History of St Leonard the person

ST LEONARD ABBOT

St Leonard (AD 485-560) is believed to have been a Frankish nobleman raised at the court of Clovis, King of the Sallan Franks. Later, while Clovis was hunting nearby, Clothilde his wife went into labour; St Leonard prayed with him through the night and, following safe delivery (possibly of their daughter, also Clothilde), Clovis offered him as much land as he could ride around in one day on a donkey. St Leonard used the land to establish a monastery at Noblat near Limoges, where he became Abbot. In old age be retreated to the surrounding forest and lived as a hermit. He died around 560. Patron saint of prisoners, pregnant women, country dwellers and horses, he is usually depicted with prison chains.  

ST LEONARD’S WIDER FAME began with Bohemund, heroic crusading son of a Norman Duke. Prince of Antioch after its capture, he quarrelled with the (Eastern Christian) Emperor of Byzantium, and was captured and for three years Imprisoned by (Moslem) Seljuk Turks. A pilgrimage to Noblat followed his 1103 release - which he attributed to his prayers to St Leonard. Noblat soon became a place of pilgrimage for other freed captives Including Richard Coeur de Lion, and a stop on the Limoges route (one of four main ways through France) for pilgrims to the shrine of St James the Apostle (Santiago) at Campostela in north-west Spain.

IN ENGLAND St Leonard’s fame spread quickly - as Bohemund’s story was told to fellow Normans, lords of manors responding to William I’s call for a stone church in every parish. Starting from the south coast at Deal and Hythe and Hastings, over 100 churches were named after St Leonard - as were St Leonards-on-Sea (Hastings), St Leonards (north of Bournemouth, Hampshire), St Leonard (near Aylesbury), St Leonard’s Street (near Maidstone) and St Leonard’s Forest (south of Crawley, Sussex). Other villages took the name from their parish church - Chapel St Leonards (on the Lincoln coast), Berwlck St Leonard (Wiltshire), Drayton St Leonard (Oxford), Upton St Leonards and Leonard Stanley (both near Gloucester), and Burton Leonard (In Yorkshire near Boroughbridge). 18 English monasteries are known to have been dedicated to St Leonard - Including one ‘daughter house’ to the monastery at St Leonard de Noblat at Great Brlcett (Suffolk) - as well as over 30 hospitals stretching as far north as Durham and Wigton (Cumbrla). There still are hospitals at Sudbury and St Leonards (Hampshire), a hospice in York, residential homes in Bognor, Aylesbury and Mundford, schools in Horsham, Padtham, and Heath and Reach, riding schools In Launceston (Cornwall) and Toton (Nottingham), and a yoga studio In Lancaster. Paintings depicting St Leonard can be found in churches other than those dedicated to him - including Chilham (Kent), North Tudderiham, Old Buckenham and Sandringham (Norfolk), and Great Rudbaxton (Pembroke). In 13th century Worcester, and perhaps elsewhere, St Leonard’s Day on 6th November was a half Holy Day and only essential work was allowed.  

HISTORICAL NOTE

Clovis (466-511) succeeded his father as king of the Sallan Franks in 481. They came from the land of the Sala (Yssl) river in northern Holland near the North (salt) sea - as opposed to the Riparlan Franks who lived along the banks of the Rhine. Clovis’ grandfather Merovech or Merovius (of Tournal, now In Belgium) had in 451 helped Aetius Roman commander at Aries and Theodoric king of the Goths drive Attila the Hun from north-east France. By 481 the Goths (originally from Scandinavia) dominated southern Europe: the West or Visigoths ruled Italy, Spain and France south of the Loire: the East or Ostragoths surrounded the Roman Emperor exiled In Byzantium -and were soon to take Italy from their cousins. North-east France still had a Roman overlord, Syagrius, successor to his Roman general father. In 487 Clovis defeated Syagrius in his capital Soissons, following this up with the capture of Rheims - and later of Pans and the area down to the Loire. In all three towns he left the inhabitants in peace and particularly honoured the resident bishops, the most prominent being Archbishop Remi (St Remigius) in Rheims.

In 491 Clovis secured the submission of the Thuringians and the Riparlan Franks. In 493 he married Clothilde (St Clothilde) daughter of one of three Christian brothers who were kings of Burgundy. Around 498 at her behest Clovis was baptised by Remiglus, with 3,000 subjects - presumably including the 13 year old St Leonard. Clovis was well aware that this conversion would gain him the support of the papacy and the Emperor for his further expansion. First he needed to defeat his north eastern neighbours, the Alemans who ruled Alsace. After several attempts he finally expelled them (to the Alps) In 507. Moving at once to attack his southern neighbours he met the Visigoth army at Vougle near Poitiers and defeated it utterly, personally slaying king Alaric II: his victory began the expulsion of the Goths from south Europe (and the defeat of the Arian heresy which the Goths had embraced). Clovis immediately ordered the release of all clergy, widows and ‘serfs of the church’ Imprisoned by his army. In 508 he met the emperor Anastasius at Tours, where he was created an honorary Roman consul and made large gifts to St Martin’s monastery. Later he issued the code of Salle Law. He died peacefully in 511, succeeded, French style, by his four sons the last of whom outlived St Leonard by one year.  

A KEY CHRONICLER of events was St Gregory of Tours, who wrote a history of the Franks while Metropolitan bishop (Archbishop) of Tours 573-594. He does not mention Abbot Leonard but does record his contemporary Abbot Avitus of St Mesmin de Micy, who died In 524 and was presumably the leader of the group joined by St Leonard In 507. Clovis’ order to release those wrongly Imprisoned by the Goths (and by his own armies) might well have involved St Leonard. Equally his victory left a large area needing bishops In whom he had confidence - leading to his offer to St Leonard. By 573 there were 11 Metropolitans and 118 suffrage bishops In the Frankish kingdoms. St Gregory also mentions Bertha (daughter of Clovis’ grandson Charibert king of Paris) and her marriage to Ethelbert king of Kent: her firm support of St Augustine In 597 makes Bertha a key link In the conversion of Britain.  

ST LEONARD’S LATER YEARS coincided with Justinian (Byzantium-based Roman emperor 527-565), who issued the Justinlan Code of Law (529), defeated the Vandals in North Africa (533-548) and after a long campaign finally expelled the Goths from Italy

  • St Benedict who left Rome around 500 to live as a hermit In Subbiaco and with his followers founded a monastery In Monte Cassino In 529 and Issued his Benedictine Rule In 540
  • The monk Dionyslus Exlguus who at the pope’s request revised the Church’s Easter tables and established the modem BC-AD calendar
  • St Columba who left Ireland In 563 with 12 discIples to settle on Jona

BRITAIN proved less strong than the Franks in resisting Saxon invaders. Later, Norsemen invaded both countries: some settled in northern France, becoming the Normans who defeated the Saxon Harold at Hastings, and built (or rebuilt) most of our parish churches (Including most of those listed above and dedicated to St Leonard in the century following Bohemund).