Book of Saints and Heroes - Andrew Lang

Dunstan the Friend of Kings

Those of you who know the stories of the Knights of the Round Table, will remember that when King Arthur bids farewell to his comrades, he passes in the black barge out of their sight to the Isle of Avalon. There he was to rest amidst the meadows, 'fair with orchard lawns and bowery hollows crowned with summer sea.'

Now, perhaps many children have read the tale of Arthur's last farewell without guessing that there is a real  Isle of Avalon, and that it was given its name by the Romans, nineteen hundred years ago. Avalon lies on the river Brue, just where, long ago, it broadened and stretched out almost into a lake. The water was so clear that the Britons who dwelt in the country gave it a name which means 'the isle of glass'; and you could lie on its banks and watch the fishes playing hide-and-seek below you. If you landed on the island you would find a tangle of flowering shrubs, and beyond, orchards white with blossom in spring, and golden with fruit in autumn.

Altogether, Avalon was a very pleasant place, and a pleasant place it is still, even though the glassy waters have disappeared and streets stand where water-lilies and forget-me-nots once grew. On all sides you may see ruined arches or fragments of old buildings, which tell those who understand a tale of the former greatness of Avalon—or as it was afterwards called, Glastonbury. And besides the ruins you will be shown the tree of the Holy Thorn, that blossoms at Christmas, and is supposed to have sprung from a hawthorn staff which St. Joseph of Arimathea, on a pilgrimage from Palestine, stuck into the ground when he threw himself down to rest. Of course it is only  a story, for St. Joseph never came here at all, but it is quite true that the thorn comes into flower every Christmas, and for hundreds of years pilgrims flocked to worship at the chapel, said to have been founded by the Jews.

By and bye a whole colony of Irish missionaries settled there, and built themselves cells of wattles or twisted willows, which must have been very cold and damp to live in, and constructed a wooden church. In course of time this was replaced by a stone one, and when in the reign of Henry II the existing church was burned down, a magnificent abbey was founded on its ruins.

It was about the year 924, when the famous King Athelstan reigned over the whole of the South of England, then known as Wessex, that a baby named Dunstan was born in Glastonbury, not far from the royal palace. His parents, who were both noble, wished their little boy to be taught carefully everything that a gentleman ought to learn. He was a clever, eager child, always wanting to do everything other people did, and the Irish monks who kept a sort of school for the sons of the rich people in the neighbourhood, had no trouble with their pupil. As soon as he could read and write his masters set him to study the Bible, and he was required to know the Latin poets and historians of the great days of Rome; the English poets, Caedmon and Beowulf; the stories of the saints (especially the Irish ones); and something about the Frankish kings who reigned across the sea, and the court of Charlemagne, where Athelstan's great-great-grandfather, King Egbert, had once spent many years in exile. You may think all this was enough for one little boy to learn, but it was only a part of Dunstan's lessons. There was one particular monk who taught him Latin, and another who was his musical teacher, while a third undertook to ground him in arithmetic and geometry, and took him out on fine nights to watch the stars. On wet days he sang church music, or drew, or modelled figures out of clay, for Dunstan's hands were as clever as his head; and in after years, when he was a very great man indeed, the monks would probably show the precious manuscripts he had copied and illuminated, the vestments he had designed for the priests, or the iron crosses he had made for the church; while his mother was never tired of displaying the gold and silver ornaments which were her son's work. Even as late as the thirteenth century, bells fashioned by Dunstan were still hanging in the church at Abingdon.

So time passed on. The boy could not have been more anxious to learn than the monks were to teach him; and the end of it was that Dunstan got brain fever and became dangerously ill. The monks were very unhappy but never thought the fault was theirs, and for weeks his mother sat with him day and night, but he did not know her. At length he sank into unconsciousness, and the poor lady, worn out with lack of rest, fell fast asleep. When she awoke, Dunstan was missing. The delirium had returned, and in his frenzy he had arisen, and rushed out to the church; the doors were closed, but a ladder leaned against the walls, left there by some workmen. Mad with fever, Dunstan ran up it on to the roof, yet, in spite of the locked doors, when the church was opened next morning he was found lying on the floor, faint and weak but without the fever.

