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Chapter XIII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 1


Reign of Edgar - The Kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia united - Recall of Dunstan, who is elevated first to the See of Worcester, then to that of Canterbury - His Influence and Character.
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Edwy dying without issue, his brother Edgar succeeded him, and thus united the two kingdoms. One of his first acts was to recall Dunstan from his exile in Flanders, and make him Bishop of Worcester, an act which gives reason to suspect the wily churchman was no stranger to the rebellion which placed the new monarch on the throne of Mercia.

The reign of Edgar was so remarkable for its tranquillity that it obtained for him the name of the "Peaceable" - a, state of things easily understood, when it is remembered that he kept up not only a considerable army, but a powerful fleet, which made the Danes cautious how they invaded the island.

This wise policy so extended his influence, that, without fighting a single battle, he obliged the kings of Wales arid the Isle of Man to do homage to him.

It is recorded that whilst keeping his court at Chester, he was rowed down the river Dee by eight of these tributary sovereigns.

Edgar, in order to free the country from the wolves which infested it, commuted the tribute of the Welsh into three hundred wolves' heads, and granted a pardon to many criminals on condition that each one within a given time brought in a certain number.

The consequence was that these destructive animals very soon disappeared from the kingdom.

Edgar's good qualities, and the tranquillity England enjoyed during his reign, leave no doubt that he was a wise and excellent king. But his bigotry, which at the time was extolled as the most sublime virtue, is the principal cause of the commendations given him by historians, and of his being honoured with the title of saint after his death. He is said to have founded forty monasteries, and repaired and beautified many more, particularly that of Glastonbury, the rebuilding of which was begun by his uncle, Edred. He was extravagantly liberal to the monks; and Ingulphus, in his history of the Abbey of Croyland, says that in his reign the treasure of that monastery amounted to ten thousand pounds, besides holy vessels, shrines, relics, &c. This was an immense sum, considering that house had been rebuilt but thirty years; and from its wealth, some idea may be gathered of the immense riches of the monasteries in those times.

Edgar, not content with being thus profuse to the regular clergy, undertook to put them in possession again of the ecclesiastical benefices; no doubt at the instigation of Dunstan, whom he had made Archbishop of Canterbury. This prelate was so much in his favour, that Edred's affection to him was trifling in comparison of Edgar's. As he holds a very prominent place in the history of this and the following reign, it will not be irrelevant to give the following particulars of him.

Dunstan was the son of Herstan, and nephew of Athelm, Archbishop of Canterbury, and was born at Glastonbury in 925. He spent his youth with his uncle, the archbishop, who took care to have him instructed in all the sciences, as far as that age of ignorance would permit. He is said to have excelled particularly in music and painting, in which he took great delight all his life. By painting, we must understand that kind which was used in illuminating missals. As soon as he had finished his studies, the archbishop recommended him to King Athelstan, who sent for him to court, but gave him no preferment. The author of his life pretends the courtiers, envying his virtue and learning, slandered him to the king, by saying that he was a dissolute person, which the king believing, banished him without a hearing. Some time afterwards the archbishop, his uncle, found means to undeceive Athelstan, and he was restored to favour, and presented with some lands near Glastonbury, where he spent several years in retirement, with certain devout men whom he had drawn together, living with them a monastic life. Glaston, or Glassenbury, was anciently a small church, founded, according to the vulgar opinion, by Joseph of Arimathea. This church having been destroyed, Devy, bishop of St. David's, built another in the same place; which being also gone to rain, was repaired by twelve devout persons, who, coming from Armorica, settled in this place. Ina, King of Wessex, having pulled it down to the ground, raised a stately church, and dedicated it to Christ, St. Peter, and St. Paul; and several persons famous for their piety, most of them Irish, retired thither, where they were maintained by Edgar's bounty. From that time there were always devout persons who made choice of the place for their retreat.

