In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Journals
  • Dunstan as a Political Leader: The Role of the Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Dunstan and the Emergence of England as a United Kingdom in the 10th Century
  • Dunstan and the Coronation Order
  • The Legacy of St. Dunstan

Medieval Studies St. Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury
Douglas Dales
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0247


Dunstan (b. c. 909–d. 988) was a person of central importance in the life of church and state in 10th-century England. He grew up near the ancient shrine of Glastonbury in Somerset and may have been related to the royal family. He was educated at Glastonbury, spent time at the court of King Aethelstan, and after some initial reluctance was persuaded to become a monk by his kinsman Aelfeah, who became bishop of Winchester in 934. This was a symptom of the concerted effort by some of the bishops, led by archbishop Oda of Canterbury, to begin to restore active monastic life in England after its widespread destruction for various reasons during the Viking invasions of the 9th century. Sometime after 940, during the reign of King Edmund, Dunstan was appointed as abbot of Glastonbury to create the core of a genuine monastic community following the Rule of St Benedict, though not all its members were formally monks. This Dunstan achieved during the next fifteen years, with the support of King Eadred and his family, until he was forced into exile in Flanders after an altercation with the new young king, Eadwig. This enabled Dunstan to experience at first hand reformed monastic life on the Continent at a monastery in Ghent. Eadwig’s rule provoked division in the kingdom, however, and his younger brother, Edgar, assumed the rule of England north of the Thames. He recalled Dunstan to become bishop of Worcester and then bishop of London before appointing him late in 959 as archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan presided at Canterbury for twenty-eight years, during which time numerous monasteries for both men and women were either created or restored with his support and guidance but under the active leadership of bishops Aethelwold of Winchester and Oswald of Worcester, who also became the archbishop of York. The manifesto of this process was the Regularis Concordia, agreed at a synod in Winchester in either 966 or 970, which established how the Benedictine Rule would be observed, in conjunction with existing English church traditions, including daily intercession for the king and his family. King Edgar proved amenable to this widespread program of ecclesiastical reform and development, and in 973 he was solemnly crowned by Dunstan at Bath as emperor of the British Isles. The coronation rite used on that occasion continues to underpin the English coronation order and it had a wide influence on the Continent. The murder in 978 of Edgar’s successor, Edward, whom Dunstan had supported, caused a major scandal that was mitigated subsequently by Dunstan promoting him as a royal martyr. His relations with his successor and half-brother, Aethelred the Unready, were not close, partly as a result. Dunstan’s great age kept him largely in Canterbury thereafter, where he died on 19 May 988. His burial place rapidly became a shrine of healing, and early in the 11th century his cult as a saint was formally authorized by synodical law and by his hagiographies; it was later restored by St Anselm after its apparent suppression by Lanfranc, the first Norman archbishop. There are, however, few tangible cultural remains now of Dunstan’s life and work in terms of buildings, works of art, or manuscripts. His legacy was expressed, however, in the singular relationship between church, state, and monastic life, which persisted in England for centuries long after his death despite the Norman Conquest in 1066.

General Overviews

The foundation for any study of Dunstan remains The Memorials of St Dunstan, edited by William Stubbs in the Rolls Series in 1874. This contains all the primary texts relating to the life and work of Dunstan with a masterly introduction. Armitage Robinson 1923 took up where Stubbs left off and provided a stimulating perspective on certain aspects of Dunstan’s career. Duckett 1955 provides a readable if dated portrait of his life: it antedates, however, all the recent modern research that has so amplified understanding of the 10th century in England. Knowles 1966 provides the classic overview of the monastic development over which Dunstan presided. Dales 1988 is the only definitive study of Dunstan using modern scholarship; its second edition in 2013 provides an updated bibliography and an additional introductory chapter. Ramsay, et al. 1992 contains the symposium produced to mark Dunstan’s millennium at Canterbury in 1988: it affords a rich picture of the range of study surrounding Dunstan’s life and work. The new critical edition of the early “Lives” of Dunstan (Winterbottom and Lapidge 2011) provides a sure starting point for further research in this area.

  • Armitage Robinson, J. The Times of St Dunstan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923.

    This is the content of the Ford lectures delivered in Oxford in 1922. It rests upon several earlier articles that the author lists. Its importance lies in the way it highlights the singular significance of the reign of King Aethelstan for the background to Dunstan’s career. It also does full justice to the work of his monastic collaborators, Aethelwold and Oswald, while examining the nature of the Regularis Concordia.

  • Dales, D. J. Dunstan: Saint and Statesman. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

    This was published to mark the millennium of Dunstan in 1988, and its bibliography was updated in 2013 with an additional introductory chapter. It deals systematically with every aspect of his life and work, working closely with the primary texts. It comprises three parts that deal with his time as abbot of Glastonbury, as archbishop of Canterbury, and with his legacy.

  • Duckett, E. D. St Dunstan of Canterbury. London, 1955.

    This is a competent and readable introduction to the life of Dunstan, sympathetically written. It has been superseded, however, by the steady advance in scholarship since 1955.

  • Knowles, D. The Monastic Order in England: A History of its Development from the Times of St Dunstan to the Fourth Lateran Council - 940–1216. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1966.

    This is an invaluable introduction to the monastic reform movement in England and on the Continent in the 10th century and beyond. Its four opening chapters provide the fullest context for understanding Dunstan’s particular role as a leading churchman and reformer.

  • Ramsay, N., M. Sparks, and T. Tatton-Brown. St Dunstan—his Life, Times and Cult. Ipswich: Boydell & Brewer, 1992.

    This handsome illustrated symposium was the outcome of a commemorative conference held at Canterbury in 1988 to mark the millennium of Dunstan. Its significance and value has not been superseded so far. Its witness to the actual life and work of Dunstan tends to be tangential, however. But the range of material covered is valuable, in terms of the cultural and economic context in which the renewal of monastic life occurred under Dunstan’s leadership.

  • Stubbs, W., ed. The Memorials of St Dunstan. Rolls Series 63. London: Rolls Series, 1874.

    This magisterial volume was reprinted by Kraus in 1965. In addition to an introduction of critical importance, it contains six “Lives” of Dunstan, numerous letters relating to him, some poems and liturgical material, along with documents relating to his cult at Glastonbury and Canterbury throughout the Middle Ages. All the texts are in Latin. Stubbs rescued Dunstan as a churchman and statesman from post-Reformation oblivion or caricature as a fanatical monk.

  • Winterbottom, M., and M. Lapidge, ed. and trans. The Early Lives of St Dunstan. Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    This is the most welcome recent advance in the study of Dunstan, and the text now provided here of the first two “Lives” replaces that in Stubbs’s Memorials of St Dunstan. It contains a detailed introduction to the manuscripts and also to the likely authors of these “Lives.” It concludes with several interesting appendices.

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