It was after this that Athelstan invited the boy to come and live at the palace and be the playmate of his brother Edward, whose fast friend he remained through life. Dunstan was very handsome and had charming manners, but the young pages and nobles about the court did not like him, and mocked at his small size and delicacy, which prevented his joining in their rough sports.

'He is more than half a maiden,' they would cry, 'let him sit by the hearth with a distaff;' and with anger in his heart, which he felt it would be well to conceal, Dunstan sought the ladies' 'bower,' as their sitting-room was then called. There he was always welcome. Nobody could draw patterns for them to work like young Dunstan, and nobody was so good a judge of the evenness of the stitches, and of the way the colours were combined.

But an unlucky end came to his visits, and this was brought about by a piece of mischief of his own.

From the time that Dunstan was quite a little boy he had the power of imitating other people's voices, and of making them sound as if they proceeded from any direction he pleased. Nowadays, we call this gift 'ventriloquism,' and listen with interest and amusement to anyone who possesses it; but when Athelstan sat on the throne it was held to be wicked magic, and inspired by the devil himself.

One morning Dunstan received a message from the lady Ethelwyn, begging him to give his advice as to the pattern of some new vestments which she and her maidens were embroidering. He entered the room and found them all bending over the work close to the window, for even when the sun shone brightly so little light penetrated the narrow slits in the wall, that nearly the whole apartment was in shadow. He was apparently considering carefully the important question as to whether red or yellow would look best in a particular part of the pattern, when a sound of soft low music was heard coning from the end of the room. For a moment the ladies gazed at each other in astonishment; then exclaiming that Dunstan knew more than any Christian ought to do, Ethelwyn rushed from the chamber, followed by her maidens.

The story was not long in reaching the ears of the King, and Dunstan was formally accused of dabbling in witchcraft, and other unlawful acts. Young though he was, his talents and the favour they gained him, had won him many enemies, and old tales were now whispered, all tending to prove him guilty. Sentence of exile from court was passed on him, but, as he still denied his crime, it was not to be carried out until he had first gone through one of the tests of innocence, known as the 'ordeal of cold water.'

Several kinds of ordeals were practised at that time throughout Europe. There was the ordeal by hot iron, to which, perhaps you will remember, the mother of King Hacon had to submit, when a heavy weight, white with heat, was withdrawn from the fire, laid in her hand, and held there till she was told to throw it down. A bandage was next placed on the hand and sealed by the priest, and left for three days. On the third day the bandage was publicly unwound, and as no scar was to be found on the palm where the iron had lain, she was proclaimed innocent. In another kind of ordeal the accused person was forced to plunge his arm into boiling water and to draw out a bar of iron without being scalded. But, fortunately for Dunstan, the form of ordeal to which he was condemned was the easiest of all. He was merely to be thrown into cold water, to see if he would sink or swim, and his hands and feet were not allowed to be tied, as was the general custom.

A large crowd of idle and curious people were assembled to see Dunstan, mounted on a led horse, ride up to the pond where the ceremony was to take place. But before the arrival of the officials whose duty it was to watch that justice was done, the culprit was dragged from the saddle by some young men standing by and flung into the water. Gasping with the shock, he managed to crawl to the further bank, and then ran for his life, hearing behind him the noise of yelping dogs, set on by his cruel persecutors. Luckily the beasts had not touched him when they were called off by the officers of the court, who decided that Dunstan had done all that was required of him and was free.

Though Dunstan's life was safe, he was forbidden to return to court, and without delay he set out on a long ride to Winchester, to take refuge with the Bishop. His heart was very sad, for he left behind him a girl whom he loved deeply, and some day hoped to marry. But his kinsman, Elfege the Bald, Bishop of Winchester, who received him with great kindness, thought that it was a pity such abilities as Dunstan's should be lost to the Church. Elfege made constant appeals to the youth's ambition, and pointed out that the road to power lay only through the vestments of the priest. At first his words made no impression. 'But I can be a priest and be married too,' argued Dunstan.

