Monday 31 March 2014

The Theft of St Dunstan's Relics

In 1508 AD a new shrine was set up in a conspicuous position in the abbey church at Glastonbury, the inauguration attracting a large number of visitors. This shrine was said to have contained the bones of St Dunstan, consequently a long and acrimonious dispute with Canterbury ensued.

A Heavenly Sanctuary on Earth
Glastonbury Abbey was no stranger to controversy when it came to its claims of the saints who rested there; Indract (of Ireland); Gildas (The Wise); David (of Wales); Patrick the Old and Brigid (of Ireland); Guthlac (of Crowland);  Edgar (King of Wessex); and many of Northumbria's most revered saints; Aidan (Lindisfarne); St. Hilda (Whitby); Ceolfrith, and Sigfrid (Wearmouth); Bede (Jarrow); Paulinus (York). Most of whom have better contested burial places elsewhere.

But perhaps the most well known discovery at Glastonbury was the exhumation of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere in 1191. Later, in the 14th century, claims would emerge that Joseph of Arimathea, a relation of King Arthur through his mother's line, was buried there too.

In the early 12th century William of Malmesbury had been invited by the monks of Glastonbury to write a history of the Abbey with the intention of showing the antiquity of the house and its unbroken history since its inception. By 1126 William, a highly regarded historian of mixed Norman and English descent, had already completed two works, Gesta regum Anglorum (Deeds of the Kings of England) and Gesta pontificum (Deeds of the Bishops) and during the next few years he wrote the Vita sancti Wulfstani (Life of Saint Wulfstan).

William compiled De antiquitate Glastoniensis ecclesiae (Concerning the Antiquity of Glastonbury) between1129-35, in which he wrote that on the site of the Abbey there stood a church constructed of "wattle and daub” which he called "the oldest church in England," a symbol of the ancientness of Glastonbury's Christianity. By William's time the historical origins of the Old Church (vetusta ecclesia) had been lost but legend claimed that it had been built by two early missionaries sent from Rome. William recorded the Glastonbury assertion that during the 2nd century, in response to a plea from King Lucius, Pope Eleutherius dispatched the missionaries, Faganus and Deruvianus (Phagan and Deruvian), to the island of Britain to preach the Gospel.

No original copies of  De Antiquitate have survived but we know of its original text from large sections that had been transcribed into the Gesta Regis Anglorum. The earliest version of the "De Antiquitate" that has come down to us is a 13th century copy heavily interpolated by the Glastonbury monks which adds significant elaboration not present in William's original document. In addition to producing a general history of the Abbey, William also composed the vitae of four its greatest saints, Indract, Patrick, Benignus and Dunstan.

Dunstan the Holy Man of Glastonbury
Dunstan was born near Glastonbury on the estate of his father, Heorstan, a West Saxon noble. Cynethryth, his mother, was miraculously forewarned of the sanctity of the child she carried "would be the minister of eternal light". According to the later 11th century biographer, Osbern of Canterbury, Dunstan was born in "the first year of the reign of King Aethelstan", i.e. 924-5. However, this date has been challenged and many scholars considered his birth to have been earlier in the 10th century.

Dunstan's first biographer known simply as "B" tells us that Dunstan received an excellent education from Irish pilgrims who frequented Glastonbury, learned men who came to the Abbey to worship at the tomb of their blessed Patrick; could the Apostle of the Irish really be buried at Glastonbury?

B also tells us that as  abbot Dunstan enforced the Rule of St. Benedict at Glastonbury as a part of his reform there. He served as an important minister of state to several English kings, as Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and finally Archbishop of Canterbury. Dunstan is remembered for restoring monastic life in England and reforming the English Church. Shortly after his death in 988 he was canonised as a saint and enshrined in the cathedral church at Canterbury.

Furta Sacra
To claim to have rescued relics from dangerous or an unworthy place was a widespread practice in the Middle Ages, the most extreme acts known as “furta sacra”, holy theft; and Glastonbury was a particularly active subscriber.

