Here, in the first year of the great English king Athelstane, Dunstan was born, the son of Herstan and Kynedred, both persons of rank—a man destined to influence the Anglo-Saxon race first in person and then in spirit for generations—the greatest man of his time, whether, as his contemporaries thought, mighty for good, or, as men of narrower minds have thought, mighty for evil.
In his early youth, Glastonbury lay, as it lies now, in ruin and decay; the Danes had ravaged it, and its holy walls were no longer eloquent with prayer and praise. Yet the old inhabitants still talked with regret of the departed glories of the fane; the pilgrim and the stranger still visited the consecrated well, hoping to gain strength from its healing wave, for the soil had been hallowed by the blood of martyrs and the holy lives of saints; here kings and nobles, laying aside their greatness, had retired to prepare for the long and endless home, and in the calm seclusion of the cloister had found peace.
Here the mind of the young Dunstan was moulded for his future work; here, weak in body, but precocious in intellect, he drew in, as if with his vital breath, legend and tradition; here, from a body of Scottish missionaries, or, as we should now call them, Irish,[xv] he learned with rapidity all that a boy could acquire of civil or ecclesiastical lore, and both in Latin and in theology his progress amazed his tutors.
Up to this time the world had held possession of his heart, and, balancing the advantages of a religious and a secular life, he chose, as most young people would choose, the attractions of court, to which his parents’ rank entitled him, and leaving Glastonbury he repaired to the court of Edmund.
There his extraordinary talents excited envy, and he was accused of magical arts: his harp had been heard to pour forth strains of ravishing beauty when no human hand was near, and other like prodigies, savouring of the black art, were said to attend him, so that he fled the court, and took refuge with his uncle, Elphege, the Bishop of Winchester.
A long illness followed, during which the youth, disgusted with the world, and startled by his narrow escape from death, reversed the choice he had previously made, and renounced the world and its pleasures.
Ordained priest at Winchester, he was sent back with a monk’s attire to Glastonbury, where he gave himself up to austerities, such as, in a greater or less degree, always accompanied a conversion in those days; here miracles were reported to attend him, and stories of his personal conflicts with the Evil One were handed from mouth to mouth, until his fame had filled the country round.[xvi]
The influence he rapidly acquired enabled him to commence the great work of rebuilding Glastonbury, in which he was only interrupted by the frequent calls which he had to court, to become the adviser of King Edmund; where indeed he was often in the discharge of the office of prime minister of the kingdom, and showed as much aptitude in civil as in ecclesiastical affairs.