St Dunstan and the Devil


Today we start a new series,  SPOOKY SAINTS. Each week JACOB MILNESTEIN will be relating the tale of a particularly horrific or supernatural story in the life of a British or Irish Saint. Today, he looks at the awesome tale of St Dunstan, who took down the Devil with a pair of tongs! 


In St Dunstan’s Church in the sleepy parish of Woking in West Surrey, there stands a statue of a saint bearing a pair of tongs – a pair of tongs it is claimed that once were used to pull at the very nose of the Devil!
Famed for both his talents as a musician and a smith, this Anglo-Saxon saint, who died in AD 988, was advised by his uncle, Ælfheah, the Bishop of Winchester, to take up holy orders after falling out of favour at the King’s court.
Yet if Dunstan was content to follow that old Christian adage of turning the cheek for any mortal assailant, there was one being whom he refused to turn cheek to.

St Dunstans Chapel Site in Glastonbury

St Dunstans Chapel Site in Glastonbury

Having built a small living space against the wall of St. Mary’s church in Glastonbury, the holy man soon found himself interrupted in his pursuits of music and ironwork by that most jealous of rival musicians, the Devil himself!
Disguised as a beautiful lady, the Devil attacked that which concerned the saint the most; his vow of celibacy.
Dancing about the saint’s hallowed hovel, the Devil did his best to seduce the holy man as he worked hard at his forge, yet still St Dunstan resisted.
It is not easy for us to imagine Satan in such a role, used to him as are as a horned beast. Yet let us not forget that, for all his sins, Lucifer was the angel that shone brightest in Heaven. Perhaps it was with this charm that he so sought to woo stoic St Dunstan.
Regardless, the saint did not relent, turning instead, when he could bear no more, and seizing Satan by the nose with his tongs and forcing him to make a quick exit.
Whether the holy man took this tact with every lady who came calling at his cell is not known. What we do know is that the Devil did not admit defeat easily.
Where charm and grace failed, so the Prince of the World turned his hand to deceit, posing as a passing traveller whose horse needed re-shoeing. Spying the hooved feet that gave away the Devil’s disguise, St Dunstan instead shoed Satan, freeing him from pain only once the Devil had agreed never to trespass at a house with a horseshoe marking the entrance.
Perhaps the conflict between St Dunstan and the Devil was not as simple as those early Glastonbury scholars have led us to believe. After all, it was allegedly black magic and witchcraft that caused Dunstan to consider holy orders in the first place.
Maybe the story of St Dunstan is a metaphor for the notion of wrestling with one’s demons.
Either way, it appears that whatever payment was due the Devil went, to the infernal monarch’s frustration, unpaid.


JACOB MILNESTEIN writes stories. His most recent story, “lecteur de tarot” can be found here.


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Leave a replyComments (1)
  1. Vic Stack 7 June 2012 at 10:05 am

    St Dunstans (alleged) birthplace, a thatched hut in Baltonsborough, just outside Glastonbury, burned down in the 1970's. There is a St Dunstans Church, in the village, dating from the 15th century.

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