My earlier blog posting considered the legend of a local saint, Saint Leonard of Reresby, one about which I had never come across until I researched the medieval stone cross at St Leonard’s Church in nearby Thrybergh.
It’s unsurprising that I’ve never come across the legend before as it seems the first time anyone has put any coherent research together is John Doxey’s website on the local area.
John does an excellent consideration of the legend alongside known historical facts to see where they tally or otherwise and looks to explain how the story arose many centuries ago.
The legend appears to have been set down in print in the works of a local writer Sir John Reresby. Born in Thrybergh in 1634, he was the eldest son of Born Sir John Reresby and his wife Frances.
Upon his father’s death in 1646 he succeeded to the Baronetcy but went abroad after the English Civil War, returning to sit in Parliament in 1675. His book, Memoirs and Travels says this about Saint Leonard:
A deed dated 1349 is the first that mentions the altar of St. Leonard, the tutelar [a guarding presence, a tutelary being or person, especially a saint or deity] saint of Thrybergh, according to the custom of Roman Rites. Tradition will have him to have been one of the family of Reresby, and conveys to us a long story concerning him, the substance of which is this:- That one Leonard De Reresby serving his Prince in the holy war, was taken prisoner by the Saracens, and there detained captive nearly seven years, that his wife according to the law of the land, was towards being married to another, that being apprehensive of this accident, by the power of prayer he was miraculously delivered and insensibly conveyed with shackles and gyves or fetters upon his limbs, and laid upon the East Hill and then conveyed to the church where he desired to make his first visit.
– Memoirs & Travels of Sir John Reresby, published 1734
The Holy War that Sir John mentions here is assumed to be the crusades, of which there were several between the end of the eleventh century and the thirteenth century. It is very unlikely – indeed impossible, that any Leonard De Reresby from Thrybergh could have journeyed abroad on these though. The Reresby’s didn’t gain over-lordship of Thrybergh until Margarey Normanville and Ralph Reresby were married in 1268, only two years before the final (unsuccessful) Crusade led by Louis IX of France in 1270.
Of course, Leonard could well have been a brother to Ralph Reresby rather than a son, and thus could have been of age to go on the final crusade but it seems unlikely. He wouldn’t have the lordship of Thrybergh and it’s questionable as to whether he would go on crusade serving the foreign king, Louis IX.
There is a theory by some that the legend was built around an actual event concerning a Reresby captured and imprisoned on English soil who escaped in his chains and returned to Thrybergh.
Sir Adam Reresby, the son of Ralph mentioned above, was himself captured during the Battle of Boroughbridge, an uprising by the barony against Edward II in 1322. He managed to escape and returned to Thrybergh, still in chains. It’s no great stretch of the imagination then to see Sir John Reresby, adapting the story of his ancestor Sir Adam and retro-fitting it, perhaps in order to give his own family name even greater sway and prestige locally.
It’s not unreasonable to speculate that Sir John named his fictional crusader Leonard because the local church in Thrybergh was already dedicated to Saint Leonard of Limousin, the first mention of this being on a deed a few decades after Sir Adam’s escape.
Given that Saint Leonard Reresby is listed as populas cultas one can assume that the legend was not fully accepted – nor denied – by the Roman Church at the time and that sainthood was granted to appease the Reresby’s and the local population of Thrybergh.