On 8th September 1011, Canterbury was attacked and besieged by Danish Vikings. After holding out for almost three weeks, the defences were finally overwhelmed on 29th September. Many of the inhabitants were massacred, the city sacked and the cathedral set ablaze. Archbishop Alphege (Ælfheah), who had promoted the cult of St Dunstan at Canterbury, was taken hostage and later martyred at Greenwich in April 1012.

Fearful for Dunstan's relics, Glastonbury claimed a party of four monks from their Abbey arrived at the abandoned cathedral in Canterbury and “rescued” the bones from neglect. Dunstan's relics were then apparently hidden away at Glastonbury for  some 170 years and not written about until after the fire that devastated the Somerset Abbey in 1184. This is a significant date in the “discovery” of relics at Glastonbury and seemingly the watershed when the major interpolations began to take place in De Antiquitate with William's work completely refashioned by about 1230. A further revision took place later to accommodate the emerging story of Joseph of Arimathea into the Abbey's history.

William of Malmebury tells us that the collection of relics at Glastonbury was so fabulous that it was a “heavenly sanctuary on earth”. But in  his original work he cites relatively few saints at rest there; six are clearly original to William, Indract, Benignus, Brigid, Aidan, Coelfrith and Hild, with two more, Vincent and Apollinaris, may also be from the original text. Later interpolations take the number of holy relics to 39. Two later manuscripts, known as Trinity and Titus, list 300 and near to 450 respectively. Clearly the collection of relics at Glastonbury was a growth industry.

An interpolation into the De Antiquitate explains the reason for the recovery of St Dunstan's relics; on visiting Glastonbury, so the story goes, a (chronologically misplaced) King Edmund described the neglected remains of their former abbot lying in the desolate cathedral at Canterbury and encouraged the abbot of Glastonbury to rescue Dunstan's bones. According to the story the four monks of Glastonbury had accompanied Dunstan to Canterbury and remained there until his death in 988. They apparently laid him in his grave in the cathedral so knew exactly where to find his body, identifying his body by a ring on his finger.

Then followed nearly two hundred years of silence in which Glastonbury never publicly announced its claim to possess the bones; everyone knew St Dunstan rested at Canterbury. The motivation behind the late Glastonbury claims had to be a direct consequence of the need to raise funds for rebuilding work following the devastation of the fire in 1184 and attract more pilgrims to the Abbey.

Significantly, William had made no mention of this story in his own Vita S. Dunstani which was composed to please the monks of Glastonbury, by countering the Canterbury claims of Osbern's Vita. Surely if such a tale was extant at this time William would have included in his Vita. Unless of course William doubted the Glastonbury claims himself and was sympathetic to Cantebury's argument.

Needless to say, Canterbury was not impressed by the Glastonbury claims. The contemporary Eadmer of Canterbury wrote to the monks of Glastonbury soon after 1120, ridiculing the claim, "I was not a little confounded to hear such a foolish and even laughable story," and condemned the act as sacrilege if it were not itself a fraud.

Eadmer's apparent disapproval of the Glastonbury claim is met with a strange twist of irony; he had described in his Vita Wilfridi how Archbishop Oda having found the church at Ripon deserted in 948 after King Eadred had destroyed it took the opportunity to remove Wilfrid's relics and bring them to Canterbury. The same account appears in a foreword written by Oda for Frithegod's 10th century poetic Vita Sancti Wilfrithi. Wilfrid's relics were originally placed in the High Altar at Canterbury but after the fire in 1067 they were moved to their own shrine. However, according to Byrhtferth's Vita Sancti Oswaldi, Oda's nephew, Oswald, Archbishop of York, preserved the relics in a new shrine at Ripon and rebuilt the monastery as a supporting community.

Today, the action of the Glastonbury monks in “rescuing” the bones of St Dunstan seems quite outrageous but during the 9th to 11th centuries it was widely accepted that the remains of a saint might be legitimately removed from their place of rest and appropriated by another church. The theft of holy relics, furta sacra, could only take place with the consent of the saint, approval  being displayed in the subsequent miracles that followed.

Miracles at Canterbury
Less than a hundred years after Dunstan's monastic reforms in the 10th century, the Church of England experienced an even greater upheaval as a result of the Norman Conquest. Within a few short years of the Norman arrival, the Saxon archbishop of Canterbury was replaced by a Norman cleric. Lanfranc of Pavia, an Italian by birth, educated as a Benedictine monk in France who later served as Abbot of St. Étienne, Caen, before being appointed the first post-Conquest Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070.