'That is true, but then you will never be anything but a priest,' answered Elfege. 'Whereas if you remain unmarried, you can—and will, rise to govern the state, and be a King in all but the name.'

'Yes, perhaps; still, there are other things in life besides power,' murmured the boy in a low voice, and Elfege, who knew the value of silence, pretended not to hear him.

For some months the struggle between the two went on. Dunstan held out longer than most boys of sixteen would have done, but his health, always delicate, broke down from the strain. He had no strength to fight any more, and at length, to the joy of Elfege, he consented to do as the Bishop wished. So, to prevent any further change of mind, Elfege at once ordained him priest, and as soon as he was fit to travel sent him abroad to a Benedictine monastery.

When he returned, there was no more bitter enemy than he of the married clergy, several of whom had been his teachers in his childhood, not many years ago. It almost seemed as if he wanted to prove to himself that he was right when he gave up a home for ambition; and his first act after his appointment as Abbot of Glastonbury by King Edmund, when he was twenty-two, was to expel them from their posts. But all this happened later, for as soon as he came from Fleury he built himself a tiny cell close to the churchyard, five feet long and two and a half feet wide, and far too low for him to stand upright in. In this cell he believed he would spend the rest of his days thinking about heavenly things.

When he laid down this plan for himself he knew very little of his own nature. For a while, indeed, his cell contented him; he fasted till his mind as well as his body grew weak, and the visions he saw in this condition he took to be real. The devil, he said to the friends who now and then came to see him, visited him continually, and beset him with temptations; and, quite convinced of the truth of what he was telling, he convinced his listeners also, and they carried away wonderful stories of the devil looking in at the window of the cell and disturbing the holy man with mocking words, till Dunstan seized his nose with a pair of red-hot tongs; the devil's shrieks might have been heard at the palace.


"The sensible woman gets Dunstan to leave his cell."

If Dunstan had led this life for very long he would probably have ended in becoming mad, but, fortunately, a lady who formed part of King Athelstan's court was one of those who came to his cell to consult him about the state of her soul. She was a sensible woman, and saw that his mode of living was very bad for him in every way, and little by little obtained great influence over him, and persuaded him that it was his duty to go more into the world and seek out those who could not, or would not, come to him. After a while he listened to her, and sometimes left his cell for her house, where he met again men of experience and learning. The ambition which had been implanted in him by Elfege the Bald was awakened; he felt there existed another side to life than the monkish one, and when Athelstan died and Edmund sat on the throne, the newly-appointed Abbot of Glastonbury threw all his energy into his work.

Dunstan was now a rich man. His parents had bequeathed him one estate, and his friend, the lady Ethelgiva, another; so that he was able to build a new church, and such buildings for his monks as he thought proper. He also drew up a set of rules, and every man who would not swear obedience to them had to seek shelter elsewhere. Their places were speedily filled by young, eager monks like himself, and these he forced to study, in order that Glastonbury should once more be the great school to which boys of all parts might come in far greater numbers than they had ten years earlier when he himself was educated there.

Always busy, the devils who had persecuted him flew away, and if he dreamed now, it was of angels.

Few men can say that they have been the advisors of four kings, yet this was Dunstan's position. It is impossible to read the history of those times without noticing the youth of almost all the sovereigns of Wessex; and yet how wisely and well they governed, and how triumphantly they beat back their foes, the Danes, who were always pressing on them. On the death of each sovereign, the borders of the kingdom stretched a little farther, and a fresh monarch paid tribute to their overlord of Wessex. Much of this success was due to the counsel of Dunstan and the chancellor Thurketul; in spite of his delicacy, the young abbot seemed able to do everything and to know everything, but however greatly the king might need him, he never ceased for one moment the work of reforming the discipline of the Church.