After Dunstan had been some time at Glastonbury, Edmund, successor of Athelstan, having conceived an esteem for him, built there a monastery, and made him abbot; and as Dunstan was a person of great address and ability, he maintained a great authority over this prince, and was very much in favour all his reign: and his interest at court even increased under Edred, to whom he was prime minister and confessor. Dunstan's extreme fondness for a monastic life made him use, without any caution, all his interest to induct the monks to the benefices, and eject the secular priests, whom he both despised and hated. His attachment to the former class, added to his arrogance, procured him abundance of enemies, and drew upon him the displeasure of Edmund's successor, Edwy, as we have already seen. Upon his return to England, he was promoted, as already stated, to the see of Worcester; and some time after, the bishopric of London being vacant, he was entrusted with, the management of it; which has led some writers into the mistake of imagining he was Bishop of Worcester and London at the same time.

Edgar continued to give Dunstan fresh marks of esteem, and his regard for him was strengthened by the miracles attributed to him. After the death of Athelm, who held the see of Canterbury, (Mo, by birth a Dane, was made archbishop; and to him succeeded Elfin, who died as he was going to Rome for his pall, in the beginning of Edgar's reign. Brithelm, Bishop of Bath, was elected to the vacant see; but Edgar, being desirous of making Dunstan archbishop, called a general council, where he represented Brithelm as unqualified for so great a station; whereupon he was ordered to return to his old diocese, and Dunstan was chosen in his place. This election not being perfectly canonical, it was deemed necessary that Dunstan should go to Rome, on pretence of receiving his pall, and at the same time justify these proceedings. The Pope, who was perfectly aware how extensive the influence of Dunstan was at the court of England, and who was gratified by the zeal with which he had espoused the interest of the Church of Rome and of the monks, readily confirmed his election, constituting him at the same time his legate in England, with most extensive powers.

In justification of this remarkable man's favourite project of removing the secular clergy from their benefices and supplying their places by the monks, it must be admitted that the former, as a body, had become fearfully corrupt; that luxury, gluttony, avarice, and lust reigned amongst them. Perhaps he sincerely thought to benefit the Church by a change which was clearly against the laws of the kingdom.

Dunstan caused a council of the Church to be held, at which Edgar assisted in person, and made the following remarkable oration, which is both curious and interesting as a picture of the corruptions of the clergy of the time, and his subserviency to the views of Dunstan: -

