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