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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Who put the Abbey in Westminster?

(St. Dunstan and the Devil)

We’ve all been hearing about William and Kate, but what about Abbey?  How did that become associated with Westminster?

According to Merriam-Webster (no relation to Married-in-Westminster that we’re aware of), an “abbey” is “a church that is connected to other buildings where monks or nuns live or once lived.”  Birchenough, Smith and Grahame also tell us that the word “abbey” is rooted in the Syriac word “abbas” (meaning “father” – also the root of “abbot”).  Which all begs the question:  Which monks or nuns (abbots or abbesses) have resided in Westminster Abbey?

The Abbey’s official “History” page tells us this:  Benedictine monks first came to this site in the middle of the tenth century, establishing a tradition of daily worship that continues to this day.  James Kiefer adds that it was Saint Dunstan, Monk and Archbishop of Canterbury, who had established this site as a Benedictine monastery circa 960 CE.

Saint Dunstan was as colorful an historical figure as any that Westminster Abbey has been associated with. 
Wikipedia describes his earlier life as being filled with unique (to say the least) occurrences such as the following:  a seemingly miraculous recovery from a near-fatal illness; the mastery of many arts such as music, silversmithing, and drawing;  probable blood poisoning from having been beaten and thrown into a cesspool; holding the Devil at bay with a pair of tongs; accusations of being involved with black magic and witchcraft; and nailing a horseshoe to the Devil’s hoof.

However, all’s well that ends well.  On Ascension Day of 988 CE, angels informed Dunstan that he would die within three days.  This gave Dunstan enough time to say Mass, preach three more times, announce his
impending death, wish his congregation well, choose a spot for his tomb, and say these uplifting final words on the morning of May 19 (his subsequent feast day):   He hath made a remembrance of his wonderful works, being a merciful and gracious Lord:  He hath given food to them that fear Him.


Copyright April 7, 2011 by Linda Van Slyke   All Rights Reserved

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