I wrote in a previous blog about the stone cross that can be found at St Leonard’s Church in Thrybergh and while researching that post I came across the legend of St Leonard and the various stories and myths associated with it. It was a story that I was unfamiliar with even though I’m more than familiar with Thrybergh and with the church itself. Thanks go to John Doxey, among others, for providing some of the background information to my own search on his own website.
St Leonard Reresby
The legend itself goes right back to the 13th century, when a Crusader Knight from Thrybergh, calledLeonard Reresby, miraculously reappeared in the village after being held captive for seven years in the Holy Land. His reappearance coincided with the imminent marriage of his former wife, who had assumed him dead and was subsequently betrothed to another.
St Leonard, it is said, was transported by the power of God from his prison to a hillside in the village, arriving still in his shackles and chains. Insensible, he asked to be taken to the church and arrived just in time to prevent his wife’s remarriage. It is said he died shortly thereafter.
The original site of the stone cross, on a hillside on the outskirts of the village which is now a cemetery, marks the spot where St Leonard miraculously reappeared. It is said his shackles were kept in the village after his death by the Reresby family, finally winding up in the ironmonger’s furnace and recast as a ploughshare during the reign of Henry VIII.
As is wont to happen, time distorts and twists the story. Another version, published in THE EAGLE magazine in 1861, has Leonard as a common born youth seeking to court the affection of the daughter of the local lord of the manor. The stone cross on the hillside apparently marked their wooing place and the place where they part company as he leaves for the Crusades.
Forced to marry another when Leonard does not return after many a year, the young lady goes to their meeting place one last time and lo and behold her love returns to her there and then.
A writer to the Northern Star in 1817, held out similarities between the story of St Leonard and a poem by Matthew Gregory Lewis titled “Alonzo The Brave and The Fair Imogine” included in his work Romantic Tales. However, the poem was written in 1808 which is well after the original legend became established and certainly far longer after the stone cross was sculpted.
The Other Leonard
Much has been made of a possible confusion between St Leonard Reresby and St Leonard of Limousin, also known as St Leonard de Noblac.
The “French” St Leonard lived in the 5th and 6th Century, the son of a nobleman in the court of Clovis I, founder of the Merovingian dynasty. He was converted to Christianity along with the king, at Christmas 496, by Saint Remigius, Bishop of Reims. Leonard asked Clovis to grant him personally the right to liberate prisoners whom he would find worthy of it, at any time.
After securing the release of a number of prisoners (for whom he has become a patron saint) he then, declined the offer of a bishopric and entered the monastery at Micy near Orleans, under the direction of Saint Mesmin and Saint Lie. Then, according to his legend, Leonard became a hermit in the forest of Limousin, where he gathered a number of followers.
Through his prayers the queen of the Franks was safely delivered of a male child, and in recompense Leonard was given royal lands at Noblac, near Limoges. He founded the abbey of Noblac there, around which a village grew, named in his honour Saint-Leonard-de-Noblat.
According to legend, prisoners who invoked him from their cells saw their chains break before their eyes. Many came to him afterwards, bringing their heavy chains and irons to offer them in homage. A considerable number remained with him, and he often gave them part of his vast forest to clear and make ready for the labours of the fields, that they might have the means to live an honest life.
As the patron saint of prisoners, St Leonard of Limousin is often portrayed carrying chains – and this is where the link to St Leonard Reresby becomes interesting.
According to the memoirs of Sir John Reresby, writing in the 17th century, the church at Thrybergh once had a stained glass window dedicated to the local saint which depicted him carrying his shackles and fetters from his imprisonment in the Holy Land. The window was destroyed in his lifetime and nothing remains of it now.
Similarly, St Leonard Reresby and St Leonard of Limousin share the same Feast Day, 6th November.
Claude Husson, the author of a book on the diffusion of the cult of Saint Leonard of Limousin, thinks that the church at Thrybergh was originally dedicated to the French saint. In a correspondence with local historian John Doxey (recorded on John’s site here) he writes
I believe that a St Leonard’s church dedicated to St Leonard de Noblat was dedicated in Thrybergh before Leonard of Reresby was born. I found Thrybergh in a list of St Leonard de Noblat churches registered for an exhibition dedicated to him in the small town of Saint Leonard de Noblat in 1994. That’s not enough but we must also consider that the first name of Leonard of Reresby means that his parents knew Leonard of Noblat. Most important is the fact that the church has elements of Norman style. During my research I discovered that Leonard of Noblat had been introduced in England during the Norman conquest. More than a hundred of churches were built by them, sometimes in harbours were they settled.
More later …