Shortly after his arrival Lanfranc started the rebuilding of the fire damaged cathedral church at Canterbury. Lanfranc's rebuilding program affected most religious buildings to such an extant that little Anglo-Saxon architecture survives in English cathedrals; within half a century every cathedral church in England had been rebuilt. The changes in architecture also saw changes in personnel with Lanfranc accelerating the process of substituting Normans for Englishmen in all preferment's of importance.

One of Lanfranc's first actions was to rescue various sets of holy bones from the ruins of the old cathedral church at Canterbury that had burned down in 1067 and move them to safety, although he did not rescue the relics of Anglo-Saxon saints so that they might form a spiritual focus for new cathedral, yet Dunstan and Ælfheah seemed to have received preferential treatment. Osbern describes how the the bones were moved to an oratory dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, together with the body of St Dunstan whose reliquary-cofin had been exhumed. Eadmer recalls that the bodies of the saints in the eastern part of the church were moved to the western end, where after a three day fast the most precious bodies of the bishops of Christ, Dunstan and Ælfheah, were elevated. They were then translated to their place of burial.

Lanfranc opened Dunstan's tomb in 1070 and found a body dressed as a bishop. The solution according to Glastonbury was simple, they had substituted Dunstan's remains with the corpse of a deceased former abbot of Glastonbury thereby concealing the holy theft.

Osbern reports miracles occurring at the shrine of St Dunstan at Cantebury that he personally witnessed, a shrine which Eadmer tells us was surmounted by a pyramis, meaning simply a raised monument, suggesting it was visible to all and not secluded in a crypt. When Dunstan cured Lanfranc, after the doctors had feared for his life, the archbishop told the monks to lock themselves in the cathedral and offer up thanks for his cure at the saint's monument. The act must have been influential in Lanfranc's gradual acceptance of the cults of English saints.

The controversy concerning ownership of Dunstan's relics continued in to the early 16th century when the Archbishop of Canterbury Warham wrote to the Abbot Beere in 1508, after Glastonbury had erected a new shrine to Dunstan. Warham's letter explained that Canterbury's shrine to St. Dunstan had recently been opened and found to contain a complete skeleton of a man in full archiepiscopal dress, described on a lead sheet therein as "Sanctus Dunstanu Archiepiscopus".

Bere's response was that he was unwilling to prevent the pious from venerating St Dunstan at Glastonbury. However, he was willing to concede that the Glastonbury shrine might not contain all the saint's bones as some smaller ones may have been taken back to Canterbury where Warham may have seen them. Furthermore, he would counsel Canterbury not to publicise their so-called relics until they could be certain they were not counterfeits. Warham demanded Bere to appear before him with the so-called Glastonbury relics. Bere ignored the archbishop's demands.

Regardless of the protestations from Canterbury, the Glastonbury shrine to Dunstan continued to occupy a prominent place and turned out to be the last important monument to be erected at the Abbey relating to the cult of saints. Thirty years later the commissioners of Henry VIII had begun their destruction of the medieval shrines of England and any remains at Glastonbury purportedly belonging to St Dunstan were scattered to the four winds.

Copyright © 2014 Edward Watson

Notes & References
James P Carley, Glastonbury Abbey: The Holy House at the Head of the Moors Adventurous, Revised Edition, Gothic Image, 1996.
James P Carley & Martin Howley, Relics at Glastonbury in the Fourteenth Century, pp.569-616, in James P Carley, ed. Glastonbury Abbey and the Arthurian Tradition, DS Brewer, 2001.
John Crook, English Medieval Shrines, Boydell Press, 2011.
Richard Sharpe, Eadmer's Letter to the Monks of Glastonbury Concerning St Dunstan's Disputed Remains pp. 205-16, in Lesley Abrams & James P Carley, eds,The Archaeology and History of Glastonbury Abbey: Essays in Honour of the Ninetieth Birthday of CA Ralegh Radford, Boydell Press, 1991.

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