St Dunstan, the Devil, and a pair of tongs

In the convent of the Holy Child Jesus at Mayfield in Sussex is a pair of tongs which tradition claims was the property of the great Saxon churchman St Dunstan, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 960 to 978. However, this cannot be true, because although the Monastery stands on the site of Mayfield Palace, where Dunstan lived when he was Archbishop of Canterbury, the tongs were certainly not made before the 13th century, some 300 years after Dunstan’s death.

Many stories were told about the piety of Dunstan and his conversion to Christianity, and some of these make mention of rumours that he had occult powers and may even have dabbled in black magic.

After his conversion by St Alphege, he divided his time between spreading the message of the Gospels and working as a blacksmith at Mayfield. The legend concerning his thwarting of the Devil comes from this time.

One day, so the story goes, the Devil was so enraged by the work that Dunstan was doing as a Christian that he disguised himself as a beautiful young woman and set about seducing him.

Dunstan did not even look up as he worked at his anvil, while the Devil danced around the room. At one point, the dance became so animated that the Devil’s skirts rode up to reveal the hooves on his feet, which might seem a bit strange given his otherwise immaculate impersonation of a young maiden.

Dunstan promptly seized a pair of red-hot tongs from the forge and clamped them onto the Devil’s nose. His screams could be heard up to three miles away as he fled from the forge. As he flew through the sky he caught sight of the springs of Tunbridge Wells, swooped down, and plunged his nose into the water.

To this day, the spa water of Tunbridge Wells still tastes of sulphur!

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