Meet St. Dunstan, Patron Saint of Bell Ringers

A thousand years ago, a man was so well regarded by his contemporaries in early medieval England that he became an important minister of state to several English kings; was appointed, successively, Abbot of Glastonbury, Bishop of Worcester, Bishop of London, and Archbishop of Canterbury; and was later canonized a saint. His name was Dunstan. Today, he is the patron saint of bell ringers.

Saint Dunstan, a life

Born around the year 909 CE to a noble family at Baltonsborough, near Glastonbury, Dunstan studied under Irish monks at the neighboring abbey. His precociousness and devotion to learning were recognized at a young age and he was soon sent to the court of King Athelstan, whom historians regard as the first King of England. It would be but one of several such appointments as advisor to the court of various kings.

The envy of other members of court, Dunstan was expelled after fabricated accusations and settled into monastic life. He built a small hovel against the old church of St. Mary in Glastonbury, which measured a mere 5 feet long by 2.5 feet deep. It was here, according to the legends that swelled in subsequent generations, that the Devil himself first tempted him – but Dunstan proved too wily. As this folk rhyme relates:

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.

Dunstan contributed to the coffers of the abbey by working as a scribe, artist, musician, and metalsmith (the reason for him having those ‘red-hot tongs’). He inherited considerable wealth from his family and others in the nobility who favored him, and he used this money for the betterment of the church. He also used it to gain considerable advantage and influence in the kingdom. 

His bishoprics grew in size and importance and Dunstan was eventually invested as Archbishop of Canterbury – the principal bishop, confessor, and leader of the Church of England. His indefatigable faith was bolstered by reported miracles and visions. He is further credited with having restored and reformed monastic life in England (and rebuilding ecumenical structures destroyed by Danish invaders), developing monasteries into great centers of learning, and promoting peace throughout the land.

Why is St. Dunstan the patron saint of bell ringers?

Dunstan took a keen interest in the physical trappings of the church. A noted musician, who not only played the harp but also composed several hymns, Dunstan recognized the power of music to call people to worship. Together with his know-how in metalworking, he experimented with the design and forging of church bells, now interwoven into the very fabric of life in towns and villages across England. It is said Dunstan even predicted the date of his own death – bell ringers have always been good at timekeeping.

Beloved for centuries, Saint Dunstan (formally canonized in 1029 CE) became patron saint of bell ringers. His other patronages include blacksmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths, musicians, and silversmiths. He is buried at Canterbury Cathedral and is celebrated with a Feast Day on May 19 of each year.

Cover image: A figure of St. Dunstan at St. Dunstan's Parish Church, Mayfield and Five Ashes, United Kingdom.