Edmund the king was keeping the festival of St. Augustine the missionary, at Pucklechurch, in Gloucestershire, and Dunstan was in his Abbey of Glastonbury, many long miles away. The abbot was sitting alone in his cell, tired with a hard day's labour, and feeling strangely sad, though all was going well with him. Suddenly, the walls around him appeared to fade, and he beheld the banqueting hall at Pucklechurch where Edmund was seated. As he looked, he saw Leof the outlaw enter the hall, a man whom the king had banished six years before on account of his many crimes. Unnoticed, Leof crept up, and took his place at the royal table, and when the cup-bearer ordered him to depart, angrily bade him begone. The noise attracted the king's attention, and he sprang up, and seizing Leof by the hair, dragged him to the floor, falling with him. As they struggled together, Leof managed to pull out a dagger from his coat, and struck Edmund full in the breast. The king died without a groan, and the dagger with which Leof had killed him was turned on himself by the attendants.

All this Dunstan beheld, and as the vision faded away, he seemed to see the devil's face dancing with mocking glee at the murder. Without losing a moment Dunstan instantly started off to Pucklechurch, hoping against hope that he might yet be in time to save the king. About half-way he met a messenger, sent to fetch him. 'Tell me your tale,' said the abbot, and when the tale was told it was in all particulars what Dunstan had seen in his vision.

Edmund was only twenty-four at the time of his death, and it was quite plain that his two little boys must be passed over, and Edred, his brother, reign in his stead, and continue the fight for the supremacy of Wessex. Dunstan and Edred were nearly the same age, and had known each other long before at the Court of Athelstan, where they became great friends. No sooner was Edred declared king, than he sent for Dunstan and took counsel with him as to the government of his own kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, and how best to subdue the tributary land of Northumbria, which was constantly in revolt. Edred was as ready to fight as his brothers, Athelstan and Edmund, or his father, King Edward, but he suffered all his life from a terrible illness which made it impossible to him for a long time to eat any meat, and for this he was heartily despised by his subjects, who loved nothing so much as eating and drinking. Still, whatever pain he may have undergone, the king did not allow his delicacy to interfere with his duty to his country, and for ten years he devoted all his time and strength to conquering his enemies and improving the condition for his people. But in the end the task proved too much for him, and after his death at Frome, in 955, his nephew Edwy succeeded him on the throne of Wessex, while to Edwy's younger brother Edgar, was given the subject kingdom of Anglia, which we now call Essex.

Edwy was only fifteen, and had not the talent for governing which marked most of the kings of Wessex. Like many people weak in character, he was very much afraid of being thought to be influenced by anyone; and Dunstan, who was used to being consulted on every occasion by the two former kings, had little patience with his youth and folly. At Edwy's coronation feast a quarrel took place, and, seeing that the married clergy were all ready to side with the king, Dunstan retired for a time to Glastonbury. Here, in the abbey which he had built, and amidst the folk who were so proud of him, he held himself to be safe, but Edwy's anger, kept alive by his wife and her mother, still pursued him, and armed men were sent to take him prisoner. But they little knew of what stuff the abbot was made if they expected to conduct him quietly into the king's presence. As the soldiers were in the act of forcing him through the church door, a fearful sound was heard, which some said resembled 'the wheezy voice of a gleesome hag,' and others 'the bleating of a calf,' but a calf that could never have grazed in earthly fields.



The grasp on Dunstan's arms was loosened, and the abbot stood still, making no attempt to escape, while those around him quaked and shivered, their foreheads wet with fear. Then the silence was broken by the voice of Dunstan himself: 'Foe of mankind, beware lest thou rejoice before thy time! for great as may be thy joy in witnessing my departure, thy grief will be twofold greater, when God, to thy confusion, shall permit me to return.'

The soldiers fell back, not daring to touch him, and Dunstan, taking advantage of their fright, walked quietly away and hid himself, till he could sail in a ship to Flanders.

