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St Dunstan and 1,050 years of the Coronation Ceremony

St Dunstan devised the service for King Edgar in 973 as Archbishop of Canterbury.

King Edgar seated between Bishop Æthelwold and Archbishop Dunstan. The original uploader was Mike Christie at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain,
King Edgar between Bishop Æthelwold and Archbishop Dunstan. Uploaded by Mike Christie at English Wikipedia, public domain.

The coronation of King Charles III and his consort Queen Camilla on 6 May 2023 takes much of its shape from the service created by Archbishop Dunstan for King Edgar at Bath Abbey on 11 May 973.

That coronation, which included the king's wife, Ælfthryth, was the first to crown the consort of a King of England alongside the monarch. It was also unusual in taking place in the 14th year of Edgar's reign, serving as an affirmation or acclamation of his rule rather than its inauguration.

He is known as Edgar the Peaceful because England suffered no Viking invasion or domestic disorder during his reign. He ruled from 959 until his death at Winchester in 975.

Regular readers of this blog may remember Edgar as the king who granted jurisdiction over an area of land just outside the City of London walls east of Aldgate to the Cnihtengild.


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Dunstan led a distinguished life as a senior cleric and also as an adviser or minister to Edgar and several other Anglo Saxon kings.

He first became a monk at Glastonbury Abbey, rising to become Abbot of Glastonbury. He later became Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury.

Dunstan praying before Christ. By St Dunstan - Unknown source, Public Domain,
A monk, possibly a self-portrait of Dunstan, praying before Christ. From the Glastonbury Classbook, public domain (Wikiipedia)

The details of the coronation ceremony have changed many times, as have the pageantry and processions before and after, but the main elements remain as set out by Dunstan 1,050 years ago.

The sovereign is first presented to the people for their acclamation and then swears an oath to uphold the law and the Church. The next phase is the anointing of the new king or queen with holy oil, followed by the receipt of regalia and the placing of the crown on his or her head.

Traditionally, the final element of the ceremony is when the monarch receives the homage. The Queen Consort, if there is one, is then also anointed and crowned.

One of the most obvious changes since King Edgar's time is that the coronation service moved to Westminster Abbey in 1066, since when every coronation has been held there, for 40 monarchs. In Anglo Saxon times, there was no fixed capital city and coronations took place at several places including Bath, Kingston upon Thames and Winchester.

The first documented coronation in Westminster Abbey was that of William I (the Conqueror) on Christmas Day 1066. It is thought likely that the coronation of Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo Saxon king to be crowned, also took place in Westminster Abbey early in 1066, but there is no surviving contemporary evidence of this.

Westminster Abbey, North Door

Well before 1066, Dunstan was revered by the Anglo Saxons. After his death on 19 May 988 (1,035 years ago this month) and his burial in Canterbury Cathedral, he was quickly regarded by the English people as a saint, although he was not officially canonised until 1029. He was England's most popular saint until St Thomas Becket in the late 12th century.

Dunstan was a skilled artist, scribe and musician, a capable silversmith and metal worker and was said to be a keen brewer of beer.

St Dunstan is patron saint of goldsmiths, silversmiths, blacksmiths and locksmiths in addition to musicians and bellringers.

He also seems to have had a close relationship with the Devil, whom he outwitted more than once, at least according to legend.

There is a story that, when asked by the Devil to re-shoe his cloven hoof, Dunstan nailed a horseshoe to it, thereby causing great pain. Dunstan only agreed to remove the horseshoe after making the Devil promise never to enter a house with a horseshoe over the door. This is said to be the origin of the lucky horseshoe.

By Creator:George Cruikshank -, Public Domain,
Dunstan shoes the Devil, by George Cruikshank, public domain (Wikipedia)

There is also a folk rhyme describing another incident when the Devil is said to have tempted Dunstan when he was a monk living the life of a hermit at Glastonbury:

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.

The Devil visits the harp-playing Dunstan. PD-US,
The Devil visits the harp-playing Dunstan, public domain (Wikipedia)

Dunstan is not very well known as a saint today, but his legacy in London is significant.

While Bishop of London, he is said to have built the first stone church in Stepney, whose dedication was changed from All the Saints to St Dunstan and All Saints after his canonisation in 1029. At that time, and for hundreds of years afterwards, Stepney was a largely rural parish outside the eastern walls of the City of London.

In addition, two churches in the City of London are dedicated to him: St Dunstan-in-the-West on Fleet Street and St Dunstan-in-the-East off Great Tower Street.

Today's church of St Dunstan-in-the-West was completed in 1833, replacing a medieval church demolished to allow the widening of Fleet Street.

St Dunstan-in-the-East is now a public garden created from the ruins of the church damaged by World War II aerial bombing. Roofless, its 19th century Gothic walls are largely intact and its Wren-designed tower and needle spire remain one of the City's great sights.

It is thought that the spire was actually designed by Christopher Wren's daughter, Jane. She is said to have lain down under the wooden scaffold supporting the spire when it was removed on completion, as a sign of her confidence in its structural integrity.

Dunstan's legacy, of course, also includes the coronation service. When Justin Welby, today's Archbishop of Canterbury, places the crowns on the heads of Charles and Camilla, he will be maintaining a tradition started by Dunstan 1,050 years previously.


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For a schedule of forthcoming London On The Ground guided walks, please click here.


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