbury he realised the potential of monasteries in the pastoral service of the church, and emphasised the importance of education, making Glastonbury a centre of learning.

Under King Edgar in 957, Dunstan was appointed Bishop of Worcester, then Bishop of London and in 960, Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan was now, in effect, both Archbishop of Canterbury and Prime Minister. With Edgar he planned and carried out a thorough renewal of the church and a revival of the monasteries.

Dunstan saw that a specifically English code was needed for English monks. The Regularis Concordia (970) was drawn up by Bishop Aethelwold, who took the leading role in the revival of the monasteries. The document also had significance in the areas of liturgy, pastoral care and education, plus it placed monks and monasteries under royal protection.

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).

After Edgar's death and the coronation of a new king, Dunstan went into retirement at Canterbury where he devoted himself to long hours of prayer and to teaching at the cathedral.

Dunstan was noted for his great learning, and exercised a powerful influence in the affairs of both church and state at a significant time in English history. He possessed great gifts of leadership and organisation, and was widely respected because of his transparent integrity, sincerity and courage. Dunstan never hesitated to rebuke even kings when necessary. While archbishop, he improved the education and discipline of the secular clergy. He encouraged the use of Anglo-Saxon (the local language of the day) in teaching and for the translations of the Gospels. He was a remarkable person, at once a man of ability and action, but also someone who would spend long hours in prayer. Dunstan was a practical administrator and a gifted artist. The extent of the popular affection in which he was held was indicated by a spontaneous acclamation of his saintliness upon his death in 988.

BORN: 909 AD, Baltonsborough, England

DIED: 19 May 988 AD, Canterbury, England