Project Canterbury

The Little Lives of the Saints

Told by Percy Dearmer

Illustrated by Charles Robinson.

London: Wells Gardner, Darton & Co., 1904.

St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, 924-988.

May 19th.

OF all the great prime ministers of England, none have been greater than St. Dunstan, who made the reign of King Edgar so famous in our history. Yet he did not escape the hatred of many enemies, and his life was a troubled one; for a saint has many to hate him, and perhaps a prime minister has more.

Dunstan was born near where Glastonbury hill juts out from the beautiful Somersetshire plain, the son of a thane whose estate lay in those parts. At that time Glastonbury was still the Isle of Avalon, a real island standing in the midst of flooded marsh land, and reached only by little boats. But its ancient glory had departed. A few mean buildings were all that remained of the monastery; and there was no one to keep the traditions alive in the two old churches, save a few Irish scholars who had pilgrimaged over for the sake of past times. It was these good Irishmen who taught the young Dunstan his letters; and from them he learnt how sadly the old brotherly monastic life had decayed in England.

But Dunstan had no thought of becoming a monk himself; and after a while he went to finish his education as a page at the Court of King Athelstan. He was a strange boy, dreamy and gentle, and wonderfully clever at his lessons. The gay young nobles at the court could not understand him; and some of them took such a dislike to him that they accused him to the king of studying witchcraft, and had him banished. As he set out to leave the country they laid wait for him, bound him hand and foot, threw him into a marsh, and pushed him deep into the mud.

He pulled himself out, poor boy! and went to stay with his kinsman, the Bishop of Winchester. The old Bishop asked him to become a monk, but Dunstan said that he preferred to marry. Soon he became very ill, and was like to die. Then all his old plans faded away from him, and he resolved that, if ever he got well again, he would become a monk.

So very soon we find the youth living as a monk in his old home at Glastonbury. Here he had a small cell only five feet long, and here he saw many wonderful visions, and wrestled with temptations so fierce that often the Tempter himself seemed to come in bodily form and fight with him. Yet he was very happy, for he felt that he was overcoming his sins and drawing nearer to God. Besides all this, he was a great artist, and he worked as well as he prayed. He had a workshop and a forge where he made organs and bells and censers and crosses and vestments for his church. No one was so clever a craftsman as he, and ages afterwards his handiwork was treasured up in different churches. Even now, a book, illuminated by his own hand, is preserved in the British Museum, where you can go and see it if you like.

Once, a lady who was very clever at needlework asked Dunstan to come and design a stole for her to embroider; and, because he was also cunning at music, she begged him to bring his harp with him and play to her while she worked. So he came down to the house, and drew out a beautiful design for her to work in rich coloured silks. Then he sang and played to the lady and her friends. When he had finished, he hung his harp on the wall near an open window, and they sat round the wooden table for dinner. The wind blew fresh and strong through the window, and, as it passed among the strings of the harp, the sounds of faint music came from them. All in the room were amazed, for they did not know that the wind could draw music out of strings, as it does with the Aeolian harp, and they thought it was a miracle.

And now a new king arose whose name was Edmund, and he called Dunstan to his court to be one of his chief councillors, though the young monk was only twenty-one years old. But again enemies arose against Dunstan, who accused him falsely, and persuaded the king to banish him.

Soon after this King Edmund was hunting the stag on the Mendip Hills. The chase was so hot that they reached the edge of the great Cheddar cliffs without noticing where they were, when suddenly the King saw the stag disappear over the precipice just in front of him. In a second the hounds were over too, and Edmund saw that in two more strides of his horse he would be dashed to pieces. Then the thought of his cruelty to Dunstan flashed across his mind. "God help me," he cried, "and I will have Dunstan back!" With all his might he pulled at the rein; the horse reeled back on his hind legs just as he was on the edge of the cliff, and King Edmund was saved as if by a miracle.

Quietly rode the king down to Cheddar Town, and sent a messenger at once for Dunstan. "Saddle your horse," he said, "and ride with me, for I will go some whither." Wondering greatly, Dunstan obeyed; and the two struck off across the country towards where Glastonbury Tor stood out among the marshes. Into the old abbey church they went without speaking, and there they knelt together and prayed. Priests and peasants dropped in one by one and watched them in amazement. Then the king arose and took Dunstan by the hand, and when he had kissed him in token of peace and honour, he set him in the abbot's seat, and said--"Now thou art Abbot of Glastonbury, and whatsoever thou shalt want for the monastery that I promise to give unto thee!"