This  time his gift of ventriloquism had served him better than in the bower of the lady Ethelwyn!

Wessex soon grew tired of the misrule of Edwy, and after two years his brother Edgar was proclaimed king of a large part of England—Mercia, or the Midlands, and Northumbria. Edgar's first act was to send for Dunstan, who gladly quitted Flanders and returned to pursue his old policy at home. Still he did not use his new power in avenging himself on Edwy, and even tried, though vainly, to make friends with him.

On one point only Dunstan seems to have changed his mind during his exile. In Edred's reign he had refused the Bishopric of Winchester, though he had allowed the king to know that when Canterbury was vacant he would consent to be Primate of England. Now, however, at Edgar's request he suffered himself to be nominated Bishop of Worcester and London without giving up Glastonbury. It was against the law of the Church to hold all these together, and no man knew it better than Dunstan. But Rome was far off, and many things might happen before the news reached the ears of Pope John XII. And before the news probably did  reach the Pope, Odo, Archbishop of Canterbury, was dead, and Edwy also; and at the request of Edgar, now King of Wessex, Dunstan set out for Rome to receive from the Pope the robe or pallium of the Archbishop.

The brilliancy of the reign of Edgar was chiefly owing to the counsels of Dunstan, though the king must be given full credit for listening to his advice.

When the younger son of Edmund ascended the throne, he was only sixteen, and loved every kind of pomp and splendour. So Dunstan, keeping himself all the while in the background—for in spite of his ambition the archbishop was too great a man to care for praise—spent much of his time in gratifying this weakness of the king's, and arranging progresses through the country and organizing reviews to test the soundness of his fleet, and the skill of the oarsmen. Not that these things were purely amusements. Dunstan was fully aware that the subject kingdoms would be all the more loyal if they could see and speak to the sovereign who was their overlord; and as for the reviews, why the coasts on the East were infested with pirates from across the seas, who must be kept down at any cost. And, of course, without a good navy this could not be done.

The most famous and the most splendid of these royal progresses, was one which took place in 973, when Edgar had been fourteen years sole king, and just after his second coronation at Bath. Attended by his court he travelled across the country as far as Chester, and was met there by the eight kings who came to do him homage for their kingdoms. It was, perhaps, the proudest moment in the life of the 'Bretwalda '—for this was Edgar's title among his people—when he sat at the prow of his ship, and was rowed on the river Dee by his tributaries. They came from all parts: five kings from Wales, nearly as small in stature as Edgar himself; the tall Maccus from the isles of the North, Malcolm of Cumberland, Kenneth of Scotland. Kenneth, at least, he knew well, for once when a meeting between them had taken place, the Scottish king had gone away and spoken mockingly about his overlord, saying it was a shame that grown men should pay tribute to a dwarf. The idle words were carried by some tale-bearer to Edgar, and Kenneth was instantly summoned into his presence.

'Let us go into that wood; I have somewhat to say unto thee,' said the king, and Kenneth followed him silently.

'Now,' continued Edgar, when they had reached a cleared space, out of sight of all men, 'draw thy sword, and we will see which is the better man, the giant or the dwarf, and who shall obey the other.'

Kenneth coloured; he was generous and not afraid to own himself in the wrong.

'I take back my words, O king—It was an ill hour when I spoke them,' and Edgar held out his hand and forgave him.

During these years the country prospered, the roads were improved, the robbers severely punished, and a payment given to every man who brought in the head of a wolf—for wolves were the terror of lonely villages during the winter. The peasants, like all Saxons, were heavy drinkers, and, when drunk, very quarrelsome. Matters were made worse by the custom of only having one pot in each tavern, and the pot was passed from man to man. Many were the fights and brawls which arose from this habit, for everybody accused his neighbour of having swallowed more than his share. So Dunstan ordered pegs of gold or silver to be fastened at even spaces down the great pot, and no one, under pain of punishment, might drink further than his own peg. Besides this, the archbishop took care that the poor, who were oppressed by those that were stronger than themselves, should have the right of coming to lay their cause before the king himself, and they were always sure of a hearing.

