Ian Styler, saint expert extraordinare, shares a saint a week with you, for your delight and spiritual gain.
This week we are commemorating the death of Saint Dunstan, patron saint of blacksmiths, silversmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths, musicians, and … Charlottetown, Canada! (Yes, really. Charlottetown’s cathedral, university and cemetery are all named after him, and if you go there, you can drive down Saint Dunstan Street – although you’ll end up in an industrial estate!). He died on 19th May 988 after a very eventful life where among other things he was abbot of Glastonbury, bishop of London and Worcester (at the same time), and archbishop of Canterbury.
His fortunes were directly and inextricably linked to whoever was on the throne of Wessex or England at the time. During the reigns of successive kings from Athelstan in the 920s through to Æthelred the Unready in the 970s, Dunstan was banished and subsequently recalled so many times that he must have felt dizzy! In one instance he was beaten up, bound and thrown into a cesspool, while in another, Dunstan barely escaped with his life after infuriating the incumbent king by forcing him to renounce the woman he was cavorting with as a strumpet. At other times, and at the other extreme, his influence in the royal court was such that he officiated at the coronation of King Edgar in 973, and he was influential in the choice of Edward as Edgar’s successor two years later.
He was a talented metalworker and musician, and spent his retirement in Canterbury playing the harp, casting bells and making jewellery, and – interesting fact no. 1 here – he is the reason that the date year stamps on hallmarks don’t follow the calendar year but instead run from the 19th May to the 18th May. Among the many miracles he performed, he was especially good at upsetting the Devil. When asked to re-shoe the Devil’s horse, he instead nailed the shoe to the Devil’s own hoof, causing him great pain, and would not remove it until the Devil agreed never to enter houses with horseshoes over the door, hence – interesting fact no. 2 – where we get the idea of lucky horseshoes from. Not content with tormenting the Devil with horseshoes, Dunstan also reacted to being tempted by the Devil as described in the following verse:
St Dunstan, as the story goes,
Once pull’d the devil by the nose
With red-hot tongs, which made him roar,
That he was heard three miles or more
His relics were placed in Canterbury Cathedral, and he was apparently the English people’s favourite saint (how do they know that, did they have the medieval version of a phone poll?) until Thomas Becket eclipsed him in the late twelfth century. So, as the Penguin Dictionary of Saints describes him, he was indeed the definition of a ‘many-sided man’.