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Dunstan - the devil is in the details


Glastonbury Abbey, which was rebuilt by Dunstan in the 10th century and ruined in the 16th century. Image: Robert of Knights of Avalon

When he was a boy, Dunstan was educated by Irish monks, or, some say, by the books that Irish monks left behind at Glastonbury. The monastery was crumbling, and the boy dreamed of rebuilding Glastonbury Abbey. This was not his only dream. His most extraordinary vision would be the constitutional covenant between leader and people that remains fundamental to democracies today. British folklore remembers his irrepressible spirit in a lyric about his encounter with the devil.

Dunstan became a scholar, craftsman, monastic, and political reformer who played the harp. We imagine his harp, which he carried with him when he travelled, was a solace. Before he was thirty he had survived savage beatings and court intrigue, and he had his hands full trying to educate troublesome young kings.

The most interesting of these boys was a great-grandson of Alfred the Great by the name of Edgar. When his brother, the unfortunately named Eadwig, died, Edgar became King of Wessex. That is, Edgar was confirmed king by a conclave of nobles, but he was not crowned.

In AD 973 Dunstan created a coronation ceremony for Edgar that is still used today. The people affirmed their willingness to acclaim him King; and he in turn swore an Oath to the people. The Coronation Oath that Edgar swore embodied the practical ideals of justice -

“First, that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrong-doing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments.”

It's easy to overlook the Oath's radical importance - anyway, it was easy for us. This is the thousand-year-old foundation for holding leaders accountable to their people and to principle. It arose out of the Judaeo-Christian concept of the servant king.

Building other foundations in stone and art, community and purpose, Dunstan restored the ruined abbey of Glastonbury, and founded the abbey on Thorney Island that became Westminster Abbey. May 19th is his feast day. He is one of the faithful, brave and eccentric men and women in the Anglican Calendar of saints.

St. Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pulled the devil by the nose,
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard ten miles or more.