But, notwithstanding all these things in which Dunstan thought and planned for the good of the people and Edgar carried out his ideas, there was a dark stain in the king's character, which the archbishop knew that it was his duty not to forgive, without real proof of penitence. Whether Edgar was really ashamed of his crime or not, we cannot tell, but he felt that he could not afford to quarrel with his minister, to whom he owed most of his power; therefore, like David, he humbled himself, and offered to submit to any punishment Dunstan might inflict on him.

'You will have copies of the Bible written and placed in the churches,' said the archbishop; 'you will see that the poor have justice; you will make better laws; and you will not wear your crown for seven years.'

The king's face fell as he heard the sentence. The three first conditions he was ready to fulfil; in reality they were Dunstan's business. But the last! This hit him in his weakest part, his vanity; and he felt it keenly. Yet a glance at the archbishop's face told him that it would be useless to plead, so he merely bowed his head and murmured:

'I obey.'

And that is the reason that Edgar was recrowned at Bath, in the year 973, two years before he died.

We all know the sad story of Edgar's two children, Edward the Martyr, and his half-brother, Ethelred the Unready. The country was divided into two parties, one of which was headed by the mother of Ethelred, Queen Elfrida; who had the support of the married clergy—still existing in large numbers—and the other by Dunstan, the upholder of Edward.

The archbishop was only fifty-one, but a life of unceasing work was telling fast on him, and he had never shaken off his childish delicacy, which yet he had kept at bay and not allowed to interfere with his duty. Still, with the waning of his strength, he was conscious that his power over men was waning also, slight though the signs might be.

Perhaps no one else perceived it but Dunstan knew, and saw he must make the best of the time left him. The struggle between both parties had lasted three years, when the archbishop called a meeting of the chief men of both sides in an upper room of a large house. The subject they had met to discuss was the old worn one—the marriage of the clergy, and, as always when this was brought forward, words ran high, and threatened to become blows. In the midst of the tumult, Dunstan held up his hand, and the noise ceased as if by magic.

'I am old and tired,' he said, 'and I long for peace. Many times have I spoken, and there is no need that I should speak further. My cause is the cause of heaven, and heaven will decide between us.' He might have added more, but at that instant there was a fearful crash and a sound of wild shrieks. The floor had given way and those who had been standing on it were flung violently down below. Several were killed; some were injured; only Dunstan and his friends, who were sitting on a solid beam, escaped.

As usual on these occasions, there were two versions of the accident. At first the people exclaimed that the archbishop had been saved by a miracle, and that it was a proof of the righteousness of his cause; but later there arose whispers that his skill in carpentry and mechanics had enabled him to arrange for the collapse of the floor, though these wiseacres did not perceive that such a trick could not have been played without leaving traces behind, and of such traces there were none. Besides, even Dunstan could hardly have arranged that the fall should take place while he was making his appeal to heaven. If the floor had given way before he was speaking, his plot would have failed of success.

Another year passed. Edward was murdered—thrown from a window by his step-mother, it is said. Elfrida was imprisoned in a convent, and little Ethelred crowned at Kingston.

For some years Dunstan managed things as of old, and all went well, but the young king, as he grew up, showed a violent dislike to the archbishop, who left the Court as often as he could and lived more and more at Canterbury. Here he led a peaceful existence, preaching sometimes, making laws for the good of the Church, working at organs, trying to heal quarrels. By the time he was sixty-four he had grown very weak, and on Ascension Day, 988, he gave his last sermon. He knew, he said, that he would never stand in that pulpit again, and begged them to think of him with kindness and affection. Twice his weakness forced him to stop, and once he was obliged to leave the pulpit; but he persevered, and even attended the usual state banquet, pointing out as he returned home by way of the church, the spot where he wished to be buried.

Three days later he died; a great man and a good one, in spite of his faults; and one who must be judged, not by what we think right now, but what men held to be right a thousand years ago.