Book review: Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

One of the most influential figures of 10th century England, Dunstan is perhaps best remembered for his connections to Glastonbury Abbey and as the patron saint of goldsmiths, locksmiths and jewellers.

Wednesday, 24th May 2017, 9:25 pm
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:29 pm
Dunstan by Conn Iggulden
Dunstan by Conn Iggulden

But was the man who rose from schoolboy to Archbishop of Canterbury, Church reformer, and influential adviser to seven kings, in fact more sinner than saint?

Conn Iggulden, a giant of British historical novel writing, sweeps us away to the brutal, bloody politics of Anglo-Saxon England in a brilliant standalone novel that explores the life of the man who was once the nation’s favourite saint.

Using what little we know of Dunstan from the early chroniclers, Iggulden weaves a fascinating and excitingly credible tale of intrigue, deception and ambition set against an epic backdrop of war, rebellion, power struggles and Viking invasions.

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In Iggulden’s deft hands, Dunstan is transformed from long-forgotten saint to flesh-and-blood schemer, a complex, very human man who can be priest and murderer, traitor and kingmaker, and who, through his will and wiles, changed the fate of England.

Irreverent, clever and ambitious, Dunstan of Baltonsborough and his brother Wulfric are taken from their home by their aged father to be raised and schooled by monks on the moors of Glastonbury Tor. At thirteen, the already pragmatic and gifted Dunstan joins the order to take advantage of the opportunities to learn and discovers that real power comes not from God, but from finding one’s true place on Earth.

Fearless in pursuit of his own interests, Dunstan’s unyielding ambition and talents will take him from the villages of Wessex to the hills of Rome, from the courts of princes to the fields of battle, and from exile to exaltation. ‘There never was a sin I could not learn to love,’ he declares.

England, meanwhile, is a nation divided, ruled by minor kings and Viking lords, each vying for land and power. The Wessex King Aethelstan, grandson of Alfred the Great, readies himself to throw a spear into the north.

His dream of a kingdom of all England will stand or fall on one field and the passage of a single day. At his side is Dunstan of Glastonbury, full of ambition and wit, perhaps enough to damn his soul. Dunstan knows that if you cannot be born a king, or made a king, you can still anoint a king.

Through Dunstan’s vision and by his guiding hand, England may come together as one great country… or fall back into anarchy and misrule.

Brimming with treachery, drama and corruption, Dunstan is a remarkable achievement… a fascinating glimpse into the world of 10th century England and a pulsating portrait of an enigmatic saint whose long life oversaw pivotal political change.

Iggulden gets to the heart of the man; the childhood and family bonds that spurred his ambition, the ruthless, self-seeking streak that informed his rapid progression through the Church ranks and his role as the power behind the throne.

As we follow Dunstan’s star through formative childhood years to statesman and Church leader, and from Glastonbury Abbey to the royal court at Winchester and on to Rome, we witness him rise and fall and rise again to the lofty heights of visionary and saint.

This is history brought to vivid life by a master of his trade, the creation of a man and his world made so real and so visceral that it would rival any episode of Game of Thrones.

Historical fiction at its very best…

(Michael Joseph, hardback, £18.99)