Pri­estly provo­ca­teur

NICK RENNISON en­joys a novel about an am­bi­tious An­glo-Saxon arch­bishop whose drive helped cre­ate Eng­land

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Fiction - Michael Joseph, 480 pages, £18.99 Nick Rennison is the au­thor of Carver’s Truth (Corvus, 2016)

Born in Wes­sex in the early decades of the 10th cen­tury, Dun­stan grew up to be­come one of the great fig­ures of the An­glo-Saxon era. Ab­bot of Glas­ton­bury and arch­bishop of Can­ter­bury, he was friend and ad­viser to suc­ces­sive kings dur­ing the for­ma­tive years in which a united Eng­land was slowly emerg­ing from the as­sorted king­doms that had pre­vi­ously con­sti­tuted the coun­try. Canon­ised soon af­ter his death in 988, he was a pop­u­lar English saint for cen­turies, fa­mous for a leg­endary en­counter with the devil in which Satan came off sec­ond best.

Dun­stan makes an ideal sub­ject for Conn Ig­gulden’s new novel. Ig­gulden has al­ready writ­ten se­ries of books about Julius Cae­sar, Genghis Khan and (most re­cently) the Wars of the Roses, and this stand­alone novel demon­strates the skills as a pop­u­lar his­tor­i­cal nov­el­ist he has honed over more than a decade.

Ig­gulden’s Dun­stan, who in old age looks back on his life and tells his own story, is a vivid, con­vinc­ing char­ac­ter. No plas­ter saint, he is a self-aware man of vast am­bi­tion. From his youth at Glas­ton­bury, when he sur­vives a plot by his fel­low monks to do away with him, to his years of power at the courts of King Æthel­stan and his half-brother and suc­ces­sor Ed­mund, he proves ruth­less in pur­suit of his vi­sion of how the church and the coun­try should be gov­erned. Even his down­fall and ex­ile at the hands of Edwy – the over­sexed young king he en­rages by catch­ing him in a three­some with a buxom no­ble­woman and her daugh­ter – are only tem­po­rary. Dun­stan re­turns (lit­er­ally) with a vengeance.

Ig­gulden has made full and in­tel­li­gent use of avail­able sources but, for Dun­stan as for all An­glo-Saxon kings and saints, there are huge gaps in our knowl­edge of his life. Ig­gulden has used his imag­i­na­tion to fill these and writ­ten a very en­joy­able story of what we still (mis­tak­enly) call the Dark Ages.

St Dun­stan (909– 88) had the ear of suc­ces­sive kings of Wes­sex and en­joyed huge pop­u­lar­ity, not least for a tale in which he cun­ningly de­feated the devil

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