Thus was Dunstan made abbot, and a great change came over Glastonbury, a change so great that he was the second founder of this famous monastery. With the king's money he rebuilt the old church; and, remembering how he had been taught there, he raised up also a busy school, not leaving all the hard work to others, but teaching the boys himself in his gentle clever way, day by day.

But now Edmund died and his brother Edred was chosen king. Edred was very fond of Dunstan, who though he was still a young man, became chancellor; and, because the king was in bad health, the chancellor was the real ruler of the kingdom. Yet he found time to look after his abbey, which still grew greater and greater.

Soon Edred died, and the wise men had to choose between Edmund's two sons, Edwy and Edgar. They made Edwy king, and now a time of trial came for Dunstan. Edwy was a self-willed and careless boy, and on the very day of his coronation, he quarrelled with Dunstan, who had to fly from England into Flanders where he found a refuge in a monastery at Ghent.

But in two years England had risen against the foolish Edwy, and made his brother Edgar king in his stead.

Thus began the glorious reign of this famous king; and much of its glory was due to Dunstan, who was made Archbishop of Canterbury and served King Edgar as prime minister of the kingdom. He was the close friend and adviser of the King, chief of the Wise Men, and head of the Church. Under his guidance England became re-united again, and over all the land there was peace and order. Even the Danes, who might have caused much trouble, he conciliated by his wise and just treatment, so that in after years they honoured him as one of the greatest saints.

More than anything else, Archbishop Dunstan set himself to reform the Church; for there had been for many generations a gradual decay of religion and learning. The monks especially had become lazy and worldly, so Dunstan collected new bands of monks whom he put under the strict rule of St. Benedict. In this way many large churches, which before had been managed by married priests, were given to the Benedictines, but it was not true, as Dunstan's enemies asserted, that he treated the married clergy unkindly. His rule was as gentle as it was strong. The Church was to become the great educator of the people, and every priest, instead of hunting and playing, was to learn a handicraft, that he might help others in the use of tools. He ordered, too, that a sermon should be preached every Sunday; and, lest there should be any pride, one of his laws command, "that no noble born priest despise one of less noble birth; if it be rightly considered all men are of one origin." When the rich confessed their sins he encouraged them for a penance to make roads and bridges, to build churches, to help the poor, and to forgive their enemies. To keep people from drunkenness, he ordered that pegs should be fixed in the drinking-cups, so that men could see how much they had taken.

At last King Edgar died, and Edward the Martyr became king. Then Ethelred the Unready came to the throne; and Dunstan, who had served under so many masters, retired to his convent at Canterbury, leaving Ethelred to mismanage the kingdom as he chose.

And now the old saint took up again the occupations of his youth. He became a craftsman once more, and with all his old skill he made bells and organs, harps and other musical instruments. In the early morning he would correct the manuscripts in the library; and next to the constant services, the prayer and psalmody and Sacraments, his greatest pleasure was to make peace between those who had quarrelled, and to help the widows, the fatherless, strangers and pilgrims. "And thus," says an old writer, "all this English land was filled with his holy doctrine, shining before God and men like the sun and moon. When he was minded to pay to Christ the Lord the due hours of service, and the celebration of the Mass, with such entireness of devotion he laboured in singing that he seemed to be speaking face to face with the Lord, even if just before he had been vexed with the quarrels of his people. Like St. Martin he constantly kept eye and hand intent on heaven, never letting his spirit rest from prayer."

After his death the school-boys at Canterbury still remembered his kind heart. One day the school-master, who was a cruel man, ordered all the boys to be whipped, though they had not done anything wrong. Then the poor little boys with many tears, cried to "their sweetest father Dunstan" to have pity on them; and the story says that St. Dunstan heard their prayer from heaven, and delivered them from their persecutor.

There are many other stories about St. Dunstan, but we have only room for one more, which is also about a school-boy. One day when Dunstan was at Bath he sat thinking in his dreamy way after dinner, and saw in a vision one of the Glastonbury boys carried up to heaven by an angel. A few days afterwards a monk came from Glastonbury to see him, "How are all the brethren?" said Dunstan. "All are well." "What all?" asked Dunstan. "All but one little fellow who is dead," answered the monk. "God rest his happy spirit," said St. Dunstan. "I have seen him carried by the angels into everlasting peace." And when the boy's parents heard that, they were almost happy again.

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