"Almighty God having vouchsafed of his infinite mere]' to show his goodness to us in a remarkable manner, it is most reasonable, reverend fathers, we should exert our endeavours to make a suitable return. That we are in possession of this plentiful country is not owing to any strength of our own, but to the help of his all-powerful arm, who has been pleased to manifest his loving-kindness towards us. It is but just, therefore, we should bring ourselves, our souls, and bodies, in subjection to him who has subdued all things for us, and should take care that all that are under us should be obedient to his laws. It is my office, reverend fathers, to administer justice, without respect to persons; to suppress the rebellious; to punish the sacrilegious; to protect the poor and weak from the hand of the oppressor. It is my business also to take care that the Church and her ministers, the holy fraternities of the religious orders, have all things necessary to their subsistence and well-being. But it is your duty to examine into the life and conversation of the clergy. To you it belongs to see that they live agreeably to their profession - that they are sober, temperate, chaste, hospitable to the poor and the stranger; that they are careful in the administration of their office, constant in their instructions to the people - in a word, that they are worthy of the glorious character of the ministers of Jesus Christ. With submission be it spoken, reverend fathers, had you taken due care of these things, I should not have had the dissatisfaction of hearing from all hands the enormous crimes daily committed by the clergy of this land. I insist not on the smallness of their tonsure, contrary to the canons of the Church, nor their effeminacy in their habits, nor the arrogance in their gestures, nor on their immodest discourses, which plainly show all is not right within. I omit their negligence with regard to divine service: hardly will they vouchsafe their company at the public prayers, and when they come to church toĽ celebrate the holy mysteries, one would think it was a mockery. But the chief subject of my complaint - I speak it with extreme regret - is what ministers occasion of grief to the good, and of joy to the profane - I mean, the lewd and scandalous lives they lead. They spend their days in diversions, entertainments, drunkenness, and debauchery. Their houses may be said to be so many sinks of lewdness, public stages, and receptacles of libertines. There they have gaming, dancing, and obscene singing. There they pass the night in rioting and drunkenness. It is thus, reverend fathers, it is thus the bounty of my predecessors to the Church, and their charities for the maintenance of the poor, and what is more, the adorable blood of our Saviour, are consumed. Was it for this that our ancestors exhausted their treasures? Was it for this they were so liberal of their estates? Was it to deck the concubines of their priests, to provide for them splendid entertainments, to furnish them with dogs and hawks, that oar forefathers displayed their munificence to the Church? These are the crimes which the people complain of in private, and the soldiers in public; which are sung in the streets, and acted undisguisedly, and yet they are forgiven, they are overlooked, they are connived at by you! Where is now the sword of Levi, and the zeal of Simeon? Where is the wrath of Moses against the worshippers of the golden calf? Where is the indignation of St. Peter against Simon the magician? Imitate, reverend fathers, imitate the zeal of these holy persons, and follow the way of righteousness, shown you by the Lord. It is high time for you to draw the sword of St. Peter, whilst I make use of the great Constantine's. Let us join our forces to expel the lepers out of the temple, to cleanse the sanctuary, and to cause the Lord to be served by the true sons of Levi, who said to his father and to his mother, ' I know you not;' and to his brethren, ' I know not who you are.' Let the disrespect to the relics of the saints, and the daily profaning of holy altars, rouse you up. Be moved at the great abuse of the piety of our forefathers. One of my ancestors, you all know, dedicated to the Church the tithe of the kingdom. The glorious Alfred, my great grandfather, laid out his revenues in religious uses. You are not ignorant of the great benefactions of my father and uncle, which it would be highly dishonourable so soon to forget, seeing that the altars are still adorned with them. You, O Dunstan, father of fathers, raise your imagination a little, I pray you, and fancy you behold my father looking down from heaven, and expostulating with you in this manner: ' It was you that advised me to the building of so many churches and monasteries; it was you I made choice of for my spiritual guide, and the inspector of my behaviour. Did I not always obey your voice? Did I not always prefer your advice before wealth? How frankly did I lay out my treasures when you commanded! My charities were always ready when you called for them. Whatever was desired for the churches was immediately granted. If you complained that the monks were straitened in their circumstances, their wants were forthwith supplied. You used to tell me that such liberalities brought forth immortal fruit, and were highly meritorious, since they were expended in supporting the servants of God, and maintaining the poor. And is it not an intolerable shame they should be laid out in adorning and decking a pack of prostitutes? Are these the fruits of my benefactions? Are these the effects of your glorious promises?' These, O Dunstan, are the complaints of the king, my father. What can you answer to this charge? I am convinced that you have hitherto been unblameable. When you saw a thief you consented not to him; neither have you been partaker with the adulterer. No, you have endeavoured to correct these abuses; you have exhorted, argued, and threatened. But since these means have proved in vain, it is time to apply more effectual remedies. You have here ready to assist you the reverend father Ethelwald, Bishop of Winchester, and the reverend Oswald, Bishop of Worcester. To you three I refer the management of this important affair. Exert the episcopal in conjunction with the legal authority to expel from the Church of God the disorderly clergy, and put in such as live regularly in their stead." This harangue, which was most probably written by Dunstan himself, had the desired effect. The three bishops expelled the secular priests, and gave their benefices to the monks, the objects of the king's and archbishop's favour. Though it is but too true the priests at that time led very disorderly lives, yet that was not the thing that drew this storm upon them; their marriage was the great cause of offence; it was that which their enemies were desirous should be thought a more heinous crime than fornication, or any other actual sin which they could lay to their charge. Their wives were always called concubines, or by a more opprobrious name; and notwithstanding all the endeavours of the court of Rome, this real or pretended abuse could not be reformed till the end of the twelfth century, when the celibacy of the clergy was established after a struggle of three hundred years.

The monks were bound in gratitude to make a suitable return for the service Edgar had done them; and, accordingly, their historians have endeavoured, by their excessive commendations, to make him pass for a real saint. But whether from want of attention, or some other reason, they have related some particulars of his life which certainly do not tend to sustain that idea of him. If, indeed, his political actions are only considered, it must be confessed he was a great prince; but a great king and a great saint are two very different characters. For instance, it would be very difficult to justify by the Gospel a massacre perpetrated by his order in the Isle of Thanet, upon a very slight occasion, as historians allow; and what might not these said historians have said of his vicious inclination to women, who published to the world that the soul of his brother Edwy was about to be dragged into hell for having had a single mistress?

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